Hate politics and Lok Sabha Elections, 2024: Challenges before the PUCL

Jan 01, 2024
By PUCL Bulletin Editorial Board

The conclusion of the recent round of state elections, with the BJP winning in three northern states and the victory of the Congress in Telangana and the newly formed Zoram Peoples Movement in Mizoram has set the stage for the upcoming national elections in early 2024.

The PUCL does not support any political party. However the PUCL is clear that  the electoral process is an integral dimension of democracy.  Free and fair elections in which the integrity of the electoral process is unquestioned is what marks a vibrant democracy. The founding document of the international human rights movement, namely Article 21(3) of the UDHR makes clear that, ‘The `will’ of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this `will’ shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.’

The PUCL has worked towards enhancing the quality of our electoral democracy. It was in PUCL’s PIL that the  Supreme Court recognised NOTA as a valid option in every ballot. In another PUCL PIL the Supreme Court recognised  that the voter has a right to know the antecedents of their candidates, including the assets he or she possesses as well as criminal antecedents. Building on this history, PUCL will continue to work to enhance the quality of India’s electoral democracy.

The integrity of elections has come under severe threat from hate speeches delivered from electoral platforms.   Hate  speeches are routinely made against entire communities and even calling for violence against them. The impact of such speeches is to demean, ostracize and terrorise the targetted communities. Those at the receiving end of hate speech increasingly face hostility, intimidation and silencing; inversely, hate politics helps mobilise increasing numbers of the majority community to openly express their animosity against the minority community be it a minority based on religion, caste, gender or sexuality.  Hate often reaps rich electoral dividends, especially when all the constitutional institutions meant to enforce the law against such violent politics fall silent.  This allows for  political parties to further their divisive and partisan agendas with impunity.

In such a scenario, the PUCL will have a crucial role in the upcoming elections to work in solidarity with other civil society organisations to ensure the integrity of the electoral process as well as to ensure that  complaints are lodged with the appropriate authorities in the case of hate speeches. 

PUCL’s Role in Electoral Process 

Apart from working to ensure  that elections are free and fair, what is the role that PUCL can play? PUCL as a human rights organisation has the mandate of promoting and protection constitutional and human rights. Elections are one moment during which  human rights concerns can become a part of the larger political conversation and human rights issues can be mainstreamed. This is not merely an utopian suggestion but arises from PUCL’s own history of engagement with political parties and the electoral process.   

Few know that the repeal of the much-dreaded Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002 (POTA) owes much to human rights advocacy. The campaign by human rights groups demanding the repeal of POTA reached a crescendo during the Lok Sabha, 2004 elections receiving widespread public support. The demand to repeal POTA became an electoral issue and was picked up by the parties which went on to form the government.  Thereafter, when the UPA came to power, in September, 2004 POTA was repealed. (It is another matter that the UPA government played a most invidious trick by incorporating most of the provisions of POTA into the UAPA thereby making the temporary nature of POTA into a permanent part of the legal framework).

Another success, though of a limited nature, of the anti-POTA campaign was the provision relating to admissibility of confessions made to police officer. The earlier POTA law made admissible legally, confessions purportedly made by arrested person to police officers. The campaign of human rights group documented the wide spread nature of abuse of such powers given to police officers who coercively obtained confessions. In the amended UAPA, this draconian provision was dropped. 

Similarly, in the late 1980’s the concerted campaign launched by various human rights groups, including PUCL, against the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1985 (known as TADA) led to the then Chairperson of NHRC, Mr. Ranganath Mishra writing to all MPs asking them not to support any further extension of TADA law when it came up for review before Parliament. Here too, the campaigning with political parties was a key reason for this major human rights victory.

Electoral contests  gives us the opportunity to ensure that human rights demands become a part of the political conversation during election time, through intensive campaigns and programmes.

Need for a Human Rights Manifesto

A human rights manifesto drafted by civil society groups  might be a good place from where one can begin a conversation around human rights issues with political parties. Especially since the coming into force of the UDHR, human rights is not a narrow civil and political rights agenda but rather a wide encompassing agenda including both socio- economic as well as civil and political rights.

Since the Karnataka elections (May, 2023), the salience of socio-economic rights in the form of economic guarantees have become an important part of the electoral conversation. This should be seen as opening out of the human rights agenda, as without the guarantee of  socio-economic rights, democracy will be in peril. As Babasaheb Ambedkar succinctly put it in his closing speech in the Constituent Assembly, in November, 1949, ‘In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man, one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?

The human rights movement should also be cognizant of the challenges posed to human rights protection by the rise of fundamentalisms globally. Hannah Arendt put it perceptively: what is threatened by a totalitarian regime is the ‘right to have rights’. Under totalitarianism, the rights framework is not guaranteed to all citizens but rather your rights depend upon your nationality. Minority nationalities face the challenge of being stripped of legal identity and consigned to a situation of rightlessness as happened to the Rohingyas in Myanmar. The range of unceasing assaults on the Muslim community in India, including on the right to worship, the right to food, the right to security of life  as well as the right to dignity raise concerns about whether the minorities in India also face a similar process of becoming `rightless’.

Defending the `right to have rights’ is imperative as far as the human rights movement is concerned. The movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA) was  nothing other than a determined defence of the right to have rights for all persons, regardless of religion.

Finally, it’s important to  note that the agenda of the human rights movement is not limited to the electoral process. Regardless of who wins the elections, and however difficult it may be, human rights groups will have to continue their work in defending all human and fundamental rights.  For example, while it may be challenging to make the demand for the repeal of UAPA to become a part of the political conversation, the election context provides the social and human rights space to educate  people about the widespread abuse of UAPA against human rights defenders, journalists, academics, students, Dalit and Minorities, the unfairness of long years in jail without bail, poor conviction rate, as well as  invite youth, members of underpriveliged and marginalised communities and other concerned citizens to jointly demand the repeal of such draconian and anti-constitutional laws. 

We need to have the ideological clarity that  by defending rights we are actually defending the constitution and democracy which are the  legacies of our freedom struggle.  That is the heart of what the human rights movement stands for.

Former Supreme Court  judge, Justice Nariman eloquently distinguished the interplay of human rights in the context of majoritarian politics by pointing out in `Navtej Johar v Union of India’:  “These fundamental rights do not depend upon the outcome of elections. And, it is not left to majoritarian governments to prescribe what shall be orthodox in matters concerning social morality. The fundamental rights chapter is like the north star in the universe of constitutionalism in India. Constitutional morality always trumps any imposition of a particular view of social morality by shifting and different majoritarian regimes”. 

Human rights need to be defended even when it has few political takers. One has to consistently work at widening the support (including political support) for human rights even in majoritarian times. They like the  ‘north star’ are a point around which a larger constitutional politics can coalesce. 

We wish all our readers and well-wishers a more peaceful, harmonious and hopeful New Year, 2024.