Human Rights Activism: Can It Be Equated With Sympathizing With, Or Worse Still, Supporting Terrorism?

Posted on November 27, 2012 in Specials

By Karmanye Thadani:

The acquittal of the two Kashmiri Muslim youths languishing in our jails for sixteen years, falsely accused of being responsible for blasts in Lajpat Nagar in New Delhi, is a shameful revelation for our democracy, and instances like these promote a sense of anti-India resentment among Kashmiri Muslims. This is not a solitary case, there having been many other such cases in the past, in spite of anti-terror statutes making convictions for terror suspects much easier with relaxed evidence regulations.

In India, an oft-cited argument one hears is that human rights activists are absolute cranks who only care for terrorists. This argument is shouted from the rooftop by the saffron brigade, resonates even with tolerant Hindus averse to the saffron brigade and is recycled by Bollywood movies. In this article, I venture to explore whether this is really the case.

The conception of human rights bases itself on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which has been given a more binding character by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), besides other specific conventions targeting specific groups of people such as the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). These conventions deal with a host of issues ranging from the right to freedom of speech and expression to the right to privacy to the right to food and the right to housing, and indeed, the right to life, the right to a fair trial and the right against torture.

In the light of this, let us first examine a human right activist’s approach to the issue of terrorism. Till date, I haven’t come across any human rights activist contesting the obvious fact that any killing of innocent civilians amounts to a human rights violation, nor have I heard of any human rights activist saying that security personnel shouldn’t shoot down terrorists if they have opened fire in a public place to protect the innocent people who are his potential targets. They do, however, assert that someone declared by the police to be a terrorist shouldn’t simply be assumed to be one and deserves a fair trial as soon as possible with norms of evidence being the same as for other crimes, and they also demand that security personnel should not be exempted from judicial scrutiny for allegedly killing innocents.

Our soldiers have been punished for rapes, killings and forced disappearances in Kashmir and the north-east, though the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), similar to many other such statutes in the world, practically immunizes them from judicial scrutiny to a great extent. We may romanticize our security personnel as all being very honest and patriotic men ever-ready to die for the motherland, but what we often overlook is that mercenary fighters too have existed across the globe, and money is a key driving factor for many joining the forces. Besides, loyalty to the country doesn’t necessarily mean that one never does any wrong. A person who may exhibit heartfelt patriotism while cheering for India in a cricket match or while signing the national anthem may very well be a tax-evader or someone who gives bribes to derive benefits for his business. In fact, misguided patriotism can take extreme levels just like religious fanaticism, with anyone seen as not being on the side of your country being deemed as not being worthy of a dignified existence.

In our Indian context, the Republic of India always being morally right in all its foreign policy decisions or in its engagement with secessionist forces is taken as axiomatic by far too many people, which is rather immature (though similar immaturity is also exhibited by far too many people in our neighbouring countries as well as among many of those living within our borders not identifying themselves as Indians, such as Kashmiris, who blindly tend to believe versions of events that suit them), and public anger against terrorism is so strong that anyone branded as a terrorist is simply assumed to be one, though statistics of conviction rates show that special anti-terror statutes have been heavily misused (as has been the case elsewhere in the world, including the West, too), and this misuse has alienated certain sections of our society, boosting terrorism even more, and these sections of the society don’t only include Muslims but also people from Naxal-infested regions or regions in the north-east with secessionist aspirations or even Sikhs when the Khalistan Movement was at its peak (this is relevant in the light of the false propaganda by Muslim communalists and even pseudo-intellectual Hindus that this is a problem only for Muslims).

Not so long ago, a small boy, who was a Hindu, was shot down for climbing an apple tree in an Army cantonment in Chennai (a gun in someone’s hand often gives him a berserk sense of power and authority) and a blind, mentally challenged Hindu beggar was killed by Army men in Kashmir, branded as a terrorist with the ‘encounter’ supposedly having lasted 24 hours, and innocent Hindus branded as criminals too have been killed in fake encounters by the police (remember the Ranbir Singh episode in Uttarakhand?), and all this, obviously for promotions and medals! Incidents of corruption in the Indian Army, like the Adarsh scam or the Tehelka expose, should open our eyes to the fact that our security forces are not without their rotten apples, as is also evident from the recent case of an ex-major starving and brutally assaulting his son that got considerable media coverage some time back.

Terror suspects are indeed suspects but only until they are proven guilty and deserve their day in court. Torturing innocents presuming their guilt is not on. Some argue against human rights activists, saying that they protest only against alleged misuse of power by security personnel but not against terrorist attacks. The refutation to this hollow argument is very simple — demonstrations are organized to get an entity to accept your demands, and mere protest marches will not impact terrorists but are expected to impact the government in a democracy (though people from communities in whose name terrorist attacks have been committed often carry out demonstrations against terrorism to disassociate themselves from the terrorists), and this does not, in any way, imply that human rights activists don’t feel strongly against terrorism like other citizens do. Terrorism can be defeated by reaching out to those perceiving themselves as marginalized and/or reposing faith in inhuman ideologies on one hand and by the efforts of intelligence agencies and security forces on the other, but certainly not by way of demonstrations by human rights activists, though on the other hand, it can be argued that such demonstrations can help integrate the community from which the terrorists emanate by making more and more people in that community realize that the civil society of the country cares for them, thus helping prevent terrorism.

Finally, it should also be noted that human rights activists, including those working in the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), quite often the very same people who raise their voices for humane treatment and fair trials of terror suspects, have actually often done quite a commendable job of successfully agitating for the availability of affordable and qualitative education and health care for the underprivileged and against child labour, besides ensuring that forcibly displaced tribals and the disabled get their due; so, the work of human rights activists is, by no means, only about dealing with the rights of suspected terrorists.

I do, however, have my differences with those of our human rights activists who oppose the death penalty, support reservations based on caste or religion and/or offer narratives, which are, in my opinion, consciously or subconsciously biased in favour of certain communities they regard as oppressed, but these issues are indeed very different from considering them supporters of terrorism or even insensitive to the victims of terrorist attacks for raising their voices for the rights of terror suspects.

[box bg=”#fdf78c” color=”#000″]About the author: The author is a freelance writer based in New Delhi and has co-authored two short books, namely ‘Onslaughts on Free Speech in India by Means of Unwarranted Film Bans’ and ‘Women and Sport in India and the World: A Socio-Legal Perspective’. He is currently working as a research associate in the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), a reputed Delhi-based public policy think-tank. The views expressed in this article are personal. To read his other posts, click here.[/box]