Open letter to Justice Arun Mishra, chairman, NHRC
The National Human Rights Commission, alive to human rights violations in Opposition-ruled states, is yet to send a team to Manipur
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is rarely in the news, although human rights violations are reported on social media every day and regularly enough in the mainstream media. It is hard to recall when the NHRC made a meaningful intervention and made a difference to the lives of ordinary Indians, though.
An open letter (reproduced below) written by a disillusioned human rights activist makes claims that, if true, show what is wrong in the national commission headed by retired Supreme Court justice Arun Mishra.
National Human Rights Commission, India
Dear Justice Mishra,
As a citizen of India — and as one who has journeyed closely with the NHRC for a long time and served in the body’s National Group on NGOs/HRD (human resource development) for two consecutive terms — let me express my deep sense of disappointment in the functioning of the National Human Rights Commission of India under your leadership.
The NHRC’s indifference to human rights is, sadly, becoming clearer to even ordinary citizens.
Sir, under your watch, the National Human Rights Commission has had its ‘accreditation’ deferred for a year by the sub-committee of accreditation (SCA) of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) in March 2023.
One of the several reasons for this deferral was that the NHRC has not provided for the involvement of civil society organisations, in addition to a lack of pluralistic balance in its composition and its staff, ergo its failure to reflect the diversity of Indian society (including representation of, but not limited to, religious and ethnic minorities).
The NHRC’s penchant for involving the police in its investigation of cases; its putting forward of a senior civil servant for the position of secretary general; its unwillingness to review laws related to civil liberties and fundamental rights, including the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 (FCRA), the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA); and its lack of constructive engagement and cooperation with civil society and human resource development groups are the other concerns raised by international bodies, to our discomfort.
The NHRC has lost much of its moral authority by not even condemning the extensive violence in Manipur, where officially more than 180 civilians have been killed, thousands have had to flee their homes, multiple women were sexually assaulted and/or killed. The reasons are not known, although the NHRC had a full commission meeting on 23 May—but the minutes of that meeting are yet to be shared.
It was a saving grace when the National Federation of Indian Women, led by persons of repute like Ms Aruna Roy and Ms Annie Raja, rushed to Manipur—but they had police cases and false criminal charges slapped on them. The Manipur government has now filed a police case against the three-member team of the Editors’ Guild of India as well. The NHRC, however, is still silent.
It was only after the Supreme Court passed an order on 21 July, directing the Union government and the state government to act on the constitutional abuses, that the NHRC woke up from its deep slumber and issued a notice to the Manipur government on 25 July to stop the violence and human rights violations.
It was shocking to find that even the Supreme Court of India did not think of the NHRC as a credible and independent enough agency to be entrusted with any action that it proposed in Manipur. The NHRC could have appeared and intervened before the Supreme Court of India—but it did nothing.
The only time the NHRC, under your watch, shows any enthusiasm in investigating human rights violations is when they are reported from states ruled by the Opposition. In such cases, the NHRC ensures that it sends fact-finding teams, sometimes made up of newly inducted members and ‘deemed’ members.
The NHRC of India, under your watch, appears oblivious that it is meant to be an independent body and not an arm of the executive. It appears to be unaware of its extensive and impressive mandate. A majority of the human rights cases and grievances are being dismissed or referred to state bodies. You are no doubt aware of the poor enforcement of the NHRC’s orders by police officials and district administrations.
Why, sir, is the NHRC found missing in action wherever ordinary Indians need it the most?
Where was the NHRC when hundreds of houses of people belonging to minority communities, particularly Muslims, were being illegally demolished in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana? Where was the NHRC when the 84-year-old priest Father Stan Swamy died in judicial custody and was denied in jail the use of a sipper for his Parkinson-riddled trembling hands, given a disease that also makes swallowing difficult? Where is the NHRC when the 95 per cent disabled and wheelchair-bound Prof GN Saibaba is denied basic rights?
In Kashmir, at least 20 journalists were arrested between April and September 2022, often on criminal charges according to the International Press Institute’s monitoring data. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 35 journalists have been arrested, detained, questioned, interrogated, raided or had draconian charges filed on them in connection with their work. Yet the NHRC has remained supremely indifferent.
Under Section 12(d) of the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, the NHRC has the statutory responsibility to review constitutional safeguards and laws and to recommend measures
for their effective implementation. But the NHRC has shown total apathy on laws which are against human rights, or are tyrannical or susceptible to abuse — be it the UAPA, misused extensively against human rights activists, students, professors and lawyers to put them in jail for long periods, without any charges; or the FCRA, which is used to control NGOs and human rights organisations; or amendments to the RTI Act that erode the independence of the information commissions.
Under Section 12(f), the mandate calls upon the NHRC to study and make recommendations for implementation of international human rights treaties. However, India remains one of the handful countries in the world which is yet to ratify the UN Convention Against Torture.
On Tuesday, 5 September 2023, the NHRC has called a meeting of ‘select’ civil society people, in a sly bid to show those who need to be shown that it does engage with ordinary citizens who work for human rights. It is widely seen as eyewash, meant to mislead the G20 delegates. There is, of course, not a single member from civil society or for that matter even a single woman member in the NHRC. Most of the human rights activists and organisations of India have rightly refused to take part in this agenda-less NHRC ‘interactive meeting’ with the chairperson of the NHRC.
The NHRC plans to host the Asia Pacific Forum’s conference of national human rights institutions in New Delhi on 20–21 September, an event that is to be inaugurated by the prime minister of India. Most of us think it is a cruel joke. We believe that the NHRC of India has lost all moral right to host this Asia–Pacific conference given its complete apathy to human rights violations in India even after its accreditation was deferred.
The truth is that the people of India no longer expect anything from the NHRC in its present form and structure. It has been tamed, to become a ‘toothless tiger’, to deliver partisan ‘recommendations’ in favour of the government and corporate houses.
Victims now shy away from filing complaints to the NHRC because they know they will get no redressal. Victims of police intimidation and abuse speak of the NHRC asking the very officers who tortured them to ‘investigate’ or ‘report’ on the
cases—and then finally closing the cases after the formalities of issuing a notice have been carried out.
Vacancies in the NHRC have been filled by intelligence officers, including persons drawn from the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) deputed to the Commission. They even man the division dealing with complaints.
What justice then should we, the citizens expect from the NHRC, Justice Mishra?
History is unlikely to be kind to you, sir!
A concerned Indian citizen
Views are personal