Human Rights and National Oppression in Northeast India

Paper presented by representative of CGPI at the Human Rights Conference in Imphal, December 8-9, 1994

The Indian state claims to be the world's largest democracy and hence, by definition, to be a state that guarantees human rights. A National Commission on Human Rights has been established to show the world that human rights are being monitored in India. On the other hand, the Indian state does not even recognize the collective rights of nations, nationalities and tribes that inhabit the territory of present-day India. When Narasimha Rao signed a joint declaration with Boris Yeltsin, for example, it was openly stated that the only nationality which exists in India is the Indian nationality. And this concept is reflected in the Constitution as well, where the President, on the advice of the Central Cabinet, is empowered to change the boundaries of state territories as well as merge or break up existing states at will. In other words, both in theory and in practice, the Indian Union negates the national rights of the various peoples who are supposed to be its constituents.

How can it be that the human rights of individual citizens are allegedly being monitored while the collective rights of the Nagas, Assamese, Meiteis, Mizos, Kukis, as well as the Kashmiris, Punjabis, Uttarakhandis and others, are all trampled in the mud? How can human rights go hand in hand with national oppression? On the contrary, suppression of national rights goes hand in hand with the violation of human rights.

The demand for human rights is the demand that every human being is treated in a human way. A human being does not exist in the abstract; the very act of being a human individual is at the same time an act of being a Naga, or a Kashmiri or a Punjabi or of some other nationality, as the case may be. Human identity cannot be nurtured and developed on the basis of negating one's national identity. This is one of the most glaring contradictions in the conception of democracy as enshrined in the Constitution of India. It is a fundamental flaw that needs to be addressed on an urgent basis.

In the estimation of our Party, the fact that the peoples of the Northeast are getting together and unfurling the banner of Human Rights is an extremely significant and timely development; it is an important contribution to the struggle for democracy by all the peoples of India. The Indian big bourgeoisie declares that it recognizes no nation or nationality or people within India, but it cannot declare that it does not recognize human rights. That is why this new development, the unfurling of the banner of human rights by politically united peoples and their organizations in the Northeast, has become a thorn in the flesh of the rulers of India. State terrorism and insurgency

In India, what are proclaimed in the Constitution as fundamental rights of individual citizens, are at the same time freely violated on a daily basis. Such violation is justified by the same Constitution, whenever the Central Cabinet chooses to declare any region as a "disturbed area" or a "terrorist infested" zone. Thus, it becomes constitutionally valid to violate human rights in Kashmir and in the Northeast, to violate the honour and dignity of human beings, to debase and degrade them with impunity. Such a definition of human rights is not acceptable to democratic public opinion in modern times.

Human rights, by definition, belong to every human being by dint of being human, and they are hence inviolable and inalienable. Nobody can give or take away human rights under any pretext. This is an essential characteristic and requirement of the modern definition of human rights. The bourgeois definition of human rights is not modern; it is a revival of the centuries old conception of civil rights, which the bourgeoisie championed in its struggle against feudal absolutism in Europe. According to this conception, a right is an agreement recorded on a document, it is something that can be given or taken away, signed or cancelled. It is not a matter of objective reality. Just like the high command of the Congress party distributes tickets to the cleverest scoundrels in each state, a right is reduced to a favour that is handed out or taken back according to the will of the high command. But such a definition of rights and a democracy based on such a conception is constantly plagued by the reality of human beings asserting their rights, individually and collectively.

The Nagas, for example, are one of the oldest peoples of this subcontinent, a brave people who have never stopped asserting their rights, either before or after 1947. The Indian state justified the armed suppression of the Naga people under the signboard of the unity and integrity of India. Today this treatment, along with the same justification, is extended to all the peoples of the Northeast, as well as in the Northwest, and increasingly in the South as well. It is time that this justification is put in its place.

According to the bourgeoisie, those citizens who arm themselves against the Indian state do not have any human rights. Hence it is just fine that the armed forces can treat citizens worse than animals, arrest them and search their houses at will,rape and -torture them and even kill anyone on mere suspicion. All these ' criminal forms of human rights violations are justified allegedly because some people or party has picked up arms to fight the state and its security forces. In the name of fighting insurgency, the Indian state endows special powers upon the armed forces and accords them full protection against the law.

What is implicit in this policy of state terrorism is that the rulers have unlimited rights to wield arms and attack the populace at will, while the individual citizens have no right to bear arms; not only that, but if they bear arms then the population as a whole loses all their human rights. Such a logic is reminiscent of the most barbaric kings of the past, who recognized rights only for themselves while the subjects had only duties and no rights. Such a conception is not compatible with modern democracy and hence not at all acceptable.

In actual fact, the question of violence on the part of the resistance is a diversionary question which the bourgeoisie harps on in order to weaken the political unity of the resistance to state terrorism. One of the ways in which this pressure is applied is by demanding that 'human rights activists should condemn the violent actions of insurgent groups. Another way is to argue that if people arm themselves then state terrorism will multiply. These bourgeois and petty bourgeois arguments spread confusion among the people and weaken their political unity against state terrorism.

State terrorism is not a response to armed insurgency; in fact, the contrary is true. Armed insurgency in Northeast India, for instance, is a response to the terroristic and arbitrary rule of the Indian state. The fundamental reason why the Assam Rifles are empowered to rape and kill people in Manipur or Nagaland is not that there are armed insurgents there. It is mainly because the Manipuri and Naga peoples are refusing to give up their national rights, and today they are joining hands to demand human rights. The Indian state cannot tolerate this fact of the peoples uniting on a political basis and asserting their rights. This is the root cause of the problem.

On 4th December, less than a week ago, the Indian Express carried a centre page article, which had a caption saying, "Insurgency in Manipur". But if you read the full article, you find that the author is not mainly concerned with insurgency but about the political unity of the people and the demand for national rights and human rights. Let me quote just one sentence from this article, where the author says, "What is, however, causing concern besides the insurgents' activities is the joint call given by an organisation known to have links with UNLF, known for its links with ULFA, to review the question of Manipur's annexation by India". Now who is this mysterious organisation which the author refuses to name?

The truth of the matter is that whoever raise their voices consistently in defence of rights and seek to build political unity on that basis become the target of the Indian state and its arms forces; it does not matter whether those who are defending right bear arms or do not bear arms. Even if you are a human right bear arms or do not bear arms. Even if you are a human rights organization which does not engage itself in any armed struggle, still you will be targeted by the state, and all kinds of rumours will be floated about how you have links with the underground and the ultras.

In the days following the brutal massacre of Sikhs in Delhi in November 1984, there were many of the victims who confided in our Party that they were indeed collecting and hiding fire arms in their houses. They said, "If the authority attacks us and kills us, what are we to do? We would rather die fighting than die lie dogs". I am citing this example to illustrate the point that under certain conditions, it becomes essential for human beings to arm themselves in order to defend its human rights. As far as the situation in the northeast is concerned, it can be said that if the Indian state continues with the policy of state terrorism, it is inevitable that the peoples of the northeast will continue to an themselves. Under such conditions, the right to bear arms becomes one of the most important of human rights to be asserted. Those who champion human rights cannot come under this pressure that they should denounce armed insurgency; on the contrary, they should demand of the Indian state that it guarantees the security of all citizens and creates such conditions that would make armed insurgency unnecessary.

National Human Rights Commission of India

The first task which a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) which is worthy of its name ought to do is to lay down a modern definition of human rights. Instead of establishing or proposing a modern definition, the NHRC accepted the terms of reference provided by the Central Cabinet of the Congress (I) government in New Delhi, according to which the NHRC cannot examine human rights violations by the central security forces. Can this be called a modern conception of human rights? It is the conception and definition of an arbitrary and increasingly self-alienating authority that has no legitimacy or basis to rule except through the brutal violence of its so-called "security" forces, in other words, it is a barbaric definition that represents retrogression of democracy, not its modernization and further development.

When representatives from the COHR went to Guwahati to record the continuing and escalating violation of human rights in Manipur, the National Commission simply declared its impotence, claiming that its terms of reference did not include cases involving the central security forces. Then what kind of Commission on Human Rights is this? How can you call yourself a commission on human rights if you will not concern yourself with the gross violation of human rights among entire peoples? This is the question that is being asked not only by the people in Manipur, but also in Assam, Nagaland, Kashmir and all other states that are under the rule of the central military and paramilitary forces. This is a perfectly legitimate question that deserves to be repeated wherever the National Commission goes; we the peoples of India must not allow the National Commission on Human Rights to escape or dodge this question. Let us make sure that this question haunts the National Commission wherever it goes.

Necessity for modern definitions

With the defeat of fascism on the world scale in the 1940s, human society had reached the stage when it could be recognized and declared on an international scale what constitutes intolerable violation of human dignity and hence a negation of human rights, and as a corollary, what minimum conditions of human life need to be fulfilled for all human beings. The UN Charter and declaration of human rights became the symbol of this recognition by global humankind. Since that time, however, the practice of several powerful and major states in the world began to violate human rights, headed by the USA and the Soviet Union. The cold war between the superpowers overshadowed all other considerations; gross violation of human rights became justifiable on ideological grounds and geopolitical considerations of the superpower rivalry, as in Vietnam, Afghanistan and many other places. In India, gross violation of human rights was and continues to be justified in the name of defending the territorial integrity of the Indian Union and its Constitution.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold-war period, a new period has begun within the era of imperialism and the revolution. It is a period when the revolution is in retreat, objectively speaking, while imperialism and reaction are on the offensive on the world scale. At the same time, this is also a new period in the struggle for democracy, in the struggle for human rights. It is a period when the peoples of the world, both in the industrialized west and in the underdeveloped east, are increasingly disillusioned with the political process of parliamentary democracy and with the major parties of the bourgeoisie. It is a period when the demands of modern democracy and human rights are coming into sharp contradiction with the limited conception and practice of civil rights and bourgeois democracy. In short, the times are calling for the modernization of the political process on the basis of a modern definition of human rights.

The bourgeoisie wants to block the path to democratic renewal, move backwards in terms of rights so that it can preserve the status quo, so that it can carry on and further intensify its exploitation and oppression of the working class and peoples. Towards this end, the bourgeoisie promotes the limited concept of human rights as nothing but civil rights, the same old conception which arose in the 18th and 19th centuries during the struggle against feudal absolutism in Europe. The essence of this bourgeois conception is the defence of private property rights; while other rights, such as the right to conscience of every individual citizen, is also admitted and proclaimed in words, such rights are subordinated to the will of the powers that be, so that they lose their character of being inviolable rights based on objective conditions of life. And most importantly, the bourgeoisie refuses to recognize the necessity to fulfill the material conditions for a human existence for all human beings, to recognize the right to livelihood as an inviolable and inalienable human right.

When even the established law is violated, human rights activists will naturally demand the rule of law. However, this is not the only demand nor even the main demand of the movement for human rights. The struggle for human rights cannot be confined within the limits of demanding the rule of law. The law itself needs to be renewed, along with the entire polity and the political process; which implies that it cannot be accepted that the struggle should be confined within the limits of the existing polity and its constitution. The Constitution of the Indian Union is not sacrosanct and unchangeable; the time has come to start thinking about modernizing democracy and federalism in India, to renew the polity in a manner that -is consistent with the modern definition of human rights.

If a subset of Indian people could convene a Constituent Assembly more than 45 years ago and draft a Constitution for the Union of India, is it not possible for the peoples of this subcontinent to once again elect a Constituent Assembly, this time on the basis of universal franchise, to draft another modern constitution in tune with the demands of modern democracy? The peoples of this subcontinent certainly have the wisdom and capacity to do such a thing.

Democratic renewal of the Indian Union

What should be the fundamental principles governing a new modern polity in India? What should be the rights and duties of individuals? What should be the duty of society towards individuals? What should be the rights of each nation, nationality and tribe within the polity? What should be the duty of the Union towards its constituents? In the estimation of our Party, it is important that all those who are fighting in defence of human rights discuss and deliberate on these questions.

Human rights need to be recognized as belonging to every individual by dint of being human, and we need to enumerate what are all these human rights. The list must necessarily include the right to livelihood, besides the right to conscience and the right to life, as well as the right to education, health care and other essential requirements of a human existence in modern society. This implies that society has the obligation to ensure these rights for every individual; it cannot say that everything depends on the free market and let every individual fend for himself or herself, as is the fashion today.

Another fundamental principle is that the Union has to be voluntary, with every constituent having the right to self-determination. The Manipuri people, for example, have the right to decide their own political destiny, to decide what kind of political relationship they wish to have among themselves and with respect to other peoples. This necessarily includes the right to decide whether they want to be part of the Indian Union or some other union or to be an independent state. The argument of the Indian state, that any talk of self-determination is secessionist and needs to be suppressed, is fundamentally flawed. First of all, it is possible for a people to secede from a union only if they joined that union voluntarily in the first place. If the Manipuri people did not voluntarily join the Indian Union in the first place, if the merger agreement was in fact forced on them by the Indian state, then it must be admitted that the Manipuri people are demanding their national rights which belong to them by dint of their being.

The bourgeoisie looks at the national question not from the angle of the people and their rights, but from the angle of territorial proprietary rights. When the Indian bourgeoisie declares that Kashmir is an integral part of India, for instance, what stands out strongly is the territorial claim, the right of the big bourgeoisie to control the land and resources; there is no concern here for the people of Kashmir and their individual and collective rights.

The outlook of the working class and all enlightened people, on the other hand, begins with the requirement of respecting and fulfilling human rights as well as national rights. Once such a principle is accepted, the question of possible conflict or contradiction between the interests of the individual and the collective, or between two collectives, say two different tribes, will arise. It would be the duty of the new Union, reconstituted on the basis of democratic principles, to ensure that the interests of individuals and collectives are harmonized with the general interests of society. Such problems are political problems. Hence the most essential demand is that there should be no use of force in dealing with such problems.

A voluntary union is the only stable solution to the national question. If the union respects the individual and collective rights of all the peoples and seeks to harmonize them with the general interests of society, then why would anybody want to leave such a union? People would belong to such a union because they want to be part of it, they see it as being beneficial to their own development. If the opposite is the case, then they would be free to leave the union; if, at a later date, they wish to rejoin, that should need the approval of the other constituents of the union.

Conclusion

On behalf of the Communist Ghadar Party of India, let me once again congratulate the Committee on Human Rights, congratulate all the organisations that are participating in this seminar, for this important and timely initiative. Let us strengthen our unity against state terrorism, in defence of human rights and national rights. Let s expose the injustice of the present day Indian Union and let us haunt the national Human Rights Commission with the necessity to lay down a modern definition of human rights.

Friends,

The retreat of the revolution is but a temporary phase, a prelude to the next round of revolutionary transformations on the world scale. This is the time to prepare our forces, both politically and theoretically. We think this seminar is an important part of that preparation.

Let us join hands in unfurling the banner of human rights!

Let us denounce in one voice the policy and practice of state terrorism!

Let us lay down and defend the modern definition of human rights!

Let us condemn national oppression in the name of “Unity and integrity”!

Let us develop the theory and perspective of the democratic renewal of the Indian Union!

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