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The Many Dimensions of Human Rights



This is the season of debates, ideas and expressions at VoW. After the very successful pan India school debate on the contest, collaboration or both between the UN and G20, college and university students will spar on whether the nation-state is the best guarantor of human rights, whether human rights can be extended to perpetrators of violence, and gender empowerment as a condition precedent for any meaningful rollout of human rights. The subject for the final debate will be announced only two days before the finals so that there is an element of surprise – both for the finalists, as well as the jury members and the observers of the debate!

All this has been made possible with the support of the National Human Rights Commission of India and the organisational back up of Uttarakhand’s leading publicly funded, Doon University. The debate is named after the pioneer of the Chipko movement, Gaura Devi.

Why Gaura Devi?

True, Gaura Devi was not a debater, but an activist who led from the front, whose spontaneous act of hugging the trees which had been earmarked for felling by the Symonds Company led to the world famous Chipko Movement. Together with her companions, she defied the diktat of the forest department and the contractors and clung to the trees, both, literally and metaphorically, thereby changing the discourse of the political economy of environment. It changed forever the way, both, the state and civil society looked at the trees and the environment. Are trees simply a utilitarian piece of wood or part of the larger environment? Do they have a ‘standing’ in the legal and the ecological sense? Gaura Devi is thus an inspirational figure not just for students of Doon and of Uttarakhand, but for all ecologists everywhere. The Vatsalya Debating Club of Doon University acknowledges her as a significant role model: one who did not let her personal adversity come in the way of her commitment to the larger cause.

The Four Square Debate: Four Rounds, Four Subjects, Four Dates, Four Prizes.

Let me now share a few words about the structure of this four-round debate with four subjects on four dates: the first three being online, and the finals as a physical event at the Doon University. The preliminary round was held on 17 November, the quarter finals on the 27th. The semifinals were on the 4th, and the finals will be on 10 December.

The first preliminary round was in the nature of an elocution contest for three minutes and the top fifty participants qualified for the online quarter final debate – twenty-five each in Hindi and English – with a rebuttal round to make it more lively and exciting. The Rebuttal Round ensures that the participants go beyond surface reading of the recent articles and columns on the subject. The third step is even more interesting: called the ‘turncoat round’, it has the same participant arguing for and against, which brings out the very best in the arguments. It is interesting to see how the same facts are placed in different contexts and how the factual and the counterfactual are juxtaposed against each other. Eight finalists – four, each, in Hindi and English will emerge from this round who will be invited to Doon University, and of these eight, four will get the top prizes of Rs 31,000 and Rs 21,000 for the Best Speaker and Runner Up in, both, Hindi and English.

As this column goes to print, the preliminary and the quarter finals have been conducted successfully. The short list of eight participants in English, and nine in Hindi (because of a tie) will have faced each other in the semi-finals on 4 December.

Finals on 10 December: The Human Rights Day

The final debate will take place on Human Rights Day, which falls on the tenth of December to mark the adoption of the UNHDR seventy-five years ago on this day in 1948 at the 183rd meeting of the UNGA held in Paris. The UN website tells us that the UNHDR is one of the most widely translated documents – it is available in over 500 languages. As a foundational text in the history of human and civil rights, it is considered a milestone document for its universalist language which makes no reference to any particular political system, religion, geography or demography. India’s unique contribution to the UNHDR was that it suggested the use of ‘human’ instead of ‘man’ in the draft Declaration of Rights of Man. It may also be mentioned that in 1948, the UN had 58 members as against 193 today and, of them, forty-eight voted in favour, with eight abstentions, most of whom were aligned to the Soviet Union, while Honduras and Yemen were not present at the time of the vote. However, as of today, even the countries which had their initial reservations have signed the Declaration.

The NHRC – a beacon of hope for every Human

Three decades ago, in 1993, the Government of India established the NHRC on 12 October to create the much needed institutional framework for promotion and protection of human rights of all citizens. It was becoming increasingly clear that the Ministries of Home Affairs and Social Welfare were inundated with so much work, that there was little focus on this aspect. There were many issues left unaddressed as, for example, the issue of human rights of transgenders. NHRC has become one of the first ‘national commissions’ to recognise that transgenders cannot be excluded from the gamut of human rights, and has expressed its concern about the discrimination faced by transgenders even after the passage of The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. The Commission not only receives complaints about violations of human rights, but also takes suo motto cognizance, thereby alerting the executive machinery of the state towards its bounden duty to protect the human rights of every human being who resides within the territory of this nation.

Doon University and VoW are delighted to host the debate on human rights for it has opened hitherto unexplored vistas for the students and faculty members, besides creating an awareness about this subject among the citizens of tomorrow.

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