At a two-day law conference, 93 papers are presented, covering the entire gamut of human rights. The organisers decide to compile these into a book, for reasons unfathomable, given the quality of the papers. Forget the English; that’s not important if the content is outstanding. Sadly, the majority of the papers, written by professors and students of law, read like badly written civics text book chapters — and certainly not of the new NCERT variety!
A typical paper has a rambling introduction on human rights, mentioning the Magna Carta and often the Vedic period too, in which apparently, human rights flourished. Then comes the crux of the paper, wherein huge quotes are repeated from international experts. Sometimes, even the tense of the quotation is not changed.
For example, the chapter on human rights violations by security forces in India, the only one of its kind, simply quotes V M Tarkunde’s post-Blue Star Punjab report as though the events were taking place currently.
In many chapters tracing the evolution of human rights through our judiciary, judgment after judgment is enumerated, with no discussion of the issues involved.
Cases handled by the National Human Rights Commission are listed. The NHRC issued notice; but what happened after that? Obviously, that’s not available on the NHRC website! Or, there’s a list of NHRC orders, again, with no discussion of the specific challenges of each case.
Scope of human rights
Many new laws passed in the last decade in India, expanding the scope of human rights, form the main thrust of some chapters. Almost invariably, the entire law is reproduced verbatim. This reviewer had the dubious pleasure of going through every page of this 949-page tome, thereby discovering that two papers were absolutely the same from beginning to end, while another two had, at their core, the same content, word for word. Wasn’t it the responsibility of the editors to eliminate these papers? Or were they in the happy position of not even reading what they have compiled?
These are research scholars, law teachers and students who will one day be lawyers. Yet, almost all of them are status quoist. There’s widespread mention of the NHRC, but no critique of this toothless body. One professor upholds laws such as TADA and POTA to counter terrorism, ignoring completely their low conviction rate. The presumption of guilt against the accused in these laws doesn’t bother him, as for him terrorism equals jihad. Another female student deplores the tendency of women activists to enter men’s domain in their quest for equality, advising women to accept their different “assignment in this male-dominated world.”
On animal rights
In this barren expanse, 12 chapters stand out, hence need special mention. By far the best is the one on animal rights by Delhi University’s Manju Chellani. Well argued, the paper is written with a rare passion that convinces one that animal rights isn’t such a far-fetched concept even in India, where human rights are always endangered.
Then there’s former head of Delhi University’s Law Faculty Parmanand Singh’s disturbing paper on the non-enforceability of Supreme Court judgments that uphold human rights, thanks to lack of political will. Indraprastha University Prof. A. P. Singh writes angrily on the effect of globalisation on tribals, as does former judge Priya Rao on child rights.
Some writers are competent, for eg: Pragati Rana and Aparna Vashisth on how to prevent and handle sexual abuse of children; others interesting, eg, Prof Sunayana Trisal’s delineation of the evolution of reproductive rights in India. Yet others shock you — Prof. Y. Vishnu Priya’s revelation that child labour is actually legal in India, and that our government has ratified only six of 19 ILO conventions on employment of children. So also, Cochin University lecturer Preetha S’ exposition on the ineffectiveness of our laws to hold corporates accountable for human rights abuses.
You wouldn’t think there was anything new left to say about human rights, but GATS and the rights of migrant workers; the concept of amnesty in international law; genetics violations and human rights — papers on these topics make you think about new dilemmas emerging in the contemporary world. Also thought provoking is Mini Nair’s essay on the West’s ambivalence towards torture as a mechanism to counter terrorism.
Then there are papers that challenge your beliefs. The authors of `Human Rights- a Neverland’, Yogesh Pratap Singh and Rangin Pallav Tripathy, both assistant professors in Orissa’s National law University, do manage to shake your belief in the universality and incontrovertibility of human rights, as does Prof Binal Patel’s paper. Democracy in the context of neo-liberalism is itself a questionable value, says Delhi University Prof. Deepa Kansra. This compilation, exasperating as it is, does manage to leave you with the feeling that India’s laws and judgments would give it a perfect score on human rights. If only reality wasn’t so different.
HUMAN RIGHTS IN 21ST CENTURY — Changing Dimensions: Edited by Gurdip Singh, V. K. Ahuja; Universal Law Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd., C-FF-1A, Dilkhush Industrial Area, G.T. Karnal Road, Delhi-110033. Rs. 1100.