The recent summoning of Chhattisgarh officials by the National Human Rights Commissions (NHRC) for abuse of power is significant due to the expectations from human rights protection institutions in the country to deliver on their mandate.
However, concerned officials may never appear before the commission to explain their conduct indicating a steep decline in human rights protection regime in the country.
Like many other countries, the human rights regime was initiated in India in the aftermath of 1993 Geneva world conference on human rights. Consequently, the Protection of Human Rights Act (PHRA) was passed by the parliament for “better protection of human rights” paving way for setting up the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and a number of State Human Rights Commissions (SHRC) in the states.
Though the task of protection of human rights was to be carried out under the leadership of NHRC, but it has failed to do justice to its mandate. It is evident from a recent Supreme Court observation in Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association versus Union of India case when the court censured the commission for inefficient functioning.
The court criticized it for closing down some of the cases of encounter killings “without any application of mind’’ and on the basis of a magisterial inquiry which is essentially an administrative finding. The observations of the court were not unfounded given that the commission has an investigation wing headed by a DGP rank officer. The court went on to describe the commission as a toothless tiger.
The court’s comments echo a general feeling amongst the human rights activists in the country that the NHRC has failed to fix accountability for serious human rights violations, inspire SHRCs and send messages to the government on important issues related to human rights.
For many years now, the NHRC has failed to take a concrete stance on death penalty despite documented studies (Lethal Lottery: The Death Penalty in India; Amnesty India-PUCL) that it is closely related to one’s access to justice and is usually awarded to the poorest, without leading to any deterrence to crime. While the outgoing chairman of the commission, Justice Balakrishnan supported the death penalty, the commission never clarified its position on it.
The commission failed to take remedial measures when the government cancelled several human rights organisation’s licenses under Foreign Contribution (regulation) Act, without which they cannot solicit funds from abroad. It is alleged that the government’s move was vindictive and a violation of the UN declaration on HRDs that confers on CSOs the right to solicit, receive and utilize resources.
The commission has come to this pass because the government, irrespective of political party, seems to have lost interest in human rights’ protection and promotion, thereby, encouraging and maintaining only a façade rather than substance on this matter. It is the responsibility of the government of the day to appoint credible people to these institutions if any improvement in the situation of human rights is to be realized. But the government’s actions have only been disappointing.
In 2010, the government appointed a chairman of NHRC who faced serious allegations of corruption. The matter dragged in the Supreme Court for years and was subsequently withdrawn by the government on the plea that the judge concerned had retired from the office.
It has chosen to appoint retired police officers to the commission. While the previous government appointed a former chief of anti-corruption bureau , CBI and a former director of anti-terror agency, NIA as the member of the NHRC, the present government nominated a BJP leader to be its member. By this count under the category of ‘persons having knowledge of human rights’ the present commission has one former police officer who is a terrorism expert and other, if confirmed, would be an active politician.
The government has not cared to put NHRC annual reports before the parliament for discussion, so much so that commission has now even stopped preparing them on a regular basis. It has caused dilution of its accountability inbuilt under the legislation under which it was setup.
This cynical approach to these important institutions has reduced the human rights regime in the country to a farce and sent a damaging message across the country. Out of 24 SHRCs, 10 are without chairpersons, nine have vacancy of members and some, including Maharashtra, with consistently high police custodial deaths- have retired police officers as members on their bench.
As majority of the complaints made to these commissions relate to police, appointment of retired police officers to these institutions have dealt a serious blow to their credibility, eroding people’s faith in these institutions. For example, Soni Sori, a victim of police atrocity and sexual violence did not expect a fair hearing from the Chhattisgarh SHRC, and when she approached the NHRC it was quick to give a clean chit to the state government (The Hindu, 15 April 2013).
The erosion of authority of human rights institutions is a major blow to the preservation and promotion of human rights in the country. It is a matter of grave concern in light of expenses involved in approaching the judiciary reeling under millions of pending cases. Clearly, the government has a lot to explain and do if it cares for its constitutional and international obligations.
*Melbourne-based researcher and author, who earlier taught political science in Delhi University and was the national general secretary of People's Union for Civil Liberties. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org