Freedom of expression is as important as the air we breathe and the food we eat. For this reason, democracy is the greatest gift to humankind. Our Constitution gives us the rights of liberty, fraternity and equality. The manner in which voices of dissent like Sudha Bharadwaj and Arun Ferreira are being curtailed is worrying. The killing of liberals like Gauri Lankesh is an ominous sign. Increased cases of mob lynching is an ominous sign of an intolerant society.

While the internet has accorded more importance to the grievances of the common man and has transformed the way we interact, it has also been used very irresponsibly. Rise in cybercrimes like child pornography, morphing, cyber bullying and fake news is a gross misuse of the freedom of speech.

Our forefathers were true visionaries as our Constitution is a reservoir of human rights. However, it has failed to translate into reality. The UN Human Development Index ranks us at a poor 130. For instance, litigation in our country is expensive and ridden with delays. This is the largest human rights violation as remedial measures are difficult to obtain and justice is denied. As a lawyer, my experience has been that corruption in the judiciary results in gross injustice. Often the police too is bribed to make a weak case against a victim, due to which the case falls through in the courts. This is particularly true in cases involving influential persons.

Twenty-one women are burnt every day for dowry. Their basic right to live with safety and dignity in their own homes is denied to them. Rising cases of gangrapes show that women have become a sport to these depraved men. The Hyderabad veterinary doctor’s rape case has shocked the conscience and ethos not only of India, but also the world. Women are yet to be treated as human beings. 

Another upsetting issue is how India lags behind in securing rights for the disabled. Our system is designed in a way that is completely apathetic to their needs. I recently filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court highlighting how a basic necessity like ramps is not provided in public places like theatres, banks, restaurants etc. If this is the case with Mumbai, I can’t even begin to imagine what the situation is like in Tier 2 and 3 cities.

I think we are a highly unequal society. 49% of our electorate comprises women, but only 14% of our Parliamentarians are women. Equal pay for equal work also remains a distant dream. In the latest Fortune 500 list, only 33 women are CEOs and this is the highest ever. UN SDG 8 provides for equal pay for equal value of work. The fact that they wish to achieve it by 2030 and it is still not a reality, deeply saddens me.

We have some very progressive laws for women like equal inheritance under the Hindu Succession Act, but we rarely see a woman claiming her paternal inheritance. Similarly, the Maternity Benefit Act provides for 26 weeks of paid leave but instead of seeing increased participation, women are being retrenched as companies don’t want to bear the costs. In the Sexual Harassment Act, many members of the Internal Complaints Committees feel that their companies don’t take it seriously. What we require is strict enforcement of laws to create an encouraging culture for women to claim their rights.

Every citizen in India has a right to practice, profess and propagate his or her religion. However, the Constitution imposes a duty on the state to treat all religions equally. I think this is the correct approach as religion should be personal and should not be governed by the State. Marx was right when he said ‘Religion is the opium of the masses’. There has been a rise in religion being used as a divisive tool with the issues of Ayodhya, Sabrimala, mob lynching and an increase in Hindutva politics. Religion has been cited as the reason to justify oppressive practices against women like honour killings, sati etc. Not allowing entry of menstruating women into Sabrimala is a case in point. It also cannot be used as a tool to exploit and shackle marginalised communities. Violence against Dalits and mob lynching in the name of religion should be strictly punished as per the law. Mob lynching must be made a specific offence under the IPC.

Abha Singh, social activist and lawyer, has taken up several cases concerning public interest. She also runs an NGO called RannSamar Foundation which provides pro bono legal aid.

Abha Singh, 10/16/2020 12:00:00 AM

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