The quality of our independence

In some ways the organisation I work in resembles a multi-national corporation. Or the United Nations. There are various independent national entities that are working through different programmes in several languages towards a common goal (“human rights for all”). There is a Secretary General and a secretariat, like in the UN. We meet and discuss our successes and the numbers and growth, just like in an MNC, and we did so again a few days ago.

On the matter of numbers, and here again a similarity, India jumps out. There is high growth in the number of Indian supporters and high growth on the matter of raising resources. Of course, there is the question of scale, which seems to elude some people such as those presenting their claims about the “fastest growing” economy.

There are two things to be considered when looking at growth rates. First, the question of per capita income: What base are you growing from and how much per capita income did you add? And secondly, any honest comparison must look at what the corresponding growth rate was when the other country was at a similar per capita GDP. Meaning, not comparing our rate of growth to China's today, but comparing it to China’s when it was our size. That will of course not always be a particularly pleasant comparison, but it is the requirement of integrity.

And so similarly, while India in the organisation I work ranks high in terms of growth, it is modest in terms of scale and I accept that. Other nations, for example in Europe, have slower growth but are sitting on large numbers of supporters and resources already achieved that dwarf our achievements. This is fine: We must all start somewhere and we are a large and vibrant nation. I have no doubt that in a short period, India will be in the same bracket as wealthier nations in terms of how big and resourceful the human rights movement inside our country is.

That is the good news and I am proud of it as an Indian. The not-so-good stuff is to be found away from the numbers. I will illustrate it with an anecdote, again from only a few days ago. Some colleagues from outside India were discussing conditions that they were working in and the threats that they faced in the course of their work. Many colleagues felt that they worked in conditions that were not conducive and indeed unsafe.

Illustration by Binay Sinha

You must understand that activists, particularly those who stand for the rights of others, are accustomed to working in difficult circumstances. Their threshold is likely to be higher than it is for other people who are unfamiliar with such work and what it entails. For some of them to say that they feel unsafe means that they are faced with something quite serious.

On this issue, as we discussed and it became obvious that we faced similar conditions, it was with those nations, such as Hungary, Mongolia, Turkey and others that, I had to club India. Not with the nations of Western Europe, where ideally we should belong, given the great values of our Constitution.

The truth is that activism of any sort and human rights work in particular is not encouraged in India, and it is almost never safe. 

There were three things that I felt were of concern in India so far as safety went. First, that the rule of law was weak and this allowed forms of public violence that were not common in other democratic nations. To have individuals from your organisation advertising their cause (‘human rights’) in a public space amid strangers was not free from danger. I have some examples of this, which need not detain us at this time. Second, there was a threat from the state. Colleagues in some parts of India such as Jammu and Kashmir and the Adivasi belt, were working in spaces where there had been violence against — and even the killing of — fellow activists. Often they were contacted by the police and summoned and questioned, for no particular reason other than their association with rights-based activism. Preventive detention, meaning jailing someone without a crime being committed and purely on suspicion that a crime will be committed, is commonly practised in India (You have to be a minority or from a marginalised community or from certain parts of India to be really familiar with this sort of thing). It happens even to journalists but activists are more vulnerable. The other threat from the state comes through harassment which can happen at the organisational level. All of us in this space face this harassment, sometimes at higher levels of intensity than at others, which our colleagues in Western Europe do not face.

Third, there was the threat from strangers that was telegraphed over social and other forms of modern media where one is easily accessible. There are death threats and rape threats and abuse and all the other stuff that comes with online debate. Some of this could be dismissed as being harmless ranting, yes, but how much? And how does one assess that a particular threat of violence is or is not serious? I did not have this capacity and so was unable to calibrate what amount of preventive or corrective or defensive action was required. 

But I am able to say that much of this hatred is the product of government attitudes towards those who work on human rights. The state has thoroughly demonised individuals and groups who stand with Kashmiris against the use of shotguns for crowd control or against absolute immunity for the armed forces for crimes against civilians. It is only to be expected that these groups will feel under threat.

This separates us from those democracies where the promise of constitutional values is actually realised through encouraging human rights work and not discouraging it.

As another Independence Day goes past, the quality of our independence is something for us to consider. When I meet others in that comity of nations, there are things that I am proud of as an Indian, and our growth is among them. But there are also things in which we bring up the rear, where we should not allow our country to remain.

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