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PUNJAB WAITS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION

PUNJAB WAITS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION


  ln 1950 when the Free India adopted its written constitution its architects made bold claims that it ensured right to life and other fundamental rights where judiciary was independent of the executive. We will be untruthful to ourselves if we do not admit that during the last decade it was an SHO who finally decided whether a boy was a murderer or not. The fact is that the Punjab is a state in the world which respects human rights the least, be it the Naxal days or the Khalistani decade. In accordance with the 1993 Act the government now has a proposal to constitute a Human Rights Commission in Punjab. KULWINDER SANDHU has some reservations over its speedy and effective implementation.

 Official inquiries are often announced to defuse or preempt outrage and quell alternate scrutiny. From the commission to unravel the mystery of Netajis disappearance through the JPC and many other investigations by CBI including disappearance of 2000 Sikh youths between 1988 to 1992 in Amritsar district, the wait for truth to prevail has been long and in most cases futile. Even when the findings finally see the daylight, public interest may have waned. More often the Commission report is never released and thereby no lessons are ever learnt. However the media, the NGOs and the human rights activists have for long stubbornly undertaken the unappreciated Herculean assignment of investigating into various violation cases.
 It seems alt this could change in the Punjab, if we take Prakash Singh Badals promise made sometime back seriously. A more comprehensive and permanent alternative to the existing fact-finding and redressal measures in the human rights domain is in the offing. The Punjab Human Rights Commission, contemplated by the powerful 1993 Human Rights Protection Act, is expected to be notified  soon.
     Its statutory mandate is to  protect the constitutional guarantees  and enforceable international minimum standards of human rights. According to an official spokesman of the Punjab Government, this would be done through an inquiry either suo-moto or on a complaint registered with it regarding violation of human rights, intervention in relevant court proceedings, review of safeguards, recommendations of remedial action, study of human rights instruments, research, awareness, follow up action and encouragement of NGOs. And "such other functions as it may consider necessary for promotion of human rights."
No doubt Badal governments intentions seem to be impressive, but the real question would be whether the PHRC would stand up as a genuine human rights defender or would !t be co-opted by the state to espouse a watered down official version of reality? Skepticism is rife given the experience with existing commissions and bodies. The 1993 Act asks the Chief Minister, Speaker, Home Minister and Leader of the Opposition in the Parliament to get together to nominate the chairperson and members. Truly, PHRC would only be as good as its members. But beyond appointments, the taming or politicisation of this PHRC would not be that easy, as this statutory body has in-built safeguards through the 1993 Act.
 The 1993 Act says that this five- member state commission would be headed bya sitting or retired High Court Judge and have two other Judicial members, giving it a judicial visage. The two other members are required to merely have "knowledge of or practical experience in matters relating to human rights", a condition that your newspaper agent or my talkative barber may fulfill, not to speak of any career politician. Human Rights groups and NGOs have been highly disappointed that there is no representation for human rights experts or activists. For the three honourable judicial members too it is not yet decided whether the necessity of such human rights qualification should be made compulsory or not. Punjab government is silent on this.
The PHRC would undoubtedly draw inspiration from the National Human Rights Commission which though only a few years old, has fearlessly gone about its business as a sort of ombudsman on human rights.  However, there is no reason for the State to be apprehensive about the PHRC, which is conceived neither as a counter weight nor a replacement for the State in the human rights arena. The PHRC would not wave the red flag at the government although it could in a formal partnership emerge as an effective lobbyist working to improve human rights protection.
PHRC demand would be an adequate police staff and administrative, scientific and technical personnel to carry out its functions. This bestows on PHRC both investigative and administrative capability. But despite powers of civil court to summon witness and securing documents, it must assert its willingness to have access to original  records.  Moreover, during  investigations, the commission would have to acquire independent means of thinking, determining facts, stand on its own ground and do plain thinking when necessary.
 With regard to the Commissions jurisdiction, according to a legal expert, there are noticeable limitations. Firstly, it cannot entertain complaints as regards violations which are two years old. This virtually excludes the treatment of cases that had either been hidden or undetected. This is constraining particularly in cases such as torture or disappearance. Secondly, the commission cannot visit jails or any other institution (including refugee camps) under the control of the Government, without intimation to the State-Government. Adequate notice for cover-up is of concern in the critical matters.
 The strength of PHRC would be in its mandate for the follow uP measures on its findings. Its reports are not onty to be published, but have to be laid down before the legislature. The only thing clear is that it will have to be taken as seriously by politicians and bureaucrats and should be equally effective. Besides PHRC would have to demonstrate whether it sees itself merely as a fire brigade or as a pro-active institution that can meet problems upstream and Provide a vision and confident. Much would depend on how it complements and fosters human rights activism.

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