“In a word, just as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be said to have a property in his rights,” wrote James Madison, one of the founding fathers of the US Constitution and the fourth President of the United States, “On Property”, in 1792. He concluded with the idea that if the new republic wished to be known for a just and wise government, it would “respect the rights in property, and the property in rights”.
On January 20, 230 years later, addressing an event of the Brahma Kumaris, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi that in the 75 years since India won freedom﹘from the same Imperial power that Madison was instrumental in overthrowing 170 years earlier﹘an excessive “focus on talking about and fighting for rights had kept [the country] weak”. It should be acknowledged, he said, that “the evil of ignoring duties had become part of national life”.
The gulf between those two quotes is neither a gap of two centuries nor the physical distance between New York and New Delhi. It is the polar difference between a political philosophy that regards the people of a newly-free country as free , and a nationalist government that treats the people that voted it into power not as citizens with rights to be protected but subjects with duties to be enforced. It is the distance slaves need to travel to be free men.
This is the defining debate of our time. Are we, as Indians, citizens of a republic, with certain inalienable rights enshrined in a Constitution that opens with the words, “We the people”? Or are we, in effect if not in law, subjects of a ruler who hands down duties that we must perform?
The view that fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution need to be balanced by duties is hardly new. In 1976, at a time when civil rights were suspended under Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, the 42nd Amendment to India’s Constitution introduced 10 fundamental duties. An additional 11th duty was added in the 86th Amendment in 2002.
Quite rightly, these duties are not enforceable in law for the simple reason that it is not possible to define “failure to carry out a duty”, unless it results in an infringement of someone else’s rights, or causes a tort, in which case a whole new principle of law can be invoked.
How, for example, can the State prosecute a man for failing “to cherish and follow the noble ideals which inspired our national struggle for freedom”, or for failing “to value and preserve our rich composite culture”?
Fundamental rights, on the other hand, are legally guaranteed by the , and when any of the six rights are violated, the citizen can, at least in theory, seek redress through the courts. In reality, millions of Indians are their fundamental rights by the State failing in its primary duty.
The State owes a duty to its citizens to provide the means through which an ordinary citizen can seek the enforcement of his rights. That duty is what the government promises to honor and fulfil when ministers, judges and other high functionaries are before assuming office. They solemnly affirm, or, if they so choose, swear on a holy book, that they will “bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India, as by law established”.
Has the State discharged its duties? Journalists Jahnavi Sen and Vasudevan Mukunth recently that if anyone was guilty of a breach of these duties, it was the Modi government itself.
It should be clear, therefore, that duties come not as a flipside of rights enjoyed by citizens but as a necessary constraint on the exercise of unbridled power by the State, and that rights accrue to citizens merely by virtue of their citizenship of a free republic. So is PM Modi right to argue that there is far too much emphasis on rights and not enough emphasis on duties?
Firstly, it should be noted that this is not the first time that Modi has taken this line. At the time of the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, he that citizens should have regard for the duties written in the Constitution. In November 2019, a joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament on the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution, he acknowledged that the emphasis on people’s rights was because “many felt deprived of equality and justice”, but then claimed that the “demand now was for society to deliberate on its duties and responsibilities”.
Secondly, there is an argument that when leaders remind citizens of their duties, they are seeking someone to blame for the failures of their own policies. The reality is that people, particularly the poorest among us, are often the hardest working. The poor, especially, are driven by social and economic circumstances to toil every waking hour for a wage that makes a mockery of the fundamental right not to be exploited. As an aside, it is the rich who fail to do their duty by evading taxes, or bribing their way to riches. So the exhortation to “do your duty” is not aimed at the poor but at those who protest at the failure of the government to uphold the rights of those who are too busy in the grim business of survival to protest.
Thirdly, if protesters are the real target of the message to focus on duties, then it is entirely misplaced. For the truth is that every major social advance in every country in the world was won through protest, sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent. Women’s suffrage in Britain in the 1920s, civil rights legislation in America, and the end of apartheid in South Africa were all won through protest which the regime in power at the time would have seen as an abandonment of duty in pursuit of rights. It is only an undemocratic dictatorship that violently quells a legitimate protest and prevails over its citizens, as it happened in China and Hong Kong. That is not a failure of protest, it is a failure of the powerful to defend, protect and uphold democratic values.
Nearer home in India, the lifting of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency Rule, the , the withdrawal of , and more recently are all examples of how protests secured the rights of citizens.
A wise, responsive, and democratic government would therefore neither quell protest violently nor denigrate legitimate protesters as anti-national aandolan-jeevis, but it would rather take steps to ensure that democratic processes take account of diverse views and ensure a consensus.
Fourthly, it has to be acknowledged that many in India would be quick to agree with Modi that people are too focused on rights and not on duties. Of course, when they go along with this view, they mean to exclude themselves; It is “other people” who should focus on their duty to the State. The rich and the well-off see no constraints on their rights, nor do they acknowledge their duty to ensure a fair and just system, and so they cannot or will not understand the need to protect the rights of minorities targeted because of who they are.
Until 1947, Indians have been ruled for millennia by a succession of rajas, maharajas, emperors, nawabs and other undemocratic rulers. For much of our history, we have been subjects, not citizens. In such a system, individuals advanced through winning the patronage of the ruler in return for sycophancy and fealty. As subjects we were inured to being told our duty; we became accustomed to a system of downward exploitation and upward supplication; we accepted the arbitrary and capricious exercise of power over our lives﹘to challenge power was to invite retribution. It is no wonder that many of us still think like subjects and are all too willing to go along with the idea that some of us at least have duties to fulfil as citizens.
India has been let down by a partisan media, a weak opposition, a slow and failing system for legal redress, pliant judges and anemic institutions. Citizens feel disempowered and unable to exercise their democratic rights or achieve their potential. For the Prime Minister to suggest that India has been weakened by the failure of its citizens to focus on their duties is disingenuous, mendacious, and misleading.
Governments, especially those that enjoy a parliamentary majority, have tremendous power to do good for the people. The best thing a government can do is to guarantee and uphold the rights of citizens. At the very least it should foster a system for redress and recompense when those rights are trampled by the agents of the State. When a strong government fails to deliver on its promises or to achieve improvements in the welfare of the people it took a solemn oath to serve, it must not be allowed to get away with shifting the accountability for its own shortcomings onto those same people.
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