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  • Rights Compass

Politics, Culture and Human Rights, in conversation with Dr. Saumyajit Ray

Earlier in 2020, Dr. Deepa Kansra, Curator and Editor, the Classroom Series had a discussion with Dr. Saumyajit Ray, Author, America’s Common Bond: Why English should be the Official Language of the United States and Faculty, Centre for Canadian, US and Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The discussion centred around issues of politics, culture and human rights.

DK: Does culture play a pivotal role in the determination of issues like right to abortion and same-sex marriage?

Saumyajit Ray: Of course it does.

Religion is an important component of the culture of any society. So it is in an industrially and technologically advanced country like the United States. Abortion and same-sex marriage, even though they are upheld by verdicts of the US Supreme Court, are viewed as unChristian by a majority of Americans. These judgements, which cater to a minority of the population, have indeed created new rights never imagined or intended by the Founding Fathers.

DK: Would it be correct to say that change in human rights laws and standards can come with change in elected governments?

SR: James Earl ‘Jimmy’ Carter, 39th president of the United States, was the first American Chief Executive to have emphasized human rights both as a domestic issue and as a foreign policy objective. On the other hand, an old social institution like racial segregation was defined by John F. Kennedy, the 35th president, as a moral issue and not as a human rights one. He is not to be blamed though, because human rights were not in vogue in the 1960s, let alone the early 1960s.

As for human rights laws and standards changing with elected governments, that is not always true in America. For two reasons.

One, America has divided government based on the separation of powers. There is no guarantee that the president’s party would be in a majority in the Congress. The president may be fond of human rights issues, the Congress may not, and vice versa.

Two, both the American major parties are not equally enthusiastic about human rights. The Democratic party, with its large constituents of youth, women, labour, and homosexuals, generally espouses human rights causes. On the other hand, Republicans, lavishly funded and ideologically guided by the evangelical churches, have seldom pushed human rights. And for the above reason, when the presidency and the Congress are held by two different parties, it has always been very difficult (sometimes impossible) to develop a consensus on human rights issues.

In fact, the US judiciary, whenever the bench was dominated by liberal judges, has taken up human rights issues, expanded the definition of human rights, and passed human rights laws.

DK: Which five issues would you quote to highlight the culture of human rights in the United States?

SR: As I see it, certain issues in the United States deserve more attention from both government and civil society. These can be categorized as human rights issues in that country.

Randomly, they are:

a. Hate crimes

b. Homelessness

c. Juvenile justice

d. Health care

e. Poverty

However, all these issues do not have nationwide support, nor do they receive equal importance.

DK: Since 2010, what unique trends have you seen in international politics which have changed the way we define and approach human rights?

SR: With the demise of the Soviet Union in October 1991, the biggest violator of human rights perished. But human rights violations have continued to take place in many societies and under many governments across the world. The other disturbing trend is the accusing finger raised at governments fighting terrorists, blaming these governments for war crimes against and human rights violations of those who wage war against the state in their respective countries. For example, the Sri Lankan government has traditionally been accused of human rights violations against the LTTE. Sadly, no one talks about the human rights violations that the LTTE did and terrorists elsewhere (including in India) still commit. This is a most disgraceful trend.

DK: Does withdrawal of the United States from key UN bodies and processes indicate that it no longer endorses the collective or international pursuit of human rights objectives?

SR: The United Nations and its subsidiary organizations have failed on all fronts in achieving their global objectives, including human rights. So it is a wastage of time talking about the UN, just as it is a wastage of money investing in it. The Administration of Donald J. Trump, 45th president of the United States, was neither interested in the UN nor in its global objectives. The US under President Trump was not worried about human rights violations in other parts of the world, nor about pursuing human rights causes elsewhere. It was dedicated to protecting and promoting American interests, not in funding global charities. The UN was the biggest global charity funded by the Americans. Under President Trump, that stopped.

DK: What do you think will happen now, under the new administration?

SR: The Democratic Party gets lots of funds from human rights groups in America. So the incoming Democratic Administration can be expected to make some noise on human rights, if not take serious action on any human rights violation in any part of the world. As for any human rights violation within the United States, that will be for the concerned state to deal with because it is a state matter, the federal government has nothing to do with it. More importantly, promotion of human rights is not a major concern of the Democratic party in 2020.

DK: Do you see the United States as a crusader for human rights in the times to come?

SR: No, because most of the countries guilty of human rights violation, like the People's Republic of China and Pakistan, put in a lot of money into lobbying for themselves at Washington, DC. Diplomatically and politically, the United States cannot isolate them in the world because of economic and strategic concerns. As for a human rights violator like Iran, Joe Biden is expected to follow the path of engaging Teheran, not intimidating and isolating it. In fact it is very difficult to intimidate Iran.

Indians have an unexplained affection for the Democratic party which does not have such affection for India. So under a Biden Administration, you can expect India to be charged with human rights violations of religious minorities.

To answer your question as to whether the United States will emerge as a crusader for human rights in the world in the years to come, you must have guessed my answer. The answer is: NO.

DK: What unexplored areas of culture, politics, and human rights would you recommend for research to students?

SR. I would like students of politics, society, and law to find out whether language and religious rights could be plausibly defined and defended as human rights. This is because religious minorities have been persecuted in many societies because of their language and religion.

DK: What areas are you currently working on?

SR: I am presently working on two very different topics. One is the American Mob (underworld). The other is: banking and money-lending in the Hindu Scriptures.


DK: Thank you for taking time out to interact with us.


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