A One Day National Seminar on The Scope and Extent of Civil Rights Organizations was held at Chennai on 30.01.2010, organised by People’s Union for Human Rights (PUHR), Tamilnadu and Federation for People’s Rights (FPR), Puducherry. The veteran human rights activist and noted writer S.V.Rajadurai delivered key note address.
Let me first whole heartedly congratulate the organizers of the one day National Seminar since they could not have chosen a better time. It takes place in a city that has a significant, if not a glorious record of human rights activities. It can boast of having the first provincial chapter of the first Civil Liberties Organization of this country-Indian Civil Liberties Union (ICLU) founded by Jawaharlal Nehru in the course of the anti-British Nationalist struggles. In 1937 I believe, it organized one of its National Conferences in this City. Its history and its commitments to uphold the civil and democratic rights are yet to be properly documented. Though Nehru dismissed the need to keep alive this organization after 1947 – in his view civil rights movement had become superfluous once the country became independent – one can not but remember some of the admirable positions- non partisan ones- it took despite the leading lights being the Congressmen themselves.The ICLU took strong positions against C.Rajagopalachari government of 1937-1939 when it invoked the draconian laws of the British – not so draconian as our Swadeshi versions like POTA and UPALA- such as 124A and Criminal Law Amendment Act 1908 – to arrest Socialist leaders like Batliwala, ban certain journals and publications and put down with an iron hand the anti-Hindi agitation.In stifling the civil and democratic rights the rivals within the Congress closed their ranks to the extent that S.Satyamurthi even clamoured for death sentence to the anti-Hindi agitationists.
Some of the stalwarts of the ICLU such as Thiru.Vi.Ka. a nationalist to the core, a great Tamil scholar and a respected trade unionist continued with the spirit that inspired and animated the ICLU in the initial years. He was joined by other civil rightists, some of them Brahmins in condemning in no ambiguous terms the repressive measures of the Congress Government. He stood with the workers of Buckingham & Carnatic Mills in the first year of independence while the Congress ministry chose to be on the side of the employers.He and some of his colleagues linked themselves up with those of the Communist movement and Periyar’s Dravidar Kazhagam to protest against the repressive measures the members of the banned Communist Party faced-particularly the brutal torture to which the Communist prisoners were subjected to. The last of these first generation civil rightists – former Mayor of Madras Krishnamurthy, together with Dr S.Vijayalakshmi of the erstwhile Socialist Party, continued well into the 1970s, though by that time there was no ICLU – we had TNCLU (Tamil Nadu Civil Liberties Union) that sprang up in the 1960s just as APCLC and APDR- to name a few- to respond to the ways in which both the centre and states handled the naxalite problem.
Though the focus of the TNCLU was narrow, it enjoyed credibility in view of its links with such impeccable characters as ‘Mayor’ Krishnamurthy and Dr.S.Vijayalakshmi. Subsequent years saw the emergence of quite a few Human Rights outfits in Tamil Nadu, some of them, despite their claims and pretentions to be non-party organizations and their occasional interests in issues that affect popular masses, ended up as front organizations of this or that naxalite parties and groups. There have been, following the international and national trends, funded Human Rights NGOs, a few of which have assumed Corporate dimensions. I must confess that due to paucity of funds within the organizations in which people like us functioned and also in view of the lack of imagination or the inspiration generated from within and without, an inspiration that would have propelled us into identifying the important human rights issues- many of them pertain to the terrain of micro-politics which nevertheless in the long or short run aggregate into the larger terrain of macro politics and address them adequately without the kind of tokenism with which many amongst us indulge in self-delusion if not outright bad faith, or because of the urgency with which we had to tackle certain problems, we sometimes found ourselves sharing the platforms of these funded organizations, thus unwittingly subscribing to the unethical principle of end justifying the means. This naturally met with sharp criticisms, the substance of which were essentially correct, but which instead of appreciating the genuine concerns and commitments with which we had dedicated the best part of our life for the cause of human rights, tended to throw the baby with the bathed water. Most of these criticisms came either from those friends, who,enjoying the cozy warmth of their comfortable sectarian cocoons, were deeply convinced of the effectiveness of their cultural and political propaganda in being the universal panacea for all the social evils including the violation of human rights or from the militants for whose cause we had many a times risked our skins – the militants whose self-righteousness blinded them from seeing the beam in their eyes.
These observations lead us to reflect on the question of the credibility the position paper says the Civil Rights Organizations must strive to achieve – one of the main themes the paper is concerned with. The position paper correctly identifies the dangers and pitfalls that lay ahead of the path the Civil Rights movement treads and offers a few suggestions to avoid them. These suggestions are laudable but the question remains: In whose eyes we want to establish our credibility? Definitely not in the eyes of the State. There had never been an Ideal State, nor, as non-Millenarians like me tend to believe, there is going to be one in a foreseeable future which would allow an honourable co-existence of a viable Civil Rights Organisation.We can however speak of establishing our credibility in the Civil Society. However, to what extent is it possible? The Civil Society itself has been corroded by the intrusion of the organs of State Power aided and abetted by the mass media, which manipulates and manufactures ‘consent’. The position paper speaks of the shrinking of public space. This is a feature shockingly characteristic of Tamil Nadu. When we speak of the printed media, with a sole exception, the vernacular dailies never entertain regular columns through which people of different ideological or political persuasions can air their opinions and contribute to the general debate of problems of public nature; these papers do not carry even editorials. The only exception is a right wing daily, which in tune with the electoral fortunes or misfortunes of the major political parties, some times expresses its explicit Hindutva bias and at other times masquerades as a Nationalist paper with a penchant for Tamil cultural nationalism. We sometime envy our friends in neighbouring state who manage to find spaces in liberal dailies, but we are not sure to what extent their journalist skills mold the public opinion. As regards the electronic media, less said the better.
As the positions paper says, even the hall meetings are rendered rare and at times impossible. There are almost no public halls. In my life I have attended or spoken in a number of public halls, but the situation started changing from beginning of 1980s, thanks to the naxalite challenge. Today, one need not be a naxalite sympathizer to be denied access to a public hall owned either by the Government or by private institutions and individuals. By threatening the owners of the hall, by refusing permission to hold meetings either in the halls or in public places the opposition groups are forced to seek legal remedy, but the court either denies justice or delays it. Thus the state indirectly ensures that one’s material and human resources are thoroughly exhausted and frustration sets in.One public hall, that happened to be relatively easy to access, is one that is attached to the Government run Library authority. Even during the emergency days meetings were held in this hall, though most of them were organized by the right wing opposition to Indira Gandhi.It was during the emergency, the authorities in charge of the hall started insisting on getting prior permission from the police. In the post-emergency years,police permission to conduct the meetings was made mandatory. Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer, who addressed a number of meetings in this hall, questioned the illegality of this procedure and asked the Civil Rights Organizations to take up this issue. One of the failures of Civil and democratic rights movement in Tamil Nadu was that it did not challenge this illegality in the Court of Law, though the authorities would nevertheless have found other means to prevent the meetings in this hall, as they have done recently. The present Government fixed air-conditioners in the hall and hiked the rent to Rs7500 for three hours!
One can list out any number of such impediments in the way of normal, legal, democratic functioning of a Civil Rights organization. But I would like to focus on certain problems that we have to face in the caste ridden Civil Society. Whatever may be the shortcomings of the Civil and Democratic right organizations,all over the country,they have never wavered in their support and solidarity with the Dalit and Adivasi masses and in addressing the multiple injustices inflicted on them. It is easy to focus on the upper caste elements or the state machinery with its cattiest prejudices. But the castes and Brahmanism are much more deeply rooted in our social life and in our individual and collective psyche. It operates both in converse and reverse methods. It can always be used as a trump card to discredit and defeat the opponents .As anti-caste radicals Dr.Ambedkar and Periyar said, casteism has negated the spirit of brotherhood, fraternity and evolution of a common ethical life. I am concerned about the last aspect, because it puts us in tricky situation where, however much you try, you can not achieve credibility amongst a section of the masses. We are not bothered to be called an anti-Brahmin, anti-Reddy, anti-Thevar, anti-Rajput and so on.But to be called an anti-Dalit is really painful. Not only painful, it sometimes makes us baulk at taking honest decisions. It is easy to be politically correct and turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of the elements from Dalit community, especially when the misdeeds injure the interests of oppressed and exploited people themselves. Can the fact that the justice long denied to the Dalits has been slightly restored to them by having a Dalit Chief Justice in the Apex Court and another in a High Court can be held against another fact that the judicial functions of these two judges have only been serving the interests of the neo-liberal regime and that the one in the Apex Court, uses the unchecked judicial authority not only to shield the one in the lower but also induct him into the higher echelons of the judiciary for the sole reason that both of them are Dalits?
Similarly, the task of the Civil Libertarians in Tamil Nadu in making a correct judgments was rendered difficult when there was a clash between the caste Hindu students and Dalit students in the Law College premises last year.Surely,one needed to approach that issue with a high level of sensitivity to the genuine grievances of Dalit students, the extremely inhuman conditions obtaining in their hostels and implacable casteist arrogance of the caste Hindu students ,but many of us found it easier to come to an a priori, politically correct conclusion and issue statements for the fear of getting the anti-Dalit labels stuck on our shirts. One needs to be a Balagopal with a very high degree of moral caliber to remain unruffled by unfair criticisms and vicious canards and carry on with the conviction that all human beings are equal in all respects.
Likewise, most of us were hesitant to address the fact that the immature behaviour of some young lawyers and their irresponsible speeches and acts in the High Court premises helped to make the entire community of lawyers vulnerable to police brutality and helped strengthen the hands of the most hated right wing elements.
Another point – related to the above issues – I would like to make, is that whatever claim we Civil Rightists make about our impartiality, non-partisanship and so on, the hard fact is that most of us have come from certain social or political milieu which are not ideologically neutral -we still suffer from the hangovers and as public intellectuals, writers and publicists we indulge in polemical exercises which rarely help endear ourselves to all sections of the Civil Society. We definitely do not know where to draw the line, if that could exist, between on the one hand our role as writers and publicists and on the other our role as civil rightists.
The last point I want to make in relation of the question of credibility of Civil Rights organizations is about the need to reflect on the role of lawyers associated with them. While not denying that the crucial role the lawyers play in the Civil Rights Organizations, I feel there must be some parameters which ensures their pursuance of their profession for livelihood does not become totally incompatible with the commitments they are expected to make as Civil Rightists. I do not expect every one becoming a Balagopal, but he should be a role model to be emulated, because in my limited experience in the Civil rights movement in Tamil Nadu, I have seen a few lawyers using the Civil Rights platform as a spring board to build their careers, promote their self interests, taking advantage of the situation where acceptance of certain briefs was viewed dangerously anti-national and pro-fundamentalist. This careerism has helped such people build their own net works about which the members of the respective Civil Rights Organizations themselves are not aware of and travel across the lands and seas as Human Rights Messiahs from India. One may argue,“why single out lawyers, there are careerists amongst non-lawyer members as well”. Yes, in that case, similar ethical standards that applies to everybody become all the more essential.
The position paper talks about the neo-liberal regime and its ramifications particularly the Special Economic Zones. It seems to me that a unique kind of fascism is building up in our country, a secular version of fascism sharply distinct from the blatantly communal variety of Hindutva forces. The neo-liberal agenda has consistently targeted the organized working class, without making any radical changes in the existing Labour Laws since its purpose is being achieved by other means: by measures to circumvent the provisions of the Labour Laws which protect workers’ interests, by preventing the formation of trade unions and by informalising the economy.Similarly,the SEZ acts and rules contain an in-built provision that allows the state machinery to declare the SEZs as public utilities to facilitate invoking ESMA.In Tamil Nadu, state repression relating to SEZ affair is not very pronounced since there has been no well organized mass movements similar to ones we witness in Bengal or Orissa. The judiciary continues to approve the taking over of lands from the people in the name of development. In most cases, there is no presence of the state in the acquisition of lands. The TNCs also avoid making themselves visible. The job is taken care of by the by the seasoned real estate brokers. There are instances where people are willing to sell their lands, which they feel, are not productive.
The grand plans of beautification of our cities have already displaced millions of slum dwellers, in some instances even the lower middle class residents. Now, the Tamil Nadu Government has launched a plan to construct an elevated High Way from Maduravayil (one of the suburbs of Chennai) to the Chennai Port. This zig zag High Way is to be built over the entire stretch of Coouvm river starting from Maduravayil covering more than double the distance between these two points.This means above all displacement of millions of slum dwellers who managed to survive the unbelievably inhuman conditions for several decades. No opposition party has taken up this issue though there have emerged pockets of resistance which may or may not aggregate into mass mobilizations. I add the provision ‘may not’ here, because, Tamil Nadu has perfected a model for corrupting not just the political class, the three pillars of democracy and the so called ‘fourth estate’. It has corrupted the minds and souls of the popular masses, through the welfare schemes, through bribing the voters and buying off the opposition leaders. If one goes by the methods by which the by-elections are held in Tamil Nadu,she/he may expect the common people getting disillusioned with the electoral processes. But people want elections, though they know for certain only the ruling party would win, because if there are no elections, you won’t get the money for the vote. In popular perception, the politician who shares at least a tiny part of the loot is preferable to the one who does not share. If the money can not do the work, the muscle power would do it. Recently, nearly 50 villages showed signs of concerted resistance to the scheme of constructing a thermal plant in Nagapattinam. Money made its journey accompanied by muscle power Now the villagers are divided into two groups, one pitted against another. I may be exaggerating things, but we who talk about human rights must understand that popular masses, if not all at least a sizeable chunk of them – from whom nine things are taken away while given one thing is given as Balagopal used to say-tend to acquiesce into the dirty games of the government and the ruling parties. So where is the head of the SEZ where one can put his pistol onto?
Democracy can be sustained only by the struggle of the people and in the course of these struggles, the scope and meaning of democratic rights get enlarged. Once the fighting spirit of the people is blunted, no law of the land or the Court (which is menacingly becoming anti-people) can not do much.
Things may not remain static. People won’t keep quiet for long. Stirrings will be there and the struggles may break out.
I am making these submissions for deeper reflections and for evolving efficient methods of work and a proper tactics that are capable of coping with the time and its spirit in which we are all living.