Human rights

This article has been written by Devagni Vatsaraj, pursuing a Diploma in Cyber Law, FinTech Regulations and Technology Contracts from LawSikho. The article has been edited by Dhruv Shah (Associate, LawSikho) and Dipshi Swara (Senior Associate, LawSikho).


Traditionally, India has been a knowledge society. Many great philosophers have walked on this land. Indian culture and traditions have welcomed and captured a wide spectrum of thoughts, through practice as well as writings. Our culture has always emphasised the need for quality education and has opened a door of perception, that education is the greatest power; it is the essence that a child carries forward in a form of a genetic chain. The transitions of natural values have been institutionalised through the abodes, also known as the Ashrams in Indian culture. Hinduism is at the centre of India and yet it is not the only religion practiced, propagated and preached here – we have Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Sufism and other cults being followed too. Each of these religions has four primary elements that add up to a holistic education system. 

The nomenclature of these elements may vary from culture to culture but the basic understanding is this – the first element comprises of a concrete and specific aspect of learning, the second element emphasis on methods and modes of learning; the third aspect progresses towards a more sublime understanding, whereas the final element is an abstract dimension of existence.

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Different religions, one philosophy

In Hinduism, these stages are Brahamchari (student life), Grihastha (household life), Vanaprastha (a semi-retired life) and Sanyasi (a full-retired life). The Western culture also stages these elements of human development, in four stages. 

  • The first being disordered and chaotic, where one disobeys authority and is unwilling to accept subordination. 
  • The second stage being of blind faith; 
  • The third stage of inquisitiveness – where one experiments and only then will rely on the belief. 
  • Lastly, the stage where they start accepting the beauty of nature. 

In Islam, these four stages are:

  • Shariat, following by the book, 
  • Tareeqat, that emphasis on training, 
  • Ma’refat, which means the apparatus, and 
  • Haqeeqat, which, as the name suggests, is the divine truth. 

In Buddhism too, this process is categorised in four stages of enlightenmentSotapanna, Sakadagami, Anagami  and Arahant:

  • The first stage is that of a partially enlightened individual, 
  • The second being that of a person who still has desires and ill-will but comparatively less than the first stage. 
  • The third stage, being that of a person completely free from ill-will and fantasies; and 
  • Lastly, a person attaining complete enlightenment, who does not seek rebirth on their passing.

Our culture does not teach us how to be emotional, empathetic, how to respect and make friends or attain interests. An individual grows into these values through education, through these four stages of life. The holy books, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Bhagvat Gita, the Bible, the Quran, the Guru Bani, have shaped our consciousness. The prime importance of Human Rights was in the rich Indian legacy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, which means that “the world is one family.” The basis of Human Rights is Dharma, which defines human experience and existence. Dhr means to uphold, to nourish, to support. The Law of Dharma in ancient India, attempted at structuring an organized social life wherein each individual attained their goals, within the parameters of social norms of principles and integrity. Whether a ruler or the ruled, every individual is governed by their own dharma. The rights and duties, the duty to uphold the law, as well as being subject to law, is dharma.

A walk through eras of Indian history


Kautilya’s Arthasastra outlines the rights and duties of kings/rulers, priests, soldiers, ministers, citizens, etc. The duty of a ruler is administration, protection of the state from external aggressions, maintaining law and order and safeguarding the welfare of the people. It is the duty of the ruler to protect the agriculture in the state, to build storage reservoirs or to provide resources to those who build reservoirs by giving them land, building roads, channels and sanctuaries or giving grants of timber and implements. The ruler shall enforce and execute the laws on the subject of discipline. A minister, according to Kautilya, must be a self-controlled man, having good knowledge of politics, an orator, a good debater, of a pleasing nature and courageous. 

While referring to the duties of a citizen, he states that they shall take appropriate precautions against fire; not to light fires during the middle quarters of the day. If a house catches fire, the occupant, whether or not a resident, shall take immediate steps. That the citizens shall not throw dirt on the streets or let mud and water collect there. Further, one shall not kill or throw out dead bodies of animals or human beings inside the city but dispose of the remains in a proper manner. The text also refers to the womens’ right to property. A woman has control over her dowry and stridhan, to pass on the possessions to her male heirs. 


Gautama Buddha was educated to honour not only ones’ parents, brothers, sisters, children, relatives and family but also the other individuals in the society. If somebody hurt the other, physically or verbally, it is considered that the individual may be a person lacking the basic human qualities. Regard for human dignity is the basic social message of Buddhism. Buddha himself has suggested the people not to accept his words, simply because they were his words, but only after investigating the words with proper reasoning. Thus, he provided freedom of thought and expression to the people. Ashoka, adopted and publicized Buddhism and established a welfare state, one in which there would be no conflict among the people regarding caste, sect, religion, etc. 

During the supremacy of the Guptas, the main objective of the king was to work for the welfare, comfort and prosperity of the people. The inscriptions of the time, mentions that a king can become a successful ruler only if he waits upon the elders, studies the art of government, embraces piousness and protects his subjects as efficiently as the celestial guardians. It was his duty to protect the province from external invasions and internal revolts. Harshavardhana’s administration resembles that of Mauryas and Guptas. Disguising himself like an ordinary man, he wandered in the country for the welfare of his subjects. He served his subjects very sincerely and kept his subjects happy. The most important feature of the middle ages was that the writers considered that the ruler was under the supremacy of the natural law. This idea led to the development of the doctrine of natural rights of man. 

Mughal Period

The Mughal emperor Akbar, with his policy of universal reconciliation and tolerance established an era of traditions by the proclamation of Tauhit-i-Ilahi [Din-Ilahi] or universal religion, in which he incorporated the best elements from all religions. The Islamic tradition of Human Rights became evident in the medieval ages. The holy Quran preached universal brotherhood and equality. The Sultan was the head of the state. It revived and regenerated the cherished Indian values of truth, righteousness, justice, and morality. These values were rooted in religion, humanitarian traditions and the never-ending resistance for freedom and equality. 

British Rule

Human Rights took shape during British rule. Resistance to foreign rule was manifested in the form of demand for fundamental freedoms and civil and political rights for the people of India. The main demand for Fundamental Rights found place in the constitution of India Bill, 1895, also known as the Swaraj Bill and the Home Rule Document. It emphasized on the formulation of a Constitution, which would guarantee every citizen the basic human, fundamental rights of Life and Liberty. The Indian National Congress, in the year 1925, finalized a draft of the Commonwealth of India Bill, which embodied in it a Declaration of Rights, the demand for which was repeated by the Motilal Nehru Committee appointed in the year 1928. 

Whilst different movements were led and resolutions passed; the basis of all this was to see and free India, which was a fundamental right of the citizens. In 1945, the Tej Bahadur Sapru committee stressed on the need for a written code for Fundamental Rights. As a result, the Constituent Assembly included Human Rights in the constitution of Independent India.  However, lately, there have been conflicts between the authority and the citizens; and to understand the problem between the two; it is necessary to examine the origin of authority.

Contrary credence

In our culture, there are two contrary beliefs. One, that human beings are defenceless and submit to the paths laid down by gods. That the gods appointed a king on his behalf, whose assignment was to protect the people and maintain law and order. In return, the king would claim a share of the produce. We also strongly believe in the duty approach and considered that one’s duties in accordance with dharma ensured the rights of other individuals and therefore, human rights did not exist.

The second, highlighting the existence through small gestures of mankind, as reflected in the sacred books. For instance, Karmanye badhika rastu ma falesu kadachan, which means, one must go on performing their duties without being worried about the reward. This is a dictum from Bhagwad Gita that we often hear parents and teachers try to inculcate in their children, that despite failure, hardwork is the key, which will eventually bring better results. Non-violence or Ahimsa is at the centre of Indian culture and ensures rights of the citizens, by implication and interpretation. It is a concept which flows from a positive value of protection. Ahimsa means not hurting anyone, both physically and psychologically and it is here that the inference of Ahimsa coincides with the main concern of the present human rights movement worldwide.

However, with evolution and advancement, human beings started lacking empathy and developed a sense of selfishness and greed. The ‘duty first’ approach was long forgotten and the architects of society, ones in power, did not adhere to the code laid down, creating a scenario wherein each individual started fighting for their rights. Such a situation resulted in anarchy and gave birth to caste-based social disorder. While correlating culture and human rights law, I have tried to maintain a balance by emphasising the similarities as well as the contradiction between the two aspects. For the sake of brevity, I have restricted this article to the main religions followed in India – Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Buddhism.

Human rights is everywhere

Starting with the religion which is followed the most in India, Hinduism. We have caste-based inequalities; the practice of this inequality has been approved in the Dharma Shastras. A verse in the Mahabharata states, “Brahmins are fair, Kshatryas are reddish, Vaishyas are yellowish and the Shudras are black.” A person’s caste is determined from birth itself, on the basis of colour. Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or another opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or another status.” Racial and caste-based discrimination fails the purpose of this Article. Society has been formed in a rigid way; it lacks flexibility and is based on caste-based hierarchy. People did not believe in the concept of equality. This hierarchy is against the respect for an individuals’ dignity, thus violating Article 01 of the UDHR, Article 06 – right to recognition as a person and Article 19, which promotes the right to freedom of opinion and expression. On the other hand, we have flexibility in our approach towards worshipping Gods. We do not believe in Monotheism, we propagate, practice and preach in our belief that worshipping any God, would always lead to salvation. No religion teaches to hate, all religions fundamentally promote brotherhood and peace and yet there are many differences in each religion; the differences that divide the people in their own religion.

The conquest of India by the Muslims brought Islam to India; it made such a deep connection with the souls of people, that it became the second most-followed religion and culture of India. It has time and again propagated the right to equality. While a gathering in Mecca, sometime around 632 AD, the Prophet while delivering “Farewell Sermon”, said, “O mankind, the Arab is not superior to non-Arab, nor vice-versa; the white has no superiority over the black nor vice-versa, and the rich has no superiority over the poor. All of you are Adam’s descendants and Adam was made of earth.” This clearly shows that equality was at the heart of the religion even then, as it is now. Why do Muslims fast during Ramzan? What is the central idea behind this? It is the lesson of self-restraint. It is easy to follow a path led by others but cultivating self-discipline is very difficult. Fasting during Ramzan encourages humility, kindness, compassion and mercy. It trains an individual to a righteous path. Are these not the essential virtues of human rights? Ramzan, protects and promotes these rights, respecting many Articles of the UDHR. Even the sufis and saints uphold the doctrine of oneness. Mystic, philosopher, poet, Ibn Arabi said, “My heart is a mosque, a Church, a synagogue and a temple.”

Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despise you and persecute you.” This verse encourages love, compassion, tolerance, equality and brotherhood. Even in Christianity, there is no room for slavery or inhuman punishments to an individual, as is rightly deduced vide Article 4 and 5 of the UDHR. Religion provides for the right to life, to follow any religion, to love, to have a family, to choose a profession of choice and to treat fellow beings as a family.

The term “Sikh” has been derived from the Sanskrit word, “Sishya“, meaning disciple. Sikhism is a religion of the common person, emphasising simplicity. Guru Nanak conceived of God as Nirakara and rejected idol worship and superstitious beliefs. Nanak found a familiar connection between Hinduism and Islam; and with his own faith and principles, gave birth to Sikhism. One of the most common traditions in this religion, which is of Langar, upholds the UDHR principles. It is a general notion to us but when pondered upon it a bit strongly, it promotes an egalitarian society. The Gurus speak of, preach and follow in equality in all aspects, on the basis of caste, religion, sex, colour, race any other possible strata of the society. 

Buddhism is all about Ahimsa, service, humility, non –hatred, compassion and personal morality. Buddha rejected the arrangement on the basis of caste. Buddhist monasteries were open to all castes but it was soon realised that the Brahmins in the Indian culture were taught in Sanskrit, while the others were not. Therefore, promoting secular education became the mission and one of the main contributions of this religion. Buddhist traditions are akin to the UDHR; law must be for the welfare of all and not merely for the welfare of the elite. The Buddhist conjecture emphasized the quasi-contractual nature of the beginnings of government and on the sovereignty of the people which is fairly similar to Article 21 of the UDHR. With this background, a lot of stress was given to individual dignity and fundamental and basic natural rights of the beings.

A little closer to achieving human rights, outshines the rest

Why did I emphasise so much on education and these religions? I read somewhere what the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“All things are woven together and the common bond is sacred, and scarcely one thing is foreign to another, for they have been arranged together in places and together make the same ordered Universe. For there is one Universe out of all, one God through all, one substance and one law, one common reason of all intelligent creatures and one Truth. Frequently consider the connection of all things in the Universe…” 

When one truly believes in the Universe, for good things to happen, for a change that is for the betterment of all to take place, combined with sincere efforts; universe makes things work out. This can evidently be seen in nineteen century India. Reformative movements like the Arya Samaj led by Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Hindu spiritual movement by Ramakrishna Paramhans, the Brahmo Samaj movement led by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, etc. were the highlights, which have done exceptional work in the preservation of human rights. These movements questioned superstitions and unorthodox values and advocated progressive values. To name a few, criticising and condemning child marriage, polygamy; denouncing Sati, the emancipation of women and promotion of widow remarriage are some practices that were championed by Keshavchandra Sen and Raja Ram Mohan Roy. These practices correspond to Articles 03, 04, 16, 05 and 25 of the UDHR respectively. Ramakrishna Paramahansa, himself practices Islam and Christianity, to propagate religious freedom and the freedom of conscience, as stated in Article 18 of the UDHR

As mentioned earlier that the Hindu society was largely caste based, the lower castes or the dalits now started to realise the phenomenon and need of human rights. With the reformative scent in the air, the dalits came to fight for their rights; the right of dignity, importance and recognition as human beings. The two main advocates of dalit rights that are on top of everyone’s minds are Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar. Gandhi though, not himself an untouchable recognised himself as a Harijan and gave himself towards the movement, leading to the eradication of untouchability. B.R. Ambedkar, himself a dalit, gave himself to solve the problem and eventually went on to become the architect of the Indian Constitution. Article 17 of the Constitution abolishes the practice of untouchability in any form. This means that one can seek the courts’ assistance in circumstances where this right is infringed and can seek a legal remedy from the High Court as well as the Apex Court. 

Even the Preamble to the Constitution upholds the basic human rights, where it includes the words; SOVEREIGN, SOCIALIST, SECULAR, DEMOCRATIC, REPUBLIC… JUSTICE… LIBERTYEQUALITY FRATERNITY. The Preamble secures to all the citizens equality (civic and political) of status and opportunity. This provision embraces three dimensions of equality. Human Rights are fundamental in nature and therefore, a part of Part III of the Constitution. The Right to Equality includes equality of opportunity in matters relating to employment or appointment to office, prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, the abolition of untouchability, etc. Right to freedom guarantees freedom of speech, assembly, association, residence, the practice of any profession. Child Labour is prohibited and life and personal liberty is respected. The Right to Freedom of religion includes the guarantee to every religious denomination to manage religious affairs. Part IV of the Constitution sets out the Directive Principles of State Policy, whereby the state shall strive to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice, social and political, shall inform all the institutions of national life. The founding fathers of the Indian Constitution hoped that through the Directive Principles of State Policy, Human Rights would be protected and preserved. 

In the context of protection of Human Rights with respect to the working class, several welfare legislation, like Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, Employees Wages Act and Minimum Wages Act, 1948, Indecent Representation of Women Prohibition, 1986, Child and Labour Prohibition and Regulation, 1986, Environment Protection Act, 1986, Scheduled Castes and Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989, Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, etc. 

Concluding remarks

These legislations being in place is enough evidence that social disorder has been challenged and the equality of human beings and other values such as compassion, non-violence, tolerance, human dignity, etc., are at the forefront of the culture. We must keep in mind what Rabindranath Tagore said, “The Sakas, the Huns, the Pathans and the Mughals all have merged into one body.”

India has played a momentous role in the encouragement, protection and promotion of Human Rights. India, today, in parts, remains divided over religious and communal differences, a fundamental duty of the human rights movement is to have an exchange of ideas between the governmental and non-governmental agencies, which would go a long way in curbing harm and would promote aman and shanti. No religion talks about violence, intolerance or disruption. Each individual is called upon to perform his duty without being concerned about the consequences of their good deeds. We must give up hatred and learn to live like one family. Once we honour basic rights of the people and tradition of ahimsa parmo dharma, we will be able to create a culture of Human Rights. 

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