South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Over the course of human history, intellectuals and artists have helped broaden the scope of citizenship and the nebulous contours of citizen rights. Southasia is no exception. Despite its colonial past and internal fault-lines, it can boast of extraordinary individuals who have stood up against tyranny and reaffirmed the innate strength of the human spirit.

A tradition of resistance by artists and intellectuals that was built up in colonial times continues to thrive in the Subcontinent. Arundhati Roy in India remains undeterred despite being charged with sedition or ‘the attempt to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India’, a penal provision defined by the British colonial government in 1860. Her ability, and that of many others like her, to speak the truth to power and populism, reconfirms that humanism remains above notions of narrow nationalism. Roy’s latest act of criticising rights abuses in Jammu and Kashmir has landed her in trouble with the guardians of patriotism, who have vociferously demonised her and trashed her worldview. Conversely, more and more people have also spoken in Roy’s favour, thereby weakening linear jingoistic narratives which rely on ultranationalist worldviews.

Asma Jahangir’s track record on human rights and fearlessness gives Pakistanis hope. She has unswervingly challenged military and civilian dictators alike, undeterred by the consequences of speaking out against autocrats. Her activism has not only saved minorities and women from brutal customary punishments and a coercive state apparatus, but consistently pushed for reaffirming the rule of law.

In Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi has finally been freed after her dignified but determined refusal to submit to the military junta. Her defiance is legendary and will continue to inspire democrats in her country and elsewhere. The indomitable will of these women continues the glorious traditions of Southasia: to uphold the truth and resist until victory is in sight.

In Sri Lanka, where freedom of expression is increasingly under threat, individuals have stood up fearlessly against the abuse of power. Some, like Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor of the Sunday Leader, have paid with their lives. It is never too late for those in other parts of the Subcontinent to look towards Bangladesh and remember the hundreds of intellectuals rounded up and executed outside Dhaka during the Liberation War in 1971. One momentous day of massacres, 14 December, is still observed as ‘Shaheed Buddhijibi Divas’ in Bangladesh, to honour the martyred intellectuals. President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives spent the better part of the 1990s as a prisoner of conscience for his anti-establishment views which he did not hesitate to make public through newspaper articles. In Nepal, civil rights activists of indomitable spirit have stayed the course for freedom to fell the Rana regime in 1950; to survive through three decades of the monarchist Panchayat till 1990; and to battle political violence, resurgent autocracy and never-ending anarchy since.

On 24 December this year, Christmas Eve, in India, human-rights activist Dr Binayak Sen, who has worked as a doctor among the adivasis of Chhattisgarh for many long years, has been sentenced to life imprisonment. His case reminds us that repression and authoritarianism oftentimes come clothed in the garb of democracy and the rule of law. Sen was first arrested four years ago on flimsy charges; the real agenda was clearly to silence one of the best-known and vocal champions of the rights of poor adivasis in the state of Chhattisgarh, and thus demonstrate the consequences of speaking up. He was imprisoned for over two years before he was granted bail by the Supreme Court. The sentence of life imprisonment just announced, based as it is on politically motivated charges, is a travesty and needs to be reversed. The Indian state’s persecution of Sen and countless other activists like him who have continued to speak up for the rights of the poor and marginalised, is unacceptable in any truly democratic and just society, and will not succeed in silencing those who dare stand up for the truth.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s hundredth birth anniversary will be celebrated this year across Southasia and the globe. His poetry of resistance, with its vigorous challenge to authoritarianism, is as relevant today as when it flowed from his pen several decades ago. Revered for having stood up to exploitation, injustice and state coercion, Faiz’s legacy lives on as scores of writers and artists in Pakistan and India continue to struggle for an equitable, plural and tolerant society. Not surprisingly, Faiz was imprisoned and declared persona non grata by the Pakistani state, in the vain hope that incarceration would still his sharp verse. But that only sharpened it; through the ages, dissent has only been fuelled by censorship and clampdown, and the human spirit has triumphed.

Besides the state, artists face dangers and threats from a new creed: the extremists and bigots who have made intolerance a political enterprise. Taslima Nasreen lives in exile, threatened by reactionaries in Bangladesh; and M F Husain, one of the greatest living Indian painters has in effect been banished for exercising his right to interpret his homeland and its deities. Intellectuals and mediapersons in Pakistan have been attacked and remain under perennial threat from extremist forces within the country. Burmese artists continue to be forced into exile, but they are not silenced. These artists have not allowed their creativity to ebb, for that would be a victory for those who seek to silence them. In many places, as in Nepal where King Gyanendra sought to impose autocracy, or in Pakistan where Pervez Musharraf was ascendant, Faiz comes back to life.

Postcolonial Southasia is grappling with multiple challenges and Faiz remains a torch-bearer for those striving for freedom of expression. The civil liberties enjoyed today by millions have only been achieved through decades-long struggles waged by public intellectuals, fearless activists and artists. Marking the centenary of Faiz, Himal celebrates this legacy of Southasia’s fight for freedom.

It is vital for the continued health of our societies to nurture freedom of expression and the right to dissent. There will always be courageous individuals who dream fearlessly and dare to speak. To quote Faiz’s eloquent lines from ‘Bol’,

Bol, ye thhoda waqt bahut hai

Jism-o zabaan ki maut se pehle

Bol ke sach zinda hai ab tak

Bol, jo kuch kehna hai, keh le.

Speak, this brief hour is long enough

Before the death of body and tongue

Speak, ’cause the truth is not dead yet,

Speak, speak, whatever you must speak


Himal Southasian, January 2011