When the abstract destroys the physical being

Human rights should not be defined on the basis of religious, national or cultural differences

Updated - October 26, 2019 12:10 am IST

Published - October 26, 2019 12:05 am IST

There are families in South Asian nations who would kill their child — usually a daughter — for the sake of ‘family honour.’ Here, the concept of ‘family’ is detached from its constituent: the daughter. In order to ‘preserve’ the concept of ‘family,’ such families actually kill their children — or, at least, rob them of a chance to lead the life that would make them happy. I, for one, have never understood how one can destroy the physical fact of a family — a child, who is always a link to the future for any family — for the abstract concept of a family.

But, of course, this happens at larger levels too. We kill or hound people who believe differently in our religion for the sake of that religion. We persecute and brutalise citizens who have a different vision of our nation for the sake of that ‘nation’.

Caste violence

Recently, I read of Dalit children being beaten to death for defecating in the open. Apart from the caste violence that this exposed, it struck me with force that the necessary movement to stop open defecation is being misunderstood by many Indians. It is being seen in terms of prestige, when actually it is a matter of health and welfare.

Open defecation is bad not because it reduces the prestige of our nation in the eyes of passing tourists or journalists. It is revealing that nationalists who claim to be inordinately proud of our ‘Indian-ness’ should be so inordinately conscious of the opinions of foreigners, usually white. No, open defecation is bad because of the health hazards it poses — not only in terms of diseases, but also in terms of what it does, physically, to those who do not have access to decent toilets. There are scientific papers that have highlighted the connection between open defecation and low nutrient levels in children. To brutalise someone forced by circumstances to defecate in public makes the concept of ‘national prestige’ more important than the person of national citizens. But what is a nation without its citizens? This is similar to killing a daughter for the sake of family honour.

One of the greatest drawbacks of idealist definitions of ‘religion’ or ‘nation’ is actually this: the concept takes over and destroys the human being. It is also in this context that one needs to be very adamant about not defining ‘human rights’ on the basis of religious, national or cultural differences.

Universal rights

If this sounds like a contradiction to what I have said about abstract concepts until now, let me rephrase it: just as a family cannot be separate from or above family members and a nation can only be its citizens, human rights have to be rooted in the actual biological existence of human beings in society. Various other rights may differ from society to society, but basic human rights have to be the same across all such differences. If differences of nationality, culture, gender, colour, sexuality, etc. mean that basic human rights have to change across these categories, then we are basically arguing that the ‘human’ does not exist, or it exists only as an abstract concept, un-rooted in biological and other realities. This has often been the argument of racists in the past, and is sometimes assumed by extreme sexists today: the former have denied the ‘humanity’ of certain races, and the latter implicitly reduce the ‘humanity’ of women.

This has always been my main objection to those religious Muslims, some of them friends and even relatives, who justify a different standard of treatment for women. As long as these standards do not limit the human scope of women — which means their right to have the same access to shelter, food, inheritance, reproductive rights, education, and freedom of movement as men — I am willing to accept it, just as I am willing to accept the fact that in India we drive on the left while in Denmark we drive on the right.

But basic human rights — that is, access to shelter, food, inheritance and reproductive rights, education, and freedom of work and movement — cannot be denied on the basis of gender differences, just as they cannot be denied on the basis of ‘race’. It is a pity that today, in India, there are politicians who do not seem to realise this. To claim differences of basic human rights on the basis of difference of culture or nationality is to fall into the same trap than many Muslims have fallen into with reference to their understanding of their religion. And it is a double pity, because just as the sacred texts of Islam can be read in ways that are compatible with human rights, the history and cultures of India can also be read in ways that are compatible with human rights. The choice is always ours.

However, it is not a choice that many in power are willing to give to us. The reason for this is simple. I will illustrate it with reference to my original example: if you are a patriarch running your family with an iron hand, your power depends almost entirely in using the abstract and alienated notion of ‘family’ against the actual opinions, desires and experiences of flesh-and-blood family members. And you would be willing to occasionally sacrifice a family member to maintain this power. In that sense, finally, whether it is a family or a nation, human rights are inseparable from a full understanding of democracy.

Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.