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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.

Also Read: India is free, but Indians are still colonized

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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“Violence Against Women And Girls Is The Most Widespread Human Rights Violation on Earth” Activists Campaign to End Violence Against Women

"The largest obstacle I see is to fight the apathy," she said. "When you're asking for global systems change and genuine commitments, even people who are pro-women's rights will question whether or not it's needed, will say it's unnecessary — and this is something the tobacco and land mines and disabilities treaties faced."

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Women
An Indian participant in the 'Dignity March' looks on as she attends the culmination of the march at Ramleela Ground in New Delhi, Feb. 22, 2019. VOA

Women’s rights activists from 128 nations are launching a public campaign Tuesday for an international treaty to end violence against women and girls, a global scourge estimated by the United Nations to affect 35 percent of females worldwide.

The campaign led by the Seattle-based nonprofit organization Every Woman Treaty aims to have the U.N. World Health Organization adopt the treaty with the goal of getting all 193 U.N. member states to ratify it.

“Violence against women and girls is the most widespread human rights violation on Earth,” the organization’s co-founder and chief executive, Lisa Shannon, told The Associated Press in an interview Monday ahead of the official launch.

“All the efforts that people put into development, education, women’s empowerment, economic opportunity are being squashed when women are not physically safe,” she said. “It’s a global pandemic. … We cannot make progress as a species without addressing violence against women and girls.”

FILE - A woman, with her daughter, writes a message of support during the first Egyptian womens' race, to raise awareness about violence against women, in Cairo, Egypt, Nov. 30, 2018.
A woman, with her daughter, writes a message of support during the first Egyptian womens’ race, to raise awareness about violence against women, in Cairo, Egypt, Nov. 30, 2018. VOA

The activists want the treaty to require countries to take four actions that have proven to lower rates of violence against women:

  • Adopt laws punishing domestic violence, which lower mortality rates for women.
  • Train police, judges, nurses, doctors and other professionals about such violence, which leads to increased prosecution of perpetrators and better treatment for survivors.
  • Provide education on preventing violence against women and girls, which research shows has an influence on boys’ and men’s attitudes and actions, and encourages women and girls to demand their rights.
  • Provide hotlines, shelters, legal advice, treatment and other services for survivors.

Eleanor Eleanor Nwadinobi of Nigeria, a member of Every Woman Treaty’s steering committee, said the other critical issue is funding, which “is absolutely essential” to enable governments, especially in developing countries, to carry out this essential work to combat violence against women and girls.

Shannon said the activists are modeling their campaign after the efforts that led to the successful treaty on eliminating land mines, which took force in 1999, and the treaty aimed at limiting the use of tobacco, which was the first pact negotiated under WHO auspices and entered into force in 2005.

In the first 36 hours of the mine ban treaty, nations pledged $500 million toward its implementation, Shannon said.

She expressed hope that a treaty tackling violence against women and girls would lead to a $4 billion-a-year fund for financing global action, “which would be about a dollar per female on Earth.”

Every Woman Treaty was started in 2013 and Shannon said it has been working behind the scenes to build support and come up with recommendations and a rough draft of a treaty.

More than 4,000 individuals and organizations have signed what she called “a one-page people’s treaty” that condemns all forms of violence against women and girls, outlines the actions sought in a treaty, and urges nations to adopt it. Among the signatories are Nobel Peace Prize winners Shirin Ebadi of Iran, Tawakol Karman of Yemen and Jody Williams of the United States.

FILE - Nobel Peace laureates, from left, Yemen's Tawakkol Karman, Iran's Shirin Ebadi and Ireland's Mairead Maguire address a press conference after their visit to the Rohingya refugee camps in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Feb. 28, 2018.
Nobel Peace laureates, from left, Yemen’s Tawakkol Karman, Iran’s Shirin Ebadi and Ireland’s Mairead Maguire address a press conference after their visit to the Rohingya refugee camps in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Feb. 28, 2018. VOA

Shannon said the activists are seeking 20 countries to lead the campaign for the new treaty.

First, she said, they need the World Health Organization to approve a resolution seeking a report on the role a treaty would play. “Our goal is to have the resolution introduced at the 2020 World Health Assembly,” which she called very ambitious.

Once a report is written, Shannon said, the World Health Assembly would have to approve the process for drafting a treaty.

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“The largest obstacle I see is to fight the apathy,” she said. “When you’re asking for global systems change and genuine commitments, even people who are pro-women’s rights will question whether or not it’s needed, will say it’s unnecessary — and this is something the tobacco and land mines and disabilities treaties faced.”

Shannon said the biggest immediate challenge is finding countries willing to take on a leadership role and getting people to understand this is “an opportunity that we have to take right now” because “we are not going to advance” unless violence against women and girls is addressed. (VOA)