Caste discrimination can be raised at international fora
Interview of the week: Justice J.S. Verma
Justice J.S. Verma has never fought shy of controversies. As chief justice of Supreme Court he heard the Jain Hawala case, which exposed political corruption. His landmark ruling in the Vishaka case set the guidelines for dealing with sexual harassment at the workplace. His ruling on Hindutva was no less controversial with some finding saffron shades in it.
As chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Justice Verma may not evoke the same awe, but his interventions have broadened the definition of human rights. He holds that caste discrimination and starvation deaths are human rights violations. Earlier in the week the NHRC had issued notices to the Central and Orissa governments taking cognisance of starvation deaths. Nor does he mince words when he attacks the governmentís position on amnesty to security officials accused of human rights violations. Excerpts...
The NHRC has taken a view contrary to the governmentís on caste. Why?
No one can dispute that discrimination based on caste or any form of casteism is a serious violation of human rights. And in the Indian context, it is a flagrant violation of the Constitutional guarantee of equality. Article 15 expressly mentions both race and caste as grounds of discrimination. So for practical purposes, I donít see any need to go into the question whether casteism amounts to racism or not. Whether it does or not, it is something that needs to be eradicated and it is the job of every institution of governance to work in that direction.
But should it be taken to an international fora?
This being a human rights issue, the violation being there in practice and since human rights issues are not confined to national boundaries alone, all human rights issues can be discussed at international fora as well. I personally have no problem with this issue being discussed at Durban. I donít consider the need to go into the semantics. It is a serious human rights violation and we are concerned with human rights issues.
What was the reason behind the governmentís stand?
The Government of India may have many other reasons, political considerations, etc. I am only concerned about the human rights issue. And the real solution to that is economic empowerment to people at all levels.
Why do you think people hide behind semantics?
Actually it is because of the mindset. Therefore, what you have to combat really is the evil within all of us. When I was the Chief Justice of Rajasthan High Court in 1988, Harijans were not being allowed in Nathdwara temple. In a writ petition, I made an order on these constitutional provisions to hold that it was a case of serious discrimination and asked for the director general of police and made him understand. The Harijans were then permitted without any discrimination.
You have now held that starvation deaths are also violation of rights?
Godowns are overflowing and rodents are consuming more food than what would have been sufficient for feeding the people who are dying. We (the NHRC) can only monitor, we can only tell them what is happening and what can be done.
Who is to be blamed?
Those who distribute food should be held responsible.
And those responsible should be pulled up?
Yes, that is accountability. An effective mechanism for enforcing accountability is the best check for ensuring performance. Ultimately, we (the NHRC) end up making recommendations. We are constantly making our presence felt by breathing down their neck and speaking loudly, that is all.
Is it easy to enforce accountability, especially when the state governments do not respond to cases of human rights violations?
There is a general tendency to evade as long as possible, if I may use that expression. In the case of the J&K, I have, after practicing great restraint for quite some time, in March visited the state. Then they promised better performance. But the situation has remained the same.
A similar case happened in Madhya Pradesh. We ordered an immediate interim relief in a case but the state administration feels that they should wait till the end of the court case. Then what does interim relief stand for? Moreover, it is a case where the state itself felt that the police officials involved in the case were high-handed. So I have written to the CM and we are waiting for a response.
What is the general attitude of officials towards human rights violation?
It is like when you are at the receiving end then you appreciate everything. But when you are on the other side, then you feel talking of human rights is a nuisance.
What is your opinion on the proposed move to provide amnesty to those in the armed forces facing complaints of human rights violations?
Insurgency should be fought but within the Constitutional provisions. Even in a war, the prisoners of war are protected under the Geneva Convention. The position of Indian citizen within their own country cannot be worse than a prisoner of war.
Do you feel that raising issues of human rights violations can demoralise the security forces?
No. But it is clear that one man cannot act as the investigator, prosecutor, adjudicator and executor, all rolled into one. Yes, for instance, if a hijacker who is holding up hostages is shot dead to save their lives it is understandable. But the allegations we are talking of are about fake encounters. These excesses are against civilians, who are the masters.
But wonít raising rights issues abroad show India in a bad light?
That is only if there is an irrevocable basis to think that instruments of governance and agencies here are lax. But not when the judiciary and the NHRC are monitoring human rights situation and punishing the guilty.
Is it possible that the human rights scenario in the country worsens to the level where international human rights organisations have to intervene?
There is no justification for any international intervention in this field. But then we have to be more careful about the efficacy of the machinery of detecting human rights violations, like the NHRC. That is why we proposed amendments to the NHRC act (which gives NHRC powers to investigate human rights violation cases pertaining to armed forces and paramilitary forces). It would facilitate us in monitoring the human rights situation better. Think of the credibility of the NHRC, which is headed by a former chief justice and two judges of the Supreme Court. When we examine a complaint with full facts then it holds a lot of credibility