Actors for Change: The Growth of Human Rights Institutions; India: A Society in Transition

By Monga, Ranjit | UN Chronicle, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Actors for Change: The Growth of Human Rights Institutions; India: A Society in Transition


Monga, Ranjit, UN Chronicle


Human rights institutions have taken root firmly in India, and these roots go deep because they are in a society whose awareness level is growing by leaps and bounds.

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Sample this: Dinesh Chand Jaiswal, a young constable with the Central Reserve Police Force, is proud holding a small trophy won on a debate on human rights. "I feel really good since I've been participating in this debate in 2002, and this year I have won it", he says with a grin while his battalion mates crowd around listening to him. "Yes, I've learned that our operations, conducted while pursuing terrorists and anti-social elements, can be carried out by ensuring that human rights are not abused." Like what? "I know that innocent people, who may happen to be there, have to be protected at any cost, and its compulsory to involve elders from the community when carrying out search operations ... and always take along a woman constable to deal with women in such operations", he adds.

An eight-year-old girl has just found her way to the bustling community of "Prayas" (meaning the effort). Her mother earns 1,300 rupees (some $28) per month and has three other daughters to look after in her little slum house on the outskirts of New Delhi. At the Prayas-run shelter for destitute children, she will get an education, regular meals and a hope to make something of her life--her amputated arm notwithstanding. In another part of India's capital, in a small ordinary office sits a small group of researchers pouring over media reports and meeting "sources" to collect data on torture and extrajudicial killings. While local media reports are agog with stark pictures of a baby born and dying outside one of India's top hospitals, photographers persuade the distraught mother to uncover the tiny bundle on her lap for their shoot for the "audience".

At the same time, the citizens are divided over an army of bulldozers that have descended in some middle-class colonies on direction from the highest court to remove "unauthorized" portions of residential and commercial buildings. Some bay for blood of municipal officials who "allowed" these buildings to come up. "It is my home and I won't allow you to demolish it", says a young girl as she shakes her fists at two police officers sitting atop a crane, who are trying to persuade her to leave her balcony and allow officials to carry on their work.

"It is our right", says everyone in a society filled with a new found awareness fueled by media focus on abuse and violation, moving of the wheels of human rights institutions--an exceptionally devoted community of non-governmental organizations and a high-pitched, philanthropy-driven endorsement of social causes by celebrities.

Public debates focus on fairness, be it for the alleged "moll" of an international terrorist who had just been extradited to India by Spain, or the dropping out of a former captain of the country's cricket team, on which a debate was scheduled even in Parliament. Vigilant Indians are waking up to their rights and coming forward to fight for them. "Everyone is talking about rights, but the only drawback is that people do not know the process. The awareness is therefore incomplete", says Archana Chaturvedi of the Indian Social Institute, which publishes several magazines on the issues of human rights, women and civil society. "And the most vulnerable section is women and they have to be made aware of the processes", she adds.

"Laws are present, but awareness is not there", echoes Sadhana Ramachandran, a lawyer practising human rights law for the past ten years. "Laws relating to women's inheritance of property, domestic violence and dowry deaths have been made, but people still need to be adequately educated about them", she adds. Children, along with women, bear the brunt of societal and economic torment, even though all rights are guaranteed by the country's Constitution. "The right to move the Supreme Court for violation of a fundamental right is now almost a fundamental right", she says, so institutional support emanates from the top. …

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