Looking Ahead: Meaning of Citizenship

Citizenship is not just about rights. It`s about citizens knowing their rights and duties.

Akrita Reyar

It is common refrain that one hears. How citizens of the country are not getting their due. Street slogans are made of stuff like that. Rabble rousers are not the proponents of democracy. It is the common man who works hard, pays his taxes, and lives with the hope of seeing the country’s flag flying high.

Well known Pakistani television star Mariana Babar admitted that in Pakistan they were Muslims first and Pakistanis later, whereas she found that in India people were Indians first and anything else later. This may give us a reason to smile, but the inadequacy of our citizens vis-à-vis even the consciousness of our duty is lamentably absent.

New laws like the RTI will go a long way in bringing transparency and endorse our fundamental rights. Right to equality before law, right to the freedom of expression and belief, right to practice religion are ingrained in our psyche as given. In 21st century India, every citizen must also have a right to food, livelihood, decent existence and timely justice. Some of these, we are yet to achieve.

But fealty towards one’s country goes beyond these. Citizenship is not just about rights. It is about citizens knowing their rights, and most importantly about their duties.

Let me go back to the historic Keshavnand Bharti case. It was because of leading constitutional lawyer and great nationalist Nani Palkhivala’s tireless arguments over a period of five long months that the Supreme Court bench ruled that while Parliament could amend the Constitution, it could not tamper with its basic structure; thus securing the edifice of nation building from Indira Gandhi’s ill attempted machinations during Emergency.

The same Palkhivala had later bemoaned on a show that I was producing, “India has a first class Constitution but third class citizens. We are not even aware of what is in our Constitution.”

What Palkhivala recommended was the America model: Major provisions of the Constitution should be widely advertised in public spaces. In the US, there are billboards at places like train stations. They also have basic reading material of their Constitution introduced in schools at a fairly junior level, and more elaborate lessons are mandatory in senior classes.

Making short service commission in the military more lucrative is another easy way to instill patriotism and a sense of responsibility for the nation. Moreover, it will resolve the problem of shortfall that the armed forces are facing in recruiting officers.

Besides, we need to introduce a culture of nationhood where we are proud of our collective heritage and versatile traditions.

We get some grounding of this in schools, but what we need to achieve is something like this – A few years ago, when there were floods in Germany, the Berlin museum was threatened by the rising water level. The pictures I saw on television are ones that I cannot efface from my memory. Common Berliners voluntarily made a serpentine line right from the museum to their town hall. Standing in knee deep water, they passed artifacts of the museum from one citizen to another till they reached the administrative authorities waiting to safe-keep them at the Town Hall! Remarkable as it, I cannot envision something like this in India.

Considering the rich trove of heritage that we have collectively inherited as a nation, why should it be such a difficult task?

The question that we need to ask ourselves is this: What is the core of our nationhood? Are we alive to the idea of India?

(This piece on Citizenship is part of the Looking Ahead series.)

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