Modi government’s attempts to replace Rights with Duties will have damning consequences

Now, it is not only about duties with rights, but that duties, must in effect, trump rights. COURTESY INTERNET ARCHIVE/LOYAL CITIZENSHIP (1922) BY REED, THOMAS H (THOMAS HARRISON)
31 December, 2022

There are many competing ideas to choose from the list of what marks the year, 2022. But one theme, underlying a lot of what was said and done by our representatives and the government, is the consistent attack on the idea of rights. It has been clear for some time that the word “rights” is conspicuous in its absence from the government’s voluminous releases and assertions in advertisements. It began with piously invoking duties as a complement to rights. This, even as the Constitution does not put them on an even footing. Now, it is not only about duties with rights, but that duties, must in effect, trump rights.

The prime minister started the year by addressing the Brahma Kumaris on 20 January, and said that in the 75 years since India won freedom, too much “focus on talking about and fighting for rights had kept [the country] weak.” , or for a struggle for them, was very evident as Narendra Modi spoke derisively of aandolanjeevis—the champions for rights—or his ominous phrase, that one can recognise certain categories of protestors “by their clothes,” in the aftermath of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests in 2019. Just weeks before, during a joint sitting of both houses of Parliament, on the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution, Modi had acknowledged that the emphasis on people’s rights was because “many felt deprived of equality and justice,” but then claimed that the “demand now was for society to deliberate on its duties and responsibilities.”

On Human Rights Day earlier this month, Arun Mishra, a former Supreme Court judge who is now the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, said, “the fundamental right to live with human dignity carries responsibility and discipline constitutionally envisaged in Article 51A.” Coming from the premium institution meant to be the watchdog, on behalf of all citizens, of human-rights violations in the country, this understanding of rights as a lollipop given only to those who do their duties, was anything but reassuring.

This year, the most significant warning sign of the diminishing of rights was the criminalisation of human-rights defender, Teesta Setalvad, for asking legitimate questions of an inquiry she saw as flawed. She was in jail for nearly two months. Further, the characterisation of the millions of poor, who receive assistance from public money, as labarthis, or beneficiaries, of the prime minister’s kindness, is a direct bludgeoning of the idea of rights. In this framing, the poor are no longer rightful recipients of aid, from a system that has over decades and centuries excluded them and enforced an unfair power equation, rather they are receiving largesse granted by the ruler’s munificence.