Rights activists stage a demonstration against the arrest of activist Disha Ravi by Delhi police during the farmers' protest on India's Republic Day in Bangalore on Feb. 15. (Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP)
Today, Dec. 10, is celebrated everywhere as international Human Rights Day. It recalls that day in 1948 when the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a milestone document that proclaimed the inalienable rights everyone is entitled to as a human being.
These rights are given regardless of race, color, religion, gender, language, political opinion, social origin, property, birth or any other status.
The year 1948 is significant. Europe had just emerged victorious from a bitter campaign of hatred and violence against the Jewish and Slavic peoples.
India too had just received political independence from British colonialism, and soon enough other countries in Asia and Africa would follow. The world of the 20th century was changing rapidly.
Every nation and every culture celebrates its religious feasts, invariably the oldest celebrations known to mankind. However, the secular celebrations inspired by the UN are something different.
While Christians’ Christmas, Muslims’ Eid, Hindus’ Diwali and Tamils’ Pongal are being rapidly commoditized into festivals of eating, drinking and ostentatious spending, these secular occasions have another focus.
Respect for human rights begins in small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world
They help to educate the public on issues of concern, to mobilize resources in addressing global problems, and to celebrate the achievements of humanity. So the UN embraces these days of remembrance as a powerful tool for advocacy.
As Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “Respect for human rights begins in small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. But without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
Eleanor Roosevelt should know. She served as the first chairperson of the UN Commission on Human Rights and oversaw the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
How do human rights fare in today’s India? In theory, beautifully. In practice, badly.
India’s constitution provides its citizens with fundamental rights, which are akin to human rights. These include freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of movement within the country and abroad.
The country also has an independent judiciary as well as various bodies to look into issues of human rights. All this may be so in theory, but the 2016 report of Human Rights Watch states that India has “serious human rights concerns.”
Civil society groups face harassment, while government critics face intimidation, lawsuits and arbitrary imprisonment without trial. Free speech has come under attack both from the state and by political groups. Even stand-up comedians face police action.
Muslim and Christian minorities accuse the authorities of not doing enough to protect their rights. The government is yet to repeal laws that grant public officials and security forces immunity from prosecution for abuses.
India’s large size and population, widespread poverty, lack of proper education and diverse cultures present constant difficulties.
Matters are not helped by having a government with a fascist ideology that cracks down on the slightest criticism of its misrule as “seditious” and “anti-national.”
Ramchandra Guha, the eminent historian, was right when he described this country as “a 50 percent democracy.” Half the country still remains in the grip of an upper-caste oligarchy, which clings to power and resists any meaningful change.
The two key areas of concern to citizens of this land are racism and gender inequality. This means in plain language that one is more likely to suffer discrimination if one is a tribal person or a Dalit, and even more if one is a woman or differently sexed.
The earliest and most systematic form of racism is surely caste, which continues to divide Indian society even today and provides the pretext for the worst human rights abuse anywhere on earth.
Has the influence of caste really declined in contemporary India? Well, the spread of education to all castes has had a democratizing effect on the political system. Still, this equalizing of the playing field has not been without controversy.
When we speak of women, the picture grows even bleaker. It is probably true to say that India is the largest violator on earth of the human rights of its women
The quota system, which reserved seats for education and employment of the poorer castes, has been a particularly sensitive issue, being resisted by the upper castes almost everywhere.
More recently, economic liberalization has created new opportunities for the lower castes and revealed to them how the law and the economy were earlier used to subjugate them.
When we speak of women, the picture grows even bleaker. It is probably true to say that India is the largest violator on earth of the human rights of its women.
It starts in the patriarchal family: with the prenatal selection and abortion of the female fetus, then female infanticide and infant malnutrition, later the rape of minor girls, usually by members of their family. It continues throughout the life of the young woman — harassment at school, discrimination in the workplace, sexual trafficking, marital rape, dowry deaths and abandonment as a frail and aged widow.
How is it that a culture that glorifies its goddesses so extravagantly behaves so appallingly towards its own women?
So every Human Rights Day, we remember what our country is — still a work in progress — a sobering and a necessary corrective to the wild fantasies of our leaders.
What Eleanor Roosevelt said years ago is still true: “Without concerted citizen action to uphold human rights close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official editorial position of UCA News.
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