Hearing a petition on extrajudicial killings in Manipur last month, the Supreme Court noted that the National Human Rights Commission, the “protector, advisor, monitor and educator of human rights”, had referred to itself as “a toothless tiger” – an abject admission of the statutory body’s helplessness and failure.

The dismal state of the commission is well known. It receives as many as 450 complaints a day, but lacks trained staff. Its communications and guidelines are disregarded. The few compliance reports it receives from state governments are of poor quality, often illegible and incomplete. It cannot directly investigate complaints of violations by the armed forces; it can only seek reports from the central government and make recommendations.

The commission’s complaints are legitimate, and the apex court’s direction to the government to address its concerns could not have come a day too soon. However, even with its limited powers, the commission could do much more.

In most cases, it issues notices to the authorities and then rests. In the cases of the lynching of Pehlu Khan in Alwar and of seven men in Jharkhand, for example, the commission issued the appropriate notices to the state governments. There is no record of follow-up. A listing of notices issued is placed on the commission’s website. A useful annexure would include a note that records whether the state government sent a reply and the contents of that reply. It would underline the respondents’ actions, or inaction as the case may be, and enable human rights defenders and the media – important allies of the commission – to highlight cases that did not result in effective redress.

The commission is also mandated by the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 to “spread human rights literacy...and promote awareness of the safeguards available for the protection of these rights through publications, the media, seminars and other available means”. It must also “study treaties and other international instruments on human rights and make recommendations for their effective implementation”.

Nothing, therefore, prevents the commission from relaying – and reiterating – its views, for example, on India’s failure to ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which was signed as far back as 1997. It should, in fact, demand that New Delhi go further and also ratify the Option Protocol to the Convention, which establishes a system of regular visits by independent national and international bodies to where people are deprived of their liberty – an important safeguard against custodial torture.

The Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers would protect the interests of millions of India’s migrant workers, but New Delhi has not signed it. India signed the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2007, but is yet to ratify it through enabling domestic legislation.

Shoddy work

The death penalty is alive and kicking in India. The country has consistently voted against UN resolutions calling for a moratorium on the death penalty. But apart from occasional notices to states recommending commutation of death sentences, the commission has not spoken out authoritatively on the subject. It has issued no reports, commissioned no studies.

The last Annual Report published by the commission was in 2013. There is little in the public record to demonstrate the body’s grasp of human rights situations, let alone its capacity to analyse them. The most recent document that provides an insight into the commission’s functioning is its submission to the Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations. The tackiness of the submission is breathtaking. Two gems tucked away in the “Conclusion” deserve reiteration.

On the situation in Jammu and Kashmir:

“The turmoil in Kashmir is on the spotlight now. It is augmented by trans-border terrorism and Jihadi funding from the neighbouring country. The use of plastic pellets by CAPFs is controversial. NHRC has taken up a case on the matter but withholds its comments now because human rights of both sides are involved, when young crowd pelt stones at the Police personnel.”

On the attacks by self-styled cow vigilantes:

“The sporadic instances of violence concerning eating of beef have been reported in different parts of the country. The fringe of the right wing Hindutva Brigade is alleged to be behind these incidents which are few and far between. Though disquieting, it is too early to assess as to be a threat to secular and pluralistic structure of Indian society.”

Few would argue against the need for more “teeth” and more resources for the National Human Rights Commission to do its job well. It is, however, no excuse for shoddy work products, lack of transparency, and failure to speak up in the face of egregious and systemic human rights violations. Good examples abound: the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal puts out a wealth of information on its website, while theAustralian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission directly addresses – and challenges – laws, policies and statements by elected representatives.

India’s “toothless tiger” might need drastic dental surgery, but nothing stops it from raising its hackles now and then.