"Famine, flood and plague visited her from time to time, and killed millions of her people. Inequality of birth was given religious sanction, and the lot of the humble was generally hard. Yet our overall impression is that in no other part of the ancient world were the relations of man and man, and of man and the state, so fair and humane. In no other early civilization were slaves so few in number and in no other ancient law book are their rights so well protected as in the Arthashastra. To us the most striking feature of ancient Indian civilization is its humanity" (Basham, 1967)[i].
This passage from 'The Wonder that was India' escapes the current reality of India where relations between men and the state, is discriminatory and unjust towards the large proportion of its vulnerable society. Today majority of Indians (mostly oppressed tribals, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes) do not have fair access to health, education facilities and job/livelihood opportunities[ii]. Interestingly, most of the poor is composed of approximately two thousands ethnic groups[iii] which includes scheduled caste (16.2 %) and scheduled tribes (8.2 %)[iv]. To the larger extent, prevailing social norms and customs are accountable for their miseries. Social customs upholding discrimination and unfair practices against the lower castes, often justify inequality of birth on the basis of the religious sanction, and insist on status quo (Keeping vulnerable disadvantaged). Deeply ingrained in the psyche of the people, social customs and culture often victimizes the lower class people, tend to resist the social changes, especially when people with vested interest feel unsettled and threatened by potential changes. What are those potential changes and what could be the medium? In these context human rights norms could play a vital role in bringing major changes in the societal norms.
Against this backdrop, this article proposes that human rights norms could bring profound social change in the prevailing Indian customs and norms, particularly attitudinal and behavioral changes towards the scheduled caste and scheduled tribes.
What is meant by Social change?
Social changes are significant changes in the behavior pattern and cultural norms and values. Examples of social changes having long term effects include the abolition of slavery, industrial revolution, and feminist movement[v]. All theories of social changes noted the possibility of resistance from groups whose interest is likely to hurt from these changes.
In the Indian context, resistance is apparent in the form of various social, political and violent groups who are against positive social change. Social groups clubbed together on the basis of caste or class interest tend to oppose radical social changes in the Indian society and major political groups are mere reflections of this reality. Violent groups are the one who absolutely resist change through violent means (Ranveer Sena). Usually they are against the fair distribution of natural resources such as land. Meanwhile, in the hands of upper class Indian society, religion and culture has served as a tool to oppress the lower class. These deep rooted customs tend to dehumanize people on the basis of their birth and aggravate the violence against downtrodden. There are numerous cases of detention and torture of lower class people by the oppressive government machinery. Such cases, having been documented by the People Vigilance Commission on Human Rights (PVCHR), are concrete evidences of the caste- atrocities emanating from the contemporary social and cultural structure[vi]. A more recent incident exemplifying this caste-atrocity was the halting of a marriage procession, because the couple belongs to lower caste[vii].
Since culture (Hindu religion) is a way of life for majority of people, therefore, lower class people's oppression have been justified and legitimized through the tacit approval from the cultural and religious patrons from upper class. In this connection, it would be interesting to take note of Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (article 4) and Human Rights Council resolution 10/23(para.4), which stresses that "no one may invoke cultural diversity to infringe upon human rights guaranteed by international law, nor to limit their scope[viii]".
Nonetheless, lower class has reacted against their oppression through 'Naxalism' - venting their anger often by violent means. Moreover, current Indian society is going through social transformation and is brimming with the possibility for the open class struggle/war. In this situation human rights regime/paradigm could facilitate smooth changes for the betterment of all people without bringing chaos into the society.
What are human rights?
Human rights are international norms that help protect all people everywhere from severe political, legal, and social abuses. Examples of human rights are the right to freedom of religion, the right to a fair trial when charged with a crime, the right not to be tortured, and the right to engage in political activity[ix]. In addition, human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality or ethnic origin, religion, language, or any other status. All are equally entitled to human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible[x].
Human rights are universal and inalienable[xi]
The principle of universality of human rights is the cornerstone of international human rights law. This principle, as first emphasized in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, has been reiterated in numerous international human rights conventions, declarations, and resolutions.
Human rights are inalienable.
They should not be taken away, except in specific situations, but according to due process. For example, the right to liberty may be restricted if a person is found guilty of a crime by a court of law.
Interdependent and indivisible
All human rights are indivisible, whether they are civil and political rights, such as the right to life, equality before the law and freedom of expression; economic, social and cultural rights, such as the rights to work, social security and education, or collective rights.
Non-discrimination and Equality
The non-discrimination principle requires the equal treatment of an individual or group irrespective of their particular characteristics, and is used to assess apparently neutral criteria that may produce effects which systematically disadvantage persons possessing those characteristics[xii]. The principle is present in all the major human rights treaties and provides the central theme of some of international human rights conventions such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The principle of non-discrimination is complemented by the principle of equality, as stated in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."
It is apparent from above definition of human rights that it does not go well with the prevailing socio-cultural norms in Indian society. Human rights norms provide a framework which is inclusive and dignified. It allows everyone to progress and contribute to the society. In addition, human rights norms challenge the notions of hegemony of few people who rule majority of the people by exploiting and manipulating social and religious norms. In line with human rights, current prevailing inhuman practices such as bonded labor, torture and detention, discrimination at every aspect of the Indian society must be abolished. Cultural dogmas which stigmatize lower class must be harmonized according to the human rights norms/law.
However, in order to bring behavioral changes in the society, human rights law must gain acceptance from people. Such 'law' will fail if there is lack of desire to comply, since law has limitation in the human rights context (Toop 2003)[xiii]. As Habermas (1996) rightly said, "rights are relationships, not things. For rights to have meaning, people must be engaged in building up their meaning through their interactions in support of human rights[xiv]."
Nonetheless, social changes through human rights norms have potentials to led the society towered egalitarianism without bringing much chaos. A society based on human rights values such as justice, dignity, transparency, accountability, equality, and gender sensitivity, offer much stability and prosperity than a society plagued with irrelevant oppressive customs. Human rights norms usually address the inequalities, restrict the discriminatory practices, and limit the unjust power relations. It puts the international human rights entitlements and claims of the people (the 'right-holders'), and the corresponding obligations of the State (the 'duty-bearer') in the centre of the national debate paving way for a fair society. Finally as Professor Stephen Toope (2003) said, "We believe that humans are endowed with a dignity-whatever its origin-that must be upheld by any society that wants to see itself as civilized".
By: Amit Singh
Institute of Human Rights and Peace, Mahidol University
References of footnotes
[ii] HDI Index, India ranked 134 out of 187 http://hdrstats.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/IND.html
[vii] Jagran 30.5.2012
[xi] The 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, for example, noted that it is the duty of States to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems.
[xiii] [xiii] Toop. S., (2003) Human Rights and Social Change, IDRC Lecture,
[xiv] Hebermas, J. (1996) Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse theory of Law and Democracy (W.Rehg, trans.) 29.31