Unsurprisingly, we have all forgotten the immense contribution of Mahatma Gandhi to the debate and discourse on human rights. The year when India became independent, Mahatma Gandhi was asked to contribute an essay to a collection of philosophical reflections on human rights. Gandhi declined but added a very important remark, which has more relevance today than when it was first written. His remark was, “I learnt from my illiterate but wise mother, that all rights to be deserved and preserved came from duty well done. Thus the very right to live accrues to us only when we do the duty of citizenship of the world.”
In short, his entire skepticism towards the predominantly Western notion of democracy and human rights was due to the dissection of rights from duties.
After two world wars which killed millions of people in Europe, something drastic was needed to be done, and hence there emerged a consensus on formulating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Ever since then, the concept of human rights has become one of the most globalized ideas in the world.
But after more than seven decades of binding treaties and conventions, it is important to assess whether the discourse on human rights is able to address the societal concerns and challenges of all countries in the world.
The sole emphasis on human rights has created a lop-sided inflation where country after country is witnessing citizens taking to the streets, demanding anything under the sun as a basic right. In several rich countries, class teachers cannot create the minimum standard of discipline as students, well aware of their rights, do not consider that it is their duty to keep quiet and wait till it is their turn to answer or ask questions. Teachers are going down with stress as a class of two dozen students do as they please, creating chaos and unbearable noise and disturbance. Having taken an expensive education paid for by the society at large, ambitious students migrate to places where they can get even more rights and better salaries.
The attachment of duty has now to be imposed on the idea of human rights through special laws. Medical students have to be almost forced to visit villages, as in most Western European countries there is a lack of doctors in remote parts of the countries. Most doctors want to prioritize their careers, which is often easier in larger cities.
After football matches, after music concerts, after New Year’s Eve parties, and after every weekend, streets are flooded with beer cans and broken glass bottles, people are getting drunk and shout and sing in the middle of the night, waking scores of sleeping people in the neighborhood. Lack of proper sleep is becoming a source of major health concern in many cities.
One has the freedom to go out, move freely, associate freely with friends and family, but weekend after weekend one witnesses roads and pavements littered with paper and wraps flying all over, as those responsible do not think it is their duty to find the garbage bin.
Let’s take the debate to the macro level and observe the loneliness statistics. Social isolation and loneliness have become major health hazards as sons and daughters no longer feel it is their duty to visit their parents, or vice versa. Successful people do not feel it is their duty to help those who are less fortunate. The rich want to keep accumulating more wealth, even if they cannot possibly spend their fortunes in their entire lifetime. What happened to the duty aspect?
Don’t the rich have the duty or obligation to help the less fortunate? Could they not pay a little more in tax or a little higher salaries to their employees?
The conspicuous consumption which originated in Western countries has infected the entire world with everyone wanting to travel as much as possible without considering whether it in any way improves the lives of people residing in the country they are visiting. The individual duty and responsibility to restrict the effects of the climate change is only seen sporadically among many citizens.
We all want our rights, we want more rights. People everywhere are flooding the streets, demanding their rights from London to Lucknow and from Beirut to Barcelona. But where are the demonstrations or acts of solidarity to do their duties? None. How can any society function without some citizens performing their duties, making life comfortable and smooth for others?
Non-Western societies copied the rights-based human rights regime without questioning its geopolitical relevance, to their newly formed nations. Neo-imperialists now have their remote control to change regimes and governments, some of them democratically elected, because of dubious human rights reports written without taking historical and cultural aspects into consideration. Such is the misuse of the human rights discourse that even General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan once justified the imposition of military rule as a way to improve human rights in the country.
Human rights was and is a Western construct, and it has gradually become a yardstick to delegitimize any government that challenges the Western hegemony, and in recent decades has become carte blanche to invade other countries.
When citizens in India burn trains and demolish private property to insist on their rights to one thing or the other, then it ought to be incumbent to insist that political, judicial and other forums be used prior to torching streets with petrol and running riot, making life difficult for everyone. Political participation should be a duty, study of citizenship ought to be compulsory as is the case in the well-functioning Scandinavian countries.
Therefore, when Chief Justice of India Sharad Bobde on Saturday reiterated the symbiotic relationship of rights and duties by saying that citizenship was not only about people’s rights, but also about their duties towards the society, he was once again stating a principle in accordance with Gandhian philosophy.
No society is perfect, and it is time that non-Western countries develop their models of societies based on a value system that suits the circumstances and cultures of their region.
When it comes to debating citizenship laws, India should pay a little less attention to scholars and writers who live their luxurious lives in Western countries. If we as a group of NRIs and OCIs truly want our voices counted, then we should also do our duty. When I see research students arriving in Europe with the dream of acquiring knowledge to return to India to enrich the education system back home, I feel they are better Indians than those of us who never embarked on such missions.
Almost a century ago, Mahatma Gandhi coined the idea of a charter of duties instead of charters and conventions solely based on rights. Ironically, nowhere would such a charter get more support than in the Western world itself.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.