With the rapid decline in the National Human Rights Commission’s stature and status, it will not be a bad idea to wind it up when its chairman and former Chief Justice of India H.L. Dattu demits office on 3 December this year.
After all, very few, especially India’s central and state governments, seem to take the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) seriously. And those who do are often left wondering why it hasn’t shown any sincerity or alacrity in dealing with hundreds of cases of human rights violations in these testing times.
Ideally, the NHRC should have been at the forefront of proceedings in the Supreme Court on government apathy leading to deaths and victimisation of India’s poor citizens over the past two months. But that seems too big a task.
As a former judge, Justice Dattu knows the importance and headline-generating value of obiter. He knows very well that it wasn’t any real proof but strong verbal observations by different benches in politically sensitive cases that turned the public against the Congress-led UPA government.
As the chairman of NHRC, he seems to have lost his voice and also put the commission on silent mode.
Once in a while, the NHRC takes “suo motu” cognisance of an incident, such as a train mowing down 16 migrant labourers in Aurangabad who had fallen asleep on the tracks while waking back home. The NHRC issued a notice to the Maharashtra government. And then… nothing.
It’s a standard procedure, which is always devoid of any outcome. We rarely learn what action was taken against the government functionaries, who was held responsible, or if any mechanism has been put in place to avoid such incidents in the future. It’s almost as if the whole purpose of the NHRC is to ‘take cognisance’ and issue a notice, and then wait until its members are piqued by some other news report.
The NHRC was once described as “a toothless tiger” by the Supreme Court of India, a sentiment repeated by the commission’s current chairman Justice Dattu. Already bereft of adequate powers, which Justice Dattu often talks about, the NHRC has chosen not to use whatever little powers it has.
By Dattu’s own admission, the NHRC has the power to only recommend action in cases of human rights violations. It is up to the governments to decide whether to accept those recommendations or throw them in the dustbin, which recent trends show is what most governments do.
But NHRC members, including Justice Dattu, can’t escape blame for bringing things to this pass, especially when few seem to have any faith in the body that should have been at the forefront of defending citizens and their rights.
Covid-19 exposed inefficiency
Few events have exposed the NHRC’s ineptness and its lack of will to stand up for the rights of Indians as clearly as the pandemic-induced lockdown has. While it has done its customary duty of ‘taking cognisance’ of some media reports and issued perfunctory notices, most of which yielded nothing, the NHRC, which was set up under the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, has simply given up on its core function.
There has been almost negligible reaction from the NHRC on the continued lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir — the Union Territory where all human rights issues are to be now dealt with by the NHRC and not a separate body meant specifically for the region. There has also been little or no reaction from the NHRC on the continued targeting of Muslim citizens and members of other communities during the lockdown, or on the growing number of ‘fake encounters’ by the police, especially in Uttar Pradesh.
Even the plight of jobless workers, millions of whom were forced to walk hundreds of kilometres, barefoot and hungry, to reach their homes during the lockdown, failed to wake up the commission from its slumber. It issued a routine advisory to the government, which nobody took note of. And, thereafter, for the NHRC, life has been as usual.
It selectively issued notices, was careful to keep the Narendra Modi-led central government out of its glare, and left the poor to be tortured by the government apathy.
In earlier times, NHRC members often took the government and its agencies head-on, even getting the commission impleaded as a party in court cases where human rights violations were at the centre of the debate. Who can forget the NHRC raising strong objections against anti-terror laws like POTA and its earlier version TADA? Such activism, unfortunately, is history now.
A shadow of its earlier self
Numbers don’t lie. From a high of 1.20 lakh fresh cases registered in 2015, the NHRC saw only 79,612 cases registered in 2017-18. Uttar Pradesh continues to hold the dubious distinction of being responsible for about half of the total cases (38,659) of human rights violations.
Experts also point towards how the incidents of human rights violations, especially by the police and other law enforcement agencies, are on a persistent upswing, but the number of fresh cases at the NHRC is falling.
This could also mean that the citizens’ faith in the NHRC as the protector of their rights is diminishing.
After the gruesome violence inflicted on hapless students by Delhi Police during its crackdown of anti-CAA protests, the NHRC sent a team to record statements of the victims. Nothing has been heard since then.
The NHRC also didn’t deem it fit to ask Delhi Police what action, if any, it had taken against the perpetrators of the violence inside the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus. If it did, nobody knows about it or about the commission’s subsequent action.
The NHRC seems to have lost the will to ask uncomfortable questions of the Modi government and its agencies. It is a comment on the ineffectiveness of the NHRC that year after year, India’s human rights record attracts adverse comments at the yearly Universal Periodic Review process at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
And so, in December, Justice Dattu will complete his tenure, leaving the NHRC even more toothless than it was when he took charge.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.