Showing posts with label HumanRights. Show all posts
Showing posts with label HumanRights. Show all posts

From 9/11 to the Trump Presidency: the Clarifying Power of Difficult Times

Since the election last November I've said a few times that living in the U.S. under Trump is a lot like living through the reaction to 9/11 all over again. On the one hand, both events give one the sense of being surprised by a darkness running deep in the bloodstream of American culture that we might not have been aware of. We had to contend, then as now, with the thought that our ostensible friends and neighbors might be harboring a hostility that we didn't realize was there.

On the one hand, that fall I remember arguing in a public forum with a colleague who essentially bought into the Bush administration's line that the war in Afghanistan was actually about freeing Afghan women who were oppressed by the Taliban. (Faculty on college campuses were by no means immune to government propaganda!)  I stumbled a bit to respond -- I was new in my job and untenured. At a relatively conservative campus and at a time when there was a strong social imperative to be critical of terrorists and supportive of those who oppose them, I was unsure whether I could publicly say what I actually thought: that the Bush administration did not care at all about women in Afghanistan. And that we need to be extremely skeptical of any and all American rationalizations for military action. That particular day, I don't think I quite pulled it off.

That said, so many people were also inspired by the cascade of military and political missteps in 2001-2003 -- from the various excesses of the Patriot Act, to the use of torture at Guantanamo and CIA black sites, to the build-up to the invasion of Iraq -- to become engaged with global current events in a way they hadn't been before.

In contrast to that other colleague I mentioned, another colleague, a (now-retired) Jane Austen specialist whose office was adjacent to mine, was inspired by her commitment to feminism to develop a deep knowledge of groups like RAWA -- and was only too sensitive to the classic Gayatri Spivak conundrum of "white men saving brown women from brown men." She and I had many good conversations in those years about this conundrum, about the complexities of understanding how patriarchy functions in South Asia from a western vantage point, and about the possible roles and limits of western feminism in light of everything else that was going on. I remember marching with this colleague in New York City at the massive anti-war protest in February 2003. Though we did not agree on everything, I was proud to stand with her that day.

So just as it was a terrible and deeply disheartening moment, both in itself and in the social and political reaction it provoked, 9/11 (and now, the Trump Presidency) led many of us to wake up again and assert our commitment to justice -- with all of its complications. Then, we were talking about protecting civil liberties and privacy in light of the Patriot Act, the human rights of prisoners in detention, and the danger of rushing thoughtlessly to war.

Today we have to talk about: the plight of undocumented immigrants and refugees, the rise of a new kind of white nationalism, the many ways in which American society seems to deny the humanity of black people, the fundamental dignity and rights of LGBTQ people, the importance of addressing climate change... and the danger of rushing thoughtlessly to war.

From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Malcolm X and the Post-Colonial World

[The following is the draft text of a talk I am due to give next week at Lehigh's conference on Malcolm X. Any feedback or criticism would be welcome.] 

Let’s start with a quote from Malcolm X, from his famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech delivered in April 1964.

When we begin to get in this area, we need new friends, we need new allies. We need to expand the civil-rights struggle to a higher level -- to the level of human rights. Whenever you are in a civil-rights struggle, whether you know it or not, you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. No one from the outside world can speak out in your behalf as long as your struggle is a civil-rights struggle. Civil rights comes within the domestic affairs of this country. All of our African brothers and our Asian brothers and our Latin-American brothers cannot open their mouths and interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States. And as long as it's civil rights, this comes under the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. 
But the United Nations has what's known as the charter of human rights; it has a committee that deals in human rights. You may wonder why all of the atrocities that have been committed in Africa and in Hungary and in Asia, and in Latin America are brought before the UN, and the Negro problem is never brought before the UN. (“The Ballot or the Bullet”; Malcolm X Speaks 34)

As is well known, towards the end of his life, Malcolm X’s approach to talking about racism and inequality underwent a series of changes. Some of those changes had to do with theology -- his departure from the Nation of Islam and his embrace of orthodox Sunni Islam. Others have to do with his changing attitude towards ideas about segregation, black nationalism, and the mainstream civil rights movement.

What has been less talked about is that in these last years he also radically increased his understanding of and engagement with parallel questions related to race, nationalism, and political sovereignty in the post-colonial world. In his final years, Malcolm X was in the process of transforming from a black nationalist intellectual whose ideas about resistance and liberation were firmly rooted on American soil into a more global figure with strong ideas about third world revolutions, the nature of the cold war, and the prospects for international socialism. In speeches like “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X highlights the potential importance of the United Nations and the International Declaration of Human Rights as a path of redress for African Americans on the receiving end of American racism. Malcolm X strongly suggests that the pattern of civil rights abuses and discrimination in the United States needs to be seen and judged by international bodies -- the same as human rights abuses anywhere.

In the early 1960s, the UN was one of the most important vehicles for legitimizing a large number of new nations in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean that became independent from European colonial powers in the decade between 1955 and 1965. More than thirty new nations gained independence in this period in Africa alone, and all immediately joined the UN, impacting the culture of that organization.

Importantly for our purposes today, this process of decolonization was occurring effectively simultaneously with the Civil Rights movement within the United States. Within the United States, those were the years when Black Americans successfully fought for and won rights that had been denied to them. Elsewhere in the world, millions of Black and brown people who had formerly been under the rule of European colonial authority fought for and won the right to self-determination. What Malcolm X came to realize through his travels in Africa and the Middle East in the last years of his life was that the civil rights struggle in the U.S. and the struggles for human rights and democracy in the third world were in effect mirror images of one another. And, as per the quote we started with above, if the attempt to achieve justice and a degree of redress for a history of violence and subjugation within the parameters of the U.S. were not likely to succeed, Malcolm X felt that the best hopes for the Black community in the U.S. would be to take the demand for justice to the broader international community.

The starting point for Malcolm X’s internationalism is his strong sense that as a Black American in 1964 he is not considered a true American. By denying him his dignity and equal enfranchisement under the law, the country has in effect indicated to him that he doesn’t belong. He’s been, in effect, denationalized. Here’s “The Ballot of the Bullet” again:

I'm not a politician, not even a student of politics; in fact, I'm not a student of much of anything. I'm not a Democrat. I'm not a Republican, and I don't even consider myself an American. If you and I were Americans, there'd be no problem. Those Honkies that just got off the boat, they're already Americans; Polacks are already Americans; the Italian refugees are already Americans. Everything that came out of Europe, every blue-eyed thing, is already an American. And as long as you and I have been over here, we aren't Americans yet.
No, I'm not an American. I'm one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I'm not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver -- no, not I. I'm speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare. (“The Ballot or the Bullet”; Malcolm X Speaks 26)

On the one hand being denationalized as a Black man in America is an extremely painful experience. In that feeling of being excluded lie the roots of Malcolm’s anger – that bitterness that seems to reverberate in so many of the speeches he gave, and that terrified many white Americans and led to his being watched by numerous law enforcement agencies (the FBI, the NYPD, and the CIA while he was abroad all had files on him). If a nation refuses to recognize you on the basis of your race, an obvious solution is to use that logic to construct an alternate nationalism. For Malcolm X, that meant Black nationalism as articulated by the Nation of Islam (NOI). As he describes in his Autobiography, Malcolm X came to join the NOI while in prison and stayed with the organization through 1963. But while the NOI had many empowering and beneficial effects on Malcolm X’s intellectual and ideological development, it operated as a closed community articulating a concept of Black nationalism through self-segregation rather than as a frontal challenge to an unjust system. It was only when he left the NOI that Malcolm X really began to broaden his vision in the directions I have been describing here.

While Malcolm always remained focused first and foremost on the sufferings of and denial of rights to African Americans, over the course of 1964 his speeches reflected his moving away from an American-focused Black nationalism in favor of a broad and inclusive human rights advocacy. Immediately after he delivered “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X embarked on a series of international travels that would intensify his convictions in the arguments he introduced in that speech. While in Saudi Arabia, participating in the Hajj, Malcolm had the famous epiphany that Islam has the potential to be a truly racially egalitarian faith – an epiphany that would cause him to rethink, in the last weeks of his life, the terms of his long-held views about the irrelevance of sympathetic whites to the Black struggle.

But as importantly during that period abroad, Malcolm met with intellectuals and allies in many different national contexts, including Lebanon, Egypt, Nigeria, and Ghana. His experiences in Nigeria and Ghana are particularly noteworthy; here Malcolm began to seriously embrace a Pan-Africanist ideology that rhymed with that espoused by major political figures in African politics, including especially Kwame Nkrumah, with whom he met privately towards the end of his trip.

In speeches and public statements made after the trip, Malcolm increasingly referred to events transpiring in Africa – he expressed outrage over the 1961 killing of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, and made frequent references to revolutionary uprisings in places like Algeria and Cuba. Here is a key moment from one such speech, given at a Militant Labor Forum event in May 1964, shortly after Malcolm’s return from his first trip abroad that year and prior to his second:

They [Algerian freedom fighters] lived in a police state; Algeria was a police state. Any occupied territory is a police state; and this is what Harlem is. Harlem is a police state; the police in Harlem, their presence is like occupation forces, like an occupying army.  (Malcolm X Speaks p. 66; also see Marable 335-336)

And then a bit later:

‘The people of China grew tired of their oppressors and… rose up. They didn’t rise up nonviolently. When Castro was up in the mountains in Cuba, they told him the odds were against him. Today he’s sitting in Havana and all the power this country has can’t remove him.’ (Malcolm X Speaks 68; Marable 336)

In June 1964, Malcolm met with Japanese writers visiting Harlem who were survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II (Hibakusha). In his remarks at that meeting he said:

‘You have been scarred by the atom bomb…. We have also been scarred. The bomb that hit us was racism.’ Several Japanese journalists also attended the event, giving Malcolm a platform. He praised the leadership of Mao Zedong and the government of the People’s Republic of China, noting that Mao had been correct to pursue policies favoring the peasantry over the working class, because the peasants were responsible for feeding the whole country. He also expressed his opposition to the growing U.S. military engagement in Asia, saying, ‘The struggle of Vietnam is the struggle of the whole Third World – the struggle against colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism.” (cited in Marable 340. Marable’s source is Yuri Kochiyama’s 2004 memoir, Passing it On)

Also in June 1964, Malcolm created a new, secular organization called the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which dedicated itself ‘to unifying the Americans of African descent in their fight for Human Rights and Dignity.’ The OAAU’s “Statement of Basic Aims and Objectives,” which Malcolm presented at an event at the Audobon Ballroom on June 28, 1964, puts forth an agenda that seems closely aligned with the human rights emphasis Malcolm first articulated in “The Ballot or the Bullet”:

The Organization of Afro-American Unity will develop in the Afro-American people a keen awareness of our relationship with the world at large and clarify our roles, rights, and responsibilities as human beings. We can accomplish this goal by becoming well-informed concerning world affairs and understanding that our struggle is part of a larger world struggle of oppressed peoples against all forms of oppression.  (OAAU, “Statement of Basic Aims and Objectives.” Online at:

Malcolm’s second trip to the Middle East and Africa in 1964 would last five months. On that trip he would first attend the meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the new political structure created by African nations and the antecedent for the African Union. He then spent several weeks in Egypt, working with Islamic scholars at Al-Azhar University.

Malcolm also spent time in Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Senegal, Guinea, and Ethiopia on this trip, and met with many African leaders and writers, including several heads of state: Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, and Sekou Toure. After he addressed the Kenyan Parliament, it passed a “resolution of support for our human rights struggle.” Nearly everywhere he went, Malcolm X was received as a heroic and admired figure – he had no trouble arranging meetings with heads of state such as President Sekou Toure of Guinea, who spoke to him approvingly about his work.

After returning to the U.S., Malcolm elaborated on his newfound Pan-Africanist and Third Worldist consciousness. In an event again at the Audubon Ballroom in New York on December 13, 1964, he made comments along these lines:

The purpose of our meeting tonight … was to show the relationship between the struggle that is going on on the African continent and the struggle that’s going on among the Afro-Americans here in this country. […] As long as we think—as one of my good brothers mentioned out of the side of his mouth here a couple of Sundays ago—that we should get the Mississippi straightened out before we worry about the Congo, you’ll never get Mississippi straightened out. Not until you start realizing your connection with the Congo.’ (Malcolm X Speaks 90; see Marable 395)

What is the real import of the distinction Malcolm X draws between “civil rights” and “human rights”? I can think of two answers, one that might be more pragmatic and one more philosophical. As a Black man who felt himself to be denationalized, Malcolm didn’t believe that a struggle focused entirely on civil rights could ever achieve its ends. He didn’t trust that the American system could ever reform itself from within, that it could ever truly deliver justice for its African American population. So a turn to international bodies, to third wordlist ideology, and to Pan-Africanism provided a practical recourse.  

But I tend to think that it’s not just a pragmatic or political strategy that led Malcolm X to turn to human rights. As he increasingly became aware of what was happening in places like the Congo in the early 1960s, and as he came to understand the significance of the Cuban revolution and the misguided nature of the American military involvement in Vietnam, I believe that Malcolm X truly felt that the richest and most effective ethical framework he could adopt was one that would point outwards, beyond American borders. From the speeches he gave in 1964, it’s clear that as Malcolm X visited countries like Egypt, Kenya, and Nigeria, he recognized that the lives of African people were as much deserving of recognition and dignity as much as were those of Black Americans – that he saw (to return to a phrase I used earlier) these parallel struggles as mirror images of one another. If he had lived longer, and been able to visit other parts of the world, the tenor of his ideological evolution in late 1964 leads me to think that Malcolm X would have soon come to expand beyond the pan-Africanism he espoused in the last year of his life towards a kind of global human rights advocacy.

For me this part of Malcolm X’s legacy has particular relevancy and urgency today, as we think about the issues of our day. We see the continued failures of our own government to observe basic human rights protections; under the Bush administration we allowed torture of an unknown number of individuals – which was deemed legal as long as the individuals were not U.S. citizens and the actions were performed off of U.S. soil – in Guantanamo Bay and in various CIA Black sites around the world. And while those practices have ended, no one responsible for those policies has been called to justice. Under Obama we’ve had a policy of extrajudicial execution using drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. The best course of redress for these wrongs isn’t civil rights – the framework of rights within a single national context under a legal framework designed to apply mainly to citizens. With the U.S. military engaged in an effectively globalized field of operations, we need a strong global framework for protecting the rights and protections of individuals across national borders and irrespective of citizenship status. 

In the U.S. fifty years later we still have reasons to doubt that the civil rights of African American citizens are protected under law. The deaths of numerous unarmed Black men at the hands of police last year, followed by non-indictment of police officers responsible for those deaths, makes that only too clear. But the strong sense of international solidarity with protestors on the streets of places like Ferguson and New York City that followed those events was echoed and embraced by activists in other parts of the world. In Malcolm X’s day, the challenge was to present the grievances of American Blacks to the world stage. Often through Twitter (i.e., #blacklivesmatter), images of those grievances can now be seen and known by people elsewhere. We see them; they see us. This is a fulfillment -- though a very partial and limited one -- of an idea of the hope for justice and international solidarity that Malcolm X articulated in the last year of his life. 

Consequences Day: A Modest Proposal for the 19th of March

The U.S. has a number of important civic holidays: Veterans Day (equivalent to the British Armistice Day), Memorial Day, Labor Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and of course, Independence Day. In the past twelve years, a new de facto patriotic holiday has also emerged -- September 11 Day.

Some of these holidays tend to emphasize straightforward patriotism, while holidays like Labor Day and MLK Day tend to provoke internal reflection regarding the injustices in American history.

I think we need a new holiday (or perhaps an anti-holiday) in the spirit of MLK Day and Labor Day: a day to memorialize the tremendous folly, waste, and injustice of the second Iraq War, which began on March 19 2003 -- ten years ago to the day. For readers who have forgotten about this long burning corner of horror, Juan Cole has a helpful set of reminders, with a post called "What We Lost: the 10 Ways the Iraq War Harmed the U.S." I highly recommend it.

I would call my proposed day of remembrance (it is not quite right to call it a holiday) Consequences Day. Here is what I have in mind for Consequences Day:

1. We need a Consequences Day first and foremost because the United States started a war on spurious grounds, and against the advice of friends and allies, and now has to pay for it. We are still dealing with and paying for the Consequences. (And we are still seeing those Consequences in the headlines of the news -- if we choose to notice them. Fifty people were killed in bombings in Baghdad today.)

President George W. Bush and his team have never publicly addressed the consequences of their actions. Bush is now retired and apparently spends his time painting dogs. I do not think there is any mechanism for any of these people to ever come forward and acknowledge their failures and their mistakes; I wish there were. At the very least, I hope their retirement is troubled from time to time by reminders of what they did -- the questioning of the occasional disabled veteran, for example.

2. We need a Consequences Day because the U.S. invaded a country without any sort of plan for following up after the initial invasion component was completed. As Cole points out, and many others have stated, the U.S. did not have very deep knowledge of the country it took charge of in 2003, and indeed had actively excluded some of its most knowledgeable people from participating in the rebuilding of Iraq. Waste and mismanagement ensued, followed by a protracted and bloody insurgency (or Civil War) that left tens of thousands of Iraqis dead and hundreds of thousands permanently displaced.

Americans have been paying financially for the Consequences of this war, and will continue to pay for it for generations -- to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. The Iraqis, for their part, have had to pay for it by having a broken country (see more about that at another Juan Cole post: "What We Did to Iraq").

3. We need a Consequences Day because many political figures (especially in the U.S. Senate) and social institutions (the New York Times, along with a huge swath of the journalistic establishment outside the Times) who might have questioned the build-up to the war, including the very vague and questionable evidence that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, failed to ask the right questions or say "no" when they had the chance.

For the people who failed to say no, Consequences Day needs to be a time to think about how we handle decision-making and how we approach dissent. A number of Democrats in the Senate, for example, clearly made the calculation that voting against the war would be a political loser. The consequence ought to be that they are forced to see the error of their ways. Similarly, many important writers and journalists (two who stand out in my mind are Fareed Zakaria and Salman Rushdie) signed off on Bush's war; I want them to address the consequences of that support.

Surely, many people who supported the war did so because they were "freaked" by the seeming political paradigm-shift represented by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For them Consequences Day should be a reminder that tragedies can multiply themselves if we don't respond to them appropriately and dispassionately. Instead of remaining focused on solving security issues raised by 9/11, we created an entirely new tragedy which has cost more in American lives (4000 soldiers have been killed, and tens of thousands more have been rendered disabled) than were killed on 9/11.

Every American is crystal-clear on what happened on 9/11, but many, if not most, are pretty fuzzy about the fallout from the Iraq War. We need a Consequences Day to rectify that.

One writer who clearly has accepted the Consequences of supporting the Iraq War is Andrew Sullivan, for whom the war was such an epochal catastrophe that it has effectively reversed his political orientation. I am not clear why this hasn't also happened for others. Admittedly, some (one thinks of Tom Friedman) are just too callow and complacent to really even be aware of how their support for the Iraq War has damaged their credibility. (Clearly, between Andrew Sullivan and Juan Cole, bloggers come off much better than institutionally supported journalists when it comes to accountability and the ability to see the truth in front of our noses.)

4. We need a Consequences Day to reflect on the many abuses of human rights conducted by American soldiers and intelligence agencies during this war, and the War on Terror more broadly. American soldiers treated prisoners unspeakably at Abu Ghraib, and the CIA widely used torture at facilities like Guantanamo (but not just Guantanamo). The rest of the world knows that now, so that too has consequences: any American efforts to compel other countries to check the use of torture against detainees will in effect be stillborn until there is some sort of accountability for this.

Consequences Day in, short, is intended as a day of reflection and self-criticism -- borrowing something from the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur (the day of "Atonement"). It would be a day for Americans to stop and take stock of and collectively grapple with the results of this large national failure. While some of it can be pinned on a few terrible public officials who engineered the catastrophe (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld), or to a larger number who assented and were complicit (Rice and Powell, but also John Kerry and Hillary Clinton), in truth the failures of the Iraq War also point to broader structural and social failures that apply in some ways to all of us. How can we do better as a society -- to try and ensure that something like this doesn't happen again?

Not the cheeriest of commemorations, to be sure. But unlike some other civic holidays, a day to focus on the Consequences of our mistakes might actually help us avoid repeating them.

"Victory Becomes the Defeat of the Good": Ram Narayan Kumar

I recently learned of the death of Ram Narayan Kumar, an Indian human rights activist, in Nepal. Kumar, who died of natural causes, is well known in the Sikh community as the staunchest non-Sikh advocate of human rights in Punjab. What drove Mr. Kumar, as far as I can tell, was a pure, principled belief in human rights and democracy, not self-interest or any sense of loyalty to the Sikh community. After 20 years of investigating primary sources and personally documenting thousands of human rights violations in Punjab, in the past few years Kumar shifted his focus to India's northeast -- places like Nagaland and Assam -- where human rights intervention may be most urgently needed now.

I got to see Ram Narayan Kumar speak in New York several years ago, and was impressed by how methodical and dispassionate he was as he spoke about his attempt to document extrajudicial killings and cremations of prisoners during the peak of the Punjab militancy period in the 1980s. Many Sikhs have taken up this cause over the years (indeed, activists still show up at local Gurdwaras every June to lecture about it), but too often emotion takes over from empirical evidence and the need to provide rock-solid documentation. Ram Narayan Kumar focused on the latter, not because he advocated any political cause, but because he had faith in the idea of Indian democracy, and demanded that the system he believed in be truthful, accountable, and transparent.

Though he wrote several books, Mr. Kumar's greatest legacy may be his rigorous documentation efforts of extrajudicial killings by the Punjab Police, which are partially collected in the massive book, Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab. For those who are interested, that book has been posted in its entirety here (PDF, 4.9 MB). I would particularly recommend the documentation section, starting around page 205.

The issue that stood out to me in Ram Narayan Kumar's quest for justice related specifically to the illegal cremation of 2000+ prisoners who were killed in police custody in Punjab in the 1980s. We may never know exactly what happened to these prisoners, or how they died; a Supreme Court ordered CBI investigation has remained sealed, and its contents unknown. But cremation records were at least kept, and provide an unmistakable record. As a result of the efforts of Kumar and others, in 2006, the Indian government's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued monetary awards to the families of 1245 prisoners who were cremated in the mid-1980s. Below is a brief excerpt from one of Kumar's more recent books outlining what happened over the decade of legal proceedings that led to a final resolution (albeit a somewhat unsatisfying one) in October, 2006.

For reference, here is the National Human Rights Commission's order related to its Punjab human rights investigation, dated October, 2006. The report is on an Indian government website (

And below is an abbreviated version of Ram Narayan Kumar's account of his investigation, quoted from Kumar's 2008 book Terror in Punjab: Narratives, Knowledge, and Truth. I'll pick up the account after the disappearance of Jaswant Singh Khalra, the human rights activist who first discovered the record of the mass cremations, who was himself disappeared by the Punjab police in 1995:

On 6 September 1995, Khalra himself disappeared. That morning, Punjab police officers kidnapped him from his Amritsar home. In November 1995, the Supreme Court instituted two inquiries to be conducted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The first inquiry aimed to determine what happened to Khalra. The second inquiry intended to establish the substance of the allegations that Khalra had made. In July 1996, the report of the first inquiry [I think he means, the second inquiry] categorized 2097 cremations into three lists of 585 identified, 274 partially identified and 1,238 unidentified corpses.

After receiving the CBI's report, the Supreme court, in its order dated 12 December 1996, noted that it 'disclosed flagrant violations of human rights on a mass scale.' Instructing the CBI to investigate criminal culpability and to submit a quarterly progress report, the Court appointed the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to determine and adjudicate all other issues and to award compensation. The court's order clearly said that 'since the matter is going to be examined by the NHRC at the rquest of this court, any compensation awarded shall be binding and payable.'


After 10 years of litigation, exhausted mainly in futile legal wrangling and denials by the State agencies, the National Human Rights Commission disposed of the matter with its 10 October 2006 order, awarding arbitrary sums of monetary compensation to 1245 victims. The order divides 1245 victims of illegal cremations into two categories of 'deemed custody,' meaning those who were admitted to be in police custody prior to their death and cremation, and others whose police custody prior to their death and cremation was not admitted. The categorization is based on admissions and denials by the State of Punjab without further inquiry or verification and without the victim families receiving a chance to be heard. Under the first category, 194 families receive 'the grant of monetary reief at the rate of Rs. 2.50 lakhs' . . . Under the second category, the Commission's order awards a grant of Rs. 1.75 lakhs . . . to 1051 victim families on the ground that the police cremated their relatives without following the procedure prescribed by the Punjab Police Rules.

[... ]

When the Supreme Court designated the NHRC to examine and determine 'all the issues' connected with the matter, it also entrusted the CBI to investigate criminal culpability and to submit a quarterly status report on its progress. Ten years later, nothing is known about the progress the CBI has made in its investigations. The quarterly reports, if they have been submitted, remain sealed and unseen. Yet, the NHRC's final October 2006 order affirms faith that the State of Punjab and the Union of India will take appropriate steps to ensure taht violations do not recur. The faith is misplaced, to say the least, when the NHRC, through the procedure of investigation it followed, barred all 'what', 'why' and 'how' questions. How can there be a guarantee of non-recurrence when there is no knowledge of what occurred? These failures constitute a major blow to more than 10 years of work, and a hopeful engagement with the legal process for justice, reparation and accountability, which a small voluntary group of individuals attempted to develop.

The outcome is very disappointing. Yet, I am not taken aback. The atrocities and their denial, which I observed all these years, occurred in a climate of impunity and its surreal celebration, which is very aptly echoed in India's ancient war epic, Mahabharata: 'Yudisththira sat on the high summit of a mound of human skeletons. There, in a state of visible contentment, he ate his rice pudding out of a golden bowl.' (Source: Terror in Punjab: Narratives, Knoweldge, and Truth)

In light of the life of Ram Narayan Kumar, a second quote from the Mahabharata seems appropriate:

To those who fall in war, victory or defeat makes no difference. All the good people -- the courageous, the upright, the humble, and the compassionate -- die first. The unscrupulous survive. Victory becomes the defeat of the good. (Mahabharata, Udhyoga Parva, Chapter 72, 15-72; link)