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AHRC Report: Which India is this anyway?

Jan 18, 2013

The recently released AHRC report which talks about the human right ‘excesses’ in India, is drafted so shoddily in many places that much of it defeats comprehension, writes Sridhar Raman.

If a recently released AHRC report is to be believed then this is the India we live in:  A country that has regressed so far back into the darkness of barbarism that it is “hard to believe that it is a democratic, socialist, republic as originally conceived;” a land where the press is subjected to “brute and criminal suspension,” by governments armed with a draconian criminal justice system; a nation that has “fallen far below by comparison to many other democracies of the world in terms of freedom of expression,” a universe where “custodial torture; extrajudicial executions; caste, gender and other forms of inhuman discrimination,” are commonplace, depriving millions of people of “freedom of expression and dignity of life” enshrined in its Constitution. If you think this sounds like Alexander Sholzenstyn’s Gulag Archipelago and not the imperfectly democratic country you live in, then you are not to be blamed.

Let’s, however, start with the obvious: The report is drafted so shoddily in many places that much of it —some would say ‘mercifully’—defeats comprehension. Sample this masterpiece for evidence: “Adding fire to the ordeal, of what is termed as life in India, are illustrations of brute and criminal suppression of the freedom of expression and opinion for which the criminal justice process and the state's privileged authority were intentionally misused, to the extent that today the country has fallen far below by comparison to many other democracies of the world in terms of the freedom of expression and opinion indices. Thrown further into the melee is widespread corruption in all its cognate expressions at all tiers of the administration, that today it is hard to believe that the country is a democratic, socialist, republic as originally conceived.” If the diction is diabolic, then the content is far more so and surely much less excusable.

Sure, India is by no means a human rights Utopia. But is it Idi Amin’s Uganda? Or, pre-Glasnost USSR? As an individual who has served the country’s mainstream media for decades the report comes as a shocker mainly because of where it comes from. How could AHRC release such a report and say it is based on “meticulous documenting of cases?” No one can deny the occurrence of hideous cases of human rights abuse in the country. Extra-judicial killings (‘encounter deaths’), custodial heavy-handedness, gender and caste exploitation…they are all undeniable (and undeniably shameful) parts of Indian life. But many as such cases may be, they still represent an exception rather than the legitimate rule by which the country is governed. Sure, India needs to go a long way still to achieve its democratic aspiration of building a just and humane society—but under pressure, mostly from a free (not fettered) media, isn’t that the direction in which it is heading?

Among the report’s many overblown contentions, the ones concerning the freedom of the Indian press are the clearly the most absurd. In the 12 years I spent as editor of major national newspapers, not once was I (or any of the publications I served) threatened or bullied by any government or its actors—not directly at any rate. And on the rare occasion when such an attempt was insidiously assayed, the proprietors of the newspapersI served in, stood solidly behind us journalists, giving us the much needed confidence and courage to carry on with our work without fear or prejudice. It was instances like these that made it worth working in an industry that was for very long among the worst paying.

Sure, the media in India is nowhere near being perfect: It is at times excessively shrill and short of scholarship; it does tend to sensationalize issues, play to the gallery and consequently lose its balance. I have known of individual journalists who engaged in unethical practices, even blackmail on occasion. But these were always stray cases of malpractice that seldom went unpunished. Clearly, the author of this report has never read Indian newspapers, has no knowledge of how they function and could definitely not have watched any of its mainline TV news channels. Do the voices of Rajdeep Sardesai, Karan Thapar and Arnab Goswami sound scared and strangled? You have got to be kidding me!

The sad part is that there is a germ of truth in many of the report’s assertions but so intemperate is its tone in general and so extreme are some of its claims that even these gems of wisdom tend to lose their gloss. “While it is true that despite a global economic recession, the country has moved forward without being much hurt financially, the chasm between the classical 'haves and have-nots' has deepened and widened further this year,” it says. Sure, this is true. But is this so because “the very notion of justice has been reduced to become selectively accessible to a limited few in the country, negating in the process, the very idea of justice?” It is indubitable that justice is not as socially available as it ought to be; but its availability has not been ‘reduced’ as a part of deliberate state policy as the report insinuates.

We agree with the report that India must reform its criminal-justice system; enact laws that make its politicians, bureaucracy and even judiciary much more accountable and transparent; open avenues that encourage participative governance and ensure that none of its citizens is robbed of his fundamental freedoms. Finally, there is no doubt that “given the resources and potential the country has, Indians, irrespective of the region, language, religion or ethnicity deserve much more than what is today offered to them.” The question is: isn’t there a more humane way of doing all this than “implementing legislations that can chisel transparency and accountability upon the face of state institutions and on the complicated network of bureaucracy that runs these institutions?” That is really where this report shoots itself: soberly expressed arguments based on facts are likely to be far better received than shrill propaganda.

At the very end, we will leave you to figure out this gobbledygook: “In that the fruits of economic development are placed as reserved for a minority in India, rendering the concept and modus of development itself as an open warrant for exploitation by a minority of the majority.”

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