Delhi and Paris: A tale of two cities

Stirring reminders of the distance travelled and challenges ahead in securing human rights
Paris flared — Paris, which the divine sun had sown with light, and where in glory waved the great future harvest of Truth and of Justice.
Émile Zola, Paris
I asked my soul: What is Delhi? She replied: The world is the body and Delhi its life
Mirza Ghalib
Exactly 70 years ago, on December 10, 1948, the UN General Assembly met in Paris. Delegates from the world’s many ends met at the hilltop Palais de Chaillot and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The text had been propelled by Eleanor Roosevelt as chair of the drafting committee, and honed by some of the finest minds, scholars, legal and political idealists, visionaries. Selected by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to represent India in the drafting exercise, Hansa Mehta from Gujarat brought to the exercise her own distinctive feminism. Seeing the draft Article 1, “All men are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” Hansaben intervened to say the times had changed and the line should read, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Roosevelt applauded and embraced the amendment.
Human beings
In the post-Hitler, post-Hiroshima world that phrase meant more than any two could. The delegates to the Assembly nourished visions of a global transformation. But, given that of the 58 member-nations, as many as 10 including the Soviet Union, South Africa and Saudi Arabia abstained or did not vote, the delegates must have understood that a document as idealistic as theirs would run into conceptual difficulties and be chronically short in application.
But they could not have imagined that on the Declaration’s 70th anniversary, Paris, the Declaration’s birthplace, would be the venue of a flaming stir, with cars burning along the Champs-Élysées, bringing life in the French capital to a stop. And that, as Emile Chabal has shown in these pages (Editorial page, The Hindu , December 6, 2018), provincial France and even France’s Indian Ocean island of La Réunion would see sit-ins, blockades. Over what? Not something sporadic or transient or ‘local’ but over issues at the heart of the Universal Declaration: dignity, justice and equality. The ‘Yellow Vest’ Paris riots which have shaken French President Emmanuel Macron’s government are about much more than fuel price hikes, the immediate trigger. Following the stunning outburst, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced a six-month reprieve from the hike, only to be rebuffed by the protesters as “too little, too late”. Damien Abad, one of the youngest elected members of the European Parliament, said, “What we are asking of you Mr. Prime Minister, is not a postponement. It’s a change of course.” But this anniversary must not let grim facts obscure the ‘rights rainbow’ on the sky. India’s judiciary is the first of its vibgyor colours. The Supreme Court’s emphatic position on the right to privacy, among others, stands out. As does its sage extension of the deadline for those contesting their non-inclusion in the National Register of Citizens for Assam. Justice S.K. Kaul’s order in the Madras High Court in the Perumal Murugan case, upholding the freedom of a writer to write, is something the UDHR would hail. Next, our Parliament, which has given us the Right to Information Act, following campaign advocacy by Aruna Roy and her colleagues. The third is that part of our media which will not be scared or suborned. The fourth, our security personnel, protecting our safety and our human rights activists protecting our liberty. The fifth, our creative cultural icons who will not surrender their autonomy. The sixth, our remarkable Constitution, B.R. Ambedkar’s legacy. And, finally, the seventh, vox populi! India’s free elections are a ‘UDHR asset’. The massive victory of the Left Front in Kerala’s just-concluded panchayat elections, overcoming the right-wing lurch on Sabarimala, shows a silent majority’s peaceable wisdom, and strength. Tomorrow, there will another unfurling of that rainbow.
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