Ideas of democracy and civil liberty began to take roots among the English educated Indians who became acquainted with the English revolutions of the Seventeenth century, the French revolution of the 18th century and the various European radical democratic Movements of the nineteenth century.

The writings of Tom Paine, John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham and others had a power impact. It is, for example, interesting that Tom Paine’s The Rights of” Man was smuggled into India and sold in the street of Calcutta at a black market price that was thirty times its normal price. Politically conscious Indians were powerfully attracted to these ideas. And they hoped that the British rulers would gradually transplant democracy and civil liberties In India. But they were in for a disappointment.

Gradually, the rulers evolved a new political theory. They began to preach that because of India’s hot and humid climate and the historical traditions of the Indian people and the nature of their religious and social structure, democracy was not suited to India – that India must be ruled in an authoritarian and despotic, though benevolent, manner. The British also increasingly tampered with and attacked the freedoms of speech and the Press. Consequently, it was left to the Indian national movement to fight for democracy and to internalise and indigenise it, that is, to root it in the Indian soil.

The Indian National Congress from the beginning fought for the introduction of a representative form of government on the basis of popular elections. There is a marked difference between the struggle for civil liberties against the colonial state and that against the post-colonial state. Many scholars as well as activists view the post-colonial state in India as being little different from its colonial counterpart as far its responses to people’s movements are concerned. But there are indeed some dissimilarities. Human Rights Movement during Colonial Period The champions of civil rights in the colonial days were themselves the intellectual Products of nationalist ideas and had the privilege of having nationalism as a strong supporting force. But their present day standard-bearers have to reckon not with foreign rule, but with their own elected sovereign government as ‘the other’, the latter having the advantage of using nationalist discourse against ‘he civil rights activists, branding them as subversive and anti-national.


The civil libertarians of yore could freely quote from the Manga Carta, the American Bill of rights or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and yet remain nationalists. But today, those who cite the Universal Declaration of Human rights, the UN covenants or Amnesty International’s Standard Minimum Rules now run a two-fold risk: they are often charged by the state with working with foreign aid against national interests, and also accused by a section of the intelligentsia and media of negating the realities of In the initial phase the consciousness about the civil liberties was manifested in the educated subjects’ demands for equal opportunity in employment, freedom of the press and the abolition of racial discrimination in legal proceedings. One researcher, in fact, suggests that ‘one of the many causes which led to the organisation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 was the failure of Indians to get the Ilbert Bill passed in its original form proposing to give Indian magistrates the power to try British subjects in criminal cases.

By the turn of the century, this consciousness crystallises in a new generation with new thoughts and new ideas, impatient of its dependent position and claiming its rights as free citizens of the British Empire’. The Indian Civil Liberties Union (ICLU) was founded in Bombay on August 24, 1936. Rabindranath Tagore was made its president, and Sarojini Naidu the working president. K.B. Menon took charge as the general secretary. Soon after, branches of the ICLU were set up in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and Punjab.

As a result of the ICLU’s campaigns, considerable consciousness about civil rights was created within the major party of the national movement, the Congress. In 1937, when the Congress came to power in some provincial governments for a short period, a circular was sent to all at is ministries regarding the preservation of civil rights.

According to Gopinath Srivastava, a contemporary commentator the main function of the popular governments was the extension of the scope and content of civil liberties. Nonetheless, lapses in the protection of these rights in Congress-ruled provinces continued to occur, and this led to serious differences within the ICLU as large majority of it was drawn from the Congress.


Human Rights Practice in the Post-colonial Period

After India won independence in 1947 the reins of the state were taken up by the same people who had once championed the right to oppose the government’. And, ironically, their perceptions had now changed. The ‘infant state’, they now felt, had to be protected even at the cost of some rights of the citizens. The hearts of the people, on the other hand, were filled with new aspirations.

They wanted the state to immediately satisfy their hunger for not only basic human needs like food, clothing and shelter, but also rights and justice which had eluded them under two centuries of colonial rule. The interests of the state and the interests of the people stood pitted against each other. The former wanted to silence the latter. As a result, the citizens’ rights were violated, and to defend them, the civil liberties movement again became active.

This is exactly where the dilemma of the post-colonial state in South Asia lies. With its weak resource base, failing to meet raising aspirations of the people, state becomes more oppressive. It endangers the human rights on fronts, peoples’ civil and political rights and their social and economic rights; the same dilemma is reflected in the human rights thinking.


Looking to ensure social and economic rights, the scope of the interventionist state is enhanced. The same goes against the foundations of human rights. The situation is further complicated in South Asia with the introduction of liberalisation and privatisation. Market has assumed primacy on the claim that the state has failed to fulfill the promises that it made. It shifted the focus of rights to a different direction. In the post-Emergency phase in India, most civil liberties groups broadened the focus of their activities beyond the defense of political rights.

The struggle against social and economic discrimination against the poor, religious and ethnic minorities, women and children, all gained equal importance. Community rights attracted almost as much attention as individual rights. New issues such as environmental rights and the right to sustainable development have been taken up both by older civil rights groups and more recent ones, such as the Indian People’s Tribunal for Environment and Human Rights formed in 1993. One of the factors behind this widening of focus has been the greater interaction of Indian activists with international human rights organisations. International’s mission to India in 1977 and its subsequent concerns are worth mentioning in this regard.

The new social movements such as the dalit movements, the women’s movements and environmental movements also had a significant influence.