NHRC of India is an autonomous statutory body established under the provision of The Protection of Human Rights Act (TPHRA) 1993. It works in conformity with Paris principles- a broad set of principles agreed upon by a number of nations for the promotion and protection of human rights, in Paris in Oct 1991.
NHRC has been the flag bearer of human rights protection in India since its inception. Area of concern is whether commission has been successful in fulfilling its role. The answer of this question leads us to debate as to whether by constitution of NHRC, govt. was really serious to make an impact or it was just to appease international audience.
Critics who consider it as an attempt to appease international audience believe that until the early 1990s, GOI displayed little regard for local human rights and civil liberties organisations. Their reports, appeals and petitions on human rights abuses, particularly in view of insurgency operations in Kashmir, Punjab, north-east states met with deafening silence.
The Indian Govt. however could not continue to ignore the criticism of international human rights community which accused govt. overlooking the abuses by providing impunity to security forces. However govt. did not hold any substantive public discussion on the nature and scope of the constitution of NHRC. Major human rights NGOs were largely ignored in whatever limited number of consultations and discussions which did take place.
Composition: The composition of NHRC is high-powered as three out of five members are judges. The chairpersons of the National Commission for Minorities, the National Commission for Schedule Caste, the National Commission for Schedule Tribes and the National Commission for Women are ex-officio member of NHRC. But as there is no coordination among these bodies, opportunities to look into group complaints of minorities, SCs, STs and women seems to be lost.
Though this composition gives NHRC certain degree of legitimacy and credibility but at the same time it attracts the criticism of being ‘retired persons den’. It also increases the risk of legal formalism in the functioning of the commission.
The NHRC composition also does not reflect the country’s ‘sociological and political pluralism’- a requirement emphasized by both UN handbook and Paris Principles.
NHRC vs SHRCs confusion: In the context of functioning of the NHRC the ‘complex web’ of national and several state human right commissions creates a host of confusion regarding jurisdiction for the common man. This is because the Act does not delineate jurisdiction between NHRC and SHRCs and no hierarchical relationship has been mandated. NHRC can’t look into cases pending in SHRCs and vice-versa. On several occasions this has been done by bringing a matter before a SHRC in a slightly modified manner in order to seek to block the jurisdiction of NHRC.
Power of civil court: The NHRC is endowed with power of civil court. It can summon and force witnesses to appear before it and then examine them under oath. NHRC may recommend the granting of ‘immediate interim relief’ to a victim of human rights violations.
Suo-Moto inquiry and independent investigation mechanism: The commission can receive complaints on its own and has its own investing staff for investigation. These powers have helped NHRC to work in preventive and penetrative ways. This is particularly relevant in those situations which involve victims from marginalized sections of the society who do not have the financial or social resources to lodge individual complaints. This is the same vulnerable group which is most likely to be unaware of his rights and mechanism which protect human rights.
The commission is to be credited with making full use of suo-moto powers while focusing issues of custodial deaths, fake encounters, disappearances in Kashmir valley and violence against women.
Jurisdiction over Indian Armed Forces: Besides having a narrow definition of human rights, the Indian Armed Forces are excluded from the jurisdiction of the NHRC. The Ministry of Defense has been asked by the Commission to formulate necessary guidelines for the observance of human rights of civilians by the armed forces while performing their duty in non-combat areas.
However the idea that the NHRC is a toothless and ineffective body, unfit to address the diverse and extensive needs of human rights protection in India is only partially true. NHRC has made special efforts to deal with issues related to addressing the concerns of the vulnerable sections of the society. Whether they are alleged atrocities on adivasis in Kerala by public servants or exploitation of tribals by land lords and mafias, rehabitation of people displaced by mega projects or rehabilitation of widows of Vrindavan, issues related with bonded labour and manual scavenging. Commission has set up a women’s human right cell in view of large number of complaints related to women and girl child.
There is a clear and emerging principle of human rights that the state is responsible not only for the acts of its own agents but also for the acts of non-state players acting within its jurisdiction. The state is responsible for any inaction that may cause the violation of human rights.
All this indicate that the NHRC is far from being a mere mute spectator of human rights violations, though not as powerful as it should have been but is definitely playing a major role in ensuring human rights protection.
Some appreciation please!