Human rights in India – are some still more equal than others?

By Rohini Mohan

With a population in excess of a billion, most struggling to merely subsist, it is not surprising that a country like India has not really been that vested in upholding and enforcing its human rights policy. There are countless human rights violations everyday on an individual and mass level, but very rarely are these brought to the attention of the authorities. Even when they are, chances are, other more pressing issues are given precedence. What we take so much for granted in the developed world has so far been a luxury in India; just like everything else, in this area too, it is only the voice of the moneyed that is heard. But things are changing, if slowly. To understand the progress in this critical milestone in a country’s development, WNI spoke to R Nataraj, recent Police Commissioner of Chennai and currently ADGP (Additional Director General of Police) assigned to the Investigations Division, State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), Tamilnadu.

Super cop R Nataraj has had an impressive 32 year IPS career. He was either a catalyst in or responsible for putting away many bad boys including Pandi Seevalperi, notorious Tamil Nadu dacoit. He was also in charge, for a period, of the Special task force to secure Bandit King Veerappan, for which he received a gallantry award. In the course of his career he was involved in various sensitive cases including the Chennai airport bomb blast in 1984. He served as DIG in the Central Reserve Police Force anti terrorist Operations for Jammu & Kashmir and was 1st Secretary of the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu. In his recent avatar as Police Chief of Greater Chennai he was dubbed ‘The People’s Commissioner’; his mantra – to make the police totally accessible to the public. Leading by example, he kept the lines of communication open to the masses; his mobile phone was a community hotline; he held a public audience every weekday from 12-4 and 500 to 600 people queued up to see him on a daily basis. A true man of the masses, R Nataraj is the logical choice for his current position as Director, investigation wing of the SHRC.

WNI: What does Human Rights mean to you, and what are its origins, particularly in India?
RN: Human Rights are natural rights written in the hearts of men with nature’s fingers. Though human rights are as old as civilization itself, it took the genocide in WWII to put into perspective the fact that there was a pressing need to establish them formally and globally; Eleanor Roosevelt was the architect of the living Declaration of Human Rights. The Indian Constitution is very comprehensive and upholds the fundamental rights of liberty, equality and fraternity and the rights to speech, religion and worship. In India, no person can be incarcerated without the due process of the law, this provision even extending to foreigners.

WNI: How have we formalized the Human Rights Commission in India?
RN: Thanks to international pressure, a national Human Rights commission was constituted in 1993 with the intent to form corresponding state level bodies. They are headed up by Retired Supreme Court Justices and High Court justices respectively, other members also being retired High Court and Supreme Court justices. The investigative wing of the body is headed up by IPS officers of the rank of IG and above. The first state to set up the commission was West Bengal in 1995, Tamil Nadu constituted it in 1997 and now 15 other states can boast of having set up a commission. The Commission is autonomous and has court powers which allow it to summon and enforce the attendance of witnesses and examine them on oath and on determining that an inquiry discloses the violation of human rights or negligence in the prevention of violation of human rights by a public servant, it may recommend to the concerned Government or authority to initiate proceedings for prosecution against the guilty party and if necessary may recommend the grant of immediate interim relief to the victim or the members of his family.

WNI: Can you cite some practical examples of human rights violations in India today?
RN: Human Rights violations are committed all around us everyday. Child labor, death from spurious liquor, jobs denied due to discrimination – these are the obvious ones. However, a bridge not being constructed properly, excess emission of gases from a vehicle- these are equally a threat to human rights. I am also ashamed to say that we are still contending with the atrocities of the caste system; not allowing people from lower castes to enter places of worship goes against a basic fundamental right. More shocking still is the primitive practice which force people of lower castes in some villages to carry away what is called ‘Night soil’; the soil that has been defecated on by people from ‘higher’ castes.
The Tamil Nadu SHRC receives about 15000 complaints annually. We highlight and focus on corruption of public servants since we believe that people holding public office and the police play the biggest part in the upholding of human rights and bear a greater burden of guilt than anyone else of violating them.

WNI: How does the commission address violations?
RN: Violations are either brought to the notice of the commission by individuals themselves or they are reported in the media. If the matter is sub judice, it will not be entertained by the commission. Typically if the public servant fails to investigate the commission will take up the issue. Take the Godhra train burning incident- the Chairman of the Commission visited the site and aided in justice being rendered. Similarly, in the case of the aftermath of the Veerappan case there was public outcry about people who had been unjustly arrested and tortured. The commission was instrumental in securing compensation to the tune of Rs 8 crores for the victims. The commission has also intervened in other high profile cases which smack of delay or injustice, one such example being the Jessica Lall case.

WNI: What about the common man, the individual? Let’s say there is a dowry death and the police failed to do anything about it. Can the family of the victim approach the commission?
RN: Certainly, that’s what we are there for. Let me give you a couple of examples. We received a complaint from a farmer who had sent his son to a private engineering college in Tamil Nadu, having paid the excessive capitation fee with his entire life’s savings. Very shortly after joining the college, his son died under mysterious circumstances and the whole incident was hushed up by the college. The father was given a token compensation and made to sign a paper to secure his silence. Later the father suspected foul play and when he received no response from the police, he petitioned the commission. The commission’s investigation resulted in the entire capitation fee being returned to the father with some more compensation. In another incident, a teenager was ‘hanging out’ in a car with his lady friend. A plainclothes cop harassed them accusing the girl of being a prostitute. He extorted Rs 10,000 and a chain from the boy in return for letting him off. When this was brought to the notice of the commission and the cop was identified by the boy, the cop was charged with robbery.

WNI: In countries like America, the citizen reserves the right to sue the city for negligence. Does the HRC in India allow for such provision or this still alien?
RN: We recently investigated a case where a child from a private orphanage died because of a live wire on the street. We held that the electricity department was to be held accountable, and they were made to compensate the victim’s guardians. Similarly, a student was left behind in a park after a school excursion and she died by choking on the green moss in the pond in the park. The park was held responsible for not keeping the park clean of hazardous pollutants. Most of the complaints we receive are against the health system, the education system or the cops. We placed accountability on the entire team of one government hospital when a man’s wife was given no treatment despite being in labor for a long period of time and finally succumbed after delivering a still born child.

WNI: I feel one of the biggest gaps in the system in India today is that of the lack of a service like 911. Has anything been done about this lacuna?
RN: India has always had 100 hotline. During my watch as commissioner we established a service similar to 911 which integrated all emergency calls to a police control room manned by both the cops and NGOs. This also includes help lines for children, abused women, seniors and animals; there is even a green line for environmental issues. Several private hospitals participate in this program and Chennai has 256 ambulances and 8 trauma care centers for emergency accident victims.

WNI: Does the common man know that the Human Rights Commissions exist?
RN: Creating awareness that the common man has rights and that there is recourse if the proper authority does not take action is the biggest challenge we are facing today. We do advertise on various forums and also pro-actively seek out issues. Our website has details on our objectives and our complaint redressal system . We have come a long way in a short time, but still do have a long way to go and are working hard to achieve this goal.

What meaning does progress have if it does not value human life and fundamental human rights? For those of us who live outside of India and are so proud of her increase in stature and recognition on the world stage, we can be prouder still that she is now taking cognizance of the fact that her citizens will get their due no matter which walk of life they come from. And an officer like R Nataraj who (to quote his wife Nirmala Nataraj) has the patience, sensitivity and interest in reaching out to the masses, will do everything in his power to ensure that in Chennai at least, there will be no justice delayed or denied.
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

Eleanor Roosevelt*

*Source: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute’s website for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

3 thoughts on “Human rights in India – are some still more equal than others?

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