By Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ*
On December 16th 1966, the United Nations General Assembly adopted two significant International Covenants on Human Rights: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These two Covenants, together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), form the International Bill of Human Rights, setting out the civil, political, cultural, economic and social rights that are the birth right of all human beings.
As we observe December 10th, the anniversary of the UDHR once again, the United Nations has invited everyone to enter a year-long campaign on the golden jubilee of the two international Covenants on Human Rights.
The theme this year is ‘Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always!’ which aims to promote and raise awareness of the two Covenants. The campaign revolves around key rights and freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear which underpin the International Bill of Human Rights. From an Indian perspective the mainstreaming of these rights are not merely relevant but also extremely urgent, in the context of the growing intolerance all over.
Freedom of speech: never before has this right been subject to such attack. On January 29th 2015, in its world report for the year, the internationally acclaimed ‘Human Rights Watch’ highlighted the way freedom of speech is systematically being curtailed and curbed in India. Rationalists like Kalburgi and Dabholkar, among others, are killed because they had the courage to dare the right-wing elements of the country. Those who take a stand for truth and justice are lampooned, trolled and denigrated; the perpetrators of such heinous crimes apparently have the tacit approval of the rulers of the country.
Freedom of worship: the minorities of the country are at the receiving end from those who want to establish a ‘majoritarian’ culture and who care two hoots for what is enshrined in the Constitution of India. The attacks on Churches and Church personnel; the attempt to substitute Christmas with ‘Good Governance Day’; the ‘ghar wapsi’ programmes; the consistent denigration of the Muslims are all sure indicators that freedom of worship is under severe threat. To top it all, when Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he piloted one of the most draconian laws in the history of the country innocuously called ‘the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Law’ which prevents anyone accepting another religion without the written permission of the Collector.
Freedom from want: we only need to look around – to see the growing gap between the rich and the poor; millions of our sisters and brothers are condemned to an inhuman existence; they lack a square meal a day and clean drinking water; they have no decent shelter; education and employment for many are a far cry – need we say more?
Freedom from fear: there are several segments of society in India which seem to be caught up in the web of fear; fringe groups violently dictate to others what they should eat and drink, see and read; doing otherwise, merits threats, violence and even death. Several of the media houses seem to toe a scripted line for fear or favour; and those who take a stand on critical issues are intimidated, harassed and subject to all kinds of pressures.
India has a long way to go if she is serious about truly celebrating these two important Covenants. The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminds us “On Human Rights Day, let us recommit to guaranteeing the fundamental freedoms and protecting the human rights of all.”
*Director of PRASHANT, the Ahmedabad-based Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace