STATEMENT OF THE NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION
BY Dr. JUSTICE K. RAMASWAMY, MEMBER
This World Conference holds, in reality, a mirror to the
soul of each of us.
First, I would like to say that our Commission fully concurs with the Statement on behalf of National Institutions that has been read out by our South African colleague.
The Indian Commission has considered it its duty to listen attentively to those in our country who have been the victims of historical injustices, and who are hurting because of discrimination and inequality. I refer in particular to those who, under our Constitution, comprise the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes - the Dalits and Adivasis of India - with the protection of whose human rights our Commission is itself deeply involved. It was to hear their voices, and to benefit from an exchange of views with them, and with eminent jurists, academics and human rights activists, that our Commission organized two major consultations in August 2001, in Bangalore and Delhi respectively, as steps preparatory to the formulation of the views of our Commission for this Conference
May I now outline the views of our Commission on certain of the issues before the Conference that are particularly germane to my country. The full text of our Statement is being circulated separately.
There can be no doubt that in India - as everywhere else in the world - history and society have been scarred by discrimination and inequality.
It was in recognition of this - and to end such injustice - that our Constitution contained powerful provisions to combat all forms of discrimination, including notably those forms which were based on race, caste or descent. These provisions of the Constitution are justiciable.
It can with good reason be said that India has embarked on a programme of affirmative action which is, perhaps, without parallel in scale and dimension in human history. It is all the more remarkable for being undertaken in a country that has demonstrated an unshakeable faith in the capacity of its people to effect fundamental social, economic and political change through the processes of democracy.
Our Commission believes it is essential that all Member States, including India respect the international human rights regime established under the auspices of the United Nations and observe the discipline of the treaties to which they are States Party.
In the light of this, our Commission is of the opinion that the exchange of views on human rights matters, whether at the national, regional or international level, can all contribute constructively to the promotion and protection of such rights and that this Conference provides a singular opportunity to the international community to deal openly and courageously with the vexed issues of discrimination and inequality as they exist all over the world, in all of their variety, including the forms of discrimination that persist in India and all other countries. In such a context, it is not so much the nomenclature of the form of discrimination that must engage our attention, but the fact of its persistence that must cause concern. Given this perception, the Commission is of the view that the debate on whether race and caste are co-terminus, or similar forms of discrimination, is not the essence of the matter. The Constitution of India in Article 15 expressly prohibits discrimination on either ground, and that Constitutional guarantee must be rigorously implemented. In this connection, the Commission believes deeply in the value of engaging Governments, non-governmental organizations, national institutions, and all concerned elements of civil society in the process of fighting discrimination, and urges that this process be conducted at all levels in a spirit that is genuinely interested in the furtherance of human rights, and not vitiated by self-righteousness or by political and other extraneous considerations.
In furtherance of its statutory responsibilities, the Commission has thus accorded the highest priority to ending discrimination against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and in seeking to eradicate, in particular, two pernicious practices which largely affect members of these communities: these relate to manual scavenging and bonded labour.
The Commission has also taken up the issue of the rights of persons displaced by mega projects and large dams, many of whom are tribals.
In the final analysis, the Commission believes that the promotion and protection of the human rights of the weakest sections of society are clearly related to their full and proper empowerment. That is why the Commission has urged the adoption and implementation of policies at the Central and State levels that will open the doors of opportunity to them. In addition, the Commission has continued to receive and redress numerous individual complaints that it has received daily from persons, notably Dalits and Adivasis; these have alleged acts of discrimination, "untouchability", violence against the human person, atrocities of various kinds, and high-handedness by public servants and others.
Economic upliftment and empowerment of Dalits is the most effective tool to combat casteism. More avenues must be opened for the economic betterment of the disadvantaged.
The Commission is acutely aware that the journey to end discrimination, injustice and inequality will be long and often frustrating. But it is convinced that, in this mission, the Constitution of the Republic has shown the way. Legislative and affirmative action programmes are firmly in place, but unquestionably need to be far better implemented. The Commission is convinced that discrimination on any of the grounds contained in the Constitution of India, and these include race, caste and descent, constitute an unacceptable assault on the dignity and worth of the human person and an egregious violation of human rights. The commission holds the view that the instruments of governance in our country, and the energetic and committed non-governmental sector that exists, can unitedly triumph over the historical injustices that have hurt the weakest sections of our country, particularly Dalits and Scheduled Tribes. This is above all a national responsibility and a moral imperative than can and must be honoured.