Why duty-based rights narrative is essential

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.