For the past two months I’ve been trying to wrangle with the definition of human rights. It’s so easy to spit out the constitutionally approved definition, which I encountered with every fifteen year old child I met during the past five weeks. It’s equally easy to make human rights about law, because the law is always where we turn to for addressing violations.
I remember attending a sexuality and reproductive health session a few weeks ago. At the end of the session the workshop convener started talking about responsible and irresponsible behaviours in sexuality. There were somethings which she said that a lot of us found problematic – can anal/oral and thereby unnatural sex be termed as irresponsible behaviour? Can a woman in an adulterous relationship, with the consent of the man she is philandering against be termed as irresponsible? On questioning her, she responded saying that this is the way the law sees sex and sexuality and thereby behaviour becomes responsible and irresponsible.
Sexuality is anyway a tricky area to negotiate, ridded as it is with holes of morality and myth. But as ‘enlightened’ practitioners in the field (she takes sexuality classes in colleges and schools), I think somewhere the questioning mentality of how certain things are put forth in the law is quite missing.
Anyway, I have just returned from spending five weeks at the State Human Rights Commission: where there was work with people who have had their rights violated; with college students just setting out on their way to prevent human rights violations (through law); and with young children who have no idea what rights are. The multiple perspectives this gave me, the contexts which people come from, the ways in which people try to handle their problems made me try and understand what exactly this thing is – which we call human rights. Are rights merely demands, state-sanctioned demands, or something more poignant than that? I have been throwing around this term from I can’t remember when but it is only now that I have started considering the myriad things that it might mean to different people. What is the base line? I see it as pure humanity.
There is another problem here, in that humanity itself is such a ceaseless topic, undulating, cresting and troughing along with the streams of change. Trying to characterize it is a mind boggling matter. However, I believe in something called a conscience, not a homogenous entity residing in everyone of us, but some kind of code which has emerged within us in response to a variety of things. And I believe that if something we do violates that code, then there is something the matter. Obviously, this code is going to differ from person to person and that is okay. And maybe it is because of this, when one person’s code became the morality of a collective, that humanity began to be defined through rigidity. I see the current human rights paradigm as emerging from this rigidity.
So is the rigidity of human rights the problem or the ambiguity of humanity the issue? I’d like to say that the ambiguous nature of humanity is exactly that which makes it so human. But I understand that we do live in a society, with its rules and vagaries and for that there needs to be standards. Introducing ambiguous laws would lead to a chaos which is not necessary a positive phenomena but might become inherently harmful.
I know that if I say a balance needs to be struck, it is amongst the worst solutions as balance is apolitical. And the issue of human rights needs to be politicised – so that everyone has a say. As for me, I am just writing whatever comes to my mind. Not so much streams of consciousness but maybe a pathway of consciousness. I have no idea where it is leading me but let’s see.
On meeting Sebastian from the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights and reading about Kannabiran’s work, these are the things which have atleast become clear to me: human rights are not ‘given’ to us by anyone, least of all the State. Human rights are more than just civil liberties, not to diminish their importance or anything. Finally, human rights are something which are derived from our humanity and thereby are equally lithe and supple. Now I only wish that these conclusions were also translated into practice. Maybe then agencies like the State Human Rights Commission would actually work for those who really require it.