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Human Dignity at Heart of Constitutional Democracy

Former Indian Minister for Justice Dr Ashwani Kumar gives a public lecture at the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute, Trinity College Dublin

Ashwani Kumar16 May 2016 - Speaking on the ‘The Evolution and Challenges of India’s Constitutional Democracy – The Irish Interface’, Dr Ashwani Kumar emphasised Ireland’s strong historical connections with India, in terms of our shared colonial pasts and the close relationships between our freedom fighters. Dr Kumar, who is the former Indian Minister for Law and Justice, was a member of the Upper House (Rajya Sabha) of the Indian Parliament 2002-2016. During the lecture at the Trinity Long Room Hub, he spoke of coming from a family of freedom fighters and how his father, when visiting Ireland in 1970, was determined to see Éamon de Valera speak. Together with Michael Davitt, Maud Gonne and Margaret Noble, Éamon de Valera was known for his support of India’s struggle for freedom.  Ireland’s 1916 Rising had a huge impact on India’s freedom fighters and their attempts for independence from British imperialism.

Dr Kumar highlighted the extent to which the Irish Constitution influenced the Indian Constitution and the threats which are now facing liberal democracies worldwide: ‘The dignitarian goals of liberal societies are under assault from within and without. The threat from within is often gradual and disguised. Ireland and India, baptized in the crucible of their freedom struggle, are defined by an irrevocable commitment to liberty and human dignity which is the core of their constitutional conscience.’

Referring to a ground-breaking ruling of the Italian Supreme Court which recently ruled that stealing food for survival was not a crime, Dr Kumar said that ‘human dignity is the cornerstone of human rights’. Every nation state has a mandate to ensure that individuals are not robbed of their dignity and the opportunity for self-direction, he said.  In a world where intolerance increasingly manifests itself in diverse contexts, freedom of global citizens should be the one paramount objective of all countries.

‘The idea of human dignity as ‘the cornerstone in the edifice of human rights’ is inseparably linked to the expansion of human freedoms. It is about the right to privacy, reputation, and identity. It is about freedom of faith, thought and expression.  It is about freedom from want, exploitation and fear. The notion of human dignity we know, is about the ‘dignity of self-direction and freedom from manipulation’.

Ashwani Kumar and Jane OhlmeyerDr Kumar commented on the surprising increase of what he described as ‘illiberalism’ in Europe, particularly in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Austria.  In recent years, he argued, we have also seen significant encroachments on human freedom in the name of ‘security.’

Speaking on the challenges faced by both Ireland and India to protect religious and other minorities under the constitution, Dr Kumar said it is vital that a constitutional democracy maintains a secular stance as opposed to democracy for the majority. While the Irish constitution had a significant impact on India’s constitutional democracy, India had the foresight to enshrine a secular constitution while Ireland consolidated the relationship between church and state. However India’s secular, inclusive and pluralist ethos is now under threat, Dr Kumar said, warning that the future of India’s liberal democracy is at risk. ‘The  recent  incident  of  oppressive  enforcement  of the colonial law of sedition against students protesting in university campuses has  raises  several  questions about  the future of India’s liberal democracy.’

The Press Trust of India (PTI), India’s leading news agency, has published an article on Dr Kumar’s talk in Trinity College which can be viewed here.

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Dr Kumar has been announced as a Trinity Long Room Hub Distinguished Visiting Fellow in 2017. He was a member of the Upper House (Rajya Sabha) of the Indian Parliament 2002-2016. During this time he served as Minister of State for Industry, Parliamentary Affairs, Planning, Science and Technology and Earth Sciences. He also served as the Union Cabinet Minister for Law and Justice. Dr Kumar has represented India at the UN General Assembly on various occasions and he last addressed the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council in 2013.

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Upcoming events in this category:

23 - 24 June 2016: Ireland-India Conference: A two day conference hosted by the Trinity Long Room Hub will explore, from a literary and historical perspective, interactions between Ireland, England’s oldest colony, and India, the largest colony, from the late seventeenth century. Click here for more information.

14 June 2016: Undermining Democracy:

Challenges to Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe 
Democratic values and institutions are being increasingly undermined and eroded in established and transitioning democracies across central and Eastern Europe. Providing perspectives on these serious developments in Poland, Hungary and Germany, this Forum will explore the implications for Ireland and Europe more widely and consider what measures could be taken to safeguard the rule of law and democratic principles so fundamental to the idea of Europe. For more details, please see here. The event is part of the Trinity Long Room Hub's 'Behind the Headlines' series



Contact: Aoife King, Communications Officer | Trinity Long Room Hub | aoife.king@tcd.ie | 01 896 3895