Why the NHRC is failing in the mother of democracy

For India to retain its ‘A’-level human rights rating, it must have a strong and independent watchdog responding to rights violations even by the State

Women gathered in protest against the 'witch hunting' of civil rights activists by the government of India (photo: National Herald archives)
Women gathered in protest against the 'witch hunting' of civil rights activists by the government of India (photo: National Herald archives)

Aakar Patel

On 13 May this year, a headline was published that read: 'UN-linked body defers NHRC India accreditation for second year in a row'. Beneath this was the line: 'The decision could now affect India's ability to vote at the Human Rights Council and some UNGA bodies'.

The NHRC is the National Human Rights Commission, and this column is about why its accreditation was deferred.

Last year, on 9 March 2023, a group of non-governmental organisations (including mine, Amnesty International India) wrote to the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI), the UN-linked body in question. We asked it to review India's accreditation status because the NHRC's lack of independence, pluralism, diversity and accountability were contrary to the United Nations principles for national institutions (popularly known as the 'Paris Principles').

Taking cognisance of our letter and other civil society submissions, the global body deferred the NHRC's re-accreditation by 12 months, considering its failure to effectively discharge its mandate — to respond to the escalating human rights violations in India. 

The NHRC was also told to improve its processes and functions; but a year later this had not happened. This is what led to the second deferral of accreditation.

So what were the things contrary to the Paris Principles in the NHRC's functioning?

The failures of the NHRC

First was its lack of independence—both in the appointing of its functionaries and its functioning.

The chairperson and other members of the NHRC are appointed by the President of India, based on the recommendations of a committee consisting of the prime minister, the speaker of the Lok Sabha, the minister of home affairs, the leaders of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and in the Rajya Sabha and the deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha.

However, since 2019, the post of the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha has been lying vacant, leaving only a single Opposition voice in the selection committee.

After his retirement from the Supreme Court, Arun Mishra was made the NHRC chair on 31 May 2021 — despite strong disagreement from that lone Opposition voice.

The second problem is that the NHRC has police officers investigate all rights violations by the State — including those by the police themselves! This is clearly a conflict of interest, and the opposite of independence from government interference.

Despite this being pointed out in the 2023 review, the Modi government did not begin a legislative process to correct this or invite a consultation to begin the amelioration process.

In November 2023, seven former IPS officers were appointed by the NHRC as special monitors. One of them — accused of corruption in 2018 while working as special director of the CBI, India’s federal investigation agency — was given the responsibility of overseeing the domains of terrorism, counterinsurgency, communal riots and violence. A former director of the national Intelligence Bureau was also made a member of the commission.

Third, India has been repeatedly told of concerns around the lack of diversity in the NHRC. It has been asked to ensure a ‘pluralistic balance in its composition and staff’ by ensuring the representation of a diverse Indian society, including (but not limited to) religious and ethnic minorities. This, of course, has not been done either, in this country where the prime minister rants against especially the largest minority (Muslims) constantly, including in his electioneering speeches.

Yet another issue is the NHRC's lack of effective engagement with civil society and human rights defenders in India. To this end, the NHRC was asked to interpret its mandate in a ‘broad and purposive manner to promote a progressive definition of human rights’ and told to address all human rights violations and ensure consistent follow-up with state authorities.

This may surprise those who have bought this government's framing of the matter where all those who oppose its violence are 'anti-nationals'. However, that is not how the world views the matter, for proper democracies must engage with civil society.

In India, human rights defenders languish in detention for years without trial under various draconian laws, including the UAPA, with not a squeal from the NHRC.

This includes those detained in connection with the Bhima KoregaonElgar Parishad case for more than five years; Kashmiri human rights defender Khurram Parvez, who has been in detention since November 2021; and Umar Khalid. The NHRC has not taken any concrete steps to respond to these situations nor intervene in a timely manner — despite various UN special rapporteurs calling on Indian authorities to release these individuals.

The NHRC has been next to useless on the issues of conflict and human rights abuses in Manipur, Jammu and Kashmir, communal violence in Haryana and Uttarakhand, and other headline-making incidents. It has certainly not covered itself in glory, and the predicament that the NHRC and the government find themselves in is of their own making.
India holds an A rating currently — and the deferral of the NHRC’s reaccreditation means this rating is under threat. That in turn means that the NHRC stands to lose its voting position in the United Nations Human Rights Council and other bodies.

This can only be corrected by doing the right thing, which nobody is stopping the government from doing.

All of us, including the signatories to that letter, want to see India accredited at the highest level by the global body. However, such an accreditation should be achieved by honest effort. It must reflect the presence of a strong and independent human rights body in India, committed in particular to responding to rights violations by the State.

It cannot be an automatic right given to the self-appointed mother of democracy.

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