Wednesday, April 14, 2010

[ZESTCaste] The rights choice (Opinion)

The rights choice

D. Raja Posted online: Wednesday, Apr 14, 2010 at 0238 hrs
Every year, on the 14th of April, thinkers and political activists
revisit Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, and each time, return with
refreshingly new ideas. Well before many of the world's nascent
democracies could emerge as strong democratic countries, he
contributed immensely to the establishment of a democratic polity
here, laying the foundation of a democratic republic interlaced with
the philosophy of liberty,that has given a true meaning to freedom.
Except for a few eccentrics who use communal fanaticism to hound out
any creativity, we still hold on to the values of liberty of
expression, freedom of speech and above all the freedom to pursue any
entrepreneurial venture. Ambedkar's birthday is not a celebration for
only Dalits, tribals and the marginalised, but also for women who
crave emancipation, for all those who are fighting for revolutionary
change. The people owe the civil rights they access to Ambedkar. And
it is not as if, one fine morning after independence. Ambedkar listed
all those fundamental rights and incorporated them in the
constitution: it was a hard-fought, step-by-step battle, born out of
his own life experiences and sufferings that Ambedkar conceptualised
the civil rights of every citizen of a nation where everybody is to be
equal. But for Ambedkar the accessibility of basic necessities of life
namely food, water, shelter and clothing are not the only ones that
are needed to survive. It is the right to be treated as an equal, and
it is the reclamation of human personality that drove him to push for
the civil rights that would allow a fellow human being to be able to
walk on the streets with his chin up, to enter any hotel, restaurant,
barber shop, cinema hall, bus, train, to be treated as an equal. Such
a concept of civil rights is the contribution made by Ambedkar to the
nation. The Constitution of India abolished untouchability and passed
a law in 1955 to enforce the civil rights of all individuals,
including Dalits, called the Untouchability Offences Act — later
renamed the Protection of Civil Rights Act. This piece of legislation
is an exquisite exposition of what constitutes civil rights, granting
access to shops, places of entertainment, restaurants, processions,
public conveyances, water. India never needed a Rosa Parks; the
freedoms that Ambedkar stealthily integrated into the constitutional
conscience of the nation came well before the March to Washington for
jobs and freedom in August 1963. In our first three decades, thanks to
Ambedkar, our rights used the civil rights concept of equal access.
The next two decades, as a nation, we moved to the civil liberties
concept, in which the state machinery chose to deny the fundamental
freedoms that accrue to every one of us. Very soon, though, access
rights began to be demanded by the poor, the disadvantaged and the
oppressed of our country — using, now, the human rights perspective
under the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Scheduled
Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act of 1989 were
born of this period, an indication of the necessity to have a far more
stringent law. Today Dalit human rights organisations use these laws
to reassert claims to freedoms for the oppressed. Undoubtedly the
existence of the directive principles of state policy in the
Constitution allowed many, including the judiciary, to push the
modern-day claims of the common man to livelihood and right to life.
The country would have been a far better place to live in had the
directive principles — some of which Ambedkar wanted to be on par with
fundamental rights in the first place — were understood by those in
power. Were the realisation to dawn on us, on Ambedkar's birthday,
that civil rights, civil liberties and human rights, despite their
nomenclature, are yet to be realised fully, then that would be the
greatest tribute we could pay to him. The nation should rededicate
itself to providing a reasonable life to every citizen: education for
all, employment for all, health care for all, housing and a clean and
healthy environment for all. But as the country progresses along the
neo-liberal paradigm of development, the oppressive state machinery
and the unequal society have more brutal methods to repress demands
for rights.

The writer is national secretary of the CPI and a Rajya Sabha MP


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