Soon after his spectacular victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in Parliament that there was a need for a ‘paradigm shift’ in India – from the centrality of fundamental rights to the fundamental duties. Many in media, Parliament, and among the common public saw the statement in a positive light and found nothing controversial: Modi was most likely rendering a version of John F. Kennedy’s ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’.
Then it was reported that the Ministry of Human Resource Development has sent a letter to all institutes of higher education, laying out the guidelines on how to celebrate Constitution Day. What is striking about the letter is its repeated focus on fundamental duties for this year’s celebration. But this is not a one-off incident. There was a letter sent out in 2016 too wherein fundamental duties were similarly given special attention. It is quite clear that Modi and the state apparatus under him seem to believe that the thrust of constitutional education and constitutional discourse must be centred around fundamental duties.
In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Modi quoted Gandhi: ‘The true source of rights is duty, if we all discharge our duties, rights will not be far to seek’.
Modi’s Indira connection
Ironically, in this, Modi is a lot like former PM Indira Gandhi. There were no fundamental duties in the Constitution that our founders adopted on this day 70 years ago. It was introduced through the 42nd amendment in 1976 in the middle of Emergency as Part – 4A by Gandhi. She set up a committee chaired by then-External Affairs Minister Swaran Singh ‘to study the question of amendment of the Constitution in the light of experience…’ The All India Congress Committee (AICC) suggested to the Swaran Singh Committee to ‘formulate some proposals for inclusion in the Constitution certain fundamental duties and obligations which every citizen owes to the nation…’.
The committee then drew up a list of fundamental duties, which included the duty to adhere to the Constitution, uphold India’s sovereignty, and contribute with national service among other things, which the Congress party tweaked. Interestingly, the Congress rejected the committee’s proposal to give Parliament the power, by law, to impose punishment and penalties on citizens who didn’t adhere to the fundamental duties.
By November 1976, both Houses of Parliament passed the 42nd amendment, which included a new fundamental duties chapter to the Constitution. The 42nd amendment entailed a number of significant changes to the Constitution and is often referred to as a ‘mini-constitution’ or ‘Indira’s Constitution’. It curtailed fundamental rights and destabilised the separation of powers in favour of the Indira Gandhi-led government.
Constitution’s focus was always on rights
Modi’s citation of M.K. Gandhi in The New York Times article to support his emphasis on ‘duties’ is indeed correct. However, Gandhian thinking on rights and duties represents only a sliver of India’s constitutional tradition. Most of Indian constitutional thinking, forged in the crucible of our freedom movement, emphasised rights and not duties.
Apart from one or two instances where members of the Constituent Assembly echoed Gandhi’s idea on rights and duties, we find no evidence that remotely suggests that the framers of our Constitution seriously considered adopting something that resembled fundamental duties. While they might have had moral and political convictions about the links between rights and duties, they did not find it appropriate for these to be encoded into the Indian Constitution. Fundamental rights were given the most emphasis.
B.R. Ambedkar, the Chairman of the Constituent Assembly’s drafting Committee, called Article 32 – containing the provision that provided remedies for the violation of fundamental rights – as the ‘soul of the Constitution’.
Authoritarian regimes emphasise duties over rights
This is not to say the idea that citizens must perform certain duties towards their fellow citizens and society is not important. A lot of what we have in our fundamental duties chapter is laudable and must be aspired to. However, when political leaders and the state equate duties with rights, or worse, elevate the former over the latter, alarms bells should ring, especially when this happens in a political ambience flush with majoritarianism and under an authoritarian leader.
But why would the Modi government want us to pay less focus on rights to freedom, equality, non-discrimination, minority welfare, etc and instead obsess over our fundamental duties inserted during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency? Well, authoritarian regimes know that they can profit immensely from such a ‘paradigm shift’.
First, this shift allows the state to erect a mask over violations of citizen’s rights. When citizens are exclusively concerned about the performance of duties, issues of rights are relegated to the fringes of their attention. We would focus on state-assigned homework to ensure our streets are swachh (clean) and remain oblivious to the rights of manual scavengers.
By using the language of ‘duties’, any call for accountability of state action that violates rights can be dismissed as a form of selfishness: ‘You keep talking of rights but what about your duties?’ was something that was heard during the JNU-Kanhaiya Kumar episode. The students’ claims to right of free expression and protection against state violence were responded with some form of ‘you are a student. It is your duty to study, not protest’.
A republic that is brainwashed into thinking that fundamental duties are the crème of the Constitution, can slowly begin to worship the very concept of duty itself – even if this duty has nothing to do with the actual content in the chapter on fundamental duties in the Constitution.
The BJP government is stellar at handpicking certain fringes of India’s constitutional tradition that it finds agreeable and dressing them up as the Constitution’s core. It performs fancy footwork around India’s constitutional and political history to dazzle the citizenry into confusion about the republic’s founding ideals. Today, the 70th anniversary of the adoption of India’s Constitution is a good time to remind ourselves to self-educate and strive for clarity on what kind of a constitutional republic our founders wanted us to be.
The author is the senior associate editor for Constitutional and Civic Citizenship at the Centre for Law and Policy Research, Bengaluru where he works on initiatives to facilitate and sustain a popular constitutional culture in India that includes: constitutionofindia.net, ConQuest Quiz, and the National Constitution Society. He can be reached @vineethkrishnae Views are personal.