'It is a Rohingya-like crisis in Assam'

Situation of human rights in the country worrying: Mander

Bureaucrat-turned-activist Harsh Mander recently resigned as the special monitor for minorities and communal violence in National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). He quit the post as he felt there was "no constructive role" for him. He wanted to work on the encounter killings in Uttar Pradesh but did not get permission. He submitted a report on Assam detention centres where "illegal migrants" are detained but there was no response on it. The report on Assam, he felt, was important as it comes ahead of the release of the contentious National Registry of Citizens (NRC). He felt NHRC had a role to play but none paid attention to him. He feels the NHRC appears to be one more institution that has been reduced to the ineffective organisation in the Narendra Modi regime. Mander spoke to DH's Shemin Joy.

You recently shot off a letter to NHRC Chairperson Justice H L Dattu resigning from the post of Special Monitor. What compelled you to resign from the post? 

Last year, the NHRC invited me to be a special monitor. It was a new office started by the NHRC. We were not NHRC staff but people who were called to look at specific issues on behalf of the NHRC. I decided to accept the invitation because of what was happening to minorities. There were lynchings and other incidents. Initially, I sought to raise rights issues related to the encounter killings targeting minorities in Uttar Pradesh and Mewat region of Haryana. I also raised the issue of foreigners in detention centres in Assam. Repeatedly, I kept requesting the NHRC that I should be allowed to look into these issues. The NHRC did not agree to do anything with regard to the encounters. But they agreed to give me permission to investigate the detention centres. Along with me, the NHRC also send two junior-level officials to Assam. That was alright. 

The issue of Assam is important because these detention centres were set up a decade back. Probably we were the first officials who had got entry into these detention centres to understand what is happening there. I was shocked to see what I saw there. I submitted a report on the conditions there which said about a number of violations of Constitution and international law. I urged this needed to be corrected. I had sent several reminders seeking details of action taken by the NHRC on my report, but I received no answer. Despite my reminders, they refused to act. The two officers also had submitted a report, which was much softer, and the NHRC accepted that. Given the fact that they refused to act on the report, the only way before me was to resign and place the report I submitted in public domain. 

As there was silence of the NHRC, both in terms of approaching me for investigation on any human rights concerns of minorities and communal violence, for which I had been invited by the NHRC, and on the report I authored on the critical question of persons declared foreigners in Assam, it is apparent that there is no constructive role for me to play in the NHRC. 

Why do you think the NHRC did not act on your report? Is the NHRC under government pressure?

I had a number of discussions with officials. In one of the discussions, an official, I cannot name him, told me that if we act on your report, it will be seen as anti-government. Is NHRC supposed to be pro-government agency? I have no idea (whether NHRC is under pressure), I can only speculate. NHRC's finest hour was when Justice J S Verma was heading the rights body and especially during the Gujarat riots. I was then invited to assist the NHRC and I saw what the NHRC could do. NHRC's orders are not technically binding but it puts a lot of moral pressure on the government to act. It was because of the intervention of the NHRC that the cases of massacres were taken up by the Supreme Court and a Special Investigation Team was set up. So it was the role the NHRC has was envisaged to play and it is not acting in this way. Then you know a large majority of our institutions are neutralised in today's political climate. The NHRC appears to be one more institution that has been reduced to an ineffective organisation.

Your resignation letter mentioned about the episode involving your report on detention centres in Assam. You said it is a matter of urgency against the backdrop of the release of National Registry of Citizens (NRC). Can you explain what is it?

The basic question is if a set of people who are given to be foreigners and if the country to which they belong refuses to accept them, what is going to happen to these people? Both within our Constitution and international law, there are a whole set of guidelines for how they should be treated. I find all of them completely violated. After the NRC, we don’t know how many people will be declared foreigners. One report quoted an official who said there would be around half a million such people. The official then denied it and said there would be 50,000. This figure is also huge. What are we going to do with them as a country? 

What I found in the detention centre, they have been locked up. The detention centre is part of the jail. International law says you cannot keep illegal immigrants in jails or jail-like centres. They were detained in jail. Even the rights of prisoners are not accorded to them because they are not given parole saying parole is for Indian citizens and not for foreigners. They are not allowed to step out. They are not allowed any communication. The husband will be in the male jail while the wife will be in women's jail. Children will be outside. The law says that you cannot separate a family of illegal immigrants. In the United States, we all are very outraged today because the Donald Trump government is separating children. We have done it for more than a decade. They don't know what happened to their children outside. You cannot keep them indefinitely in detention. But for these people, it is indefinite and stares at the possibility of not being allowed to leave the detention centre and dying there.

You have visited Assam. You met people both inside and outside detention centres. Is there a sense of fear because of the NRC?

There is a huge sense of fear. There are millions of Muslims in Assam and a large number of Bengali speaking Hindus. All of them have a sense of fear. Results also are arbitrary as you saw in the first draft. While the father is a foreigner, but the children are not. Many of them have no legal documentation. There is a great sense of fear of what will happen. In the middle of it, you have these kinds of statements from Assam ministers that all these people will be deported.

Do you think the government is rushing through the NRC?

Against the backdrop of the impending conclusion of the NRC, this is a matter of extreme urgency from a human rights perspective. There is the possibility of tens of thousands of Assam residents being declared foreigners. Their fate is a human rights concern of the highest importance at this time. 

There has to be a national discussion about what will do with these people and there should be transparency about what is going to be the policy with regard to the process. There may be a political objective of the BJP-led government that is causing distress to the people.

There is an apprehension that the process will further divide Assam? Is that the sense you got in Assam?

They are potentially creating a crisis like the Rohingya crisis or possibly even worse. We have to prevent that from happening. 

There is an accusation that the BJP is doing vote bank politics in the name of NRC. Is that so? 

There is no doubt about that. They are saying they will keep the Bengali Hindus' right to stay and not Bengali Muslims. Not just Assam nationalism but communal agenda.

You also spoke about encounter killings. Do you mean to say minorities are targeted under BJP rule, that there is a communal angle to these encounters? 

We have had encounter killings during previous governments and those were a clear human rights violation. But what is the additional twist now is that encounter killings are targeting a particular community. That is worrying in a different kind of way. Within 8-12 hours Yogi Adityanath came to power [in UP], they had an encounter. In Mewat, it is entirely the set of people who are victims were Muslims.

The Lok Sabha polls are coming. You feel the NHRC has not risen to occasion. Is the situation worrying?

It is extremely worrying. The situation of human rights and situation of minorities are worrying. The attitude of the government is worrying.

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