On January 2, Jyotika Kalra quit as a member of the National Human Rights Commission. In her letter of resignation to the President of India, she accused the commission of taking away its members’ power to take suo motu cognisance of human rights violations – that is, to enquire into a case on their own – and slashing its budgetary allocation for research. She also claimed to have been discriminated against. On March 7, however, Kalra returned to work. In so doing, she raised many questions.

Her resignation was unprecedented in the commission’s history, as was her complaint to the President about its functioning in the resignation letter. Yet, for over two months, both the commission and the government remained tight-lipped about Kalra’s resignation as it was dealt with by the President’s office and the home ministry. It is still unclear if, and how, the allegations raised by her have been addressed. And that makes Kalra’s return mystifying.

The law requires the President to accept the resignation of a member of the commission after taking the government’s advice, which is sent through the home ministry.

The commission is an autonomous body established in 1993. Its functioning is governed by the Protection of Human Rights Act, which enables it to take suo motu cognisance of any human rights violation. As per its records, the commission has invoked this power in at least 196 cases, including several instances of extrajudicial killings and communal violence, since March 2015.

In January, after Kalra refused to speak about her resignation, Scroll.in filed a Right To Information request to the President’s office to explain why she had resigned. In response, the President’s office shared a copy of her resignation letter. In it, she wrote:

“Despite the fact that the PHR [Protection of Human Rights] Act gives power to the members to take suo moto cognisance of any human right[s] violation of their own, by an office order, members of the Commission have been divested of their powers, members can’t take cognisance of any human right[s] violations of their own. In furtherance of the same, new Regulations have been proposed, whereby the power of member, to take suo moto cognisance would no more be there.”  

Among other factors that had compelled her to resign, Kalra mentioned the body’s alleged inefficiency in spreading awareness about human rights, its tendency to close cases quickly, its slashing of the budgetary allocation for research by 60% in 2017-18 compared to the previous financial year, and “discriminatory attitude”. As an example of “discriminatory attitude”, Kalra said she was not given an office on the first floor of the commission’s building which has offices of its chairperson, H L Dattu, secretary general, and other members. She was also denied corporate membership of India International Centre, an elite club in New Delhi, she alleged.

On March 7, after Kalra rejoined office, Scroll.in contacted her again, but she declined to speak. Scroll.in then sent a questionnaire to the commission asking it to explain under what circumstances she had agreed to return to work and, also, what had been done about the concerns raised in her resignation letter, specifically the “office order” and the “proposed regulations”. The commission has not responded yet.

Unprecedented action

By law, the National Human Rights Commission is chaired by a retired chief justice of the Supreme Court. A current or retired Supreme Court judge and a serving or retired chief justice of a high court are appointed members, along with two persons “having knowledge of, or practical experience in, matters relating to human rights”. Currently, Kalra, a Supreme Court lawyer appointed in April 2017, and former National Investigation Agency chief Sharad Chandra Sinha are the non-judge members. All members are chosen by a committee led by the prime minister and comprising the home minister, Lok Sabha speaker, leaders of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, and deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha.

Several officials of the commission in Delhi, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media, said Kalra stopped coming to office sometime after January 2, but could not recall the exact date. They, however, confirmed that she returned to work on March 7.

The officials also could not recall another instance of a member resigning from the commission. In 2005, Ravi Nair, executive director of South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, had quit in protest against the appointment of former Central Bureau of Investigation chief PC Sharma as a member. But Nair was a part of the commission’s core committee, which acts as a monitoring body and helps coordinate with non-governmental organisations in cases of human rights violation.

A senior official confirmed that the commission was drafting new regulations about its functioning but could not say whether they would limit the members’ power to take suo motu cognisance of human rights violations.

V Suresh, general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, whose representatives have worked with the National Human Rights Commission, argued that while such procedures evolve with time, they “must subserve the interest of protecting, promoting and enhancing human rights, instead of ending up as a bureaucratic stranglehold”.

“It is an important power which NHRC members derive under the law,” Suresh said, referring to the mandate to enquire into human rights violations on their own. However, he did not comment on the specifics of the Kalra case.