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Manusmriti and NHRC’s status

Manusmriti and NHRC’s status

It’s the NHRC Chairperson’s responsibility to ensure that it maintains ‘A’ status at UN-level. Failure to do so hurts India’s national interests

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Last Updated : 19 June 2024, 00:20 IST
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The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of India was constituted under the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 (PHRA), “for better protection of human rights, and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”. 

Section 2(d) of the PHRA defines human rights as “the rights relating to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the individual guaranteed by the Constitution or embodied in the International Covenants and enforceable by courts in India”, and Section 12 of the law defines the functions of the NHRC. 

The NHRC received ‘A’ status of accreditation from the UN-affiliated Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) for the first time in 1999. GANHRI’s Sub-committee for Accreditation (SCA) operates a rigorous peer-reviewed accreditation process with inputs from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), NHRIs and other human rights stakeholders. 

‘A’ status is accorded to NHRIs that are found fully compliant with the UNGA-proclaimed Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948, centred upon “recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family [as] the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”, and the criteria of the internationally recognised and accepted 1993 ‘Paris Principles’. 

The NHRC maintained its ‘A’ status in the 2006 and 2011 reviews. It indicated the central government’s positive approach to the human rights of India’s people, and was a statement of NHRC’s institutional effectiveness in carrying out its mandated function. In the 2016 review, the GANHRI-SCA deferred India’s status citing issues with political appointments, and lack of gender balance and pluralism in NHRC staff, but eventually gave it ‘A’ status in 2017 following changes. 

The NHRC’s ‘A’ status gives India the right to participate fully in the activities of the UN,enables India’s voting rights in certain UN bodies, allows NHRC to represent India in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) or the UN General Assembly (UNGA), and permits the NHRC Chairperson to attend meetings of the UNHRC or UNGA. The lack of ‘A’ status means the NHRC cannot represent India in the UNHRC nor vote or hold governance positions in it.    

GANHRI Report 

GANHRI’s Report and Recommendations of the SCA sessions in February and March 2023 concerns 13 countries, including India. The NHRC’s ‘A’ status was deferred, with the SCA citing several reasons, some of which are lack of transparency in appointing members to the NHRC, the appointment of police officers to oversee human rights investigations, and the lack of gender and minority representation on the member panel.

The SCA recommended that NHRC address all violations of human rights and ensure follow-up so that people’s human rights are effectively protected. It also wanted the NHRC to make its position on human rights issues made publicly available to strengthen its cr- edibility and accessibility for all people in India. 

That the NHRC failed to obtain ‘A’ category accreditation in the review held a year later, in May this year, is cause for serious concern.

Possible unstated reasons

Justice Arun Kumar Mishra, while still in service as a Supreme Court judge, had spoken at the International Judicial Conference in February 2020, calling Prime Minister Narendra Modi an “internationally acclaimed visionary” and a “versatile genius”. Justice Mishra was appointed NHRC Chairperson in June 2021 soon after he retired. 

In the 2023 GANHRI accreditation review, his words at the International Judicial Conference may have reflected on NHRC’s autonomy from the government and its independence in investigation of human rights violations. 

Manusmriti in NHRC brochure

The NHRC’s Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav “Human Rights for All” brochure of September 2023 states: “Ancient Indian literature, including texts like the Vedas, Upanishads, and various Dharma Shastras (texts on ethics and duties), contains references and teachings that resonate with the principles of human rights”, and “The Manusmriti, while reflecting the social norms of its time, also outlines principles of justice, including punishment proportionate to the crime”. 

Manusmriti concerns Hindu dharma and social customs that are valued by Brahmins and upper castes even in the present times. However, Manusmriti als o:

classifies people according to their varna, in the four castes of Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra, with graded superiority by birth, 

prescribes severe punishment for a Shudra even hearing recitation of the Vedas, and also considers murder committed by a Brahmin a less severe crime than murder of a Brahmin, 

denies Shudras and women education, and holds women to be subordinate to men, and 

separates castes in terms of occupations they may engage in. 

These are at odds with Article 15(1), Article 14, Article 14(2) & 14(4), and Article 19(1)(g), respectively, and generally with the values of justice, liberty and equality enshrined in the Constitution of India. 

Manusmriti does not contribute to the principles of justice and modern concepts of human rights, since PHRA Section 2(d) defines human rights as “the rights relating to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the individual guaranteed by the Constitution or embodied in the International Covenants and enforceable by courts in India”.

A NHRC document quoting the Manusmriti concerning “principles of justice, including punishment proportionate to the crime” raises suspicion that the NHRC has become captive to religious leanings. It is a matter that would not have escaped GANHRI’s review of the NHRC.  

The way forward

It ill-behoves a nation of India’s standing to deny NHRC’s failings or shortcomings. It is better that the NHRC takes note of OHCHR’s observations, and takes positive steps on the GANHRI-SCA recommendations, to improve it s function as mandated in the PHRA. The responsibility to make the NHRC a strong and independent human rights body, and to restore India’s ‘A’ status accreditation, rests with the NHRC Chairperson. 

India’s long-standing claim to UN Security Council (UNSC) permanent membership is likely to lose credibility in the absence of ‘A’ status for its NHRC. 

NHRC officials toeing the government’s line out of fear or bhakti for powerful persons cannot be in the national interest. Our constitutional Republic and the nation are always greater than any one person or even a government.

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