The appeal of democracy lies in its rights, privileges and freedom it bestows on its citizens. The recent upheavals in governance worldwide, the Spring Uprising or the Occupy Wall Street movement, are logical conclusions of democratic needs and its evolution.
India, on its part, has witnessed a series of demands to enlarge the ambit of rights to its citizens. Whether it’s Right to Information, Right to Education, Right to Food Security, Right to Employment or more recently the Lokpal Bill, the need to empower people has grown tremendously, either by choice or by exigencies.
In fact, there has hardly been a time in Indian history when the country has seen such a rise in citizen activism, be it in the form of judicial activism or Public Interest Litigations (PIL).
There is little doubt that democracy means more rights and more freedom to its people. But has there been a corresponding change in the duties of the citizens? Most persons are willing to press vocally for their rights but ask to explain their duties, there will be a sudden silence.
It is important to remember that while most rights are enforceable by law, duties are not legally binding. Also, while scores of rights have been added for the benefit of citizens through various amendments to the Constitution of India, there has hardly been a perceptible change in the duties to compensate for the increase in rights.
Our founding fathers were so generous that they did not include a single responsibility or duty for its citizens in the Constitution. It was only much later in 1975 that the Swaran Singh Committee was constituted to recommend duties that a citizen was expected to adhere to.
As a result, the Fundamental Duties of citizens were added to the Constitution by the 42nd Amendment in 1976. The Fundamental Duties which were ten in number were increased to eleven in 2002 through the 86th constitutional amendment. The new Fundamental Duty made it obligatory on the part of parents and guardians to provide opportunity of education to their children aged between 6 and 14 years.
The same Fundamental Duty which was supposed to have guided citizens was transferred to the government in the form of Right to Education Act, 2009. The Act makes it mandatory for every child aged between 6 and 14, to be given education by the state. Although parents and guardians are still expected to carry out their Fundamental Duty in educating children, the onus is now more with the government and has therefore further strengthened citizens’ rights.
These new demands on democracies have posed serious challenges before constitutional experts. They are not certain what a further deluge of demands may entail for governance.
More importantly, is it sustainable in the long run? It would be fair to say that it has already created new fault lines in governance in the absence of a bulwark to cushion those pressures. Traditionally all forms of governance, including democracies, have enjoyed increasing power and have been reluctant to part ways with it. It is public pressure from citizens that has forced them to cave in, albeit reluctantly.
Recently the Chief Justice of India (CJI) S H Kapadia said that Right to Information (RTI), although a very good law, was being misused to ask irrelevant and intrusive questions thereby seriously impeding the working of judges and the Supreme Court.
Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh emphasised the point that RTI should not adversely affect the deliberative processes in the government. He said it should be given a critical re-look and needs to be discussed and addressed as urgently as possible.
There may be some virtues in what the CJI and Manmohan Singh have said. However, the strength of the RTI Act lies in exercising it as a right and not as a privilege. To be sure, there are some gray areas, but it would be entirely unwise to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
One of the reasons why RTI has come under criticism from some quarters is because it was not balanced with equal duties and responsibilities on part of the citizens. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. Rights have to be equated and made conditional with some duties to prevent its misuse.
As the complexities of the political system increases and governance becomes cumbersome and slow because of increasing rights and unchanging duties, governments will have to come out with more workable and practical solutions.
We want more teeth to fight corruption, but there are very few who are willing to pick up the gauntlet. It is easy to complain and recount our failures as a nation and tell whoever is interested, that politics is the last refuge for scoundrels. On the contrary, politics is the very foundation of good citizenry. If you are not political and are not aware of the needs of the political system, it is difficult to be a good citizen.
Former US President Theodore Roosevelt in his “Duties of American Citizenship” writes, “I do wish that more of our good citizens would go into politics and would do it in the same spirit with which their fathers went into the federal armies.” In the Indian context, it should be the spirit with which freedom fighters forsake their all for the country.
The critical issue at stake here is to join politics or public life without a vested interest. In fact, it is precisely the opposite which is happening. According to Roosevelt, “I do not think that any man should let himself regard his political career as a means of livelihood, or as his sole occupation in life; for if he does he immediately becomes most seriously handicapped.” How apt when applied to Indian conditions.
It would be instructive to look at Fundamental Duties of citizens mentioned in Article 51A of the Indian Constitution:
1. To abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals and institutions, the National Flag and the National Anthem.
2. To cherish and follow the noble ideals which inspired our national struggle for freedom.
3. To uphold and protect the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India.
4. To defend the country and render national service when called upon to do so.
5. To promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities; to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women.
6. To value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture.
7. To protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wild life, and to have compassion for living creatures.
8. To develop scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.
9. To safeguard public property and to abjure violence.
10.To strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavour and achievement.
Out of these original 10 commandments, none is compulsory. While some countries make military training mandatory for its citizens, India has no such provision. It simply calls for defending the country at the time of crisis or war and render national service when called upon to do so.
Fundamental Duties have to be earned by performing them well, the only deciding factor which makes or unmakes a nation.