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The Indian State and Human Rights NGOs PDF Print E-mail
Op Ed

The rise in the numbers of human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has occurred as a response to abuse, perpetrated both by state agencies such as the army, paramilitary or police forces, and by dominant sections of the society through various forms of exploitation and domination. But most of the organizations were established in direct response to what were seen as gross and systematic violation of rights by the state.

They strive to play a role in promoting and protecting rights of individuals and groups, often mediating between the them and the state. But this task is rather complex and the relationship between the state and the NGOs does not make it any simpler. This relationship has been characterized by mutual mistrust.

Since human rights claims are addressed to governments, governmental practices and recognition form an important part of the question. As the NGOs seek solutions to various kinds of abuses, they are often forced to recognize the paramount importance of the role of governmental agencies. Though they differ in their origins, histories, ideological orientation and strategies of intervention, they share the same basic perspective, to gather information and influence implementation of human rights by the state or government.


The NGOs can be described to be primarily state centered. This is clear from the reasons why they were established in the first place and the nature of their activities. This phenomena is not new. Human rights with their modern attributes are a development more or less parallel with the growth of constitutional government and parliamentary institutions from the time of the British rule in India. In this context, the first human rights organization in India, the Indian Civil Liberties Union (ICLU) was formed in 1936. The importance of ICLU lies in the fact that it contributed to an understanding of what human rights meant: the right to oppose the government. This understanding served its purpose well in the colonial period, and continues to influence the nature of rights organizations right up to today. Jawaharlal Nehru, its founder, envisaged the scope of civil liberties organizations as primarily preventing the government "from becoming too autocratic." He said:

    It is obvious that questions of civil liberties only arise when there is a conflict between the public or certain sections of it, and the executive government . . . A democracy can only function properly if public opinion constantly checks government and prevents it from becoming too autocratic.1

The scope is narrow in the sense that it focuses purely on the functioning of the government. The idea of civil liberties is advanced as the right to oppose the government. Dutta makes the same point when he says that the conception "was that the civil liberties movement was in fact an anti-state movement."2 Very soon, this particular understanding of civil liberties to conflict between ICLU and the Congress party to the extent that Nehru wrote to K. B. Menon, the secretary general of ICLU not to be "anti-Congress," and disassociate himself from the public demonstrations organized by the ICLU. After independence, Nehru said that the idea of an independent organization for disseminating information relating to violations of civil liberties was redundant. He withdrew from ICLU and urged that it be dissolved.

After independence, the Congress party, which had earlier been in the forefront of the national movement and raised some issues concerning civil liberties, became the "ruling party." The government was faced with the primary task of holding the country together, and it had to use the same institutions that the Congress had been so critical of in the past: the civil service, army and the police -- armed with similar "repressive powers." There were instances of police firing on peasants, political activists, students and trade union leaders in the first two years of independence, and in the following two decades.3 A lawyer, A. K. Pillai, bemoaned the absence of any civil liberties in the initial years after independence: "The all-too limited liberties which the subject had under the British regime, have themselves become the first casualty in the wake of the advent of national independence."4 There were efforts to form organizations on the lines of ICLU but the efforts could not be sustained.5

The 1950s and early 1960s were marked by the near absence of any significant organizations -- except for a few regional ones, modelled after ICLU. These were highly informal, and limited in their scope. Their concern was to focus on repressive preventive detention laws and the arrest of political activists. While discontent grew in the 1960s, it was only by the late 1960s that "both the privileged social classes and the government systematically cracked down on groups fighting for the rights of traditionally oppressed peoples."6 An immediate cause in the rise of organizations was state repression on the Naxalite movement. Indira Gandhi's policies and dictatorial tendencies further contributed to the awakening of the rights movement. The state power was seen in its most oppressive form during the Emergency (1975-1977) which was a watershed in Indian politics in many ways and had a great impact on the human rights scene. It is immediately after this period that various human rights groups established and consolidated themselves.

Today there are a large number of diverse human rights organizations in the country. They can be divided into two main groups. Firstly, those arising out of the Naxalite movement. Organizations in this category were, in the first instance, either formed to fight for the political rights of the Naxalites or simply as their "front organizations." Formed in the early 1970s (especially the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights and the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee) they still had a very limited agenda: that of highlighting police brutality and agitating for the release of political prisoners. However, they added a further dimension to the strategy of the movement. They did not just collect information and petition the government like the earlier organizations, but called for the involvement of the people in their "struggle" and were more militant in their approach. This further alienated them from the government. Secondly, those arising out of the JP movement and the Emergency. Organizations in this category were influenced as much by the excesses of the Emergency as they were inspired by the contribution of the JP movement. These organizations are "liberal" in outlook (especially the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties). Besides the two main categories, some organizations formed after the Emergency, focus on abuse taking place in certain areas. For example, the specific purpose of Nagaland People's Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR) is to highlight army atrocities on the Nagas in Nagaland and surrounding areas. The organizations in these areas respond to the special circumstances created by a vast army presence. They seem to form a separate category, and may be said to have been formed in the background of ethnic and sub-nationalistic struggles. The NPMHR, has the peculiar distinction of having a cosy relationship with the Government of Nagaland but is on antagonistic terms with the Government of India as it protests an army presence and atrocities in the area,

The organizations which classify themselves as democratic rights organizations see movements like the Naxalites as arising from socio-economic conditions. They believe that until and unless those conditions are changed, it is impossible to look at the question of Naxalite violence in isolation. The All India Federation of Organizations for Democratic Rights (AIFOFDR) is an example of a democratic rights organization. Its Declaration states that rights abuses in India stem from the fundamental conflict between the ruling classes and the exploited masses. The state is depicted as the agent of the ruling classes, and all efforts by the state to alleviate poverty and exploitation are viewed as a form of deception. When people realize this deception and struggle for improving their lot, the state lets loose repression upon them. The Declaration holds that throughout history people have won their rights only through their own struggles and organization, and that people must be mobilized to promote, assert and defend their democratic rights. Thus the right to struggle is the most fundamental democratic right. All other rights stem from this and are secondary.7 AIFOFDR declaration makes it clear that "the right to struggle" is more important than "social peace." It supports what it calls "democratic organizations . . . of rural poor," "peasant organizations," and "legitimate peasant movement" like the Mazdoor Kisan Sangram Sangathan (MKSS) and Maoist Communist Centre (MCC). AIFOFDR and other democratic rights organizations thus do not have much faith in the constitutionally guaranteed rights or the legal system of the country.8 They believe that a "radical transformation" of the society is required to guarantee rights to everybody, but specially the underprivileged and the exploited. This ideology/outlook sets them in constant conflict with the state/government.

There has been a noticeable change in the agenda of the human rights movement especially after the mid-1980s. Earlier, it focussed on political prisoners; now it focusses on a range of issues, which forms a comprehensive set of rights -- not only civil or political rights, but also economic and social rights. New and fresh initiatives have been a major factor in the expansion of the rights agenda. The movement has focussed on conflict over natural resources and the politics of development, social tensions created by an assertion of community identity and communal riots, and questions relating to the position of women within the family. It has thus widened the human rights framework. But this has also further brought the NGOs in conflict at various fronts with the state.


Before reviewing the response of the Indian government to allegations of rights abuses, it might be pertinent to see what the source of such abuse is, and why activists describe India as a "lawless state." Most of the abuse are perpetrated by the police in the form of illegal arrests, torture, causing people to "disappear" or causing deaths in custody. S. Subramanian, who has held various high positions in the police force, confirms that "police often indulge in elimination of adversaries through illegal methods."9 Police officials are often socialized in a culture where they think that law and order can only be maintained with the help of a danda (stick). They do not think that torture is wrong. Such drastic measures are also endorsed by fairly significant sections of the bureaucracy and political elite, according to Vijay Karan,0 who as police commissioner launched a drive to root out the problem of torture from the Delhi police force. A similar view is held by Ved Marwah, another former police commissioner of Delhi, who says: "The use of third degree methods, illegal detention of suspects, padding of evidence, to mention just a few, it must be admitted have all got tacit approval not only of some police officers, but also that of a section of the administration and the political leadership."11 Two senior civil servants deposing before the Uttar Pradesh Police Commission in 1970-71 said that "the third degree methods of the police have good utility and they are the only effective means of controlling bad characters." Karan remarks that "India has a very strong pro-torture lobby which argues that torture just cannot be avoided in India's environment."12 With the rise of militancy in the Punjab, the police were given a free hand to deal with the situation. Ribeiro, who once headed this force, has this to say: "In Punjab, police methods have traditionally been based on tribal traditions which include revenge and vendetta . . . Such methods were prevalent before the advent of terrorism but with the onset of terrorism have become more widespread."13 The consequence of such "culture" has been that the political administration has conceded greater arbitrary powers to the police and paramilitary forces. Thus Haragopal has argued, on the basis of his experience in Andhra Pradesh that the police force has increasingly become more "autonomous" and that the "political system no longer retains any effective control over it."14 Similarly, the army too is given "a free hand to counter insurgency," especially in the northeastern states of Nagaland and Manipur -- where the local state police is suspected of conniving with the extremist guerillas.15 In these circumstances, the state often becomes the greatest violator of human rights.


The government response to allegations of human rights abuse has undergone a change in the last three decades. Till the 1970s, allegations were simply ignored. In the 1980s, the government policy was to deny any allegations of abuse, while not replying to any criticism directly. International organizations like Amnesty were not given access to India, and indigenous organizations began to be branded as "anti-national." In the post-cold war world of the 1990s, and in the face of mounting international pressure, the government adopted another strategy. Firstly, it accepted that abuse took place, but these were "aberrations," and pointed out that the government took action whenever any incident was brought to its attention. Secondly, it began to focus on abuses by armed opposition groups in Punjab, Kashmir, and the Northeast, and by Marxist-Leninist groups in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, emphasizing that the police and paramilitary forces were operating in difficult circumstances. Thirdly, even while attacking rights organizations for distorting facts, etc. the government permitted Amnesty to visit India for investigative purposes;16 and lastly, it constituted the NHRC. Yet in real terms its attitude towards the human rights organizations has undergone very little change. It has used many tactics to distract public attention from abuses.

There is hardly any indication that the Indian government (as indeed various state governments) has started taking the rights organizations any more seriously than before. The NGOs are seen as "minor irritants," best ignored in most cases. The usual impression sought to be created is that "four people get together and produce a report . . . so (there is) no objectivity."17 This is done by dubbing reports by organizations as unreliable or one-sided.

In the late 1980s and early this decade, when human rights became much more of a public concern, the government tried to project rights organizations as "friends of the terrorists," implying that they are "anti-nationals." As Randhir Singh has noted, "they are portrayed, attacked or dismissed as 'front organizations' -- for 'anti-national forces,' 'terrorists' or 'secessionists,' or, . . . the 'Naxalites.'"18

The harassment of activists takes many forms: investigation of their activities, not permitting them to hold meetings or to publish material, or arresting them on false charges. In 1993 the director general of police of Andhra Pradesh threatened "to wipe out" rights activits as "they were becoming a threat to society."19 Similar threats in the past have been carried out. At least three activists of the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) have been allegedly killed by the police. These killings take place immediately after a prominent or a notorious person has been killed by the Naxalites. By killing APCLC activists the police try to show a relationship between the two groups,20 reinforcing the view that organizations like the APCLC are front organizations of the Naxalites. This impression is enhanced by government propaganda. A Human Rights Watch World Report for 1992 clubbed India with Colombia as "the most dangerous places to monitor human rights;" it also provides instances of rights monitors being killed by government agencies.21 This not only creates fear among the activists, but also has the effect of blurring the distinction between terrorist groups and rights organizations in the minds of the people, reducing their effectiveness.

However, the government has also taken the help of rights organizations when it has suited them. One such example is the Koyyur kidnapping case, where APCLC helped them negotiate the release of captives held by the Naxalites.22 Even this did not endear them to the police or civil authorities. As a vice president of the APCLC noted: "It is very instructive to note that the very next day the DGP (Director General of Police) and the home minister made very uncalled for comments on the APCLC and its leadership. This shows that the attitude of the police towards civil liberties organisations underwent no change; it might have, in fact, become more antagonistic."23

A new and most interesting method seems to have been devised by the Indian government to tackle criticism at international fora -- through the use of GONGOS (government organized non-governmental organizations). Haragopal, who attended the much publicized UN- sponsored World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna from 14 to 25 June 1993 has described what GONGOs are and what their role was at the Conference.

Another facet of the Indian government's performance at the World Conference was presence of shouting brigade….These GONGOS were given the task of 'defending' the governmental violations. As a part of this task they resorted to very aggressive behavioural modes whenever there was some critical comments from the other Indian non-governmental representatives….These GONGOS created considerable confusion ….The quality and character of some of these GONGOS was so low and poor that one wondered how they were chosen for 'the task' that was 'assigned' to them.24

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) was established as a national body as recently as September 1993.That the government does not take the rights organizations seriously was evident in its background paper which was prepared before the setting up of the NHRC. This paper recommended that the NHRC ought to work independently of the rights organizations in the country.

The role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in relation to the Commission would also require consideration. A number of such organizations are active in the field of human rights. While some of them are objectively committed to the cause of human rights, some others have strong political and other leanings. The Commission may, therefore, have to operate independently of the NGOs.25

This view came under severe criticism from activists and organizations. Consequently, the NHRC Bill envisaged one of the functions of the Commission to "encourage the efforts of the non-governmental organizations working in the field of human rights."26

Prior to the setting up of the Commission, discussions on the background paper were held in Calcutta, Hyderabad, Bombay and Delhi. Two incidents occurred, one at Calcutta and one in Hyderabad, which left the rights organizations convinced that NHRC was intended to be an institution to "fool the people." In Calcutta, during a state government organized a seminar on 16 November 1992 concerning the setting up of the Commission, when some APDR members tried to ask questions -- six activists, including its secretary, Sujato Bhadra, were arrested for trying to "create trouble."27 In Hyderabad, an invitation issued to Kannabiran the president of APCLC was withdrawn a day before the seminar. To protest against this action, Haragopal (APCLC vice president), too, did not attend the seminar arguing that "the process indicated lack of sincerity."28 In Bombay, representatives of rights organizations were simply not invited; and in Delhi, the seminar was "held in a much more secretive fashion."29 The already sceptical rights organizations were now convinced that government effort to establish a human rights commission was an "eye-wash."


The human rights movement in India recognizes that the state is an important player in the human rights field, and its most significant adversary. It is clear that it is keen to emphasize or highlight those violations which are perpetrated by governmental agencies or in conjunction with state authorities. However, it has also identified that the state is not the only adversary, but also other various kinds of power structures. Thus from just focussing on the state, it has started focussing on local power structures of dominance and oppression. The notion that everyday issues of exploitation and oppression should be articulated using human rights concepts is fast gaining acceptance both among the activists and the people at large.

Many of the organizations were indeed first established for the specific purpose of highlighting repression on political prisoners. The emphasis has now shifted to other matters, and they have gradually taken up a wider role. The organizations today address a wide range of issues, and this brings them in direct conflict with various state agencies.

Any organization which has anything to do with welfare or human rights is generally assumed to have some kind of respectability and legitimacy attached to it. However, the area of legitimacy remains a contested field. This is especially true in the case of organizations that refuse to take public notice of Naxalite violence or are projected as such. The effectiveness of organizations depends to a considerable extent on recognition that their information is accurate and that their action is impartial. There is a need to cultivate an image of impartiality among the administrators, political leaders and the people at large though there is little doubt that the organizations jealously guard their independence and credibility.

There is no doubt that the government, with its power and resources can be of immense use in strengthening human rights in the country. But unfortunately, the government's response to indigenous organizations throughout has been one of indifference, when not branding them as working against the "national interest." More recently, the government has shown to an extent that it is willing to implement human rights norms in the country. Yet there is more to be done -- especially in the vital area of developing and enforcing a policy of protecting and supporting organizations working for human rights in the country.

There is a need for cooperation and better coordination among different players - the most important being the rights NGOs and the state. The eventual aim is to create a society where no more vigilance is required and where human rights organizations are redundant. But until such a time comes, unceasing effort must continue, an effort in which the organizations have indeed a vital role to play.


1. Nehru quoted in Sitharamam Kakaraia, "Civil Rights Movement in India," PhD Thesis. Centre for Social Studies, South Gujarat University, Surat, 1993, pp. 25-26.

2. Nilanjan Dutta, " With Little Victories and Big Defeats," in Civil Liberties: Past and Present, Calcutta: Sujata Bhadro for the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights, 1986, p. 43.

3. Nilanjan Dutta, Violation of Democratic Rights in West Bengal Since Independence, edited by A. R. Desai, Bombay: C. G. Shah Memorial Trust. 1985, pp 4-9. Reprinted in Expanding Governmental Lawlessness and Organized Struggles, edited by A. R. Desai. Bombay: Popular press, 1991, pp. 236-256.

4. A. K. Pillai, quoted in Dutta, "With Little Victories," op. cit., p. 45.

5. SeeP. V. Ramanajunam, "A Brief Outline of the History of the Democratic Movement in Tamil Nadu," in Civil Rights: Past and Present, op.cit., pp. 26-27; also Kakaraia, op. cit., pp. 38-39.

6. Smitu Kothari, "The Human Rights Movement in India: A Critical Overview," in Rethinking Human Rights: Challenges for Theory and Action, edited by Smitu Kothari and Harsh Sethi, New York: New Horizon Press and Delhi: Lokayan, 1989, p. 84.

7. All India Federation of Organizations for Democratic Rights (AIFOFDR), Declaration of All India Federation of Organizations for Democratic Rights, Bombay: AIFOFDR, July 1982, pp. 5-6. Booklet.

8. Rajani X. Desai, Interview with author, Bombay, 28 February 1994. Tape recording.

9. S. Subramanian, Human Rights and Police, Hyderabad: Association for Advancement of Police and Security Sciences, 1992, p. 21.

10. Vijay Karan, "Third Degree." in Seminar, No. 405, May 1993, pp. 44-48.

11. Ved Marwah, "Redefining Roles," in Hindustan Times Sunday Magazine, New Delhi, 6 February 1994, p. 4.

12. Karan, op. cit.

13. J. F. Ribeiro, "No Excuse for Police Turning Criminals," in The Times of India, New Delhi, 1 February 1994, p. 8.

14. G. Haragopal, "The Koyyur Kidnap: Question of Human Rights." in Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 28, no. 49, 4 December 1993, pp. 2650-2655.

15. See for details, Nitin A. Gokhale, "Calling the Shots," in Sunday, 6-12 February 1994, pp. 36-37.

16. Amnesty International was denied permission to visit India for investigative purposes between 1979 and 1992.

17. C. S. Kalra, Interview with author, New Delhi, 21 February 1994, Tape recording.

18. Randhir Singh, "Terrorism, State Terrorism and Democratic Rights," in Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 27, no. 6, 8 February 1992, p. 297.

19. M. T. Khan, Interview with author, Hyderabad, 24 December 1993. Tape recording.

20. Kodandarami M. Reddy, Interview with author, Hyderabad, 20 december 1993. Tape recording.

21. Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1993: Events of 1992. New York: Human Rights Watch, pp. xvii, 169-71. For an example of harassment of an activist, see Y. P. Chibbar, "Harassment of Kamdar," in PUCL Bulletin, vol. 14, no. 1, January 1994, p. 9.

22. For details of the incident, see G. Haragopal, "The Koyyur Kidnap," op. cit.

23. Ibid, p. 2654.

24. G. Haragopal, "The State of Human Rights in the Last Decade of 20th Century: Reflections on Vienna Conference." Nabakrishana Choudhary Memorial Lecture, Institute for Study of Society and Culture, Sambalpur, 1993, p. 20. Unpublished paper. The "crude and uncivilized" methods adopted by the GONGOS have also been criticized by many other participants. See for example, R. M. Pal, "'Give and Take' in Vienna and the New Word in English Dictionary," in PUCL Bulletin, vol. 13, no. 8, August 1993, pp. 24-25.

25. Government of India, Background Note on Setting up of a National Commission on Human Rights: Issues and Tentative Framework, New Delhi: Ministry of Home Affairs, 1992, p. 5

26. See Government of India, "The Human Rights Commission Bill, 1993." Bill No. 65 of 1993; and GOI, "The Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993," Bill No. 10 of 1994, in The Gazette of India Extraordinary, 10 January 1994. Registered No. DL-33004/93. New Delhi: Ministry of Law, Justice and Company Affairs (Legislative Department). Chapter 3, section 12 (i) of the Bill and the Act have the same provision.

27. "Left Front Meet on Human Rights Turns into a Farce," The Telegraph, Calcutta, 17 November 1992, p. 7; APDR, "Violation of Human Rights in a Government Sponsored Seminar on Human Rights," Calcutta: APDR, 24 November 1992. Pamphlet. In Bengali; Gautam Sen, Interview with author, Calcutta, 27 November 1993. Tape recording.

28. G. Haragopal, Interview with author, Hyderabad, 25 December 1993, Tape recording.

29. Peoples Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), The Human Rights Commission: A Critique, op. cit., p. 2.


I would like to thank the Association of Commonwealth Universities, London, UK, for funding the research on which this paper is based. I am also grateful to the University of Glasgow, UK, where this research was carried out. I am particularly thankful to Simon R. Charsley for his support.

Munmun Jha
Lecturer in Sociology
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, IndiaMunmun Jha


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