File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint
File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi | Praveen Jain | ThePrint
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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’.


Also read: Pledge to follow fundamental duties — how govt wants students to mark 70 yrs of Constitution


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.

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Also read: The 10-point checklist on how to be an autocrat — and here’s how Modi fits the bill


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’.


Also read: India’s founders gave us our Constitution. We must prove to them that we can keep it


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.

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14 Comments Share Your Views

14 COMMENTS

  1. Kindly inform this Modi, that duties have no meaning in a Nation which has abrogated ALL fundamental rights. Consider for example Articles 14 and 15 (Equality before law). Since 1949 the Indian Rapeublic has replaced “Governance” with the gang rape of these rights by stealing from some for the benefit of others on the basis of caste, tribe, religion, gender ,language, geography and proximity to power to create a Nouveau Kleptocracy. Apart from “redistribution of wealth” and “Social re engineering”, the Quota (Reservations / License) and Corruption (Extortion / Percentage) Raj aka the Indian State, from Nehru to Modi, has done nothing..

  2. Modi should first define fundamental duties of elected representative. He should enact a law to include punishment to those law makers who flout these duties.
    These ‘Duties of Law Makers’ will become the Citizen’s fundamental rights.

  3. The very need for discipline and a sense of belonging is represented by the chaotic scenes in JNU! There the rowdy students living and celebrating their left liberal ideology of anti-state and anti-social behavior cheered by the ever proud Commies and left leaning media like the one the author represents, have made the common folks like us to wonder where the nation is headed? What is wrong in being like Norway which is ranked highest in standard of living, life expectancy, and education ? It is not the JNU type citizens who made such countries as Norway and Switzerland high scorers in human values. If these left liberals were to rule the roost we cannot expect our country to rise but only sink like all the Communist nations headed by the despots like Stalin, Mao and Pol Pots !.

  4. PEOPLE MUST START ASKING ACCOUNTABILITY FROM MODI ON VARIOUS UNKEPT PROMISES THAT INCLUDE GDP GROWTH, EMPLOYMENT GENERATION(UNEMPLOYMENT AT A NEAR HALF A CENTURY HIGH) ,REVIVAL OF ECONOMY( WHICH HAS TANKED TO HISTORIC LOWS) DOUBLING OF FARMERS’ INCOME( DISTRESS OF BOTH FARMERS AND FARMING IS HUMONGOUS IN THE LAST 5 AND ODD YEARS), “SAB KA SAATH SAB KA VIKAS”( REMAINS A CATCH SLOGAN WITH VERY LITTLE ACTION TOWARDS IT) , BRINGING BACK UNACCOUNTED( BLACK) MONEY FROM ABROAD( EVEN PAKISTAN HAS TAKEN ACTION AGAINST NAMES MENTIONED IN PANAMA PAPERS WHILE INDIA SEEMS TO BE SHIELDING THE BIG NAMES ), PRESERVATION OF CONSTITUTIONAL VALUES ( RECENT MAHARASHTRA EPISODE, HARYANA’S UNHOLY ALLIANCE AND VIOLATION OF LETTER AND SPIRIT OF ANTI-DEFECTION LAW ( KARNATAKA INDUCEMENTS FOR DEFECTIONS ADMITTED ON TAPE BY THE MAIN BENEFICIARY OF DEFECTIONS)BEING THE MAIN ONES APART FROM THE MANNER IN WHICH THE THEN STATE OF J& K WAS /IS BEING HANDLED). THE LIST COULD GO ON & ON. MODI CAN AT BEST BE A TRAVESTY OF INDIRA GANDHI, WHOSE POLTICAL CHARACTER WAS FORGED IN THE FIRE OF MOVEMENT FOR INDEPENDENCE

  5. The author says “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”. Where is the empirical evidence to support this or is this conjecture masquerading as truth couched in flowery language.

    In the next paragraph, the author says “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”. Hell, if only everyone in India would have a civic sense of ” DUTY” our streets would not be littered and we would not need manual scavengers, for whom we would need ” activists” to fight for their rights

  6. Is there anything wrong in focusing on fundamental duties? Don’t understand what’s ‘authoritarian’ about instilling sense of duties rather than rights?

    • Consider the following template: A great communicator through his speeches nudges the people towards foregoing their rights for certain mythical duties towards the nation. These duties are defined by the government of the day and correspond to their vision for the nation.

      I quote (after removing certain identifying keywords) – ” It is thus necessary that the individual should finally come to realise that his own ego is of no importance in comparison with the existence of the nation, that the position of the individual is conditioned solely by the interests of the nation as a whole”

      And

      “The ………. Government will regard it as its first and foremost duty to revive in the nation the spirit of unity and cooperation. It will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built. It regards …….. as the foundation of our national morality, and the family as the basis of national life.”

      Perhaps you can lookup this quotes and see why a sense of instilling duties and ‘authoritarian’ maybe correlated?

      • Your first sentence itself does not hold true. The rest of the article is premised on your assumptions made in the very first sentence itself.
        No one has ever “nudged” the Indian people towards “foregoing their rights for certain ‘mythical’ duties”. No one at all.
        The issue with erudite intellectuals like Mr. Vineeth Krishna is that they cherry pick facts, ideas and quotes to support their preconceived theories/notions while conveniently brushing aside those which do not conform to their thesis.
        An example – The author simply dismisses Gandhian thinking on rights and duties as “just a sliver of Indian Constitutional tradition”. Am pretty sure that the very same author would gladly quote and champion Gandhian thinking on a host of issues when it is in accordance with his own beliefs and ideology. But if the Mahatma’s thoughts are different than those of the author, he (i.e. the Mahatma) will simply be relegated to the backbenches.
        Mahatma Gandhi repeatedly laid stress on the duties of a human being towards his motherland, his society and his family. Throughout his writings he repeatedly emphasized the importance of duties. However, the Indian Leftists have always been wary of “duties” and have equated it with the philosophy of Nazi Germany.

      • Privileged always prefer dictatorship because they feel that protects them better from the plebians. People all over came to love democracy, socialism etc after the 2 wars devastated them and imperialism and colonialism suffered a death blow. Now world has come full circle and basic instincts are having a full day.

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