Jan 08, 2011
Suhas Chakma, noted human rights activist in India talks about a range of issues including corruption, Maoism and the state of minorities in India. He feels the situation is grim overall. However, increasing awareness among people is a silver lining.
OneWorld South Asia: Could you share with us the objective with which the Asian Centre for Human Rights came into existence?
Suhas Chakma: The Asian Centre for Human Rights was initiated for two primary objectives. One was to conduct research on human rights issues to undertake advocacy endeavors in an informed manner. For some reason, we found that Indian NGOs, at least in the human rights arena, did not have strong research bases. Any substantive research work was conducted by international organisations. So, there seemed to be a felt need.
Second, I come from the north-east and my interest in rights activism was ignited while growing up as part of the Chakma community, a super minority group. Only when you live and grow up as a minority, do you appreciate how every right taken for granted by everyone else, is a struggle. So, becoming an activist felt like a natural progression. We take up human rights issues and complaints on behalf of groups and individuals with the National Human Rights Commission and to date we have been able to get about Rs 1 crore 69 lakhs in reimbursement for victims of state torture all over India. You may feel that this is not a great amount, but people at the grassroots, the poor feel differently.
Apart from India, we also work in Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Thailand, through our local partners. In Nepal, we are playing a key role in promoting diplomatic conversation between the GoI and the new government in that country. In Thailand, we have worked closely with political protestors who at one time held roles in the government but are now being discriminated against. So on and so forth.
We work with the realisation that we are to address causes and provide solutions, not look at problems and only highlight their symptoms.
OWSA: You are from the northeast of the country and you also work extensively in the region. To what do you attribute the extent of disconnect between the region, unfortunately always clogged as a unified whole, and the centre? Why are we not as aware of the northeast, as we are of other parts of the country?
SC: I don’t think that the educational system of the country has truly promoted diversity, and that is one of the problems. I was recently researching something and looking at the national education policies historically, and I realised that we almost exclusively talk about the grades not the learning. Textbooks tend to talk more about the geography than the culture of northeast. People think northeast ends at Assam. And earlier, before television and the internet, this disconnect was even more profound but it is now getting better. Finally, when you have a country as diverse as India, with as much illiteracy and lack of awareness about the length and the breadth of the country, can people from “mainland” India really be blamed if they consider me to be from Nepal or China?
Finally, while it is great we have a free and an unfettered press, it is also true that it is driven purely by commerce. It is all about the TRPs. Currently, there is an intense riot going on between the Assamese and Naga people at the border of the two states, but did you get to hear a peep of it? Compare that to the coverage of the Aarushi murder case, which is all over the channel 24 hours. 10,000 people killed in the riot as opposed to one person. An ethnic riot opposed to one regular crime. The difference in the treatment is unbelievable.
OWSA: What do you think are the most pressing human rights concerns in the South Asian region today?
SC: People think corruption is a big issue, perhaps it is. But I think the major concern for this region is impunity. Today the GoI is talking about ratifying the UN Convention against graft. But, what is that going to achieve? You are not going to eliminate corruption, custodial deaths and torture, as long as you don’t establish accountability. Under the Prevention of Corruption Act 1988, you still require permission to publish legal precedence in court, which means that a government babu can decide whether or not the judiciary can persecute someone for corruption. And the irony is that in most cases one is fighting corruption cases against the government. So, to begin with we need to address this anomaly.
Secondly, there is an intense lack of transparency in government functioning. And people can’t claim their rights until they know what their rights are. In India, RTI has had some positive impact for sure, but not as much as one would have liked.
OWSA: What about the increasing threat of Maoism. You earlier said, development is about fixing the problem not the symptoms. Can the Maoist issue be addressed or will it only exacerbate further?
SC: All political insurgencies start with a high dose of ideology but for any armed group to continue to survive and thrive, they need funds. And funds don’t come from donations, they come from extortion. It is a very slippery slop in terms of where ideological violence becomes normal criminal activity. And the more powerful these groups become, they also become more corrupt.
That said, I don’t see the influence of Maoists waning, in fact I only see the situation becoming worse. You see they operate from an area where there is absolutely no governance. And the GoI suffers from a severe lack of vision in terms of challenging the problem. Their solution is to keep doling out more money for the Naxal affected areas as if that will somehow magically bring development. What happens to this money is that it ends up in the pockets of government functionaries and their cronies, who then don’t want to do anything to address the situation, lest their source of funding dries up.
Had the GoI truly implemented its Tribal Sub Plan, Maoism would never have turned into the menace it has today. And look at the situation from whichever angle, it is the adivasis, the indigenous people of this country, not the government, not the Maoists, not the corporate land grabbers, who are the losers. They are the pawns, they are also the victims. It is indeed an extremely unfortunate situation. Being from the northeast, having grown up among insurgencies and noticing the effects over the last 50 years, I can tell you emphatically that there is no romanticism in insurgency. People like Arundhati Roy may find it romantic because they don’t have the right perspective. Had she the right perspective, she would never have called the Maoists, Gandhians with guns. It’s unfortunate.
If one looks at the case of Dr. Binayak Sen, he is a victim of extremism from both sides. While there is no evidence against him, he will still have to go through the judiciary to prove his innocence. And the government of Chattisgarh being an extremist one, he will unfortunately languish in jail for years. Had the entire system not been corrupt, any sensible judge would have immediately thrown out what has been submitted as ‘evidence’ against him.
OWSA: Given all these instances, these trends of corruption, violence, injustice, do you feel that the current government is extremely insensitive to the needs of the ‘aam aadmi’?
SC: I don’t think it is the current government, post Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru and then Lal Bahadur Shastri, every successive government has treated the poor only as a vote bank. So, this absolute neglect is nothing new. I think it is economic liberalisation that has exacerbated the problem and the kind of preferential treatment that is being given to businesses. Frankly, the government acts as a property dealer and a rogue one at that. Look at how they exercised their “sovereign power” and took away land from the people in Kalinga Nagar, Orissa under the land acquisition act.
And then they sold this land, taken forcibly in the guise of public interest, to corporations at 20-30 times the price. So, where is the state? One can appreciate building railway tracks or highways as national interest, but allowing Tata to set up a motor company by displacing already inhabited communities, where is the public interest in that? They say it creates jobs, but then why is this impact not seen? And why do you have to establish your business only be displacing existing owners and their livelihoods? Why not set up at a more isolated place and develop that as well?
It is an illusion that we are a super power. A majority of the people still don’t have access to basic amenities. There are 3 crores cases pending in the Indian courts, judges don’t even get salaries and the government only spends 1400 crores in the entire 11th five year plan on the judiciary. On the other hand, in 2010-11 alone, our defence budget was 1 lakh 44 thousand crore rupees. Can there be a better indicator of the government’s priorities?
OWSA: Finally, in the midst of all this chaos, do you notice any positive trends?
SC: One major, positive development is the increasing awareness among people, both in urban and rural areas, about their rights and their powers. And two, there is a dramatic increase in the sheer number of activists working in the grassroots today, who are using all sorts of legal mechanisms to ensure justice is done. Both are steps in the right direction and need to be encouraged.
Click to listen more about human rights from Mr. Suhas Chakma
Human rights and migration (Hindi)
Mr. Suhas Chakma is the director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR). This centre is dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the Asian region.