President Ram Nath Kovind’s address to the nation on the eve of Republic Day was deeply perturbing and carried an ominous forewarning of steady inversion of the fundamental characteristics of the Republic.
The concern stems from the constitutional head’s pitch of ‘rights and duties’ being “two sides of the same coin”. The anxiety is furthered by the First Citizen’s explicit focus on “observance of the Fundamental Duties mentioned in the Constitution by the citizens”.
Unambiguously putting the cart before the horse (‘duties’ were questionably inserted by Indira Gandhi as part of the 42nd Amendment during Emergency when Fundamental Rights were suspended and thereafter never repealed because of ‘righteousness’ of the idea), the President said adherence to these 11 (more may be added) obligations for citizens listed in Article 51(A) of the Constitution “creates the proper environment for the enjoyment of Fundamental Rights”.
When the Citizenry Is to Blame
Besides the dubious move to convert constitutionally enshrined Fundamental Rights to ‘conditional entitlements’, or linking rights to duties, the President’s address was also disquieting because he repeated in its entirety what the Prime Minister stated merely five days ago at a function organised by a religious institution.
Although this was not the first time that Kovind endorsed what Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated previously, doing this in an address that is an annual event to celebrate the Republic’s birth and the adoption of the Constitution is no credit to the President’s office.
Already in the last year of his tenure, Kovind’s meek acceptance of inverted order of precedence is a symptom of much ‘badlaav’ (change) that has taken place since 2014.
This is not the first instance of Modi calling for supremacy of duties over rights. In his 20 January speech at an event organised by the Brahma Kumaris, the Prime Minister stressed the necessity to “keep the society unblemished and agile on the basis of the values of the period of every era”.
The “responsibility” for this lies with “the generation of that period”. Implicit in this assertion is that accountability is not for the State and the blame for failure lies at the door of the citizenry.
The Prime Minister has made similar assertions earlier, too, but little purpose would be served by listing them all.
Strangely enough, Modi personally and his party can be faulted for not performing to some of the Fundamental Duties listed in Article 51(A), for instance, promoting “harmony and spirit of common brotherhood” among Indians “transcending religious, linguistic….diversities”. In addition, as seen even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Prime Minister has barely acted to “develop scientific temper” and a “spirit of enquiry” among citizens.
Demanding Citizens' Loyalty is a Populist Tactic
However, it’s noteworthy that Modi’s thoughts have roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fountainhead that provided political nourishment to him in his early days.
Responsibilities and duties are the first lessons that swayamsevaks are imparted after being admitted to the fold. The demand for selflessness is acceptable in relationships between organisations and their members when pursuing ideological or political goals, as the RSS does. But that the state expects this from citizens indicates the current regime’s keenness to abdicate its responsibility and quash civil rights.
Populist leaders have and continue to use similar rhetoric and demagoguery as tactics to demand the loyalty of citizens. Former President of the United States John F Kennedy had twisted Khalil Gibran’s line to his advantage in his 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
Kennedy deceptively upturned Gibran’s question to politicians put in an article: “Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you, or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country?” He wrote thereafter in judgement: “If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in the desert.”
But by repeatedly asking citizens to be dutiful first and “only then” demand one’s rights, Modi – and now the President – are framing a decree that, in fact, should be first applied to them.
It’s important to heed Modi’s warning and decipher the sentiments it hides under a veil of righteousness. He said in the speech that a “malaise has afflicted our society, our nation and all of us” which must be accepted on the 75th anniversary year of India’s independence.
The ailment, he claimed, was that people have “turned away from our duties and did not give them primacy”. He said, “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 huge role in keeping India vulnerable.”
Three Inherent Dangers in Modi's Proposition
According to the Prime Minister – and this assertion was approved by the President – the country “lost considerable time because duties were not accorded priority”. This frittering away of time while protecting civil rights can be compensated by “discharging duties in the next 25 years”.
Effectively, this means that for the next 25 years, at least, all democratic movements or agitations for people’s rights (as guaranteed in the Constitution) would be seen as efforts aimed at hindering the nation’s growth.
There are three inherent dangers with this proposition made by the highest levels of this regime. One, it derecognises the fact that rights are constitutionally inherent and can be taken away only under ‘exceptional’ circumstances (as spelt out in the Constitution). By repeatedly emphasising fundamental duties, the effort is to convert Fundamental Rights into a ‘conditional’ entitlement, and this is simply unacceptable in any ‘true’ democracy, not one in just name.
Two – and this is the most insidious part – it characterises people as ‘good citizens’ and ‘bad citizens.’ The latter lot will be automatically classified as ‘anti-nationals’ and their ‘formal’ declaration as such, in the event of ‘being undutiful’ (not an offence under the present penal code unless wrongly charged), would be made not by a court of law but by kangaroo courts.
The insistence upon ‘fulfilling your duties’ before ‘demanding rights’ will legitimise vigilantism and become the ultimate line of polarisation. Going beyond religious identity, people would be labelled on the basis of their ‘civic character’ tags.
‘Bad citizens’ will be those who are non-compliant and assertive, or self-assured. In time, this will be the desired 80-20 divide that Yogi Adityanath recently pointed to. But, if India ever reaches that extent of polarisation, would it still qualify as a democracy or a Republic?
A Chinese Political Model
The third danger is linked to a paradox that has been perceptible from when Modi was Chief Minister – an unacknowledged appreciation of the Chinese political model. The non-republican mode of duties of citizens is an unambiguous part of Chinese policy and the citizen-state social contract.
The apprehension around the emerging prepotency of duties over rights was voiced by Professor Balveer Arora, a veteran political scientist who held multiple positions before retiring from the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). With conditionalities being attached to securing rights, as evident in the President’s address, Prof Arora is of the view that this opens the door to a system of earning points by ‘good’ or dutiful behaviour, and this can thereafter be used to ‘gain’ rights. In short, perform duties with one hand and only after that extend the other hand for rights.
The Irony of Endorsing Indira Gandhi's Move
Although the insertion of Fundamental Duties was done by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, she neither had ideological motivations behind the move nor did she make it a routine part of her political discourse and vocabulary after her thumping return to power in 1980. Also, as noted academic and legal scholar Faizan Mustafa wrote, she introduced the Fundamental Duties in “a non-binding Directive Principles chapter rather than in the justiciable fundamental rights chapter”.
In sharp contrast, this regime is brazen about its abhorrence for any form of dissent. Disagreement with government policy is regularly equated with being seditious.
The resurrection of Fundamental Duties in the national discourse despite its link with Indira Gandhi is ironic for another reason – the Sangh Parivar’s opposition to her decision of inserting ‘secularism’ (and socialism) in the Preamble through the same constitutional amendment.
Another Attempt to Divide the Citizenry?
Given this, it is necessary to ponder over the reasons for the urgency being displayed by the Modi government in fast-tracking the acceptance of duties over rights at this stage. Is this because Modi, too, realises the obvious limitations of religious polarisation, and thereby the need to create a deeper wedge among citizens on other lines? Or are we in for a repressive future where conditionality of rights gets enshrined in the State’s Holy Book?
Not just democratic, but even republican values have come under threat with this thrust for citizens’ obligations towards fundamental duties and not on protecting their rights when either denied or encroached by the State.
It is argued that duties are part of the constitutional framework in several democracies. But the conditionalities being introduced in India – or the linking of rights and duties – is not seen in nations that don’t follow a China-like model. The emerging discourse, in Arora’s words, is alarmingly “divisive and regrettable”. He warns that “the notion of conditional rights is antithetical to Republican ideals and principles”.
(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)