NHRC needs to grow a backbone
The appalling record of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is no secret to anyone. While people continue to suffer from rights abuses and injustices in greater numbers each year, it is busy deflecting blame and justifying its existence with the bare minimum it does. But as an analytical report by The Daily Star shows, while significant government restrictions do exist to make it impossible for it to pursue certain cases, the NHRC itself is as much to blame for its own lacklustre performance. The commission, according to data cited by our report, could not resolve nearly half of the cases filed with it over the last decade. Between 2011 and June 2021, a total of 6,736 complaints were lodged with the NHRC, but only 55.11 percent of them were disposed of.
The number of cases it takes up appears woefully short, and gives an inaccurate picture of the rights situation in the country. Even more problematic is the extremely low number of cases it calls "resolved" and the barriers it says it faces in bringing cases to a successful close. The problem starts with its definition of "resolved". As a report by Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) points out: "In most cases, the commission classified a case as resolved when the government replied that no evidence was found of any involvement of the law enforcement agencies into human rights violations or that the matter is still under investigation. Only in a handful of cases, the authorities state that steps had been taken against those responsible." Clearly, what it thinks "resolved" is what the government wants it to think, which is deeply concerning given that many of the allegations are against government functionaries themselves.
In most cases, the commission only takes nominal measures, like issuing a public statement, sending notices to a relevant ministry and reminding them to address human rights violations. The fact is, any rights organisation could do those things without having the mandate that NHRC does. The commission, as the nation's rights custodian, has some serious soul-searching to do here in terms of what's expected of it and what it can do to justify its continued existence.
As for the barriers it faces, there are many. It is vastly understaffed, brings a bureaucratic approach to solving human rights problems, and has what a former chairman calls an "inherent weakness". The NHRC is not legally permitted to investigate anything related to the disciplined forces, including police. "In India, the human rights commission can at least investigate the police forces. But here, other than writing letters to the home ministry, we cannot even do anything about the police, let alone investigate," says Dr Mizanur Rahman, who was NHRC chairperson from 2010 to 2016. For example, even as just over half of the overall cases were solved over the last decade, only a fraction of the complaints against law enforcement agencies were resolved. The complaints include extrajudicial killing, custodial torture, custodial death, enforced disappearance, etc.
We believe the commission can do more, much more, even within its existing legal mandate. And what systemic and logistical barriers it faces—including legal jurisdiction and manpower issues—are nothing that a well-meaning administration cannot remove. That it hasn't done so in the 13 years of the NHRC's existence, and despite the country's abysmal human rights record, is deeply disturbing. We urge the government to sufficiently equip and empower the NHRC to address people's grievances. A weak rights commission is as good as no commission.