Human Rights Movements in India

India happens to be one of the few countries in the world having a chequered history of human rights movement. Though formidable antecedents of the protection and promotion of human rights may be traced to the ancient literature and life of the people, the foundations of the modern human rights movement seem to have been laid in India only during the course of the anti-colonial struggle. In fact, in order to provide for a holistic critique of colonialism in the country, the leaders of the national movement found it convenient to denounce the British government in India for its utter disregard even to the basic human rights of the Indians while trying to perpetuate the colonial rule in the country. Thus, the provision for the highest order of human rights for the citizens of the country in the Constitution of independent India was taken for granted as the reflection of the cherished vision of the founding fathers of the Constitution since the times of the genesis of the national movement in the country. 

In the post-independence times, despite having one of the most elaborate exhibition of the fundamental human rights of the people, the operationalization of the human rights in the country became quite problematic. Owing to certain inherent contradictions in the socio-economic system of the country, a large number of people found themselves out of the reckoning to enjoy even the basic human rights guaranteed to the citizens of India. Moreover, with the disappearance of the euphoria attached to the attainment of the independence for the country, the stark realities of running a democratic system of government in a heterogeneous country started having a telling effect on the enjoyment of the human rights by the people. With claims and counter claims started being made on the social status, economic resources and political positions of the country, the Indian state began to find it in an utterly helpless position to accommodate the aspirations of all the sections of the society. Consequently, multiple types of violations of human rights appeared on the Indian landscape. For instance, while the archaic and exploitative socio-economic system continued to permit the exploitation of one section of society at the hands of the few, any radical move on the part of the marginalized people to either seek their dues in the socio-economic and political life of the country or claim preferential treatment by the government in order to ameliorate their conditions met with stiff resistance not only by the vested interests of the society but also by the Indian state on numerous occasions. Thus, over the years, the history of human rights movement in India has turned out to be a chronicle of the civil society initiatives in securing for the marginalized, exploited and politically persecuted people their due share and respectful place in socio-economic and political system of the country even in the face vehement resistance of the vested sections of the society and the government. In this chapter, therefore, an attempt has been to provide an analytical overview of the chronological genesis and growth of human rights movement in the country. Moreover, the role of the major actors in fostering the human rights movement and the critical issues impacting on the successful march of the human rights movement in the country have also been evaluated with a view to map the probable pointers in the human rights movement in India.

Seeds of Human rights in Ancient India

 The earliest fragments of the human rights, not only in India but probably in the world as such, may arguably be found in the ancient Indian literary sources depicting the norms of the socio-economic and political life of the people in ancient times. For instance, the Vedic literature eloquently proclaims the equality of all human beings and calls for the fostering of the sense of fraternity amongst them all. Moreover, it reiterates the equal claims of the human beings on the basic life supporting amenities like food, water, air and shelter and professes an egalitarian and fulfilling social order by calling for the ideal of ‘Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah’ across the board. The essence of the human rights in the ancient times seems to lie in the timeless concept of Dharama (righteousness) which denotes the loftiest ideal underpinning the whole notion of good life for the people. As a perceptible expert clarifies, ‘[T]he Vedas including the Upanishads (Shruti) were the primordial source of ‘Dharama’, a compendious term for all human rights and duties, the observance of which was regarded as essential for securing peace and happiness to individuals as well as society. The Smritis and thePuranas were collections of the rules of Dharama including civil rights and criminal liabilities (Vyavahara Dharama) as also Raja Dharama (Constitutional Law) which were developed on the basis of fundamental ideals incorporated in theVedas.’ (Jois, 1997:1)

 An authoritative glimpse of the nature and functions of the human rights in ancient times is also found in the monumental work of Kautilya, the Arthashashtra. Rooting his concept of rights and duties in the notion of Dharama, Kautilya reiterated the civil and legal rights as propounded by the law giver of ancient times, the Manu. Moreover, he also insightfully tried to supplement the civil and legal rights of people with the formidable economic rights presumably in order to evolve a comprehensive notion of the human rights of the common people. Unfortunately, with the growing complexity of life on the one hand, and the degeneration of the moral values of life, on the other, the pious ideals of the VarnaSystem started getting perverted into the cruel and inhuman caste system. Subsequently, during the middle ages, with the arrival of the Muslim rulers, newer elements seemed to have been introduced in the socio-economic and political life of the country which impacted on the realization of the human rights by the common people adversely. As a result, by the time of the British arrival in India, a vast mass of the people were abjectly deprived of their human rights at the hands of the dominant sections of the people. With no perceptible initiative forthcoming on the part of the government of the day to restore the human rights of the common people, the responsibility for the same appeared to have fallen on the social reformers and the enlightened individuals to strive for the propitious circumstances in which the common people are able to enjoy their human rights freely and adequately.

Genesis of human rights movement

 In modern times, the genesis of the human rights movement in India may be traced to the colonial period. The long years of throttling and dehumanizing colonial rule has ensured that the majority of Indians remain oblivious to the ideas of human rights, respect for common people and enjoyment of a dignified life by all even as late as 1820s. However, for obvious reasons of their own, two sets of people started to rekindle the urge for human rights amongst the people impliedly, if not directly, via media of asking for social reforms in the Indian society on the one hand, and adoption of a more liberal attitude by the colonial government towards the issues dear to Indians like the freedom of press etc., on the other. While the first set of people consisted of those having sincere concern for the indigenously conceptualized social reforms in India so as to secure the human and livelihood rights for the hitherto marginalized sections of the society, the second category of people included a number of Indians as well as the Westerners who looked upon the British government to bring about the necessary positive transformations in the society and the polity of the country.

 The pioneering efforts leading to the eventual germination of the human rights movement in India appeared to have come from the relentless social reformer Raja Rammohan Roy. Having strong critical faculties right from his childhood, Rammohan Roy’s powerful training in the Indian scriptures on the one hand, and his deep erudition of English moral and political literature on the other, ingrained in him a unique blend of critique and creation on almost everything obscurantist and anti-liberal in Indian society and polity.        

 Consequently, Ram Mohan Roy became one of the bitterest critics of the redundant religious rituals denigrating the human rights of all the people in general, and those of the women in particular. Advancing a well-reasoned plea for the abolition of the cruel and inhuman practices like Sati, he presented a comprehensive outline of reforms to ameliorate the conditions of women in India. He decried the general environment of violence against the rights of women and called for eradicating all such social practices like polygamy, child marriage, devadasi system etc. which appeared to have denigrating effect on the dignity and respect of women. Moreover, providing creative solutions to the problems facing women in India, he advocated a number of progressive measures like widow remarriage, equal rights of women to property and fixation of a ripe age of marriage for women. Though most of such ideas of Rammohan Roy seemed to be much ahead of his time and, therefore, could not bear fruit so soon, two positive outcomes of his efforts remain remarkable. One, with the support of the humanist Governor-Generals like William Bentick, he indeed succeeded in stamping out the most heinous crimes against humanity in terms of the abolition of the Sati system by 1823. Two, irrespective of the successes or failures of his efforts, he was able to arouse the passions of other humanist elements in the Indian society who picked up from where he left and, thus, kept the flame of the struggle for human rights alighted throughout since then in the country.

 Besides waging a sustained struggle for the rights of women, Rammohan Roy also strived hard for the protection of the civil and political right of the Indians. Hence, despite holding the colonial rule in India in high esteem, he did not hesitate to take on the British government at least on two occasions when he found the moves of the government infringing upon the civil and political rights of the natives. First, in 1823, when the British attempted to curb the freedom of Press in the country by putting unreasonable restrictions on it, Rammohan Roy happened to be one of the most vocal opponents of such a move and called for freeing of the Press from all draconian and unreasonable regulations passed by the colonial government. Second, the move on the part of the British Parliament to introduce certain discriminatory and illogical provisions in the Indian judicial system aimed at compromising the civil liberties of the Indians also earned the vehement ire of Rammohan Roy. Opposing the insertion of a clause by the Jury Act of 1827 which envisaged that ‘natives, either Hindu or Muslims, are subject to judicial trial by Christians, either European or native, while Christians are exempted from being tried either by a Hindu or Muslim juror,’ he campaigned forcefully against it. Not only that, he submitted a petition against this piece of legislation, signed by both Hindus and Muslims, in the two houses of the British Parliament arguing for the abandonment of such a discriminatory legislation. In nutshell, it may be argued that the idea of human rights movement in India appears to have found its genesis in the thoughts and actions of Rammohan Roy. His passion for the protection and promotion of human rights of various sections of society, in particular women, probably inadvertently began a wave upon which the subsequent movements for human rights may have been built up in India.  

Human Rights elements in Social Reform Movements

 As argued earlier, the genesis and growth of human rights movement in India seem to be enmeshed in the various socio-religious reform movements championed by the great social reformers from time to time. Indeed, the exhibition of concern for the human rights of individuals by the leaders of the national movement came quite late. As an expert notes, ‘[I]n fact, civil liberties of individuals, within the concern of India’s liberation struggle, manifested itself as late as in the 1930s when Nehru started the Civil Liberties Union to provide legal aid to the freedom fighters accused of treason. The Congress Party, only at its Karachi session of 1931, passed the first resolution demanding civil liberties and equal rights for citizens.’ (Ray, 2003:3411) Therefore, in order to have an unbroken sequence of growth of human rights movement in India, it is important to critically grasp the human rights elements in the socio-religious reform movements waged in the country during the late second half of the nineteenth and the early first half of the twentieth century.  

 In the realm of socio-religious reform movements, Bengal happens to be the pioneering state. Drawing upon the lead given by the torch-bearers of European Renaissance in India like William Carey and Joshua Marshman, the social reformers like Raja Rammohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar waged relentless struggle for upliftment in the social status of certain sections like women. They not only tried to protect the human rights of these people by calling for the abolition of inhuman social and religious practices that unleashed untold miseries on them, they also tried to persevere for the protection of their human rights by empowering them through the medium of education and generating awareness amongst them for their rights and responsibilities in society. The social reformers in Bengal received immense support and help from a number of western social reformers and educationists such as David Hare, Sister Nivedita and Darezio, as also certain humanist British officials like Governor-General Lord William Bentick in getting their efforts eventually bearing fruit.

 While in Bengal the social reform movements drew their intellectual inspiration from the European Renaissance, in Maharashtra, they appeared predominantly, if not exclusively, out of an indigenous awakening amongst the people having a vision for the amelioration of the miserable condition of the masses. For instance, though remaining quite active in the affairs of the Indian National Congress, Justice M.G. Ranade founded the Indian Social Conference in 1887 precisely for the purpose of working towards the realization of a dignified and respectful life for the socially disadvantaged sections of society by eradicating the socio-religious practices violating the human rights of such people. The mundane understanding of the problems facing people by Justice Ranade induced him to conceptualize such conditions of life for the people where the enjoyment of civil and political rights is supplemented by the adequate availability of the social, economic and cultural rights to the people. Another formidable social reform movement in Maharashtra, having deep-rooted implications for the growth of human rights movement in the country, was launched by Jyotiba Phule under the auspices of Satyasodhak Samaj to seek the protection and promotion of the human rights of the people belonging to the oppressed castes.      

 Early leads for the growth of human rights movement in India also came from the various socio-religious reform movements initiated in various parts of the south India. The prominent amongst such movements appears to be the movement launched by Sri Narayan Guru for sanskritizing the norms and customs of the Irava community in Travancore. (Shah, 1990:110) Yet, numerous other socio-religious movements were also launched in different parts of the region which sought to either protect or promote the socio-religious rights of the hitherto marginalized sections of society belonging to lower castes.

 The other socio-religious reform movements having pointers for the growth of human rights movement in the country included the ones spearheaded by Arya Samaj of Swami Dayanand Saraswati, the Ramakrishana Mission of Swami Vivekanand and the Aligarh School founded by Syed Ahmad Khan. These were basically religious reform movements having repercussions on the social standing of the people as well. Thus, while the first two movements worked hard to reform the Hindu society, the last one was aimed at bringing about some sort of awakening amongst the Muslim society. The impact of these movements was remarkable in bringing about a perceptible social awakening amongst the masses as a result of which they became vigilant warriors of demanding basic liberties from the colonial rulers.           

 Human Rights Movement during the Freedom Struggle

 The long span of anti-colonial movement in India, in a way, may be argued to be some sort of human rights movement keeping in mind the demand of the Indians for bestowing of basic civil and political rights to the common people of India as the short term perspective and the complete independence for the country as the long term vision of the nationalist leaders. However, such an argument has been countered by the scholars on the plea that ‘the mainstreaming intellectual and political discourse of the liberation struggle had its central focus around the nation as a community, initially against colonial rule, and later also against contesting groups like Muslims, Sikhs, dalits and tribals as communities claiming nationhood.’ (Ray, 2003:3411) The argument further goes to emphasize the point that since the thrust of the nationalist leadership did not have on the concern for the rights of individuals, as against the rights of nation as a community, it might not be justified to label the entire national movement as a movement for the securing of human rights in the country.

 Situated, thus, in the frame of human rights of the individuals, the human rights movement during the phase of nationalist struggle appears to have taken shape only during the decade of 1930s. The biggest impetus in this direction came in the form of the Congress adopting a comprehensive resolution on the theme of ‘Fundamental Rights and duties and Economic and social Change’ in 1931 at its Karachi session. The passage of this resolution was seemingly the culmination of a series of subtle moves made the Congress to seek the civil and political rights for the native people. For instance, while the Constitution of India Bill drafted by it in 1895 called for guaranteeing certain specified civil and political rights as the fundamental rights of the people in any future constitution for India, the Madras session of the Congress adopted a resolution calling for the inclusion of a Declaration of Fundamental Rights in the future constitutional arrangement for the country. Moreover, the various committees like the Nehru Committee, in their reports categorically ingrained certain civil and political rights in the discourse of freedom struggle in the country.   

 However, the institutional beginning in this regard is arguably made by the setting up of the Indian Civil Liberties Union (ICLU) in 1934 at the behest of mainly Nehru to ensure legal assistance to those freedom fighters who remained undefended while facing trial under the charges of treason. Functioning in a very limited and rudimentary fashion, the major activities of the ICLU remained confined to ‘gathering information about violations of civil liberties, particularly regarding the conditions of prisoners and people in detention, police brutality, proscriptions on literature and restrictions on the press.’

(SAHRDC, 2000: 78) Nonetheless, the foundation of the ICLU marked the formal and distinct initiation of the human rights movement in the country.

 Unfortunately, the institutional experiment of civil rights movement by way of the ICLU started facing rough weather from various quarters. Though the initial euphoria created by the setting up of the ICLU led to the formation of a number of civil liberty unions like the Bombay Civil Liberties Union, the Madras Civil Liberties Union and the Punjab Civil Liberties Union, such enthusiasm remained only ephemeral. The real challenge to these unions came with the inauguration of Congress led provincial governments in 1937 under the provisions of the Government of India Act, 1935. Loud noises made by certain Congress leaders in support of civil and political rights of the people started being lost in the din of the governance dynamics. When such betrayal of a noble cause was exposed and objected to by the ICLU and other such unions, they came in direct conflict with the powerful vested interests in the Congress party. Subsequently, growing tension between the ICLU and the Congress led governments found its articulation in the founders of the ICLU started arguing for the redundancy of the bodies like ICLU at a time when the country has got some sort of self-rule. Eventually, with the support and patronage from its founders being withdrawn due to seemingly autonomous and vigorous style of functioning of the body, the ICLU could not sustain itself for long and met with an untimely demise. In final analysis, the experiment of the ICLU exposed the hypocrisy of the some of the Congress leaders in espousing the cause of civil and political rights of the people vehemently as long as they remain out side the corridors of power, and becoming the willing partner of the colonial government in grossly violating the same rights when absorbed in the ruling dispensation of the time.

 An analysis of the development of human rights movement during the phase of nationalist movement in India reveals two interesting features having a powerful influence on the march of the movement in the post-independence times. Firstly, despite having a very rich and ancient tradition of the enjoyment of some sort of human rights, if not the ones identical to the modern ones, the nationalist leaders in the country appeared more prone to look at the western, more particularly the British liberal traditions of human rights to argue for the same to be given to the native people by the colonial rulers. Consequently, the entire discourse of human rights during the freedom struggle boiled down to only the civil and political rights, as in the case of the western countries, to the marginalization, if not total exclusion, of the social and economic rights of the people which might have gone to create a more socially egalitarian and economically equitable order in the post independent times. Secondly, and more importantly, the concern of the many, if not all, of the nationalist leaders for the human rights of the people seemed to be more cosmetic than deep rooted. In other words, arguing for the human rights of the people as one of the intellectual high points from which to browbeat the colonial rulers as an overall package of their anti-colonial strategy, the leaders very conveniently forgot the struggles waged and the promises made for guaranteeing certain basic fundamental rights to the people once they come to power in the country. The empirical evidences to substantiate the dismal record of the leaders on the front of the protection and promotion human rights are galore right from the establishment of first Congress led ministries in the provinces in 1937 through the interim government of Jawaharlal Nehru till the functioning of various democratically elected governments even in the post independent times.

Human Rights Movement in independent India 

 The functional narrative of human rights movement in the post independent times presents a story of belied promises on the one hand, and the emergence of a powerful civil society initiative to keep the flames of human rights movement alight despite all odds, on the other. The portents of the future shape of human rights in independent India became obvious with the context in which the Constituent Assembly set on to fine-tune the provisions on fundamental rights of the people. The foundational fetters of the Constituent Assembly, including the historical factors conditioning its origin like the limited social base, vortex of partition and concomitant clamouring amongst various princely states for independence, etc. went a long way in determining the broad contours of thinking of the Assembly on the issue of fundamental rights. Hence, despite the liberal moorings of the members of the Constituent Assembly, the circumstantial dynamics constricted the deliberations of the Assembly so much so that it could not resolve on anything other than a strong governmental apparatus even at the cost of the basic human rights of the people. The agenda of nation building, national security and the unity and integrity of the nation was so overbearing in the minds of the framers of the Constitution that they could not rise above the routine offerings to the people by way of the fundamental rights. What was however heartening was that not only draconian provisions like those of ‘preventive detention’ were introduced, even the routine fundamental rights were placed so much of ‘reasonable restrictions’ that any government would have find a reasonable cause to put restrictions on the enjoyment of such rights.

 While the constitution making process was underway in India, an international event of profound significance took place in December 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Though the adoption of the UDHR had its own political underpinnings, reflecting the existing reality of the time in terms of ensuing cold war, it gave new impetus to the human rights movement in the newly independent countries like India. The Declaration, in a very subtle manner, morally, if not materially, impressed upon most of the countries to have a comprehensive framework of human rights for people in their constitutions on the pattern presented in the UDHR. Consequently, almost all the countries, including those not very anxious to have human rights as defining feature of their political system, found it somewhat compelling to not only sign the UDHR but also make matching arrangement in their own laws or constitutions to reflect the ethos of the Declaration. In such propitious circumstances, the task of the constitution makers in India became more daunting keeping in mind the requirements of the UDHR on the one hand, and the imperatives of the national unity and integrity on the other.

 As the final product, the Constitution of India incorporates a number of valuable provisions having profound implications for the human rights movement in the country. The three important sections where direct or indirect references have been made with regard to the rights of the people are the Preamble, the Fundamental rights and the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP). Indeed, though the Preamble articulates the holistic vision of the founders of the Constitution on certain vital aspects of the political system of the country, the subtle reference to the various rights and freedoms of the citizens at the very outset clearly indicates the salience which the framers apparently sought to dovetail in the Constitution. However, when it came to providing for the specific rights to the people, the Constitution makers thought of making a clear distinction between the first and the second generation of human rights, owing to the prevailing socio-economic conditions in the country. Hence, given the firm decision of the framers to have the democratic system of governance in the country, it was obvious that elaborate provisions are made for the guaranteeing to the citizens certain fundamental rights, mainly in the nature of civil and political rights, in order to giver functional vibrancy to democracy in India. Thus, as given in Part III of the Constitution, there exists six sets of fundamental rights i.e. right to equality, right to freedom, right against exploitation, right to religious freedom, cultural and educational rights and the right to constitutional remedies. As against these justiciable rights for the enjoyment of which the citizens are also entitled to go to court, the second generation of human rights are envisaged in Part IV of the Constitution in the nature of directive principles which are to remain critical in the formulation of governmental policies and programmes on the condition of the availability of resources and social awareness amongst the people.

 Despite having elaborate provisions on political and civil rights of the people, the operationalization of such provisions started exposing the inherent structural as well as concomitant functional deformities of the human rights from the very beginning. Structurally, for instance, the loftier provisions on the freedoms given to the people appeared to be severely constrained by the draconian provisions such as preventive detention. Functionally, the first two decades of the working of the Constitution was marked by the predominance of the Congress party in the political system of the county on the hand, and the gradual emergence of local and regional voices of dissent which started questioning the functional efficacy of the democratic institutions in the country. In response to growing aspersions being cast on the human rights record of the government, two pronged strategy seemed to be evolved by the government. First, most of the issues of micro human rights violations, say, in cases of the displacement of the people in the wake of the establishment of heavy industries and big multipurpose projects, were sought to be brushed aside in the name of nation building and bringing about a turn around in the socio-economic life of the people. But when the inherent fallacy of such an emotive bogey failed to convinced the proponents of human rights of the citizens, the government started showing its true colours by taking repressive actions against those agitating for the human rights of the common man. Consequently, two kinds of reactions seemed to forthcoming in face of the growing violations of the human rights of the people at the hands of the government. The radicals, who would not retain their faith in the efficacy and effectiveness of the democratic constitution to bring about any substantive transformations in the socio-economic and political life of the common people, floated a violent mode of struggle in the form of Naxalite movement. However, the moderate elements amongst the crusaders for the human rights opted for the democratic and peaceful method of setting up civil liberties groups in order to raise the issues of human rights violations. Consequently, the groups such as Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) and Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) were set up in 1972 and 1974 respectively, though in course of time, their functional domain remained confined to identification, investigation, documentation and in certain cases campaign against cases of the violations of human rights.

 Arguably, the most formidable assault on the human rights of the people came in the wake of the imposition of national emergency in the country by the government of Mrs. Indira Gandhi in June 1975. With most of democratic institutions and liberal laws in the country under suspension, the brutality of the governmental machinery resulted into one of the most comprehensive and flagrant violations of the human rights of the people in the history of India. However, the unbridled and revengeful repression actions of the government paved the way for the emergence of equally determined and democratic associations in various parts of the country to take up the cudgels on behalf of those whose human rights were violated during the 1975-77. Under the leadership of certain die hard democrats, the bodies like the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) and the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) became the leading organizations putting up a brave and effective front to defend the human rights of the people in the face of growing wrath of the state machinery against the human rights of one and all. In fact, the span of two years of emergency led to a natural proliferation of numerous human rights groups in various parts of India with the common agenda of fighting for the protection of the human rights of the people in the face of the violations being carried out by the state agencies. Thus, while Bombay witnessed the setting up of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights was established in Punjab. Even amongst the marginalized sections of society like the tribals, the urge for protecting the human rights led to the foundation of formidable bodies like Banavasi Panchayat in West Bengal to fight for the cause of human rights.

 Significantly, the strengthening of human rights movement in India owes, in main, to the untiring efforts of numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as public spirited individuals working in diverse spheres of public life. Indeed, the proliferation in the number of human rights NGOs is a tribute to the vitality of civil society in India which is able to stem the tide of repression and marginalization of certain sections of society for partisan, and in some cases pernicious considerations. It’s the result of the ceaseless efforts of these organizations that the human rights movement in India has not only solid ground but also achieving newer milestones in the field of protection and promotion of the human rights in the country. Moreover, these organizations and individuals are now turning their attention to those spheres of life which hitherto remained out of focus of the human rights crusaders. For instance, the human rights movement has gradually encompassed the spheres like social and cultural rights, environmental degradation, rights of women and other marginalized sections of society, in addition to working in the field of civil and political rights of the people with renewed vigour, giving a sort of al inclusive character to the human rights movement in the country.    

 A unique dimension of the human rights movement in India appears to be its diversification into hitherto unchartered domains due mainly to the felt needs of time. In other words, as and when, some public minded person noticed the violations of some rights of the people, he or she volunteered to take up the cudgels on behalf of the victims. The pioneering role in this regard has been played by Sundarlal Bahuguna who launched the Chikpo Movement in the hills of Garhwal during 1980s for the protection and promotion of the inherent rights of the natives in the forest resources of the region. The movement not only thwarted the sinister government backed designs of the unscrupulous merchants to infringe upon the rights of the natives, it also brought about an electrifying consciousness in the minds of the people to be ever vigilant for the protection and enjoyment of their rights. The example set by the Chipko Movement later gave inspiration to other crusaders like Medha Patkar to begin the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Aruna Roy to start the campaign for the Right to Information to the people, B.D. Sharma to fight for the cause of the rights of the tribals of Bastar region. The cumulative impact of all such movements has resulted into broadening of the domain and deepening of the ethos of human rights movement in the country.

 A plausible product of the human rights movement, which has also added a new vigour in the movement, seems to be the emergence of the concept of ‘Public Interest Litigation’ (PIL). It evolved in the wake of a petition filed in the Supreme Court by the Delhi chapter of People’s Union for Democratic Rights on behalf of the unorganized workers hired by the private contractor, demanding the implementation of the provisions of the Minimum Wages Act, by the government. The decision of the Supreme Court in this case afforded some sort of legal sanctity to the efforts of the human rights groups in fighting for the cause of the protection and promotion of the rights of the helpless and vulnerable sections of society. Moreover, it has motivated a number of people seeking judicial recourse to set the things right for the rights of the people. For instance, the efforts of H.D. Shouri through his NGO ‘Common Cause’ to protect the rights of the consumers, and the attempts by Lawyer M.C. Mehta and the NGO ‘Centre for Science and Environment’ (CSE) to get solutions to the environmental problems of Delhi are illustrative of the utility of PIL as a formidable instrument in the hands of the individual and organizations to get the rights of people protected.

 Another remarkable highpoint in the efforts of the human rights organizations came when the government of India decided to set up the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in 1993. Interestingly, though a number of statutory commission and institutions existed for the protection and promotion of the rights of certain sections of society like Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, it was realized that such bodies neither have the mindset nor logistical support to effectively protect the rights of even their target groups. Moreover, the necessity was felt for some sort of dedicated national as well as provincial bodies that can comprehensively look into the issues of protection and promotion of human rights of all sections of society with adequate powers and administrative support system. Consequently, setting up of the NHRC came as a welcome step for the cause of human rights in the country. However, showing its propensity to play to the gallery, the government also constituted a number of other commissions like National Commission for Women, the National Commission for Minorities, and the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis etc. with the declared purpose of protecting and promoting the human rights of these sections of society. Yet, the functioning of these bodies for over a decade leaves much to be desired on the functional efficacy and effectiveness of these bodies, including the NHRC.

 The functioning of human rights movement in independent India provides a mixed bag of results on a closer scrutiny. There is not much to be surprised that the violations of the human rights of the people would remain a blot on political system even in the democratic countries like India. What was surprising were the intensity and scale of such violations during the two years of emergency during 1975-77. However, with the untiring efforts of the human rights groups, some degree of lost space in the realm of human rights was recovered even during the decade of 1970s itself. Yet, the newer forces and events that not only strengthened but also gave new vitality to the human rights movement in the country came during the decade of 1980s and 1990s when both governmental as well as non governmental efforts made sure that the discourse of human rights movement gets a new narrative in India.

Issues and Challenges of Human Rights Movement

 The onward march of the human rights movement in India carries its own share of issues and challenges that remain critical in shaping the future course of action for the same. The newer aspects of the movement seem to emanate from two interrelated underlining features of the human rights movement getting prominence from the decade of 1990s. First, with the deepening of democracy on the one hand, and concomitant intrusion of state/individual actors into the hitherto untouched areas like commercial ventures in the coastal areas, rising level of environmental pollution in the metro cities, acquisition of land for industrial development form the unwilling farmers etc. have provided the propitious circumstances for the proliferation of human rights groups in most of the areas. Second, the growing professionalization of the human rights movement with the advent of numerous non governmental organizations has raised doubts about the pious objectives with which the human rights movement was started in the country even before the dawn of independence.

 As a result of the complex and rapid churning taking place in the socio-economic and political sphere of pubic life, a number of dislocations are introduced in the lives of the people. With ostensible purpose of providing support to the distressed people, the so called human rights bodies are proliferating in almost all walks of public life. Thus, the question of the legitimate domain of the human rights bodies becomes apparent. For example, with the rising threat of terrorism to all the people, the security agencies find themselves in the dilemma of either taking stern action against the perpetrators of such crime which would, to some extent, entails restrictions on the enjoyment of the rights of the people, or just remain silent spectator to the specter of crimes against humanity being perpetrated by the terrorist groups. In nutshell, the human rights movement has to respond to the charge that the human rights groups are oversensitive to the acts of violations by the state agencies but turns a blind eye to the heinous crimes being committed by the terrorist organizations.

 Another challenge having a deep impact on the working of the human rights groups in the country pertains to the adequacy of organizational structure and functional professionalism needed for the efficient and effective performance of their functions. With the rapid rise in the number of human rights bodies, sometimes happening to be one man army itself, it becomes pertinent to look into the issues of organizational structure and functional vibrancy of these bodies. For instance, there appears need for some sort of basic infrastructural facilities and functional skill enhancement for the human rights bodies so that they are able to discharge their functions of acting as watchdog for the protection and promotion of human rights of the people effectively.

 In the contemporary times, a subtle threat to the sanctity and respect to the human rights bodies seems to have come from the growing cases of corruption and misappropriation of funds by few such bodies. Though, undoubtedly, most of the human rights organizations in the country grew out of the missionary zeal of their founders to work selflessly and sometimes even by spending money from ones own pocket, it is alleged that the same things no longer remain true to the mushrooming number of human rights NGOs. Today, a number of human rights bodies have been charged with coming into existence to provide a lucrative career option to its founder. Moreover, having remained into existence for a few years as crusaders for the cause of human rights, many of such bodies turn into money minting machine for their custodians, keeping in mind the huge amount of money coming in the form of grants and financial assistance to these NGOs. Hence, it is of utmost importance that the human rights NGOs remain rooted to the missionary spirit of the old times rather than turning out to be career option and money minting machine for their promoters.

 The human rights movement also faces the challenge of taking a balanced view of the things in cases where the vital interests of society at large seem to be at stake in face of the opposition being mounted by the miniscule people. This assertion becomes not truer in other cases as in the cases of socio-economic development of a particular region or sections of people. For instance, the opposition to a number of projects like Singur in West Bengal, no doubt, emanate from the callousness of the government to look into the issues of the displaced people seeking adequate compensation and rehabilitation. However, the resistance to such projects by the human rights groups should focus only upon the redressal of the genuine grievances of the people by the government as well as the promoters of the projects. Having secured the protection of the legitimate grievances of the people, the human rights groups need to afford space to the government to effect substantial economic gains for the people of region and outside as well.

 Finally, with the installation of a number of governmental agencies like the National Human Rights Commission, State Human Rights Commissions, the National Commissions for Women, Minorities etc, for the ostensible purpose of promoting and protecting the human rights of their targeted people, the human rights movement in the country is likely to face the challenge of retaining their credibility as well as exposing the dysfunctionalities of these bodies. It will be quite obvious now that the cases of violations of human rights would be reported to these bodies. After investigation and assessment of facts, the commissions are likely to give their verdict on the matters which on certain occasions are likely to be against the complainant or the victim. In such cases, the human rights bodies would need to exercise extra caution in highlight the other part of the story because the verdict of the governmental commission is also likely to carry credibility in the eyes of the people. Therefore, in order to keep their credibility intact, the human rights NGOs must put forth their case with irrefutable evidence and keeping the public good in mind. However, this must not dissuade these NGOs to become a passive recipient of the verdicts given by one or the other governmental commission. If they find that the governmental machinery seems to have failed to address the issues of the violations of the human rights adequately, they must carry out their own investigations and put before the public the real facts and issues of the case. Thus, in the form of the governmental agencies, the human rights bodies have found a sort of competitor in espousing the cause of promotion and protection of human rights in the country.


 Human rights movement seems to have come of age in India. Emanating from the various socio-religious reform movements launched in the country in the pre-independence times, the cognizable shape and discernible contours of the human rights movement became obvious only during the early twentieth century. The major thrust was given to the movement in the course of the national movement when in opposing the repressive laws and regulations of the colonial rulers, promises were also made to ingrain some sort of comprehensive and impeccable scheme of human rights in the Constitution of independent India. In the post independence times, despite having elaborate provisions having auspicious portents for the enjoyment of human rights by the common people, the things did not turn out to be as rosy as was promised by the national leaders. The height in this regard came during 1975-77 when the national emergency showed the inadequacy of the human rights movement in the country to cope up with such extreme situations. Consequently, a new vigour was experienced both in term of rise in the number of human rights bodies as well expansion in the functional domain of these bodies. The sphere of the human rights movement no longer remained confined to the protection and promotion of civil and political rights of the people. It went on to encompass almost all spheres of human activity to ensure that the basic rights of the people are infringed in any way and any where. The governmental efforts in this context came in the form setting up national as well state human rights commissions to look into the issues of human rights. However, even after these substantive initiatives, the numerous cases of violations of the human rights remain a burning issue in the liberal-democratic polity of India. Hence, despite facing a number of challenges and problems, the formidable role of the human rights bodies remain intact in the country as long as the circumstances and scope exist for the violation of human rights of the helpless and vulnerable masses.

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