South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

India is a secular state with no state religion and safeguarding the rights of the minorities forms an essential core of its policy.” This statement is not of any secular leader of India. The government of India made this submission before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) recently. India faced a stormy session at the UNHRC. Even in India, BJP’s alliance partner Shiv Sena raised a couple of uncomfortable questions to the government of India on its stand.

Each country has to go through universal periodic review (UPR) regularly at the UNHRC. India faced questions from more than 100 countries over its human rights records. They raised issues like treatment to minorities, tribals to Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFPSA) to recent attacks on African students and human rights violations in Kashmir.

The UPR is a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all UN member states. It provides opportunities for all states to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their country and to fulfill their human rights obligations.

Mukul Rohtagi, Attorney General of India, led an inter-ministerial delegation at the UNHRC’s session. Rohtagi, while speaking at the session, said, ”India is a secular state with no state religion.” This is what Indian Constitution says. There cannot be dispute on what Rohtagi said. But representatives of various countries raised the issues of human rights violations in India.
Rohtagi’s statement did not go well with the Shiv Sena. They asked “all the 100 crore Hindus” of India to sue BJP for ‘treachery and character assassination’ for declaring the country ‘secular’ at the International forum. The party’s mouthpiece Saamna in an editorial said, ”India is now a Hindu nation. People have elected the BJP on this premise. Then how come we have suddenly become a secular nation? Are the Hindus not entitled to even an inch of land on earth?” About Shiv Sena’s comment least said is better. The Indian Constitution is clear on the subject. The Preamble of the Constitution says India is a secular nation. In Kesavanand Bharati’s case the Supreme Court of India, by a wafer-thin majority by 7:6, made it clear that Parliament could amend any part of the Constitution so long as it did not alter or amend “the basic structure or essential features of the Constitution.”  

Replying to allegations of torture, Rohtagi said, ”We believe in peace, non-violence and upholding human dignity. As such, the concept of torture is completely alien to our culture and it has no place in the governance of the nation.” He defended AFSPA saying, ”The act is applied only to disturbed areas and these areas are very few and in proximity to some international borders.

Whether this act should be repealed or not is a matter of on-going vibrant political debate in my country.” The sad reality is there is no vibrant political debate on the issue. Irom Sharmila fasted for 16 years to demand repeal of AFPSA without any result. That it is applied to ‘very few areas’ cannot be justification for the AFSPA. Those who demand repeal of AFPSA are called ‘anti-national.’

Rohtagi gave details of how right to free speech and expression occupies its rightful place in the Constitution. It is a part of the fundamental rights but opposing views are questioned. Non-state actors use their muscle powers and political connections to prevent people from criticising the government. The classic case is Kashmir. Time and again government blocks WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook and Twitter in the Kashmir Valley.

The business of banning, blocking and burning is against the principle of free press and expression. French philosopher Voltaire said, ”I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire explained the essence of free speech beautifully in one line. US gave right to free speech through first amendment.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement couple of days before the review, saying, ”United Nations member countries should call on India to stop targeting non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and others who criticize the government or its policies. The Narendra Modi government has stopped foreign funding of many Indian organisations who criticise government policies.” US, Norway, Australia, Ireland, Germany and some other countries raised the issue of clampdown on foreign funding for NGOs.

Through various actions, government of India made life difficult for organisations like Ford Foundation and GreenPeace.
India defended itself effectively in UNHRC. But, what Rohtagi said in the UNHRC is not visible at the ground. People are targeted, their human rights are allegedly violated. Minorites, tribals and working class suffer most. The concept of torture is not alien to India.


By: Jatin Desai

Updated On: Friday, 26 May 2017