“Different members of the government are speaking in different voices – abroad they speak of a vibrant political debate in the country and in India, those who speak up are targeted and slandered,” was the amused reaction of several people on Thursday evening while watching the Indian delegation led by Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi mount a spirited defence of India at the UN Human Rights Council.
Earlier reviews of India’s track record had taken place in 2008 and 2012.
Member countries on Thursday reminded how India has been constantly delaying the ratification of the Convention Against Torture, denying rights to minorities and playing it up as a perception problem. Inclusive development is a key word used by Indian delegates in foreign fora. And Rohatgi on Thursday spoke with flourish on the Government’s initiatives such as Make in India, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Swachh Bharat (Clean India) and Jan Dhan Yojana.
Not surprisingly, he made no mention of cow vigilante groups (Gau goons), imprisonment of Muslims as terrorists, lynching of cattle traders, crackdown on NGOs, Ghar Wapsi or Love Jihad.
“The talk to ratify the convention against torture has been going on since 1997. In 2012, the Prevention of Torture Bill was formulated and then sent to Rajya Sabha for recommendations. And after that nothing much has happened,” said Vrinda Grover, lawyer and human rights activist. adding that no steps were being taken to pass that legislature.
She said that in a response to an RTI (Right to Information) she had filed, it was stated that the Centre only intends to amend Sections 330 and 331. “But these sections are limited in scope and do not meet the requirement,” she said. The matter has now been referred to a Law Commission, which will deliberate on the matter. There have been large scale deliberations, but nothing has happened. “Now, at the convention, they have said that they are committed to a complete legislation. Those who speak up against this are targeted and slandered,” said Grover.
“Culture of torture is completely alien to Indian culture,” said Rohatgi at the UPR, adding, “Our government’s motto of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’, that is, ‘All together and development for all’ is a true reflection of our commitment to achieve inclusive development in the spirit of ‘leaving no one behind’.”
The loudest reproval at the UPR, by virtue of it being oft repeated, was the question of ratification of the anti-torture law and to criminalise marital rape. There were pointed references to the abolishment of death penalty, the need to strengthen the fight against child labour and child marriage, repealing Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, minority rights and the need to look at FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) laws.
Different members of the government are speaking in different voices, stressed Grover, going on to add that the NHRC has been completely silent on the matter. “Any society that endorses caste system and patriarchy is inherently brutal and violent. The fundamental rights in the Constitution are a weapon in the hands of the citizen and not a shield for the government to conceal its violations of human rights,” added Grover.
UPR is a process of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) which reviews the human rights record of 193 UN member states once every four years. This peer-to-peer monitoring system makes civil society an equal stakeholder in discussing the human rights situation in the country along with the government and national human rights institutions.
Applauding the efforts of the government and the peer review system was JS Kochhar, Joint Secretary of National Human Rights Commission. “This is an important mechanism of human rights monitoring. Every country is reviewed after 4.5 years. Fellow countries can give recommendations, which are not mandatory to follow,” said Kochhar.
“NHRC had worked hard to prepare a framework for the convention. The report was made after consultations with different groups. We went around to different regions in the country to gauge the human rights situation and it is after that the report was prepared. It has been put up on our website too,” added Kochhar.
Grover refuted Kochar’s statement. “India is not engaging with the UPR process in the spirit with which it has to be done. It is meant to be a highly consultative process, but it wasn’t. There hasn’t been a peer review or a full-length discussion,” said Grover.
Agreeing with Grover was Henri Tiphagne, convenor of Working Group on Human Rights in India and UN (WGHR). “This process was supposed to be a participatory process, but the efforts of the government have been farcical. The Government of India (GoI) did not consult NGOs, instead it was given to NLU-Delhi, who called 25 of the civil society members about 18 months ago for a two-day consultation. We were never shown the report of the consultation and NHRC published it on April 19. The process should be intense,” said Tiphagne, whose WGHR had organised live telecast of the UN meeting in 50 cities across the country.
After the last convention in 2012, India refuted the notion of violence against women and Dalits. It would have remained without any action, if the citizens of this country had not taken to the streets after the December 16 rape case. “Even the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 2015 came about after protests broke out in various parts of the country. It was not a result of government foresight,” added Tiphagne.
At the convention, India was asked to take a relook at the FCRA laws by Germany, Ireland, the US, Norway and Australia, while some of the eastern Europe countries flagged women’s rights violations in the country. Haiti raised the question of ‘Afrophobia’, which was, without doubt, denied by the Indian delegation, which called these incidents, ‘local crimes’ and referred to India as the ‘land of Buddha’.
Pakistan, at breakneck speed, rattled off the issues in Kashmir, the need for a plebiscite, AFSPA, use of pellet guns in Kashmir and mob violence by right-wing parties, to which India countered saying that the violence in Kashmir was driven by ‘neighbours’ and that there was a zero tolerance approach to terrorism.