On February 21, the Supreme Court asked the Union and state governments to respond to a petition to enforce the fundamental duties of citizens, including patriotism and unity of the nation, through comprehensive and well-defined laws. The petition has alleged that the need to enforce fundamental duties arises from a new trend of protests and blocking of roads and rail routes, in the garb of freedom of speech and expression, to compel the Government to meet their demands, and thus brazenly flouting the fundamental duties. These duties are an important tool to protect the unity and integrity of the country.
The petition also refers to the Constitution of the erstwhile USSR in which the rights and duties were placed on the same footing. The need of the hour, the petition argues, is to remind citizens that fundamental duties are as important as fundamental rights. The time has, therefore, come to balance rights, liberties freedoms, and obligations. Fundamental duties instill a profound sense of social responsibility towards the nation. There is a pressing need to enforce and implement at least some of the fundamental duties, the petition has contended.
It is to be noted here that fundamental duties are in the form of a general directive to citizens to observe the model code of conduct in public life. Enforcing them legally would require a very broad and encompassing legislation covering areas as diverse as the environment, education, national security, heritage conservation, communal harmony, scientific temper, reverence for national symbols, and so on. Such a law is likely to be abused and politicized. On the other hand, there are many laws already that take care of some of the fundamental duties. It, therefore, remains to be seen as to whether the Supreme Court would venture into the field or leave it to the legislature.
Almost two years ago, on April 6, 2020, the Supreme Court invoked its extraordinary constitutional powers under Article 142 to step away from the convention of open court hearings and switch over to video-conferencing. The Chief Justice of India observed that every individual is expected to cooperate in the implementation of measures designed to reduce the transmission of coronavirus. Courts at all levels must respond to the call for social distancing. “This is not a matter of discretion but a duty”, he added. It was a timely reminder that the citizens, apart from enjoying the protection of fundamental rights, should also commit themselves to the performance of their duties, as per the requirements of the society and governance.
Earlier on November 26, 2019 (Constitution Day), in his address to a joint sitting of Parliament to mark the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution of India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said the Constitution highlights both rights and duties of citizens and it is time to focus on responsibilities as well. “Rights and responsibilities go hand-in-hand. Mahatma Gandhi had explained this relationship well … Let us think about how we can fulfill the duties enshrined in our Constitution,” he said.
Addressing the International Judicial Conference (February 21-23, 2020) organized by the Supreme Court of India in Delhi, the then CJI SA Bobde drew attention to the Constitution’s Fundamental Duties. Citing Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, he observed that “real rights are a result of the performance of duty”.
Way back in 1976, the Constitution 42nd Amendment Act, inserted Article 51A (Part IVA) to prescribe ten duties for citizens. An eleventh duty [“(k) who is a parent or guardian to provide opportunities for education to his child or, as the case may be, ward between the age of six and fourteen years.”] was inserted through the 86th Constitution Amendment Act, 2002.