Avinash Rai Khanna, who has been vice president of the Bharatiya Janata Party and in-charge of the party’s Jammu and Kashmir unit, will now be a member of the National Human Rights Commission. This is the first time a career politician has been appointed to the NHRC, giving rise to grave disquiet among members of the human rights community.

The BJP, however, dismissed criticism of the appointment as biased. “He has resigned from all his party posts,” said Shrikant Sharma, BJP national secretary and media convenor. “In two and a half years of our government those who have been appointed to constitutional posts work according to the norms.”

In J&K, party colleagues felt Khanna was a suitable choice. “He is a nice person and has vast experience of public dealing,” said a member of the BJP based out of Jammu, who did not want to be named. “People will feel comfortable talking to him.”

Khanna’s qualifications for the job include a stint at the Punjab Human Rights Commission, though he gave up the post when he became a member of the Rajya Sabha. After his tenure as Rajya Sabha MP ended last year, he became vice chairman of the Indian Red Cross Society.

In J&K, his party colleague said, Khanna had travelled widely, covering all three divisions: Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. As for Khanna’s involvement in human rights issues in the conflict-torn state, he recalled the time an Indian had crossed over to Pakistan, been arrested and died in prison there. “It was due to his taking it up at the national level that the body was brought back,” he said.

But Khanna, a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad during his student days, is mostly known for being an efficient party man, credited with turning the BJP’s fortunes around in J&K. “He became in-charge around 2012,” said the Jammu BJP member. “During his tenure, the party has been most successful. He has worked on educating party activists at all levels, district and state.”

Earlier, Khanna had been Lok Sabha member from Hoshiarpur in Punjab, until it became a reserved constituency in 2009. This year, he was also put in charge of organisational elections for the BJP across the country.

Double standards?

The commission, for its part, denies receiving official intimation that Khanna had been appointed as a member. But human rights activists from non-governmental organisations questioned the BJP’s decision to appoint an active politician to the NHRC, given its objections to Supreme Court judge Cyriac Joseph becoming a member of the commission. The party, then in opposition, had observed in writing that Joseph was “perceived to be close to certain political and religious organisations”.

“It must uphold those same standards, and do better, now that it is in office,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “These institutions are supposed to serve citizens, not become subservient to political masters.”

Kavita Srivastav of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, saw the appointment as part of a larger trend. “This decision is another sinister attempt by the present BJP-led NDA government to fill crucial posts in institutions tasked with the responsibility to critically review, oversee, monitor or examine complaints regarding the functioning of government, with persons who are unsuitable for the post,” she said. “The present decision is also a move to adjust and reward a senior member of the ruling party with a government post by treating crucial posts as largesse.”

An independent NHRC

At stake, activists says, is the independence of the NHRC, set up by the Protection of Human Rights Act in 1993. The act stipulates that the chairman of the commission should be a chief justice.

Other members include a current or former Supreme Court judge and chief justice of the high court, as well as “two Members to be appointed from amongst persons having knowledge of, or practical experience in, matters relating to human rights”. Khanna, appointed to a post that has been vacant for the last two years, presumably falls in the last category, Srivastav feels “he does not have the relevant experience in human rights”.

None of the appointments are drained of politics. The four full-time members are chosen by a committee headed by the prime minister, including the Lok Sabha speaker, home minister, leaders of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha as well as the deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha. Besides, the chairpersons of the National Commission for Minorities, the National Commission for the Scheduled Castes, the National Commission for the Scheduled Tribes and the National Commission for Women, ex-officio members of the NHRC, are all political appointees.

The commission can take suo motu cognisance of human rights violations, including those by public officials, or act on complaints. It can visit prisons and other state institutions, review safeguards to protect human rights provided by the Constitution or any law and intervene in legal proceedings on alleged human rights violations. However, it is only empowered to recommend a course of action to government or the courts.

The Supreme Court, hearing a petition on extrajudicial killings in Manipur this July, was damning about the commission. It called the NHRC a “toothless tiger”, which had failed in its duties as an independent watchdog to protect human rights. Earlier, NHRC Chairperson HL Dattu had also spoken of the need for more teeth for the commission to enforce its recommendations.

Watching the state

Yet human rights activists still stress the importance of the NHRC as an institution. An apex body, operating independently of the state and empowered to speak out on violations by it was crucial in India.

“The NHRC is supposed to take the grievances of the people,” said Babloo Loitongbam, executive director of Human Rights Alert, who has focused on state violations in Manipur. “By giving voice to civil society, it democratises the state.”

In spite of its feeble powers, they feel, the very presence of such a body has helped investigation and action on human rights violations. “For instance, the NHRC came out strongly after mass attacks on Muslims in Gujarat in 2002,” said Ganguly. “The NHRC did not exist during similar large scale communal attacks in Mumbai in 1992-’93 or against Sikhs in 1984. In part, we have seen strong judicial action against the 2002 perpetrators because of NHRC interventions.”

Which is why, Ganguly feels, preserving the independence of its commissioners is so vital. “Commissioners who act independently as a constitutional authority to uphold human rights can play a significant role even though the commission does not have enough resources and capacity to conduct investigations, and does not have the authority to investigate allegations of human rights violations by the military or central paramilitary forces,” she said.

If a member of the ruling party were appointed to the commission, Ganguly added, that person had to be capable of criticising the government.