The human rights gauntlet that Amnesty International has thrown down will not be easy to pass over when India’s political parties seek the people’s mandate in the coming weeks. The 14-for-2014 charter seeks concrete commitments from prime ministerial hopefuls in the elections to the 16th Lok Sabha on almost every rights violation that has shaken the citizens’ conscience. The legal prohibition of torture, abolition of the death penalty, decriminalisation of homosexuality, punishment for marital rape and a law for migrant labour, figure in the 16-item questionnaire, seeking a pointed yes or no answer from parties and prominent leaders. A categorical position on these deep moral questions will determine the depth and direction of Indian democracy. Election time is when prospective representatives should make their views known, and Amnesty’s questions are timely. The current prevarication on the question of capital punishment, under the so-called rarest of rare cases dictum, may not be tenable considering the extent to which the issue has of late acquired divisive political overtones, while the dimensions of ethics and justice have been rendered marginal to the entire debate. Similarly, the ball is clearly in Parliament’s court subsequent to the Supreme Court’s retrograde verdict on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Interestingly, the Election Commission mentions transgender electors (under the head of ‘others’) who have registered for the coming elections.
When organised political forces participate in the poll process, they affirm a commitment to the constitutional values of justice, freedom, equality and human dignity, reasons Amnesty. Indeed, the registration of political parties with the Election Commission is a statutory requirement under the Representation of the People Act, 1951. This law also stipulates that the respective party constitutions are in consonance with the principles of the Indian Constitution and the composition of the party structure reflects the democratic spirit. As a signatory to the 1994 Declaration of Free and Fair Elections of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, India regards periodic and genuine elections as a necessary and indispensable element of sustained efforts to protect the rights and interests of the governed. Election 2014 is surely the time for political parties to renew that pledge in their poll manifestos. The moral mileage they would gain thus would be worth a great deal more than they can either measure or imagine. For the sponsors of extremist left-wing violence and the far-right purveyors of ideologies of hate, there is a lesson in the Amnesty charter, namely, to engage in democratic dialogue with the political mainstream.
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