As India celebrated Constitution Day on November 26, President Ram Nath Kovind, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have all drawn the attention of citizens to the chapter on Fundamental Rights and Duties in our Constitution.
Quoting Mahatma Gandhi, the President said, “The true source of rights is duty. If we all discharge our duties, rights will not be far to seek. If leaving duties unperformed we run after rights, they escape us like a will-o-the-wisp.”
President Kovind said Fundamental Duties remind the people of their moral responsibilities and added, “It can be said that the soul of the Constitution lies in its Preamble, and in the parts pertaining to Fundamental Rights, Directive Principles and Fundamental Duties.”
Over the last seven decades, there has been a great emphasis on Part III of the Indian Constitution which deals with Fundamental Rights, and rightly so. This establishes the foundation on which our democracy rests. Several articles in this chapter constitute the soul and substance of our democracy like the right to life and personal liberty (Article 21); the right to equality before law and the equal protection of the laws (Article 14); and the precious rights in Article 19 that give every citizen the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association, etc. This is the bedrock on which our democratic nation rests. The Supreme Court has stood like a sentinel guarding these rights. While this is welcome, the time has come for citizens to also turn their attention towards Fundamental Duties incorporated in Article 51A. This Article, inserted via the 42nd Amendment in 1976, was passed by Parliament during the dreaded Emergency. Ironically, it was one of the good additions and so was retained. (Many of the other obnoxious provisions were removed later.)
This enjoins upon all citizens to abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals and institutions, the National Flag and the National Anthem; to cherish and follow the noble ideals which inspired the national struggle for freedom; to uphold and protect the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India; to defend the country and render national service when called upon to do so; 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; to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture; to protect and improve the natural environment ... and to have compassion for living creatures; to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform; to safeguard public property and to abjure violence; 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; and for those who are parents or guardians to provide opportunities for the education of the child between the ages of 6 and 14.
As can be seen from this list, while fundamental rights have strengthened our democracy, fundamental duties are essential to strengthen our society. Adherence to them will ensure common brotherhood, fortify India’s unity and integrity and improve the quality of life. A good understanding of fundamental duties is a must also because we are not only the world’s largest democracy but the most diverse society in the world as well.
In this context, the suggestion of Vice President Naidu that fundamental duties must be introduced at an appropriate level in the curriculum and that these duties should be displayed at all educational institutions, offices and public spaces is worthy of serious consideration.
Prime Minister Modi, who took the decision four years ago to declare November 26 as Constitution Day, has ensured there is greater awareness of the Constitution among the citizenry. He has now added fresh vigour to this campaign by turning the spotlight on Fundamental Duties.
Few countries in the world have such an elaborate list of fundamental duties in their constitutions. But many nations prescribe defence of the country as a national duty. For example, Article 109 of the Norwegian Constitution stipulates that as a general rule, every citizen of the state is equally bound to serve in the defence of the country for a specific period, irrespective of birth or fortune. Under Article 81 of the Constitution of Denmark, “every male person able to bear arms shall be liable with his person to contribute to the defence of his country”. In fact, the foundations of the French Republic rested not only on the rights of man but also duties.
Although they are not enforceable by writs, the Supreme Court, in several judgments, has sought to creatively use the provisions in Article 51A. For example, it is of the view that Fundamental Duties prescribed for citizens applies to the state as well. It has said that under Art 51A(g), it is the duty of the Centre to introduce compulsory teaching of lessons at least for one hour in a week on protection and improvement of the environment in all educational institutions (M C Mehta (2) v. Union of India, 1987 SCR (1) 819).
In another case, it referred to the Fundamental Duty to strive for excellence and said excellence meant surpassing merit, virtue, honest performance, dignity and eminence. “Constitutional law givers have provided that the citizens of this great nation shall perform their duties in an excellent way than performing it half-heartedly. The performance of these duties fall within Constitutional Law.”So, it is now time to turn the spotlight on an important Article in our Constitution that has remained dormant for long, so that the citizenry develops a balance between rights and duties.
A Surya Prakash
Chairman, Prasar Bharati