Rights and Wrongs


It is time for the human rights debate in Manipur, where the endless string of mayhem for the past many decades has disoriented the people of the finer points of rights and entitlements, is given a fresh approach. The clash between draconian laws and brutal counter laws, decrees and diktats, has desensitized their finer appreciations of the beauty of even the much hyped idea of freedom. Today, if an ordinary man on the street were to be posed the question as to what he thinks freedom is, the answer in all likelihood would be the rote, superficial, textbook or else indoctrinated definition of it. If he or she understands or believes more than just what it is being advocated to mean, the answer is likely to be a studied silence. A silence induced by fear, whichever side of the fence the belief leans towards amidst the intense conflict over the issue in the place. But an honest answer to the question is important. For one thing, on it will hinge the solution to many of our problems. For another, many other questions of import will necessarily have to be derivatives of it. As for instance, linked to it would be our understandings of rights, justice and a sense of a benign republican polity.

When things get complicated, it is always helpful to refer to the thumb-rule that says begin from the basic. A good way of doing this is as Economics Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen says in his book `Development As Freedom`, to consider the term `unfreedoms` rather than the more ethereal `freedom`. What are the conditions in our individual as well as community life that shackle and weigh down our ability to exercise our freedom of thought, belief and action? Poverty, unemployment, deprivation of political voice, inadequate empowerment to participate and formulate policies that govern our lives, depletion of a sense of purpose in life, shrinking of hope of acquiring the skills and abilities to enhance one`™s own quality of life? What are the `unfreedoms` that are coming in the way of our sense of a more comprehensive `freedom`? We will not presume to know the answer but all we can say is that these are material for honest and intense introspection for all of us at this juncture of our history. This is also the only way we can separate the illusory from the substantial, so vital in our situation.

More urgently, a similar introspective approach is also called for to refresh our understanding of the `human rights` question. The question as to what is `just` and what is `right`, may be relatively easy to answer from the legal standpoint but not so when it is considered as a moral query. This is a very old doubt of humankind and has appeared in literature and philosophy through the ages, and quite interestingly, in this debate, there have always been a grudging admiration for those who have presented dissenting views to the accepted and dominant reasoning. In John Milton`™s `Paradise Lost`, Milton himself seems at times to tacitly empathise with Satan`™s reason for rebelling against what Satan described as God`™s dictatorship, however benevolent. In the Hindu scripture of Bhagavad Gita too, there are many who see Arjuna`™s initial opposition to Krishna`™s sermon that nothing ultimately matters except doing duty to God even if this means bloodshed. Among these who see the human predicament in Arjuna`™s dilemma, is again Amartya Sen in his `The Artumentative Indian`. While duty to God is important, shouldn`™t a consideration of the consequences of this duty be any less important, Sen ponders.

Closer at home, Ratan Thiyam seems also to agree with Arjuna. In his `Kurukshetragi Pirang` (Tears of Kurukshetra) which considers what might have happened after the Mahabharat War, against the backdrop of wails of war widows and orphans, the director poses the same question that Arjuna posed Krishna. This victory of the good over evil can be pyrrhic and even cynical. One is also reminded of Max Weber`™s notion of the `State` as the sole wielder of `legitimate violence` in the larger interest of the citizenry. The non state players in our conflict situation also presume this right to legitimate violence, aspiring as they do to be States. In the Weberian sense then, the two are very much the different sides of the same coin. The point is, this `legitimate violence` has increasingly been the cause rather than deterrent of violence against the citizens. Can `legitimate violence` then still be morally legitimate?

Leader Writer: Pradip Phanjoubam



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