Who needs human rights anyway?

India’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is having a somewhat existential debate about, of all things, the importance of human rights.

Since, no one invited me to this debate, I figured I will have my say here. So to start with let us consider the question of “Who doesn’t have to stand in defence of human rights?

Answer - those whose human rights are not being violated.

And before some butthurt joker says "but someone said mean things to me online so my human rights are also being violated”, let me make it clear that that is not what’s being talked about here.

We’re talking about people losing their lives, health, and social safety because of state violence. For example, government action or police action taking lives of people. Yes, that includes the lives of those who have broken laws.

The basic idea is that in a civilised society of human beings, the human being matters. It’s easy to understand but difficult to remember, especially when anger and rage have been cultivated carefully to be a society’s default ways of dealing with any situation.

So let’s return to the question of who doesn’t have to stand in defence of human rights? The answer is “those who don’t need such protection”. These will be people who have other kinds of protections, like protection offered by their religion or caste or financial standing.

Human rights are, at the end of the day, the only things protecting those without religious, caste-based, or financial protections. So when people without the need for human rights protections wonder in conferences whether we really need human rights, they betray a lack of perspective. And this lack of perspective is not accidental either. It too has been cultivated by repeated use of categories like “terrorist” and “naxal” in popular discourse.

Tell protected categories they are “normal” for long enough and they start seeing everyone without their privileges as expendable. Inevitably, these others end up being the poor and the marginalised whose Constitutional rights are getting in the way of some precious land acquisition or forest removal.

State power is formidable. Human rights are a necessary check against it. We are all human beings and we all have human rights. But only some need them protected on a regular basis. The rest of us face so little threat to our human rights that it’s easy for us to wonder innocently if they’re even necessary. If human rights protections are diluted or removed, we will all be at risk. But some will suffer longer and more.

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