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New Delhi/Bengaluru: Prime Minister Narendra Modi is unhappy with the way Indian citizens have been living all these years. Their entire focus has been off: they’ve been busy “talking about rights, fighting for rights and wasting time,” he said in a recent speech.
“The talk of rights, to some extent, for some time, may be right in a particular circumstance, but forgetting one’s duties completely has played a huge role in keeping India weak.”
Everyone must “walk on the path of duty”, he urged, if we really want to see the country achieve new heights.
India’s Constitution lists 11 fundamental duties of all Indian citizens. This chapter was introduced as an Emergency-era provision by the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, in 1976, through the 42nd Amendment. At the time, there were 10 duties; the 11th was added through the 86th amendment in 2002, during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure.
The prime minister is first and foremost a citizen of this country, and a leading citizen in many ways. So, if he insists all of us must stop “wasting time” fighting for our rights, and focus instead on our duties, we can only assume he holds himself to the same standard.
Or does he?
Let’s look at how Modi has fared on the 11 fundamental duties during his tenure as prime minister, with a non-exhaustive list of examples:
1. To abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals and institutions, the National Flag and the National Anthem
* Modi’s most recent violation of this duty, which includes respecting the ideals of the Constitution, is this very speech – in which he claims the focus on our constitutionally-guaranteed rights has “weakened” India. Well, the constitution starts with the preamble enumerating the three foundational rights of all citizens: to justice, liberty and equality. Fighting for these is a waste of time?
* His tenure has seen countless violations of the institutions and ideals of the constitution – an independent Election Commission, an independent judiciary, federalism, secularism, social justice, freedom of speech, media and assembly, freedom from arbitrary arrest. The list is a long one, and amply documented.
* Leaders from his party have covered the national flag with the Bharatiya Janata Party flag and draped the body of a lynching-accused individual, and received no words of admonishment from the prime minister. And on two occasions, in 2015 and 2016, Modi wiped his face with the national flag.
* When in Moscow in 2015, Modi himself decided to start walking while the national anthem was being played, and had to be restrained by his Russian hosts.
2. To cherish and follow the noble ideals which inspired our national struggle for freedom
* Leaders of the BJP and of the larger Sangh parivar across the board have made it a habit to insult the ideals and personality of M.K. Gandhi, one of the biggest icons of India’s freedom struggle. Instead, they have celebrated the man who assassinated him, Nathuram Godse. Modi appears to have no qualms about his party leaders badmouthing Gandhi’s legacy.
* The BJP under Modi is also particular about who can be remembered as part of India’s freedom struggle. Last year, the names of 387 Mappila martyrs were removed from the list of honour in the Dictionary of Martyrs of India’s Freedom Struggle, 1857-1947.
* The Jallianwala Bagh memorial, in remembrance of those who lost their lives in the gruesome 1919 attack by British forces, has been revamped nearly beyond recognition and was inaugurated by none other than the prime minister himself. Now, experts believe, it is a flashy site with no sense of history or respect for the martyrs remembered there.
3. To uphold and protect the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India
* By reading down Article 370 in August 2019, which granted special status to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, the Modi government took away the autonomy promised to the people of J&K in the Instrument of Accession. By locking up political leaders and activists, bringing the region under the Union government’s direct control and imposing a lockdown and communications blockade, the prime minister and his government chose to disenfranchise, imprison and humiliate a section of the people they were meant to serve. The move also hasn’t had any success in removing militancy from the region.
* Far from encouraging unity, Modi and his supporters have spent all their energies in chasing imaginary internal enemies – Muslims, Urban Naxals, ‘andolanjeevis’ – who apparently are the real problem. The ‘Hindu khatre mein hai’ narrative pushed by the Sangh parivar has encouraged Hindutva extremism which now flourishes largely unchecked, to the extent that some experts now believe India may be on the verge of a genocide.
* The unity and integrity of the Union of India depends crucially on the robustness of its federalism, which Modi has often undermined by encroaching on the rights of the states.
4. To defend the country and render national service when called upon to do so
* While always keen to project a strongman image for voters, particularly when it comes to Pakistan, Modi had little to say when the Chinese army took over parts of Indian territory. In fact, he took the path of denial, claiming there was no intrusion at all – even when multiple previous statements from his own government and the armed forces said otherwise.
* Prime Minister Narendra Modi has, from the beginning, characterised the country’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic as a ‘war’ and has referred to healthcare workers as ‘COVID warriors’ so what has he done to uphold his duty to defend the country on this front? His zero-notice lockdown caused untold distress, the communalisation of COVID-19 which his government and party encouraged weakened India at a time of distress and his lack of planning a proper medical response eventually led to millions of preventable deaths in this ‘war’. More recently, his government’s decision to introduce the controversial ‘economically weaker sections’ quota practically stalled the availability of thousands of young doctors at the frontlines of this ‘war’. The problem only got worse when four ministries of his government couldn’t find a way to cooperate and solve the problem.
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
* This, perhaps, is the duty India’s prime minister has violated most often. Attacks against minorities – lynchings, violence, online bullying, daily discrimination – don’t just continue but have been actively egged on by BJP leaders across the country, and Modi has reacted with nothing but silence when confronted with this.
* The BJP, and the Modi government, have been accused of trying to impose Hindi on the entire country instead of respecting and celebrating India’s linguistic diversity.
* Not only has the Modi government done little to try make the country safer for women (it is even yet to decide whether it still supports the marital rape exception), the prime minister himself has made some misogynistic remarks about women. In 2015, for instance, Modi drew flak for complimenting his Bangladeshi counterpart, Sheikh Hasina, for being tough on terrorism “despite being a woman”.
6. To value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture
* Government institutions, under Modi’s leadership have attempted to undercut India’s composite culture by rewriting the way history and politics is taught to students, when they don’t fit the BJP’s opinion of what India should look like. BJP leaders continue to make such demands, and the slow assault on what children learn, and don’t, continues.
* The BJP under Modi has relentlessly undermined the historical contribution Muslims have made to India’s culture. Islamicate monuments, including the Taj Mahal, are projected as symbols of the subjugation of Hindus, and Modi himself has encouraged this with his frequent references – made again in recent speeches (here and here) – to “hundreds of years of slavery”.
* One of Modi’s pet projects – which his government insisted must continue despite growing health and safety risks during the COVID-19 pandemic – has been the redevelopment of the Central Vista in New Delhi, which houses the India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhavan, Parliament, National Archives and other buildings of importance. Architects and urban planners have faulted it on aesthetic, cultural, environmental and financial grounds, yet nothing can stop the prime minister in his endeavour to build a new ‘power corridor’ at the cost of Rs 20,000 crore.
* Members of the BJP – including sitting ministers, like former health minister Harsh Vardhan – haven’t tried to hide the fact that they’re friends with yoga guru and FMCG magnate Baba Ramdev. But their endorsements of his business have often grossly distorted what Ayurveda is and what it can be used for. Ayurveda was an important field of scholarship in ancient India, but today, thanks to the Modi government’s blanket encouragement, its proponents often try to copy modern medicine without any of the necessary tools or knowledge.
7. To protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers, wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures
(If we could momentarily exclude ‘humans’ from these ‘living creatures’)
* Since 2014, the Narendra Modi government has eased the process of awarding wildlife clearances for industrial projects by modifying policies, laws and governance structures.
* In his tenure, ‘pay and pollute’ has become the normal way to conduct industrial activity. If the draft EIA notification of 2020 written by the Modi government should have its way, industries will be able to build their units and then seek an environmental impact assessment, instead of the other way around.
* His government introduced new coastal regulation zone rules that dilute coastal protection. Also, Modi is the head of India’s National Board for Wildlife, and the board didn’t meet once between 2014 and 2020.
* His government has denotified various national parks and sanctuaries to make way for development (seldom with proper stakeholder consultation) – from Varanasi, his Lok Sabha constituency, to Lakshadweep and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
* The Modi government has signed off on the widely flawed river-interlinking project that could impact the Bundelkhand region for “decades to come”.
* His government has mooted infrastructure projects, including dams, power plants, ports and factories, in ecologically sensitive zones. In a single meeting in April 2020 – in the middle of India’s first major COVID-19 outbreak – the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife cleared no less than 16 infrastructure project proposals. All of them involved one, some or all of highways, power transmission lines and railway tracks through national parks, sanctuaries and tiger corridors.
* The Union environment ministry is currently seeking to weaken the Biological Diversity Act 2002 and the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 – both in the name of ‘development’ and both unclear about development for whom.
* It is also seeking to introduce an index to rank states according to the speed with which environmental clearances are issued.
8. To develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform
* Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made nonsensical claims about ancient plastic surgery and Ganesha’s head, and using wind turbines to extract water from air. The Indian Science Congress, already an increasingly minor event, became a complete laughingstock after the start of his tenure, replete with pseudoscience about ‘what ancient Indians knew’. His ministers – including those of science and health – also don’t understand what scientific temper is. One of his education ministers even sought to ridicule Darwin, showing his own ignorance of the theory of evolution in the process.
* The Narendra Modi government has frequently sidelined expert advice for most of India’s COVID-19 epidemic. Notably, in mid-2021, a senior member of the country’s coronavirus genome-sequencing effort said the Modi government hadn’t heeded a warning that potentially deadlier variants of the virus were starting to spread in the country. One of these was the delta variant, which precipitated a deadly second wave in April-June 2021. The government also approved Covaxin sans evidence, approved a bunch of drugs without evidence, and virtually took over the Indian Council of Medical Research.
* Just when the pandemic was taking off, the Modi government accused the Manipal Centre for Virus Research of storing Nipah virus samples in inappropriate ways and of conducting a large-scale study without the proper permissions. Both allegations were baseless, as an investigation by The Wire Science found, but the incident compromised the centre’s ability to contribute meaningfully to virological studies.
* For his government’s especially unscientific response to COVID-19 outbreaks, Prime Minister Modi received the prestigious IgNobel Prize for 2020 in the medical education category; the citation: “for using the COVID-19 viral pandemic to teach the world that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists and doctors can.” His principal contribution was probably to allow the Kumbh Mela to proceed for astrological reasons.
* One of Narendra Modi’s first decisions as India’s prime minister was to elevate the Department of AYUSH into a full-fledged Union ministry. His government has persisted with increasing support for the ministry even as its ministers have encouraged the use of its untested products, like – but not limited to, BGR-34.
* His government’s officials have repeatedly suppressed and/or withheld data of many hues that independent experts could have used to verify many of the government’s dubious claims (independent replication is a cornerstone of the scientific method).
9. To safeguard public property and to abjure violence
* Leaders of the BJP have done the exact opposite of abjure violence in the last few years; in fact, there now appears to be no limit to what they can say or do, and get away with, under the prime minister’s watchful eye. Modi had no words of censure, for instance, when Kapil Mishra threatened the police just before the communal violence in North-East Delhi. The prime minister did not bat an eyelid when Union minister Anurag Thakur led public calls to “shoot the traitors”. He said nothing when a convoy including Union minister Ajay Mishra’s son allegedly ran over protesting farmers, killing four. This list could go on.
* Far from safeguarding public property, there have been times when the Modi government seems to have given the police and other authorities the right to destroy whatever they need to, to try and protect the government’s image and reputation. In Haryana, for instance, authorities dug trenches into public roads just to stop protesting farmers from making their way to Delhi.
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
* To truly strive towards excellence as a nation, one would assume that the most qualified people would be called upon to head important institutions and agencies. Modi, though, appears to have a different idea – what matters, it seems, is not expertise but ideology. The National Human Rights Commission is currently headed by a controversial judge who praised the prime minister. The late Bipin Rawat, who was India’s first chief of defence staff, had ingratiated himself with the BJP by supporting the politicisation of the armed forces. An information commissioner appointed by the Centre regularly displays his proximity to the BJP and RSS on social media. Again, this list can go on.
* He has appointed persons to head leading universities and research bodies purely on the basis of their loyalty to the RSS and its ideology.
* On several international ratings covering a range of issues, India’s rankings have tanked under Modi. Far from helping the country achieve excellence, then, the prime minister has heralded an age in which India has been called out for its poor performance on COVID-19 response, hunger, ‘bribery risk’, journalists’ safety, academic freedom, press freedom and even human freedom.
11. 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 to fourteen years
* While Modi has no children of his own, as the prime minister, the responsibility to make sure that children in India – particularly those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds – are well educated certainly rests with him. One important scheme for these children is the midday meal; often, it is one of the main reasons they go – and remain – in school. However, this scheme is severely underfunded – and Modi has done nothing to change that. All he has done is re-brand the scheme, so it looks like his, while it continues to struggle with inadequate funds.
* Thanks to the sudden shock of Modi’s COVID-19 lockdown from March 2020, many public schools around the country had to suspend their midday meal programmes. In Uttarakhand alone, 20% of children in such schools didn’t receive their midday meals for two months. The extended school shutdown during the lockdown, together with lack of social support from states or the Centre, also endangered the prospects of many female students and set back efforts to ameliorate child malnutrition.
* The apex child rights body has estimated that there are over 1.47 lakh ‘COVID orphans’ in India. When did we last hear they will be prioritised?
* Schoolchildren have not been able to go to school since the onset of the pandemic and while the medical wisdom of the government’s decision is debatable, Modi’s failure to ensure every school-going child has the wherewithal to access virtual classes – a smartphone, and an internet connection – has cost millions of children two valuable years of education.