The evolution of a democratic society is centered on the expansion of rights — civil, political, economic and cultural, leading to the empowerment of people. Democratic nations respect individual and collective rights for moral and instrumental reasons. Duties, both legal and moral, are cherished in order to enforce these rights. The obligations of the individual to the collective must be understood in this context; rights and duties complement each other, just as responsibility comes with freedom. Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought to suggest a dichotomy between the rights and duties of citizens when he said last week that the country had wasted a lot of time ‘fighting for rights’ and ‘neglecting its duties’ . It was not the first time that he or other Hindutva protagonists called for an emphasis on duties over rights. The service and sacrifices of nameless and faceless nation builders formed the foundation of the modern Indian Republic, but their sacrifices were indeed for rights, dignity and self-reliance. Any notion of conflicting or hierarchical rights and duties is sophistry. The Indian Constitution enshrines equality and freedom as fundamental rights, as well as 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. State fidelity to these rights is tenuous at best. Citizens generally have a duty to protect the integrity and sovereignty of the country, and this is true for India although there is no conscription. Other expected constitutional duties include a duty to promote harmony and brotherhood, and to develop a scientific temperament, humanism and a spirit of inquiry.
Any shift in political emphasis from the rule of rights to duties will be absurd and will do a disservice to many people for whom the realization of even basic rights is still a work in progress. Informed citizens are essential to progress and good governance. But duty is not something citizens owe to the state. The obligation of individual citizens to the collective pursuit of a nation can be significant when their rights are guaranteed by the state. The citizen has the right to use the public road and the duty to respect traffic rules. Right and duty only make sense together. The Prime Minister’s comments fit into this context: formal and informal restrictions on citizens’ rights are increasing, alongside the coercive powers of the state. The emphasis on duty as well as the de-emphasis on rights also raises the specter of a descent to pre-republican norms in social relations. The celebration of India as a traditionally duty-based society carries with it the inescapable connotation of an exploitative division of labor and norms contrary to constitutionalism. Needless to say, this is not progress.