Remembering an Indian human-rights hero

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Justice Rajinder Sachar, who died in Delhi last week at the age of 94, was a respected civil liberties and human-rights activist. He worked tirelessly for movements across the country and became a voice of justice for India’s minorities and oppressed.

Justice Sachar, as he was popularly known, delivered a momentous report in 2006 on the status of Muslims in contemporary India. The report was commissioned by the Congress government to ascertain the social, economic and political status of the country’s approximately 180 million Muslims.

The statistics-rich, 403-page report shattered many myths about the Muslim minority, showing that the community fared worse than other groups, according to social, economic and political development indicators. It recommended greater allocation of resources and legal protection to them as equal citizens of a democratic state. The report deflated the Congress assertion that it was the protector of the minorities while exposing as false the BJP rhetoric of Muslim appeasement at the expense of Hindus. The report also raised awareness among educated Muslims, igniting a debate and paving the way for community advocacy for equity in the democratic system.

However, before the ‘Sachar report’ made him a household name, he was a prominent civil liberties champion in his own right, having joined the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and become its president (1986-95) after his retirement as the chief justice of Delhi High Court. He was appalled by the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and the government’s attempt to shield the guilty. He diligently assisted the legal team representing the activists that brought the perpetrators to book.

When it was reported in 1991 that the Rajiv Gandhi government was tapping the phones of several politicians, he successfully argued in the Supreme Court in 1995 that it was a gross violation of individual privacy, which led to the formulation of guidelines for the surveillance of citizens. He relentlessly fought against oppressive laws like the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which he said were used to suppress minorities and inhibit people’s movement.

As a rights advocate, he firmly believed that the confidence of minorities in the impartiality of the government is the acid test of whether India is a truly just state. He spoke out strongly against the victimization of minorities in recent times, especially in the name of cow protection, pointing out that it was preposterous to target Muslims while the majority of the beef export business is controlled by Hindus. He took a special interest in Jammu and Kashmir and criticised the government of India’s policies, which have led to human-rights violations, but rejected violence as a solution, emphasizing the importance of dialogue and friendship between India and Pakistan.

Another major concern for him was the death penalty in a country where the poor cannot afford legal fees and are therefore more likely to be victims of it. Filing a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court, he argued against it, but the court declined to interfere, maintaining that it was a parliamentary matter. He later presented a petition to Parliament calling for its repeal.

Sachar considered criminals in politics a serious threat to democracy and argued that citizens have a right to know if candidates are offenders prior to elections, which led to electoral reforms in 2004

Sachar considered criminals in politics a serious threat to democracy and argued that citizens have a right to know if candidates are offenders prior to elections, which led to electoral reforms in 2004. A similar initiative he was involved in was the NOTA (none of the above) ballot box provision, which allows citizens to reject all unworthy candidates.

Female empowerment was close to his heart. He considered women to be oppressed and said they are denied their rightful share of power in society and wanted them to be assertive in their demand for one-third of seats in legislatures.

He was simple, graceful and gentle, and made himself easily accessible to human rights activists in need of legal advice across the country. Despite his age, he traveled widely to show solidarity with victims of state highhandedness, be it a demolition drive against the homeless or police firing on peaceful agitators.

He assigned more importance to his association with the PUCL than his judicial status, asserting that civil liberties movements energize India’s democracy.

Despite his status and accomplishments, he was self-effacing, free of ego and grounded by his humanity. He accepted nothing in exchange for his services, declining Manmohan Singh government’s offer of the Padma Vibhushan award.

Sachar did not seem to be troubled by his imminent death, likening it to the changing of the seasons. As I conversed with him a few weeks back at his home, he kept his moonlight smile as if recalling Walter Landor’s lines:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife.

Justice I loved, and, next to justice, human right;

I warmed both hands before the fire of Life;

It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

(Italicised changes mine)

At a time when the human-rights movement in the country is on the defensive, the passing of Justice Sachar creates a void. However, his passion for justice will guide thousands of human-rights workers who had the opportunity to walk with him. They will draw inspiration from him, reliving with zeal his ideals, which will be a natural tribute to a great soul.

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