Rights and Duties

Modi 1

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a rather controversial comment, while addressing a Hindu religious women’s organization called the `Brahmakumaris’ on January 21. He reminded his listeners: “In the last 75 years, we only kept talking about rights, fighting for rights and wasting our time. The issue of rights may be right to some extent in certain circumstances, but neglecting one’s duties completely has played a large role in keeping India vulnerable. India lost considerable time because duties were not accorded priority….All of you must spend your energy and time on awakening the sense of duty among the people.”

Following his usual habit of making vague allegations without substantiating them, here also he failed to elaborate on what he means by `keeping India vulnerable’, and `India lost considerable time.’ Vulnerable to what ? How much time was lost – and for what ? Is he complaining that the time was lost for the BJP because it could not come to power much earlier, due to the Indian people’s failure to `accord priority to their duties’ – the `duties’ according to Modi being the obligation to vote for the BJP in the past ?

This latest allegation by Narendra Modi touches upon an important question – the relationship between rights and duties of citizens. Should one be prioritized over the other ? Or, should we try to find a mechanism to balance both ? Narendra Modi prioritizes duties over rights. Under the pretext of adhering to Article 51 of Fundamental Duties, he is demanding from us `duties’ that suit his political ends. It is interesting to observe how he is selective in his choice of duties. He emphasizes the spirit of only two clauses of Article 51: “to uphold and protect the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India;” and “to defend the country and render national service when called upon to do so.” He ignores the other important clause that imposes upon him the duty to “promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities…” and the equally other important clause that binds Narendra Modi to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”

On both these counts, Modi during the last seven years of his rule violated those Constitutional duties. He destroyed the `harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood …transcending religious..or sectional diversities’, by allowing the goons of his party and his Sangh Parivar to go on a lynching spree against Muslims and Dalits. He countered the duty to develop `scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform’, with his own utterances and practices which totally destroyed this concept of duty that is embedded in the Constitution. Narendra Modi has been following a code of conduct which instead of developing the `scientific temper,’ is developing a superstitious `temper’ based on obscurantist Hindu religious beliefs and practices, which he is trying to rationalize in terms of modern science. Take for instance, his claim that the elephant trunk of Ganesh is an example of plastic surgery ! Or his call to citizens to beat their utensils in order to ward off Covid-19.

We could have laughed off such inanity as buffoonery had it not been displayed by a Prime Minister. When such obscurantist ideas and superstitious beliefs propagated by Narendra Modi are smuggled into universities and academic institutions, the buffoonery is threatening to become a menace. He is prioritizing his personal loyalty to the Sangh Parivar over adherence to the Constitution that he is required to follow as the Prime Minister of India.

The speech writers who are employed by Modi to translate his Hindutva-oriented bizarre ideas and emotional outbursts into the language of his public addresses (in the weekly `Maan ki Baat’ and other such drivel) must be facing a huge challenge in making them digestible for the populace. In their task to sell Modi to the public, they are picking up USPs like his false promises of freebies offered on the eve of the Assembly elections in five states.

Erasure of Part III of the Constitution

Along with the transgression of the provisions of Article 51, as narrated above, Narendra Modi has also erased Part III of the Constitution from his style of governance. This chapter guarantees Fundamental Rights to citizens. During the last seven years of his rule, Modi had consistently suppressed these rights. His government has shown little regard for clause 19 of that chapter which says: “All citizens shall have the right – (a) to freedom of speech and expression; (b) to assemble peaceably and without arms…” Hundreds of human rights activists, journalists and academics have been put behind bars for asserting that right (e.g. the Elgar Parishad case being one such instance of false allegations fabricated by Modi’s security agencies against these people). He has demonized leaders and participants of every popular movement which asserts fundamental rights, whether by citizens against the discriminatory CAA at Shaheen Bag, or by farmers to protect their rights demanding the scrapping of the three oppressive farm laws. Modi has denounced them as `andolan-jeevis’ (professionals living off movements).

In a rebuff to Narendra Modi, the eminent human rights activist Medha Patkar has proudly declared: “Yes, we are andolan-jeevis,” adding that without `andolans’ or people’s movements in the field, without “pitched public agitation,” the Modi government could not have been compelled to concede to popular demands like the withdrawal of the farm laws. (Re: Chunibhai Vaidya Memorial Lecture delivered on December 19, 2021).

Modi and his Sangh Parivar brethren can be described as `himsa-jeevis’ (professionals living off violence) and `danga-jeevis’ (careerists living off riots) – judging by the gory record of the seven-year old BJP regime. It had been marked by wide-spread lynching of Muslims and Dalits, raping and killing of women by members of the Parivar, including BJP leaders, hate speeches by saffron-clad Hindu clerics from Haridwar calling for genocide of Muslims. None of these `himsa-jeevis’ and `danga-jeevis’ has been punished so far, and they continue to rule the roost.

Narendra Modi has thus erased the other clause of Part III – clause 29 – that ensures ‘Protection of interests of minorities.’ The record of the Modi government on this count has drawn criticism from international human rights organizations, and even the US, to which Modi is bound as a loyal ally. The US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which has been set up by the US government, came out with a damning report on India in 2020, where regarding the state of religious minorities, it said: “ …conditions in India experienced a drastic turn downward.”

Facing a barrage of criticisms from reputed international human rights organizations, and sometimes also by official institutions like USCIRF, over the issue of human rights violation in India, our External Affairs Ministry and Home Ministry, in their typical insouciant manner, keep on dismissing them as false propaganda, and accuse them of interfering in India’s internal matters. But can violation of human rights in the domestic sphere of a state be allowed impunity, just because that state claims sovereignty and exercises control over its itizens ? Every state is required to adhere to the internationally recognized norms of the UN Human Rights agenda.

But while Narendra Modi dismisses international criticism of his policies as `Western’ interference, he cannot continue to ignore the increasing tide of domestic `andolans,’ or popular movements, which re-assert and revive the spirit of the Fundamental Rights that is enshrined in Part III of the Constitution. He has been brought down to his knees by the farmers’ agitation which forced him to retract his earlier obstinate stand on the three farm laws.

Rights and Duties – a conflicting or a collaborative relationship ?

The issue of assertion of rights by the people and the demand of duty from them by the state had always been a contentious problem. It depends on how one defines rights and duties, and reconciles the two. Way back in the 19th century, Karl Marx tried to define the relationship by stating: “…from each according to his ability to each according to his needs.” (Critique of the Gotha Programme. 1875). By today’s standards, the `ability’ that Marx implied can be interpreted as the capacity of certain sections to carry out what is termed `duty.’ At the other end is the term `needs’ – which can be interpreted as `rights’ of the disadvantaged sections in today’s terms.

Let me end by recalling the words of a 20th century public intellectual, who explained the relationship between `duty’ and `rights’ in more explicit terms. W.E.B. Du Bois was a famous Afro-American historian and sociologist in the US. At the age of 93, in 1961, he joined the Communist Party of the US. Explaining his decision, he defined “Communism” as “the effort to give all men what they need and to ask of each the best they can contribute – this is the only way of human life.” (October 1, 1961). The so-called Communist states have betrayed this spirit of mutual inter-dependence. Popular movements are reviving that spirit.

Sumanta Banerjee is a political commentator and writer, is the author of In The Wake of Naxalbari’ (1980 and 2008); The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta (1989) and ‘Memoirs of Roads: Calcutta from Colonial Urbanization to Global Modernization.’ (2016).


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