The People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) has Opposed Political Appointees to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), is thinking of challenging it in the Supreme Court. A statement signed by Prof. Prabhakar Sinha, National President, and Dr. V. Suresh, National General Secretary, PUCL:
The PUCL strongly condemns the decision of the Government of India to nominate active politician and Vice President of the BJP, Sh. Avinash Rai Khanna, as the member of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), for a post that has been kept vacant by the Government for the last two years. This decision is another sinister attempt by the present BJP-led NDA government to fill crucial posts in institutions tasked with the responsibility to critically review, oversee, monitor or examine complaints regarding the functioning of the government , with persons who are unsuitable for the post and/or are non-meritorious in terms of their professional credentials.
The PUCL believes that this decision will harm the credibility, impartiality and effectiveness of the NHRC, which has in the past taken up issues of human rights abuses by governmental functionaries, suo-moto or on the basis of complaints and therefore, appointment of a politician of the ruling party such as Sh. Khanna compromises the independence, objectivity and credibility of the NHRC and more importantly, it creates a conflict of interest. Adapting a well-known legal adage, the appointment should not only be fair and credible but also appear to be so.
Section 3 (2) of the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 under which the NHRC is formed and constituted states that apart from former Judges of the Supreme or High Courts, two other members will be “appointed from amongst persons having knowledge of, or practical experience in, matters relating to human rights”. It is clear that Sh. Khanna does not have the relevant experience in the field of human rights. Furthermore, Sh. Avinash Rai Khanna has been associated with the BJP for the last several decades and was an “Active member of A.B.V.P., R.S.S. during student life” as per his biographical sketch on the Lok Sabha website. It is further to be noted that Sh. Khanna was previously made a member of the Punjab State Human Rights Commission but resigned when he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha. Thus, the PUCL believes that the present decision is also a move to adjust and reward a senior member of the ruling party with a government post by treating crucial posts as largesse.
PUCL has always believed in the independence, credibility and impartiality of a body as crucial as the NHRC, which is the apex body for dealing with issues regarding protection of human rights committed both by police as also by security forces. The principle of neutrality of the NHRC members is particularly crucial and important for many times the NHRC is called upon to investigate mass human rights abuses by security forces with allegations of complicity of the political executive. Organizations such as the PUCL and other individual human rights defenders have often approached the NHRC for a speedy and effective intervention in human rights matters involving state functionaries and governments. Appointment of a senior practicing politician, especially belonging to the ruling political party, therefore, will seriously compromise the independence, fairness and objectivity of the NHRC.
It may be important to highlight that previously during the UPA regime (in 2005), when a retired police officer was appointed as a member of the NHRC, it was questioned by the PUCL before the Supreme Court. If the present decision to nominate Sh. Khanna is not withdrawn, the PUCL, consistent with its approach in these matters, will be constrained to take it up in the Apex Court.
The PUCL is equally shocked and surprised how the opposition members on the selection panel agreed to the appointment of Sh. Khanna, defeating the principle of checks and balances provided in the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993.
The PUCL also calls upon all citizens to continuously remain vigilant and oppose all anti-democratic and anti-human rights actions and decisions, such as the present one, of the Government so that institutions such as the NHRC retain their independence, credibility, effectiveness and keep holding the government of the day accountable for any human rights abuses.