Rights of the weak, duties of the powerful

A complaint of undue emphasis on rights creates the suspicion that citizens are being disempowered

February 09, 2022 12:02 am | Updated 12:55 am IST

Multiethnic group of people seamless pattern. Elements grouped in different layers for easy edition.

Multiethnic group of people seamless pattern. Elements grouped in different layers for easy edition.

Rights and duties are conceptually linked to one another. There are no rights without duties. If a person has the right to something, it necessarily implies that someone else has a corresponding duty to ensure that it is not violated. For example, if an individual has a right to free speech, then it is the duty of the state to prevent its infringement. Or take the right to religious freedom of, say, American Hindus. Other groups, regardless of numbers or social power, have a duty not to infringe it. If they ever fall short of space for worship, the government should help fix that problem, facilitate its possession or use by Hindus. Isn’t it a shame then that in Gurugram only the Sikhs felt duty-bound to help ordinary Muslims offer namaz?

If I have rights which impose duties on others, then others also have rights that enforce duties on me. Individuals have as many duties as rights. Any individual who demands a right and expects others to allow or facilitate its exercise must also expect that she is equally duty-bound to reciprocate. This is so simply because, like her, all others have rights too. We are all rights- as well as duties-bearing individuals.

I hope it is abundantly clear that rights entail duties, that rights cannot be exercised without the simultaneous performance of duties. Because of their grounding in rights, these (rights-based) duties cannot be pitted against rights. No opposition between them exists. To say here that we must focus on duties rather than on rights makes no sense. What then could be meant by the proposition that we must move away from a rights-based to a duty-based perspective?

Duties against rights

It should be obvious that the framework of rights and duties discussed above is grounded in egalitarian assumptions. However, the moment we drop this assumption, this whole picture of rights and duties is transformed. To be sure, the conceptual relation between rights and duties remains unbroken. Rights continue to entail duties, but in deeply hierarchical, inegalitarian societies, only a few people have rights, while the many have duties to ensure the proper exercise of the rights of these few.

In patriarchal families, the father alone has the right to take decisions. This puts all other members under a duty to abide by his decision. Remember Amrish Puri in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge ? He decides, without consultation, that Simran, played by Kajol, is to be married to the son of his friend in a Punjabi village. And Simran has no choice but to obey, to leave her home in London and settle in India. The mother, sympathetic to Simran, is also duty-bound not to object to the father’s decision.

Much the same is true of caste-ridden societies. It is a misconception that the ancient Hindu Varna Vyavastha has only duties and no rights. The duties of Shudras and Ati-shudras to serve people of higher rank flow from rights possessed exclusively by upper castes. A hierarchical caste system distributes rights and duties unequally. Only a few have the most important rights — the right to be served, for instance; the larger population has corresponding duties to ensure that these rights are exercised without hindrance. Any infringement on the rights of the upper caste, especially the Brahmin, brings heavy penalties to the violator, sometimes even death. Similarly, in many Islamic societies, rights and duties are gender-specific, and unequal. It is the right of men to have their testimony in the court weigh twice as much as that of women who are duty-bound to comply.

In absolute monarchies, the King has unrestricted rights and all others have corresponding duties which increase as we go down the ladder of political hierarchy. Those at the bottom have the maximum number of duties towards the maximum number of people, all ranked higher than them. Talk of priority of duties over rights is rampant in inegalitarian societies. When people are asked to forget about rights and think more about duties, the subtext is that they should forget about caring for their own rights and concentrate on their duties to the few. In hierarchical, inegalitarian societies, where power is unevenly distributed, duties are often seen in opposition to rights.

Careful attention to the structure of rights and duties in inegalitarian societies reveals its deep connection to social and political power. Those in power have rights; those without it have duties. A transformation from a hierarchical to an egalitarian order does not produce a power-free order. Instead, at least in principle, such change generates a democratic distribution of power. It is this equality of power that ensures a system of equal rights and duties. Indeed, in egalitarian polities, more power means more duties. The powerless have rights, the powerful have duties. For example, it is the duty of the state to ensure that there is no poverty, disease or unemployment. In this context, any move to shift focus from rights to duties, to complain of undue emphasis on rights breeds the suspicion that democracy is being undermined and hierarchy reintroduced through the backdoor.

Duties beyond rights

However, one cannot altogether deny the importance of a moral discourse that asks people to attend to duties. For, quite simply, duties that do not oppose rights exist and they do not flow from rights but go beyond them. Let us take an example. A surgeon performs an operation. He does his job efficiently and believes that once done, he is under no obligation to be present in the hospital or talk to the family of the patient. Now, consider another surgeon who after performing the operation feels compelled to interact with the patient, placate the anxieties of his family. Abandoning an impersonal stance, he brings warmth to his interaction. His act flows from duties that are integral to his character, to the goodness of his heart, to his personal virtues, to his commitment to warm social relationships, and does not flow from any right of the patient. To be sure, the patient and the family have the right to the surgeon’s full attention when he is performing the operation. A failure to do so would mean an obvious violation of the patient’s right. But no right of the patient or his family is violated if the surgeon does not go that extra mile to personally reassure the patient and his family.

A society with people who take such virtue-based, solidarity-infused duties seriously is much better than one where such duties are not valued. If that is the case, it is good to ask people to go beyond rights and to think also of their duties to others, and more generally to society. We all have a duty to build a tolerant society, or to remain vigilant against potential wrongs of our elected rulers. These duties are not antagonistic to rights; they are moral, non-justiciable. Many such duties are mentioned in our Constitution: to preserve composite culture, not destroy natural environment, develop scientific temper, safeguard public property, protect India’s sovereignty and integrity. None of them are legally enforceable but they impose an obligation on all citizens, especially on those who occupy public office, to go beyond the call of rights-based duties.

Rajeev Bhargava is a political philosopher and Director, Parekh Institute of Indian Thought, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies

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