Hindu chauvinism and the denigration of human rights

Such baseless and cynical claims are the stock-in-trade of Hindu chauvinist propagandists: as if to be critical of the BJP’s pogroms is to be supportive of the Congress party’s or Maoist or Communist violence or for that matter violence by misguided and fanatical members of disadvantaged communities. 

Narendra Modi. Demotix/Bhaskhar Mallick. All rights reserved.

Human rights affirmations have universal origins and crucially, universal applicability. A few scholars in the west and proponents of “Asian Values” such as Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamed discount this universality, but their stance has been dismissed by scholars such as Amartya SenYash Ghai and popular leaders such as Kim Dae Jung. I have pointed out elsewhere that:

“Hapless people, without even having read the UDHR, assert rights that regimes everywhere have failed to guarantee. Right to life, to food, to associate with fellowmen and women in seeking justice or redress for gross instances of injustice: there is nothing unAsian or unAfrican or unArab about it.”

R. Radhakrishnan’s reaction to my article contains misconceptions and sleights of hand that speak more of ideological prejudices than factual analysis. He uses terms like “human rights bandwagon” and describes human rights as a “buzz concept”. His use of the clichéd and dismissive phrase “self-proclaimed proponents of secularism” evokes the newspeke beloved of the Hindu Right.

The author speaks of “a rather elitist and Eurocentric bias when it comes to the recognition of ‘universal’ human rights in an ever-globalizing world”. This is problematic as it overlooks the ways in which all cultures have an understanding of what human beings are entitled to in terms of justice and rights even if these are articulated differently. It uses cultural relativism to counter what it falsely and disingenuously paints as specific to ‘the West’, a claim that ironically mirrors Eurocentric ones. Human rights are about the rights of common people ranged against powerful corporations, majoritarian states, influential patriarchal and religious bodies and societies. Traditions of resisting power exist in all cultures and religious communities including Hinduism which is currently being hijacked by patriarchal and upper-caste forces. Hindu right-wingers are not alone in deriding human rights affirmations. Their Islamist counterparts do likewise as do western supremacists. President Ronald Reagan’s UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick once dismissed them as a “Letter to Santa Claus”.

Activists, if and when able to muster the time and resources to mount challenges against powerful perpetrators of human rights violations or crimes against humanity will, and ought to, try every trick in the book to seek justice. In the United Nations system, 'sovereignty' cannot be invoked to shield massive violations of human rights or state violence. There are many treaties – against torture, use of weapons of mass destruction, land mines or right to natural justice – based on this premise.

Recently a Sikh group secured a summons from a court in the United States against Sonia Gandhi, leader of India’s ruling Congress party. The most reasonable accusations the groups made against her were of her "shielding and protecting" party leaders allegedly involved in the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in New Delhi.

Did Hindu chauvinists and other nationalists protest this apparent assault on “sovereignty”?

It has become fashionable among these sections of Indians to disparage anyone who speaks of the rights of lower caste and indigenous peoples as well as the minority communities. “Human rights wallahs” and the rather bizarre “human rightists” have become terms of abuse.  As has the word ‘secular’ too: Two more have gained currency among Hindu chauvinists of late – “pseudo-secular” and the as yet off-dictionary “sickular”. These epithets are used against those who oppose the Hindu supremacist agenda. That agenda was well articulated by M.S. Golwalkar, an architect of the “Hindutva” (Hinduness) ideology:

“The non-Hindu people of Hindustan must either adopt Hindu culture and language, must learn and respect and hold in reverence the Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but of those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture or may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment – not even citizens’ rights.”

These are widely quoted sentences and a mouth-piece of the Hindu chauvinist groups, Organiser, has defended the formulation

The Indian judiciary has mostly failed to book the leaders of the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and others for various pogroms (and they are called pogroms by jurists and other academics and not only journalists) down the decades. Stronger words have been used. (Incidentally, the judiciary and the executive failed to get at the bosses of Union Carbide, now owned by Dow Chemicals, for a disaster in Bhopal that claimed the lives of several thousand people and left many thousands more maimed. Failing to learn from that, the Indian government now plans to dilute liability for US nuclear companies that wish to supply reactors.) The Indian judiciary has a peculiar interpretation of what would satisfy the “collective conscience of the society”. Moreover, there are many instances of court orders being blithely ignored by the authorities.

Why has India not signed the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court? Why did it sign a Bilateral Immunity Agreement with the United States, whereby American citizens would not be transferred to the Court in The Hague? Why has it not ratified the Convention Against Torture -  just so its police, paramilitaries and the armed forces can continue torturing?

R. Radhakrishnan says, “self-proclaimed proponents of secularism have done considerable damage to the cause of secularism in their blatant use of selective targeting”. Such baseless and cynical claims are the stock-in-trade of Hindu chauvinist propagandists: as if to be critical of the BJP’s pogroms is to be supportive of the Congress party’s or Maoist or Communist violence or for that matter violence by misguided and fanatical members of the disadvantaged communities.

He mentions the Nellie massacre. He could also have mentioned the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 by Hindu chauvinists, accompanied by the killing of about 2,000 people. The Congress Prime Minister then, P.V. Narasimha Rao, was looking the other way.

Finally, the idea that Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi is facing “trial by media” is misleading. The Indian media is packed with upper caste Hindus. There are few Dalits (untouchables) and few members of the minorities. Newspapers and television channels are owned by entities with interests in industry. A good chunk of them favour the Hindu right. 

About the author

N. Jayaram is a journalist now based in Bangalore after more than 23 years in East Asia (mainly Hong Kong and Beijing) and 11 years in New Delhi. He was with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years and Agence France-Presse for 11 years and is currently engaged in editing and translating for NGOs and academic institutions. He writes Walker Jay's blog.