The PeaceWorks Human Rights Defenders Programme at Akshar : Day 1

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Having only substituted in the temporary absence of interns under the Human Rights Defenders Programme before, Akshar—among Kolkata’s best known integrated schools, would technically be ‘my first’ school and class. Forty-five students in a post-lunch (read: siesta time) session—I had my fair share of doubts regarding how the first class would go. A few minutes before class, I was informed fifteen class 9 MUNners (Model United Nations) would be sitting in as guests. That I would for practical reasons have to use a microphone, did not help my confidence levels.

ccccAfter we briefly discussed what the students made of the term ‘human rights’, we spent the rest of our session talking trolleys. You are driving a train and discover, as you see five workers working on the same track up ahead, that your brakes and horn don’t function—you panic, but find a button that allows you to shift tracks to a track where there is one worker working. Death on collision is imminent, what do you do? After initial hesitation, responses ranged from ‘I would derail’ to ‘I would quit my job there and then’, evoking laughter among the more solemn choices made and justified. Most picked the option of killing one worker over five. For a little more than half an hour, we stayed engaged in discussion as I further complicated each ethical conundrum—what if you’re an onlooker to the impending accident with the choice to kill an ‘innocent’ person in order to save six lives, what if you’re a doctor with five patients in need of one (different) organ transplant each, have no donors and an anaesthetized healthy person in the next room, etc. The students made some very carefully thought out suggestions—what if we kill the weakest of the 5 patients in need of a transplant and use the rest of his/her healthy organs to save the other 4, and so not have to touch the healthy anaesthetized person? And so on. We moved to examining the responses a little more closely, connecting the students’ answers to ideas that form kernels of larger ideologies—for instance, the response about killing the weakest patient seemed perfectly rational to the students (some mentioned Darwin and evolution) until I mentioned the ‘social Darwinism’ in Nazi ideology that orchestrated the ‘forced euthanasia’/mass murder of large sections of society including homosexuals, the mentally ill, the Romani— groups deemed unfit to be part of the Nazi vision of the German nation.

ccccAs I highlighted the changing course of their answers over the cases, we arrived at the question of value. How does one value human life? How does this value change depending on other contingencies and what do these changes say? In light of this, what did the students think human rights mean? Responses varied. From biological bases to legal, the students listed varying understandings of why, according to them, human beings have rights at all. Taking the question of value a step further, I shared excerpts from a text[1] co-written by a jurist and a psychiatrist in 1920s Germany that went on to form part of the ‘theoretical’ base of the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme. We concluded class deliberating upon the nature of human rights, on whether these rights can be given and/or taken, who guarantees them and the basis of such a guarantee.



[1]Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life (1920)- Alfred Hoche, Karl Binding