Kartavya Evam Adhikar (Duties and Rights)

Recently, in one of his statements in Lok Sabha, the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, said that we need to move from an Adhikar (rights) based society to a Kartavya (duty) based society. Many people in the past have mentioned such a desire in passing through various statements.  However, there has been never a sustained intellectual discourse on the subject.

I think this is due to the fact that ever since about 1945 there has been so much emphasis on individual rights.  However, Mahatma Gandhi tried to put the issue in the right perspective:

“When (Mahatma Gandhi) says, in the long passage quoted above, that swaraj does not require knowledge of rights as much as duties, he certainly does not mean to imply an inattention to the need for the former. As noted earlier, his resolution on rights at the Karachi Congress of 1931 and subsequent commentary on it, gave abundant attention then and later to individual fights. But his concept of swaraj will not permit rights to stand unattached to duties. Just as one acquires freedom through discipline and insight, so one also acquires rights by fulfilling the responsibilities of citizenship.

“When H.G. Wells sought Gandhi’s opinion on the “Rights of Man” drawn up by him, Gandhi argued for a “Charter of Duties” instead.  The text of the cable that Gandhi sent to Wells sets out his views regarding rights and duties in no uncertain terms.

“Received your cable.  Have carefully read your five articles.  You will permit me to say that you are in the wrong track.  I feel sure that I can draw up a better charter of rights than you have drawn up.  But what good will it be? Who will become its guardian? If you mean propaganda or popular education, you have begun at the wrong end.  I suggest the right way. Begin with a charter of Duties of Man (both M and D capitals) and I promise the rights will follow as spring follows winter.  I write from experience. As a young man I began life by seeking to assert my rights and I soon discovered I had none, not even over my wife. So I began by discovering and performing my duty by my wife, my children, friends, companions, and society and I find today that I have greater rights perhaps than any living man I know.  If this too tall a claim, then I say I do not know anyone who possesses greater rights than I.”

(Gandhi as quoted in Raghvan Iyer, The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 3, p. 492-3.  First published in The Hindustan Times, 16 April 1940.)

In this context, when Modi asks the people of Bharat to give their views on duties as enshrined in our Constitution, there is a need to undertake an effective debate on the subject.  Even though Article 51A lists out a set of fundamental duties, they are neither enforceable nor justiciable. Moreover, they were introduced in the Constitution as an amendment in 1976 during the period of The Emergency.  Hence, the whole effort was more of a political venture, than of an altruistic nature.

A real first attempt to have a serious discussion on the subject was attempted during the first NDA government.  For various reasons, it did not make much headway. Anyway, the subject of duties is a society project and not a legal one.  It is a project where every citizen participates voluntarily and in a matter of devotion to an Idea of India.

Dr. Babasaheb Ambdekar (Nov 25, 1949) had set out this principle nicely when he said: “However good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it happen to be a bad lot. However bad a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out to be good if those who are called to work it happen to be a good lot. The working of a Constitution does not depend wholly upon the nature of the Constitution.”

The concept of rights comes from a materialist philosophy that is an integral part of capitalism and communism.  The Hindu philosophy accepts materialism as necessary for overall well-being. As is said, one cannot sing a bhajan on an empty stomach.  However, as Devdutt Patnaik wrote: “Without spiritual development, material development becomes purposeless.” A proper blend of materialism and spiritualism leads to an understanding of duties, and places them above rights.

An insistence of rights leads to a society based on individual benefits, rather than collective benefits.  When there is collective progress, can one be assured that there will be individual progress?

Mahatma Gandhi had recognised the importance of duties as far back as the 1930s.  At the time, he wrote: “People who obtain rights as a performance of duty, exercise them only for the service of society, never for themselves. Swaraj of a people means the sum total of the swaraj (self-rule) of individuals. And such swaraj comes only form performance by individuals of their duty as citizens. In it no one thinks of his rights. They come, when they are needed, for better performance of duty.”

The concept of duty has the following advantages:

  1. Duties do not need to be legislated, while rights have to be.  Everyone understands his/her own duty in various roles. If there is a doubt, the understanding will come from discussions in society.
  2. Rights of two persons can clash.  Duties will never. And if they do, the concerned persons will say let us do the duty together, instead of fighting who will do it.
  3. If everyone does his/her duty without being concerned whether the others are doing it or not, it automatically follows that everyone does his/her duty.

An individual has many roles to play in society, and these roles change with age and position.  When the individual marries, he/she has additional duty towards the spouse. When the individual is recognised as an important member of the medical profession, he acquires the duty towards members of society other than his own family. All this is quite easily understood, and hence does not require any codification. A mere fact of suggestion will trigger the necessary thought process.


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About the Author

Ashok Chowgule
Working President (External), Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bharat.