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Why duty-based rights narrative is essential

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Rights narrative

Much of today’s narrative with respect to society has been dominated by an assertion of ‘Rights’. Rights are basically freedom to have privileges or entitlements that can be defined either legally or socially.

Indian Constitution lists nine fundamental privileges meant for all the citizens of the country like the right to life, education, information, equality, freedom, religion, against exploitation, to constitutional remedies and cultural and educational rights.

Likewise, in the social discourse, we have human and animal rights and priviledges for women, Dalits etc. The feminist movements have spoken about the entitlements of women to freedom and equality. The Dalit movements have created narratives around the rights of Dalits and their upliftment. We have similar narratives about human and animal rights, with numerous national and international NGOs and watchdogs monitoring the adherence and violation of these rights.

But, many of these narratives either ignore the importance of ‘duties’ or at least sidelines them. As a result, people have begun to perceive ‘rights’ as being absolute in itself, and as being without any strings (responsibilities) attached. This has not only led to a distortion of reality, but, in many cases, it goes against the very essence of justice. Best example that illustrates this point is the narrative of human rights that was created when 1993 Mumbai blasts convict Yakub Memon was being hanged.

Further, such a ‘rights’ dominated narrative has completely hijacked any true discourse on the social issues from happening. This modern ‘rights’ narrative can be traced to European Renaissance movements of 15th century that arose in response to European situations. But, today, these narratives are being universally applied without taking into account the indigenous social, religious, cultural, and historical trends into account. Thus, the ‘rights’ movements have imported western solutions to solve indigenous social problems and instead of actually solving them, they have ended up uprooting Indian culture and identity.

This is not to suggest that ‘rights’ have no importance or place in social discourse. Instead, the point being made is – ‘rights’ can be properly realized only when it is perceived in the context of ‘duties’. Thus, from the ancient times the Indian narratives on society analyzed people and social issues from the lens of ‘Dharma’- a term which at once signifies duty, righteousness, and justice.

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This Dharmic-Duty based narrative did not grant people entitlement to unrestrained and unlimited privileges. Instead, it added two components- competency and responsibility– to those privileges. Thus a person became entitled to particular ‘rights’ only when he was also performing corresponding duties.

For example, a person became entitled to human rights like the right to life only when he adhered to human obligations (Samanya Dharma) like non-injury, etc. Hence, a criminal who inflicted violence on innocent people was given severe punishments, and not let off on the pleas of human rights.

Thus, the duty-based narrative ensured that no person takes his/her rights for granted. The ‘rights’ were stringed to duties, and primacy was given for the performance of these duties. The primacy of duties over rights also made sure that one does not violate another person’s rights.

For example, Bhagvad Gita (3.35) says, it is better to die doing one’s own duty rather than taking up someone else’s. The Gita verse has many layers of social and spiritual meaning. But, for our purpose, it is suffice to understand that, Gita is clearly saying one should concentrate on one’s duties and not infringe on another person’s right to perform his/her own duties. This automatically means that both will have their personal space, freedom, and rights.

Another example is the current ‘rights’ based narrative about women’s rights in the context of marriage. It speaks about the privileges that wives are entitled to, but is almost silent towards the duties of spouses. In fact, any discussion on wife’s duties are treated with hostility. This has distorted the narrative on women’s issues and thus the issue remains unresolved.

On the other hand, duty-based narratives in the ancient Hindu Smriti texts, speak about the duties of husbands towards wives, and duties of wives towards their husbands. This performance of duties by both the spouses will automatically result in the realization of each other’s ‘rights’. But, this does not mean one should literally adhere to ancient scriptures. The gist is one must understand the essence and the worldview propagated in those scriptures and then apply them to present circumstances.

The Hindu scriptures speak about various kinds of duties, some of which are universal (Samanya Dharma) and some of which are specific to each person based on place, time, age, gender, and work. All these various duties are deeply connected with competencies, and impart various rights and privileges to the performer. A proper assessment of current social issues in Indian society can be arrived at only by understanding this indigenous world-view rooted in Dharma.

This duty-based social narrative will not only address the deficiencies present in the ‘rights’ based narrative, it will also ensure social harmony and justice by creating a framework wherein each person understands his/her duties and corresponding rights without jealousy and unnecessary rat-race over privileges.

The absence of the element of ‘duties’ has made the ‘rights’ based narrative chaotic wherein various sections of the population are fighting with each other to lay their hands on special privileges. The rat-race has further strengthened the fault lines and increased social disharmony.

A solution to this can be worked out by migrating from western imported ‘rights’ based narrative to indigenous ‘duties’ based narrative. It is high time that India decolonizes itself and discards ‘rights’ narrative, or at least redefines it in the larger context of Dharma.

  • P G Kutty Nair

    Timely article by Nithin Sridhar, and quite to the point, too. “Right” dominates the Western society, but in India “Duty” is paramount. Bhagawad Gita calls it “Yajna”. It is by doing your duty alone you can elevate yourself, reminds the Gita. And Gita enshrines a Universal Philosophy; that is to say, it is beyond the boundaries of ‘religion’. Swami Chinmayananda describes Gita as “Solid philosophy in liquid poetry”. Only he could have come up with a line so beautiful!

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  • P G Kutty Nair

    Timely article by Nithin Sridhar, and quite to the point, too. “Right” dominates the Western society, but in India “Duty” is paramount. Bhagawad Gita calls it “Yajna”. It is by doing your duty alone you can elevate yourself, reminds the Gita. And Gita enshrines a Universal Philosophy; that is to say, it is beyond the boundaries of ‘religion’. Swami Chinmayananda describes Gita as “Solid philosophy in liquid poetry”. Only he could have come up with a line so beautiful!

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Development And Protection Of Citizens – Duties Of Elected Political Executive

In a democratic dispensation the first duties of the elected political executive governing the nation are to bring about development of all and ensure protection of citizens

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Public Safety, Development, Government, Politics, Duties, safety, executive
a policy decision of great administrative value was taken by the Centre to put the newly inducted officers of all these services together for a short 'Foundation Course.' VOA

In a democratic dispensation the first duties of the elected political executive governing the nation are to bring about development of all and ensure protection of citizens from internal and external threats. The political leadership exercises the sovereign power to this end through the bureaucratic machinery — that includes the police — headed by the officers of All India and Central Services who were recruited, trained and placed in various wings of the government to implement the policies flowing from the top. Years ago a policy decision of great administrative value was taken by the Centre to put the newly inducted officers of all these services together for a short ‘Foundation Course’ at what is now the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA) at Mussoorie, before they dispersed to join the establishments of their respective services at other places for a full length specialised training.

The foundation course had the merit of letting all probationers know each other and putting them on a common grid of understanding of the great cause of national governance that they were going to share in their long years of public service ahead. It would lay the turf for an assured cooperation among them whenever they would have an occasion to work together in future to carry the mission of governance forward. It all began in 1960 the year of my joining the IPS and I could see the benefit of that participation in my own experience. A long time later when I became the Director Intelligence Bureau, I interacted with the Secretaries at the Centre and the Chief Secretaries in the states whom I had known at Mussoorie — which made the sharing of thoughts with them on matters of national importance so easy. What worked was an understanding that we were all together in serving a higher cause.

Public Safety, Development, Government, Politics, Duties
Headed by the officers of All India and Central Services who were recruited, trained and placed in various wings of the government to implement the policies flowing from the top. Wikimedia Commons

Today India is grappling with the challenge of pursuing economic growth of a nation of 1.3 billion people spread across far corners of the vast country and placed in uneven conditions of development. The officers of the Civil Services on whom falls the responsibility of implementing the development policies of the Centre are finding it easier to coordinate the efforts that cut across various ministries and institutions — somewhere because there are no psychological barriers amongst them. In the domain of development they had enough shared experience to put their heads together in a meaningful way. They had knowledge of various facets of what constitutes development — financial, agriculture, infrastructure, forestry, public health and so on. The recall of the foundation course definitely helped in all of this.

While the orientation of Civil Services to the tasks of development is adequate the national scene points to the need for an awareness programme for all Civil Services — as they advanced in their career — on the share of responsibility that would fall on them directly or indirectly, in the sphere of securing the nation and the citizens at large against threats both internal and external. Security for all is also the concern for all and should not be deemed to be something relegated completely to the care of a national security set up and the specialised agencies besides the Police. Warren Christopher, the then US Secretary of State, famously said in 1993 that ‘national security was inseparable from economic security’ and today it is known that the targets of a ‘proxy war’ include economic assets and the industrial life-line — since damaging these weakened the opponent far more effectively than an open war would do. Those handling governance at decision making levels have to have an understanding of the economic dimensions of national security.

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For all of this it becomes a requirement of the time that senior officials across the spectrum of governance — who are adept at handling development — should also be fully informed of the national security imperatives that the governance had to reckon with. A little exposure to what was the state of affairs on the national security front and the developments of strategic import happening in the world outside, in an early stage of their training might prove quite rewarding for them. In the age of knowledge that is upon us ignorance is not a bliss and an awareness of the environ in which the national government was responding to the call of both development and security would be a great asset. A short module of discussion on matters related to national security in the Foundation Course for All India and Central Services would go a long way in providing a minimal basic orientation on the subject that would remain with the senior officers for the future and contribute to a sound decision making by them in later years.

Subjects that would qualify for being included in the presentations by professionals and strategic analysts include National Security Scenario & Policy Responses, Terrorism & Maoism, Disaster Management, Dimensions of Drug Traffic and India’s National Security Set Up & Intelligence Agencies. Every functionary of the government — and even the citizens at large — ought to be aware of their responsibility towards safeguarding national security. We are in an era of covert offensives, an open external attack of the enemy is not the only threat to the nation. Our defence forces are always in a state of readiness to deal with an open warfare. In the Indian context the reality of a proxy war being conducted by a hostile neighbour underscores the importance of our counter-intelligence capabilities that security is all about. Both defence and security have to work together to produce a perfect response. Kashmir has been a testing ground for the success of Intelligence based operations of army and para military forces — the challenge being of neutralising the infiltrated terrorist without collateral damage. Those who man the senior positions in the civil side of the government can benefit from an early exposure to an orientation programme on the lines suggested above. (IANS)