Skip to main content

As free space shrinks, Gujarat human rights meet wonders: Where do we go from here?

By Rajiv Shah 

In yet another confirmation of how space for free expression is shrinking in Gujarat, a human rights conference, attended by some well-known names – Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan, environmentalist Vandana Shiva, People’s Union for Civil Liberties leader Kavita Shrivastava, Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar, among others – was held at a private terrace in Ahmedabad instead of a public space.
The reason seemed simple, and several speakers (ironically, not the organisers) stated it openly: It’s quite some time that no one, not even private hall owners, not to talk of state-supported halls, are available for those seeking to express dissent.
There was a time when the Mahatma Gandhi-founded Gujarat Vidyapeeth hall used to be available for such events, but following its “takeover” by the Gujarat governor in 2022-end, it is no longer available. Earlier, the Mehdi Nawaz Jung Hall in Ahmedabad was available – but since it is controlled by the Gujarat governor, it became a “no-no” for rights leaders ever since Narendra Modi won the polls in May 2014.
Held under the auspices of a Foundation named after perhaps the most well-known person among Gujarat advocates taking up human rights issues, late Girish Patel, the conference was attended mostly by like-minded persons -- academics, lawyers, scholars and activists.
Organised by a team led by senior Gujarat High Court advocate Anand Yagnik, a worthy Girish Patel disciple, during each of the three days it was held starting January 26, on an average, 150 people actively participated.
Discussions, often focusing on specific areas like sugarcane workers of South Gujarat and saltpan workers of the Little Runn of Kutch, took place around human rights and their national and international perspectives; civil liberties; Adivasi, Dalit, farmer, minority, woman and child rights; environmental impact of infrastructure and development projects; environment and biodiversity; labour rights and minimum wages, and so on.
One of the very few of its kind in recent years, the conference, which ended on January 28, saw participants confront the crucial question: Yes, we have discussed some of the most nagging issues concerning civil and human rights, especially in Gujarat, but what next? Where do we go from here? What do we do next?
Medha Patkar, who spoke at the concluding session, was frank: Admitting a huge gap between what the activists think and their desired action, she said, people still do not know what destruction the Rs 90,000 crore Narmada dam has brought about in Gujarat and the neighbouring states. 
While the canals havn’t been built and waters haven’t reached the Kutch farmers, thousands of cusecs are being wasted away by releasing the waters in the Little Runn of Kutch, destroying the livelihood of saltpan workers operating there, she claimed.
Patkar asked participants to visit Madhya Pradesh to see for themselves how her organisation, Narmada Bachao Andolan, is leading protests against the huge tracts of land, including hundreds of villages, being submerged by Narmada waters, as a result of a dam considered by dominant sections as lifeline of Gujarat.
She later told Counterview, “There is a need to tell people what’s happening with Narmada waters, why it’s being wasted.”
Following the conference, a decision was taken to train activists, making them aware of human rights issues and the legal tools which can be used to fight for the oppressed sections. All agreed, there was a need to hold similar conferences, a rarity now, on a regular basis, in order to discuss and debate the issues confronting broader sections.
However, there appeared to be no answer to how and where -- except for the private terrace where the conference took place. Nor was anyone clear as to whether anything beyond training activists by turning them into para-legals – something that the Ahmedabad-based NGO Centre for Social Justice has been doing for decades now, in whatever limited way – could be done.
A senior journalist, who could not attend the conference because of personal reasons, told Counterview, “I would have gone there only to keep my contacts alive, to meet them... But it's a fact: the participants’ views are well-known, I presume they wouldn’t have said anything new.”
Indeed, while there was a discussion at the conference on “violence against women in social media/ online violence”, what seemed missing was ways to adopt the online tools which were not available to valiant but traditional agitators like Medha Patkar till now in order to discuss and propagate human and civil rights.
This issue is particularly significant, as there is an increasing view among civil society groups that the established media -- print or electronic -- is “not responsive” to the needs and aspirations of the civil society. And how could it be? Their owners and their supporting journalists think that news is nothing but family business – someone even equated it with Colgate.
Few in the civil society seem to understand that times have changed – a factor predicted, ironically, by Nobel laureate Mohammad Yunus, the Grameen Bank man from Bangladesh, in his book titled “Bankers to the Poor”, first published way back in 1998, when information and communication technology (ICT) was in its nascent stage.
Hounded by Bangladesh authorities today, Yunus, now 83, had said then, ICT was going to “change the world in the immediate future far more rapidly and fundamentally than any other technology so far in human history.”
In the chapter “Poverty Free World: How and When”, the top economist's words were prophetic: “The most attractive aspect of this spread of ICT is that it is not in anyone’s control. Neither government, nor big business, nor anyone of any authority can restrict the flow of information. The next best aspect of it is that it is becoming cheaper every day.”
Yunus further said, “ICT is raising the hope that we are approaching the world which is free from power brokers, and knowledge brokers”, pointing out, the ICT revolution was going to be “particularly exciting for all disadvantaged groups, voiceless groups, and minority groups.”
He insisted, “Any power based on exclusive access to information will disintegrate. Any common citizen will have almost as much access to information as the head of government. Leadership will have to be based on vision and integrity, rather than on manipulation of information”. 
Few appear to understand: this is exactly what is happening, despite the big business efforts to control social or news or any other internet-based media.
It may not be fashionable to quote Karl Marx today, as it was in 1970s. But what Yunus said is a reflection of Marx’s views enunciated way back in 1859 in “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”: “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”
While established Communists have may not have paid heed to this truth, Yunus’ views on ICT suggest the correctness of Marx’s views. 
One wonders: Isn’t it time civil society heeds the voice of reason of Yunus and Marx and consider ICT as a means to change amidst Government of India's latest move to regularise online media?

Comments

TRENDING

'Flawed' argument: Gandhi had minimal role, naval mutinies alone led to Independence

Counterview Desk Reacting to a Counterview  story , "Rewiring history? Bose, not Gandhi, was real Father of Nation: British PM Attlee 'cited'" (January 26, 2016), an avid reader has forwarded  reaction  in the form of a  link , which carries the article "Did Atlee say Gandhi had minimal role in Independence? #FactCheck", published in the site satyagrahis.in. The satyagraha.in article seeks to debunk the view, reported in the Counterview story, taken by retired army officer GD Bakshi in his book, “Bose: An Indian Samurai”, which claims that Gandhiji had a minimal role to play in India's freedom struggle, and that it was Netaji who played the crucial role. We reproduce the satyagraha.in article here. Text: Nowadays it is said by many MK Gandhi critics that Clement Atlee made a statement in which he said Gandhi has ‘minimal’ role in India's independence and gave credit to naval mutinies and with this statement, they concluded the whole freedom struggle.

BSF should take full responsibility for death of 4 kids in West Bengal: Rights defender

By Kirity Roy*  One is deeply disturbed and appalled by the callous trench-digging by BSF in Chetnagachh village under Daspara Gram Panchayat, Chopra, North Dinajpur District, West Bengal that has claimed the lives of four children. Along the entire stretch of Indo-Bangladesh border of West Bengal instead of guarding the actual border delineated by the international border pillars, BSF builds fences and digs trenches well inside the Indian territory, passing through villages and encroaching on private lands, often without due clearance or consent. 

A Hindu alternative to Valentine's Day? 'Shiv-Parvati was first love marriage in Universe'

By Rajiv Shah*   The other day, I was searching on Google a quote on Maha Shivratri which I wanted to send to someone, a confirmed Shiv Bhakt, quite close to me -- with an underlying message to act positively instead of being negative. On top of the search, I chanced upon an article in, imagine!, a Nashik Corporation site which offered me something very unusual. 

How GMOs would destroy non-GMO crops: Aruna Rodrigues' key submissions in SC

Counterview Desk The introduction of Bt and HT crops will harm the health of 1 billion Indians and their animals, believes Aruna Rodrigues, who has made some 60 submissions to the Supreme Court (SC) during the last 20 years. As lead petitioner who filed Public Interest Litigation in 2005, during a spate of intense hearings, which ended on 18 January 2024, she fought in the Apex Court to prevent the commercialization of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Indian agriculture. 

Social justice day amidst 'official neglect' of salt pan workers in Little Rann of Kutch

By Prerana Pamkar*  In India’s struggle for Independence, the Salt Satyagraha stands as a landmark movement and a powerful symbol of nonviolent resistance. Led by Mahatma Gandhi, countless determined citizens walked from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi in Gujarat. However, the Gujarat which witnessed the power of the common Indian during the freedom struggle is now in the throes of another significant movement: this time it is seeking to free salt pan workers from untenable working conditions in the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK).

Jallianwala massacre: Why Indian govt hasn't ever officially sought apology from UK

By Manjari Chatterjee Miller*  The king of the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, apologized in July 2023 for his ancestors’ role in the colonial slave trade. He is not alone in expressing remorse for past wrongs. In 2021, France returned 26 works of art seized by French colonial soldiers in Africa – the largest restitution France has ever made to a former colony. In the same year, Germany officially apologized for its 1904-08 genocide of the Herero and Nama people of Namibia and agreed to fund reconstruction and development projects in Namibia. .

Corporatizing Indian agriculture 'to enhance' farmer efficiency, market competitiveness

By Shashank Shukla*  Today, amidst the ongoing farmers' protest, one of the key demands raised is for India to withdraw from the World Trade Organization (WTO). Let us delve into the feasibility of such a move and explore its historical context within India's globalization trajectory.

Interpreting UAPA bail provisions: Is Supreme Court setting the clock back?

By Kavita Srivastava*, Dr V Suresh** The Supreme Court in its ruling on 7th February, 2024 in   `Gurvinder Singh v State of Punjab’ held that its own well-developed jurisprudence that "Bail is the rule and jail the exception" will not apply to those charged under the UAPA.

A 'distorted narrative' of Indian politics: Congress failing to look beyond LS polls

By Prem Singh*  About 15 days ago, I told a senior journalist friend that there are not even two   months left for the Lok Sabha elections, Rahul Gandhi is roaming around on a delectation (tafreeh). The friend probably found my comment exasperating and replied that he is not on a delectation trip. The conversation between us on this topic ended there. 

Livelihood issues return to national agenda ahead of LS polls: SKM on Bharat Bandh

Counterview Desk  Top farmers' network, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) has claimed big success of Grameen Bharat Bandh and industrial /sectoral strikes, stating, the “struggle reflected anger of farmers, workers and rural people across India”, adding, the move on February 16 succeeded in bringing back peoples’ livelihood issues in the national agenda just ahead of the general election to the Lok Sabha.