On Ambedkar Jayanti, a reminder

Written by Ravi Shankar Prasad
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Published: April 14, 2020 1:43:42 am


It’s India’s great tradition that the resolve of its people is strengthened whenever the country faces a crisis. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

India is passing through a difficult time. The coronavirus outbreak has turned into a pandemic that threatens people’s lives all over the world. The virus has no antidote, does not seem to discriminate between rich and poor and does not recognise race and religion. Confronting it, therefore, requires a determined effort from all of us. But this challenge is also an opportunity. At this moment, we must reaffirm our commitment to the values enshrined in our Constitution, whose architect, Babasaheb Ambedkar, was born on April 14. A great social reformer, Ambedkar described the Constitution as a social document, which emphasises the significance of rights and obligations and also underlines the importance of social inclusion and empowerment of people in the march of free India.

It’s India’s great tradition that the resolve of its people is strengthened whenever the country faces a crisis. In the 1960s, when India faced a food crisis, the then prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, appealed to the people of the country to skip one meal every day. The entire country responded to his call. Showing commitment to the national cause during times of war is, of course, quite natural, but the people of India have risen to the occasion during moments of national difficulties as well, provided the leadership was capable of inspiring them.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has, on several occasions, appealed to the people of India and they have never let him down. When he asked those who could pay the market price for an LPG cylinder to give up their subsidy, crores of people responded to his call. As a result, women from poor families were given cooking gas connections under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala

Yojana. When he launched the Swachh Bharat Mission, PM Modi asked the people of India to voluntarily participate in the construction of rural toilets.

Swachh Bharat has become a mass movement in the last five-and-a-half years and large parts of the country have become open defecation free. People responded with enthusiasm to PM Modi’s inspiring call to become swachhagrahis — they believed it was their duty to accept Clean India as a national mission.

Last month, the PM appealed to people of India to observe a janata curfew. He also asked them to clap for all the doctors, paramedical staff and others who have been working amongst COVID-19 patients at great risk to their lives. He took the extraordinary measure to declare a lockdown in the entire country for 21 days. The people of India took it as a duty to pay heed to his message and remained confined to their homes, since maintaining social distancing was important to contain the contagious virus. The entire country also responded to his call to light lamps to show unity and resolve during these challenging times.

Rights and duties are integral to our constitutional architecture, even though fundamental duties were incorporated in the Constitution much later. For instance, citizens of the country have freedom of speech, assembly, movement and residence under Article 19 of the Constitution. But the same Article also talks of a duty: Article 19(2) notes that the freedoms provided under Article 19 have to be exercised in a manner that does not adversely affect the unity and integrity of India, the security of the state, and public order and morality. It talks of reasonable restrictions. Article 17 abolishes untouchability in any form and its practice is forbidden – not to practice untouchability, thus, is a duty for every Indian. Article 39 states, “Ownership and control of material resources of the community are so distributed as best to subserve the common good”. The duty of every Indian towards the fulfilment of the common good thus is a constitutional obligation. Article 49 enjoins the government to protect every monument or place of artistic or historical importance.

At the same time, this Article also imposes a duty on us to protect these historical monuments.

Article 51A, added later, contains the chapter on Fundamental Duties. Important among these is showing respect to the national flag and national anthem, upholding and protecting the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India and protecting and improving the natural environment. An important duty has been enshrined by Article 55A(j), which asks “every citizen 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”.

It would be a great achievement for the nation if the people of the country respond to the challenge posed by the coronavirus by exercising their collective will and performing their duties. Many initiatives of PM Modi and some state governments are being appreciated globally.

Today, every Indian must remember not to ask what the country can give them but also reflect as to what they can give to the country. Even the Supreme Court, in its 2012 verdict in the Ramlila Maidan incident case, observed that there has to be a balance between rights and restrictions on the state on the one hand and rights and duties on the other. It will create an imbalance if undue or disproportionate emphasis is given to the rights of a citizen without considering the significance of duties. The true source of a right is duty. I am sure during these trying times every Indian will remember this. Surely, we shall overcome.

The writer is the Union Minister of Communication, Law & Justice and Electronics & Information Technology

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