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FOCUS December 2004 Volume 38

India: People's Union for Civil Liberties

Pushkar Raj

The 1976 national emergency imposed in India by Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, was a rude shock to a nation that had thrived on an uninterrupted flow of democracy in its national life since it gained independence in 1947. Detention without trial for a large number of people, news censorship, trespassing without legal sanction of private premises, telephones, and letters, and constitutional amendment curtailing basic rights to life and freedom in the name of national security and crisis all ensued.

Hundreds of thousands of people joined massive rallies to protest against the anti-democratic acts of the government and to mobilize public opinion to safeguard the Indian democracy.

Birth of PUCL

With this background, a national seminar held on 17 October 1976 created the People's Union for Civil Liberties and Democratic Rights (PUCLDR).

With the national emergency lifted in 1977, the elections that followed led to Gandhi's downfall and ushered a new government headed by those who spearheaded the movement against the emergency. Many thought that the repression of the civil liberties of the people has ended. But they were mistaken. Credible reports compiled by a committee comprised of people associated with PUCLDR showed that in certain parts of the country young boys labeled as 'naxalites' (extremists) were being killed. This brought the need for a strong non-partisan civil rights organization to protect the rights of the people that are always under attack irrespective of the type of government in power. As a result, PUCLDR came to be christened People's Union For Civil Liberties (PUCL) in a November 1980 conference.

With expanded membership and branches in almost all the states of India, PUCL mobilizes public opinion in favor of a better climate for the protection of civil liberties in the country; energizes and creatively uses existing institutions like the courts and the press so that they may become more sensitive to the human rights situation in the country; conducts investigations into incidents of violations of human rights reported by victims, the press, PUCL members, or any concerned individual; publishes the findings of investigations and releases them to the press, or makes them public by other means such as public meetings (seminars and lectures); raises its voice against various black-laws and lobbies for the enactment of progressive laws in the country and files petitions in court on the basis of these investigations, or even otherwise.

PUCL member-lawyers prepare and argue cases in the local court, High Courts and the Supreme Court. They meet all the expenses in handling cases from their own pocket. PUCL, as a matter of policy, does not accept money from any funding agency, Indian or foreign. Individual contributions however are welcome. The members, the office bearer, and the activists on their own meet all the expenses. For the expenses on the activities of the national office , money is raised from sympathizers and members by the way of donations.

Undertaking the work

PUCL does not simply react. To raise awareness about civil liberties and human rights among the public and to bring to light the dedication and work of young journalists working in the area of human rights, PUCL instituted in 1981 the Journalism for Human Rights Award. It also organizes the annual J. P. memorial lecture on human rights every 23rd of March, the date of the lifting of national emergency in 1977. Prominent human rights academician, or lawyer, or prominent practitioner delivers the lecture.

PUCL publishes a monthly journal, the PUCL Bulletin, in English. It is the only journal of its kind in the country and is read in human rights circles all over the world. The bulletin has published its 250th issue.

During the 1980 conference, PUCL requested Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer (Retired) to work on the preparation of a new Prison Act and Jail Manual. It also started a campaign against the National Security Act (NSA) as it was being used against the trade union activists in the state of Madhya Pradesh, then the largest state in India. In the same year PUCL approached the Supreme Court hoping to get a clear- cut stand on liberalizing locus standi. The issue came out in the wake of a journalist buying a woman to demonstrate that trafficking in women is a fact. This was an important step in expanding the sphere of public interest litigation and giving boost to judicial activism in the country.

This set the tone of the work of the organization in the years to follow. In July 1981 the Bombay PUCL approached the Bombay High Court to stay the eviction of pavement dwellers in the midst of heavy rain in the city. PUCL also asked the courts for adoption of rehabilitation scheme and order proper compensation for evictees.

PUCL, along with some other organizations, were in the forefront of the protest against issues related to the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi including ban on demonstrations, use of Essential Services Maintenance Act, and payment of minimum wages to the workers engaged in construction work.

In 1983 the PUCL took part in a detailed study on child labor in Sivakashi, a district in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where a large number of children were reportedly employed in the firecracker manufacturing industry. It also made another study in the eastern state of Assam, where ethnic violence erupted and large number of people including children and women were victims of human rights violations by non-state actors as well as security forces.

PUCL and the People's Union for Democratic Rights made a thorough investigation and produced a report (entitled Who are Guilty?) on the large scale killing of Sikhs by mobs allegedly supported by political parties (more than 3,000 Sikhs were killed in Delhi alone) during 31 October to 3 November 1984 period after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. In 1987, PUCL investigated the communal riots in Hasimpura, Meerut and other areas near Delhi. In 1988, PUCL took a leading part in the struggle opposing the obnoxious practice of sati.1 It protested against the burning of a woman named Roop Kanwar and has been fighting battle in the courts to get the perpetrator of the crime convicted.

In the 1990s PUCL brought out reports on human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir, and on communal riots in Aligarh (Uttar Pradesh), Bombay (Maharastra) and other parts of the country. It viewed the telephone tapping by the government seriously and subsequently petitioned the Supreme Court against it. It actively campaigned for the setting up of a high-powered and autonomous National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and formulated pre-conditions for a purposeful commission. PUCL pointed out the lacunas in the mandate, composition and functioning of the NHRC that came into existence. But it decided to co-operate with it while continuing to work for suitable changes in the Protection of Human Rights Act, the law that created the NHRC. In recognition of its services, Vigil India Movement awarded in July 1994 the first M.A. Thomas Human Rights Award to PUCL.

PUCL has been at the forefront of improving health facilities of the people, especially the vulnerable sections of society. On PUCL's petition, the court instructed the New Delhi Administration to take immediate steps in setting up a mental hospital-cum-medical college in New Delhi with sufficient autonomy to bring quality change in the condition of the inmates. This included changing the name of the hospital from Shahdara Mental Home to Institute of Human Behavior and Neuron Sciences.

PUCL was able to make the government of Manipur pay compensation to the families of the victims of "fake encounters" with the military. It also condemned "liquidation or fake encounters." It made a landmark intervention in the case of widespread starvation deaths while the godowns (food stores) of Food Corporation of India were overflowing with grains. It led to the launching of nationwide program to ensure provision of food to stem the deaths, with Supreme Court monitoring. This is a case of violation of right to food, which leads to violation of right to life.

In November 2004, PUCL successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to instruct all the state governments to ensure that all children in primary schools get mid-day meal without interruption. The court also told the state governments that they cannot make the excuse that they have not received the required funds.

Considering the importance of the right to information in a democracy, PUCL was able to make the Supreme Court uphold the citizens' right to know the antecedents of candidates who are contesting Parliament/Legislative Assembly elections to enable them to make the right choice by declaring amendments to certain sections of the Representation of People's Act 1951 unconstitutional. As a result, all candidates in the 2004 elections for the Parliament filed for the first time affidavits stating the criminal cases filed against them, if any, and the assets that they possess.


With growing emphasis on "privatization" in all walks of life, the rights of poor people have come under severe stress. Protests due to rising rural and urban poverty and shrinking employment opportunities are met with laws that limit the scope of protest.

The state has not only been showing insensitivity but also a degree of intolerance in this regard. This is a serious challenge for PUCL. The task becomes more daunting because it involves launching systematic campaign to educate those who matter in influencing public opinion and are not adversely affected by these policies. The state has been dealing with terrorism as a law and order problem without considering the socioeconomic factors. Its actions have become more strident after the 2001 September 11 attack in the U.S. Anything in the name of anti-terrorism is condoned such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act ( POTA), which has been used against the people selectively. Similarly, the number of cases of "encounter" deaths in various parts of the country has risen, many encounters were allegedly faked.

Much of the civil liberties problems in India revolve around non-adherence to the rule of law. The police lacks autonomy of action as it remains under the influence of politicians. The police investigation process remains problematic in terms of professional standards. Recommendations for police reform by the Police Commission have remained unimplemented. Similarly, millions of cases are pending in courts. As a result, victims do not get justice and culprits go scot- free. The country urgently needs a campaign to reform its criminal justice system so that adherence to the rule of law is ensured and the civil and human rights of the people are protected.

PUCL being a member-based and member- funded organization is facing the problem of resources - material as well as human. There has been a steady decline in getting new volunteer members. Earlier, people would seek out the organization, become members and devote time and resources voluntarily. Now they have to be asked to become part of the organization. This affected the frequency of its activities. One reason for this situation is the rise of lucrative NGO movement in the country. In order to tackle this problem, PUCL is targeting schools and colleges to reach out to the young students and arouse their interest, awareness and education regarding the human rights situation in the country and how their sensitivity in this field can make a difference.

Mr. Pushkar Raj is the Secretary of People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL-India).

For further information, please contact: Y. P.Chhibbar, General Secretary, PUCL, 81, Sahyog Apartments Mayur Vihar, Delhi 110091; ph (9111) 22750014 / 09868120140; email:, rajpushkar@re dif ;


1 A custom in the western state of Rajasthan encouraging widows to sit on the funeral pyre of their deceased husbands and die.