'Media can play an activist role'

She was the first representative of an international human rights organisation to visit Gujarat on a fact-finding mission. In her five-year experience in human rights investigation, Gujarat turned out to be ``the most terrific violence and brutality I have ever seen.'' And it was a ``shameful experience'' for this Indian, now a resident of New York. Smita Narula, a Senior Researcher with the U.S.-based `Human Rights Watch' stole a few minutes between lectures to an audience comprising human rights activists from the South East Asian nations in Madurai to speak to S. Annamalai on the impact of media explosion on rights awareness and, of course, the Gujarat experience.

SMITA WAS ``captivated'' by human rights while doing Law at the Harvard Law School. With a bachelor's degree in International Relations and a master's in International Development from the Brown University, she chose to take a Law degree from Harvard. An involvement in the study of human rights situations all over the globe induced this Indian-born researcher to become the Editor of the Harvard Human Rights Law Journal. At the Harvard Law School, she did a thesis on ``caste and gender violence,'' based on the life of the bandit queen, Phoolan Devi. Now she is on a fellowship with the Asia Division of the Human Rights Watch, an organisation with ``ordinary citizens of the world who believe deeply in the cause of human rights.'' as Senior Researcher since 1997.

Awareness of human rights has spread globally, thanks to the media. Local issues, such as untouchability, have assumed international dimensions, she points out. But how do you sensitise a western mind to an alien issue like casteism? Smita is emphatic that ``no community lives within its borders''. The IT revolution has had a tremendous impact on social and economic issues. ``What happens internationally affects people locally. No longer can people remain isolated.'' The caste issue, she says, is not a phenomenon peculiar to India. It is virtually a global issue and more prevalent in the South East Asian nations and wherever Indians live. ``It has taken a lot of sensitisation to make people realise what caste is.''

Drawing a parallel between `apartheid' in South Africa and `untouchability' in India, she points out that there are no physical signs here as in the case of segregation of coloured people. Apartheid had been an `institution' in South Africa and the ``entire world rallied and reacted to dismantle it.'' Now the whole world has realised that ``certain standards of human decency should prevail''. In India, ``caste is a complicated issue which lacks visual hues.'' Untouchability has remained invisible to an outsider. In the global context, ``India is the largest democracy and has successfully manufactured an image of a real democracy''. This country has a very progressive Constitution, and there are so many laws to protect the individual's rights. ``It has been possible in South Africa to dismantle apartheid which had remained legalised. In India, it is much more difficult to remove untouchability. The laws are there. But enforcement is lacking,'' she adds with a smile. If the individual does not speak out against untouchability, it means he is winking at its practice.

The fact-finding report of the Human Rights Watch has a suitable title: ``We have no orders to save you,'' a quote from a policeman. It speaks volumes of ``State participation and complicity in communal violence in Gujarat''. The report also refers to Gujarat as a ``Hindutva laboratory.'' Smita worked with the local NGOs in Gujarat to document the impact of the post-Godhra violence. Initially, the U.S. media did not give due coverage to the Gujarat happenings. With the publication of the Human Rights Watch report, the magnitude of the problem was realised in the U.S., especially by the NGOs. She recalls that Gujarat was the ``first communal riot to be televised.'' And the whole world came to be more concerned with it. Smita says the media, especially the journalists covering the Gujarat violence, has played an ``enormous role'' in documenting the incidents. ``In fact, the journalists of the national media were acting as activists and messengers. Not the local media.'' The Gujarat experience has shown that the media can also play the role of an activist, besides being an information provider.

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