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.