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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.

  • 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!

  • 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!

Next Story

Know About some Significant Protests Around the World in 2019

2019 was a year full of protests globally

Chile Protests
Demonstrators clash with a police water cannon during anti-government protests in Santiago. VOA

By Jamie Dettmer

It has been a year of protest — from Hong Kong to Bolivia, and from France to Lebanon. Few parts of the world were spared significant protests in 2019.

In Russia’s capital, Moscow, protesters were outraged by rigged elections. In Britain, people rallied against Brexit, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Serbia, Ukraine, Albania and the central European states all experienced major demonstrations. Separatists battled police in the restive region of Catalonia. Dissent in the Middle East prompted talk of a new Arab Spring.

In the Americas, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela all experienced popular unrest. And the list goes on.

France Protests
Yellow Vests protesters march on the Champs Elysees avenue in Paris. France’s yellow vest protesters remain a force to be reckoned with five months after their protests started. VOA

“The data shows that the amount of protests is increasing and is as high as the roaring 1960s,” according to Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, an academic who studies social change at Vrije University in Amsterdam.

Protest like it’s 1848

The year 2019 has drawn comparisons to 1848, when the ruling elites and monarchies in Europe were at a loss as to how to deal with the turbulence and anger tearing through the continent.

Then, as now, the immediate grievances propelling protesters onto the streets differed from country to country: 170 years ago, some were protesting at the dysfunction and corruption of their states and anger at hidebound elites for resisting modernization and liberal change. Have-nots marched out of economic despair. Nationalists wanted to break away from empires. Anarchists wanted to blow everything up.

In the so-called Spring of Nations — revolutions of 1848 — seemingly small incidents or government decisions could spark the trouble. So, too, in 2019.

France’s Yellow Vests, drawn largely from low-income earners in small-town and rural France, took to the streets and blockaded roads to protest higher “green” taxes on fuel. The same in Chile and Ecuador — planned sharp rises in fuel prices and metro fares triggered the fury this year of low-income and rural communities.

But behind the immediate causes, far more substantive and structural grievances have fueled the worldwide protests. In Lebanon, demonstrators initially took to the streets because of frustration over a tax on WhatsApp, but that was just the spark for an ongoing conflagration of rage over corruption and Iranian influence on the country. The Yellow Vest agitation morphed into a general exasperation about being left-behind economically.

Hong Kong protesters
A photo of protests in Hong Kong against the Extradition Bill. VOA

In Hong Kong, an extradition bill was the prompt, but also a symbolic one for protesters furious about a creeping Beijing-dictated authoritarianism.

The 2019 protests have had some common themes, say analysts, including anger about stifled democracy and the demand for greater political freedom. Anger about corruption and the perception that political systems are rigged have been common grievances.

Some commentators have tried to tie all the protests together, arguing rallies and demonstrations and blockades more often than not are a reaction to anti-democratic and right-wing forces taking hold in many places around the world.

Maybe so for some but not all, and there are plenty of contradictions. And then and now, protesters on the left or right of the political spectrum share on thing in common — a firm conviction that things should and can change.

One big difference with the past, though, has come with social media and the internet. Modern communication has helped to fuel anger and assist greatly in the organization and recruitment of protesters to take on authorities.

“The traditional system of enforcing power from top to bottom is increasingly being challenged,” says Thierry de Montbrial, of the French Institute of International Relations.

Populist nationalists rallying in the past year in Italy and Germany have nothing in common with huge pro-EU protests in Britain, where those taking to the streets wanted to force a second referendum on leaving the European bloc. Climate-change protesters sowing havoc in Britain and Australia are demanding the kind of green tax increases that are enraging the Yellow Vests.

“Some protests may look like a sign of democratic decay amid a rise of populism and alienation with the political status quo — for example, in Brazil, the United States or France,” according to Richard Youngs, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment, a Washington-based research institution.

ALGERIA protests
People gather for mass anti-government protests in the centre of the Algerian capital Algiers. VOA

“Others may look like a futile rattling of the political cage under growing illiberalism and authoritarianism, such as in Hungary, Morocco or Thailand. More optimistically, protests in places like Algeria, Venezuela and Sudan may signal a heartening indicator of the persistent aspiration for democracy and peoples’ willingness to fight for it in very different parts of the world,” he added in a commentary.

Maybe the attempt to impose a catch-all order to the unrest of 2019 misses the point and the historical comparison should be with the immediate years of upheaval after World War I. In a new book, “Crucible: The Long End of the Great War and the Birth of a New World, 1917-24,” historian Charles Emmerson suggests that countries lose all their moorings during periods of unrest and the result is just chaos.

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“The established order is swept away,” writes Emmerson. “People who were nothing are catapulted into prominence … the real becomes surreal.”

In the immediate postwar years that Emmerson chronicles, many people felt powerless, lost faith in the ability of traditional political authorities to protect them and to restore predictability, and resented unequal distributions of wealth and power. So, too, now. (VOA)