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The way of Dharma

Arguing for a duties' approach to combating discrimination and oppression all over the world.

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

Attending a human rights conference these days can be both frustrating and enlightening. It is frustrating because of the contentious claims of organised and disorganised groups who proclaim their faith in the righteousness of their demands and in the indomitable spirit that guides them in the quest of those demands, while at the same time ignoring the fractious nature of their demands and their opponents' equally indomitable spirit in holding on to their own belief about the righteousness of their claims. Arbiters of such conflicting claims come with their own agendas, determined by their status as "developed" countries, "international" organisations, or non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

These conferences can be enlightening because one gets to meet with the parties in conflict, the arbiters, the professional workshop leaders, self-proclaimed activists, angry and articulate/ inarticulate complainants, wheelers and dealers and naïve believers in the efficacy of international law. To watch this strangely formal and serious dance is an opportunity from which one can learn to steer clear of the merely angry to the merely crafty and to networking with men and women who have with a quiet and determined persistence organised programmes that have brought some solace to those suffering on the ground.

Recently, I attended a conference at The Hague (Den Haag) organised by the Global Human Rights Defense, a new but vibrant organisation led by Dutch and Surinamese Indians. During the four days of intense workshops and plenary sessions, some larger philosophical questions came to the fore. The first such question was posed by a distinguished participant, Justice C. V.Wigneshwaran of the Sri Lanka Supreme Court, who asked the audience at the inaugural session if it would be better to approach the problem of discriminated and oppressed people from a duties' perspective rather than from a rights' perspective.

The Justice argued that the idea of "Inalienable" rights was a creature of the speculations of Seventeenth Century French philosophers like Rousseau who proclaimed that human beings were born free and sought to escape the "Short and brutish" life that Hobbes speculated was the fate of men and women before "Civilisation", through a "Social contract", which guaranteed to everyone their inalienable rights. The Justice argued that these rights were illusory because of the speculative nature of the origins of the contract of individuals with states. We are not born with rights as much as we are born into a context of duties, he asserted, but did not have enough time to elaborate on his claims.

An opportunity arose later during the conference where we sought to unpack Justice Wigneshwaran's provocative idea. Even though it was late in the evening and we all had had a busy day of workshops and discussions, the group of people who agreed to stay behind to discuss this idea were energised by the end of the discussion because it enabled them to go beyond their individual and/or group demands/ concerns to envision an international dynamic that would manage human fractiousness more productively than it has been done within a rights' paradigm.

The discussion led me to put the thoughts of Justice Wigneshwaran and fellow discussants in axiomatic fashion and I shared them with Dr Berma Klein Goldwijk, Director of the Centre for Dignity and Rights (CEDAR), who led a workshop on "Religion, Human Rights and International Relations". In her workshop she asked how "Dharma" (duty, righteousness, justice) can be linked to rights. She talked about the challenge and the dilemma that Krishna faces in the Mahabharata linking dharma to moksha. "Duties, the way it is conceptualised in the West, makes it difficult for Westerners to understand the concept of Dharma", she said, but expressed keen interest in how and where we were going to take this dialogue. I told her that Article 29 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights mentions duties: "Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible." But it comes almost at the end of the document and it seems it has been ignored in the debate and focus on rights. Countries and experts all over the world were consulted in drafting this declaration, we know, but Dr Goldwijk expressed surprise when I told her that neither the word "Dharma" nor "Moksha" appears in the Indian Constitution and, therefore, the people from India who were consulted by the United Nations similarly failed to argue about a duties-based approach, or to adumbrate carefully the ambit of dharma for incorporation in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Given the powerful rights' dynamic that has shaped local and global politics, what are the chances for reformulating this dynamic? Well, given the fact that the modern state is under tremendous pressure from global economic forces and given the fact that there are increasing demands to fracture the world further, unless we rethink our relationship with one another, the Armageddon that some people believe in and some fervently wish for may soon consume us all. We may, therefore, start the first spark here and see if there is enough oxygen left in global politics for it to become a flame that will refashion the world for us.

Here are the axioms tentatively formulated:

  • We are not born with certain guaranteed rights as much as we are born into familial and social obligations depending on one's place/ role in the family/ society. Thus duties seem to be the lot of humans at birth and not rights.
  • The logical end of a rights-based approach, either for the individual or for the state, is "Independence".
  • The logical end of a duties-based approach, either for the individual or for the state, is "Interdependence".
  • Independence, by nature, leads to self-centredness and possibly arrogance.
  • Interdependence, by nature, leads to other-centredness and humility.
  • Rights, taken to the logical extreme, leads to fissures between individuals and war between states, ending in familial and societal anomie and conflict.
  • Interdependency of systems and species is supported by scientific research and findings.
  • In modern states, rights are guaranteed and justiciable, whereas duties are prescriptive but not justiciable. We propose that both be prescriptive and justiciable.
  • While rights are not to be forsaken, a duties-bound approach provides a more egalitarian basis for achieving harmony and reducing conflict.
  • Religions, that emphasised duties, under the influence of the modern state, have become rights-centred and combative.
  • A duties-centred approach need not necessarily lead to a hierarchical, discriminatory polity and need not replicate past social dynamics. Experiences from the past could enrich the future.
  • The focus on rights by ethnic, linguistic and other groups has led to calls for self-determination, which has as its logical corollary the creation of unviable, independent, discriminatory states and to the migration of peoples across borders into ethnic enclaves. Duty-based societies could solve the problem on a give and take policy.
  • Monocultural ethnic enclaves are the exact opposite of the goal for multicultural, diverse and dynamic societies. Duty-based societies would desist from forcing monocultural enclaves on diverse groups.

Bert Verstappen, programme coordinator for HURIDOCS and who led a workshop on human rights documentation, told me that the seeking of self-determination by different ethnic groups could lead to the creation of at least five thousand states. I told him no, it would lead to the creation of six billion states, because that would be the logical extreme of "Independence"!

Separatism in India is encouraged and abetted by many who call themselves NGOs and human rights activists. It is the same all over the world and of course the creation of new states after World War II has fuelled this dynamic. Seeking to control this dynamic through artificial or enforced treaties are temporary measures that will do little to reduce conflict. Demanding rights is a giddy endeavour for some because it is based on acquiring power for themselves or for the groups and people they claim to represent. Like the consumption of most other intoxicants, the consumption of this intoxicant can lead to people destroying themselves or those around them.

 
     
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