South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

By: Hameeda Hossain
25 FEBRUARY 2016

Some years ago many of us from South Asia met in Nirmana, an old fort in Rajasthan, and decided to work together towards social and political change, that would make our societies more equal and democratic.  We expected our states to be inclusive of diversity,   respectful of  dissent,   to prevent discrimination on the basis of  class, caste, ethnicity,  gender and age.   Thus began the journey of South Asians for Human Rights.  The yard stick of human rights was our standard bearer  as we worked within our own countries and with like minded organisations across borders. 

We meet again today to discuss  how far  states in South Asia have met their professed goals of development and democracy, of respecting people’s rights and ensuring their participation.  I would like us to consider why our societies  have remained exclusive, why there is so little tolerance of diversity and difference. 

Looking back to the early years of independence, I am struck by the similarity of the language in which people expressed their aspirations. We had asserted our right to self-government, to representative institutions to be established through free and fair elections, to the rule of law, to an independent judiciary. These institutions were to lead to social and economic transformation of our societies, to address the social and economic inequalities. 

Our slogans for independence were freedom from want, freedom from fear.  As each country in South Asia became independent  we promised ourselves  democracy, equality and peace.  Our constitutions reflected the visions of our independence struggles for human dignity, equality and human rights.  Indeed, we could say that South Asian states have given themselves promise of  people’s rights and have tried to set up systems in which governance would serve the interests of people and create democratic space for people’s participation.   By ratification of  many international rights all states in South Asia have taken responsibility for their implementation.   We have set up democratic structures:  with parliaments, judiciary,  human rights commissions,  right to information laws and so on which are supposed to set standards for state citizen relations. 

But the challenges that confront us today in South Asia are many.  Let us ask ourselves:

  1. How far have governance structures succeeded in fulfilling our commitments to human rights, to people’s participation. 
  2. Has economic development reduced glaring inequalities?
  3. How have we tried to end conflicts and hostilities within communities that are an obstacle towards peace and stability in the region?
  4. Can we challenge the impunity of lawless law enforcement by both state and non state actors that silences citizens’ voices?
  5. How can we retrieve a culture of tolerance and inclusive participation and raise shared concerns?

I would like to discuss the challenges posed by current directions in economic development,  political dynamics and social relations. 


We cannot deny the economic advances made by South Asia in the last few decades. Most reports and surveys indicate that poverty levels have gone down, that social policies have raised life expectancies, that maternal mortality has declined, that education opportunities have expanded.  Today, economically, India sees itself as an emerging tiger,  a global power, competing in international markets, and investing overseas.  Other smaller states forecast their entry into middle income status.

But we need to question the cost of these changes:  it may be true that poverty levels have gone down,  and exports have created employment opportunities. But has selective economic growth led to greater disparities and inequalities,  with one class benefiting at the cost of other classes or communities?  Has economic development contributed to an improvement in the lives and livelihoods of the larger population?

The lure of investment has  encouraged resource poor countries to offer economic zones for private investment, where the interests of the market prevail over those of the state, where settled communities are uprooted to make way for new industries.  Indeed labour surpluses in South Asia have contributed to these successes,  allowing traditional occupations to be  overtaken by commercial cultivation in plantations. It has allowed the entry of multinationals and added to the economic power of corporations.   The urban rural divide is also a symptom of a skewed growth as demands of the middle class or upper middle classes take priority over the needs of the working population. In each city we have witnessed how families are evicted from their make shift settlements,  as their land is transformed into luxury construction. 

This expansionist tendency has implications for our environment.  Land taken over for industrial development or exploration deprives farmers and small farmers of subsistence agriculture.  It is no wonder that we find long lines of peasants moving into urban areas or migrating for work overseas. New sources of energy such as mining of coal has also endangered people’ livelihoods. In Bangladesh protests by indigenous communities led to the suspension of coal mining in the north,  but today Bangladesh and India have undertaken a joint venture to set up a coal plant in the Sunderbans forest which is likely to damage the environment seriously. Two years ago SAHR presented an investigative report which showed, as indeed had other reports, that  this would damage the largest surviving mangrove forest.  But these reports have not been taken note of by policy planners.  The prospect of profits has played a greater role than the future security of the region.

Using the human rights yardstick we should expect economic growth with distributive justice.  We owe our economic growth to the labour of millions of farmers, to women workers in garment industries and to migrant workers overseas. What we do find is  that competitive advantage in the market depends upon the use and exploitation of labour, allowing them little space for collective bargaining for their rights.   Any resistance or demands for implementation of laws leads to suspension of work, of closure of a factory.   The loss is that of the worker, the investor moves on. 


The wars in Afghanistan,  Iraq and the recent violence in Syria or Yemen are impending threats to peace in the region and are likely to have implications for peace in South Asia.  

We have not been immune to an arms race started by India and Pakistan because of their historical hostility since partition.  Their pursuit of “national security” by building military capability has been a long standing threat to peace and stability.  It is not surprising that South Asia remains the poorest and yet it has become a militarized region.

According to Akmal Hussain, a Pakistani economist, “These military expenditures, whose scale is unprecedented in the developing world, are being undertaken in the name of achieving national security in a situation where the majority of the population in South Asia is living below the international poverty line…” (A Perspective on Peace and Economic Cooperation in South Asia, 2008)

The psychology of “national security” has also allowed for an arbitrary use of violence by state forces which is evident in the narratives of encounter,  cross fire, disappearances, custodial death and torture,  practices which have all been rejected as means of law enforcement  by the constitutional and international guarantees undertaken by our states.

The impunity for these acts raises a serious challenge as it negates the state’s responsibility to protect the citizen’s right to life.   It also leads to a culture of brutalization and violence from which non-state actors are  not exempt.   

To address
the meaningless brutalization of society by acts of terrorism by non-state actors will require more than security measures.  It will need an understanding of a more active citizenship,  through an engagement with the promotion and protection of human rights.   This is possible given the space for freedom for citizens to speak freely and without fear,  for openness of debates and discussions.  The tendency to control thought and ideas is detrimental to a vibrant society. 

South Asia is  constituted of diverse communities marked by differences in language, culture, and religion, ethnicity and gender.  We have lived with these differences.  But today the tendency to homogenize allows the dominant majority to impose its own norms and to exclude the others. Communal violence between Muslims and Hindus, between Shia and Sunni,  Sinhala and Tamil or violence and exclusion of Ahmadiya are all examples of a flawed democracy in South Asia.

The application of security measures has been adopted as a modality of governance.   They have been justified as means of law enforcement.  The impunity for such acts has created an environment of fear. It may also inject a brutalization of the community. In fact recent incidents of individualized violence, such as the killing of a dalit child, attacks on mosques and temples, torture of young children, rape of women are symptomatic of a narrowing of identity politics which negates human rights.

Some years ago SAHR set up a minority rights commission which was to identify the causes of discrimination within each country.  In each case the disputes were related to acquisition of land and material resources or to imposition of power by the dominant majority.  We need to adopt peaceful means for settlement of disputes.  The war in Sri Lanka has ended,  and a new beginning is being made. We must welcome this initiative for a post conflict reconciliation that we hope will be creative and set an example of tolerance and mutual respect. 


A serious challenge in South Asia is the persistence of traditional social inequalities based on gender, ethnicity and caste.  Our states have ratified many international treaties,  and have adopted several laws, policies and programs to end discriminatory practices.  But much of this remains on paper.

Of course some opportunities have been made available.  Thus women’s enrolment in education has expanded, maternal mortality has declined, and work opportunities have increased.  But inequality persists in their relations of marriage, divorce and inheritance.  Few political leaders have been willing to make changes that defy conventional beliefs and mores, or that would challenge power relations.  Even where constitutions have guaranteed equality and non-discrimination religious precepts have prevailed.  

Women’s struggles and indeed the rising struggles of the dalit communities and the indigenous peoples demand justice,  that is essential if our societies are to ensure peace and stability and a respect for human rights.  We must allow ourselves the space for debate and dissent.

I have listed only a few priorities but the challenge for change in governance that will ensure people’s rights and a sustainable democratic development is formidable. Let me end by quoting from The state and Democracy in South Asia:

“Once seen as a contradiction in terms which required a country to choose either political freedom or economic equality, the challenge of simultaneously pursuing the two goals is present  in some measure in all parts of the world, but nowhere is the challenge as imposing as it is in South Asia.“ (2008)

It is important for us to understand why we need to develop a culture of tolerance and inclusiveness, of respect for citizens’ rights and their participation, to make democracy a meaningful every day practice, not to be preserved in documents alone.  

We need to overcome the structures that divide us and move forward through open borders, with constitutional freedoms that protect our right to life and fundamental rights. As human rights defenders SAHR should work towards our common objectives for peace, stability and development with social justice in South Asia.