For a year that has been unbelievably disastrous, blighted by untold difficulties, the annual ritual of choosing the Issue of the Year that, according to Outlook’s wisdom, would impact us in the future as much as it did over the past 12 months has been remarkably easy. Unlike in earlier years when our editors intensely debated and vigorously differed for days over what the single-most issue had been, there was instant agreement this time. Interned indoors for much of the year, everyone grieved the loss of freedoms and acutely felt the importance of rights. I readily acquiesced with good reason.
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Whatever the reasons—divine or manmade—there is little doubt we find ourselves hostage to a dire situation. While a minuscule virus confined us to our homes—curtailing even simple pleasures such as taking a leisurely walk—we are hemmed in an environment that is increasingly turning restrictive. At no place it has perhaps been more acutely felt in the past year as in India, where dissenting with authorities now instantly triggers accusations of being anti-national. Or cracking a joke meant to invoke laughter invites the ire of the powerful.
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The significance of human rights has perhaps never stared at us this starkly ever. Of course, the coronavirus together with its attendant challenges was a candidate for our Issue of the Year. But Outlook’s choices are meant to be both substantive as also surprising, and to us the shrinking space for human rights scored over everything else that happened in the country. With vaccines against the coronavirus now a reality, it is likely we will conquer the pandemic. But a worsening human rights situation has the potential to leave us emasculated and vulnerable forever. Humanity is faced with a future that would be ‘inhumane’.
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Our stifled rights defined the year gone by in more ways than one. Our Constitution promises liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith, and worship, including the right to criticise. Yet, scores of those who took to the streets in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh against the Citizenship Amendment Act find themselves silenced and shut out. Jailed over riots that rocked the capital soon after, the charges against them for hatching a conspiracy look far from convincing. Might is increasingly coming across as a matter of right, as many, aligned with the government and against whom video evidence existed for inciting violence, have been allowed to go scot-free.
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The trail of travesties this year has truly been unending. Remember the images of tens of thousands of hapless migrants trudging home in the initial days of the Covid-induced lockdown? At one stroke they were divested of all dignities, despite a top legal official assuring the court that none was on the road. Similar outrageous indignity was heaped even after death when a Dalit rape victim at Hathras in Uttar Pradesh was denied a decent cremation. It sparked nationwide uproar, but so scant is the respect for the rule of law these days that many—including a journalist—are in jail for daring to visit the site.
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Worryingly, securing legal recourse is becoming a rarity too. Pleas for justice are routinely being sidestepped or stretched to deprive succour. An aged Kashmiri leader is seen being physically held back by security men at his home hours after the government tells the top court that he has never been under detention. They all could have qualified as comic had the consequences been not so grave. Actress Rhea Chakraborty spent a month in jail because TRP-thirsty TV channels pronounced her guilty for the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. And when her biggest tormentor, anchor Arnab Goswami, was hauled to jail in a case of overreach by Mumbai Police, it re-emphasised how rampant human rights violations were.
It is time the epidemic of abuses is called out and this issue of Outlook does exactly that. Count on us to call a spade a spade without taking sides—and surely without fear or favour.
Tiger, Tiger Whining Bright!
From The Ballad Of Indian Gaols
Pray, Speak The Truth, Milords!
In Search Of Sadda Haq
Camus In Kashmir
Rights Of Nature
Evidence Of Absence
Just Conduct Under The Indian State