[Editorial] Rights, Duties and the Constitution

Rights, Duties and the Constitution

What the editorial is about?

The dichotomy between the rights and duties of citizens

Context:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said recently that the country had wasted a lot of time “fighting for rights” and “neglecting one’s duties” and thereby he sought to suggest a dichotomy between the rights and duties of citizens.

Most probable and repeated topics of upsc prelims

Background:

  • Indian Constitution provides its citizens with the Fundamental Rights and lists the Fundamental Duties to be followed by them.
  • The Constitution covers a broad spectrum of domains to protect the rights of the common man by introducing six rights as Fundamental Rights (Part III of the constitution).
  • Similarly, the Fundamental Duties are also emphasized by the Constitution (Part IVA of the constitution).

The Concept of a Democratic Society

  • The evolution of a democratic society is centred around the expansion of rights — civil, political, economic and cultural, leading to the empowerment of people.
  • Democratic nations respect individual and group rights for moral and instrumental reasons.

The Web of Duties

Wide range of duties

  • There exists a wide range of duties that bind us in everyday life. For e.g. we have a legal duty to pay our taxes, to refrain from committing violence against our fellow citizens, and to follow other laws that Parliament has enacted.

As a Price for Living in the Society

  • As in the above examples, some duties can be seen as a price that must be paid for living in society, and it is a price that nobody, at least, in principle, objects to paying.
  • Breach of these duties (e.g., legal duties) triggers financial consequences (fines), or even time in jail.

A Self-Contained Whole

  • Our duties and the consequences we bear for failing to keep them, therefore, exist as a self-contained whole.
  • The peaceful co-existence requires a degree of self-sacrifice, and, if necessary, this must be enforced through the set of sanctions.

The Logic of Rights

At the time of the framing of the Indian Constitution and its chapter on Fundamental Rights, there were two important concerns animating the Constituent Assembly.

  • The first was that under the colonial regime, Indians had been treated as subjects. Their interests did not count, their voices were unheard, and in some cases — for example, the “Criminal Tribes”- they were treated as less than human.
  • Secondly, apart from the long and brutal history of colonialism, the framers also had before them the recent example of the Holocaust, where the dignity of more than six million people had been stripped before their eventual genocide.

So, for them, there are two roles for the fundamental rights chapter to play.

First Role: To stand as a bulwark against dehumanization

  • Every human being no matter who they were or what they did had a claim to basic dignity and equality that no state could take away, no matter what the provocation.
  • One did not have to successfully perform any duty, or meet a threshold of worthiness, to qualify as a rights bearer. It was simply what it meant to be human.

Second Role: To stand against the hierarchy

  • The axes of gender, caste and religion had all served to keep masses of individuals in permanent conditions of subordination and degradation.
  • Fundamental rights were meant to play an equalizing and democratizing role throughout society, and to protect individuals against the depredations visited on them by their fellow human beings.

Towards the Modern Indian Republic

  • The Indian Constitution enshrines equality and freedom as fundamental rights, along with the right against exploitation, freedom of religion, cultural and educational rights, and the right to constitutional remedies.
  • The deepening of Indian democracy has led to an expansion of rights — education, information, privacy, etc. are now legally guaranteed rights.
  • Any shift in state policy emphasis from rights to duties will be absurd and a disservice to many for whom the realization of even fundamental rights is still a work in progress.
  • The obligation of individual citizens to the collective pursuit of a nation can be meaningful when their rights are guaranteed by the state. The citizen has a right to use a public road, and a duty to obey traffic rules.
  • An enlightened citizenry is critical to progress and good governance. But duty is not something that the citizens owe to the state.

Way Forward

  • The right and the duty are meaningful only in conjunction.
  • It is only after guarantee to all the full sum of humanity, dignity, equality, and freedom promised by the Constitution, that we can ask of them to do their duty.
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