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Democratic rights vs responsibilities

By R Jagannathan
August 12, 2003 12:49 IST
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How should one interpret the recent Supreme Court judgement in the Tamil Nadu government employees case? The court unambiguously said that government employees had no fundamental or moral right to strike.

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The unions have -- not unexpectedly -- raised the banner of revolt, screaming blue murder about the squashing of their 'democratic rights.' Even Attorney General Soli Sorabjee has observed that some of the remarks made by the court were uncalled for.

Perhaps they were. The court did indeed put its point across in an extreme way. But the unions had it coming. Over the last two decades, unions and vested interest groups --aided and abetted by politicians -- have been consistently abusing their democratic rights by disrupting the normal lives of citizens on the flimsiest of pretexts. There have been work stoppages even on non-wage issues like privatisation.

What is relevant in the Supreme Court's observation is not so much the ban on strikes but the underlying effort to sensitise workers and unions about their duties. That's the plane on which the debate about 'democratic rights' needs to be conducted.

A couple of weeks ago this column discussed the issue of democracy and its effects on economic growth. The argument was simple: when you have to convince so many people about the merits of any move, decision-making can be slow. This means critical economic decisions can get postponed, thus reducing economic efficiency.

By this, of course, I did not mean to say that democracy and growth are always working at cross-purposes. When the institutions of democracy are in alignment, when social tensions, political animosity and violence reduce in intensity, democracy may even aid economic efficiency since economic debates will not be a matter of life and death for anybody.

Continuing from that point, and splicing the observations of the Supreme Court in the Tamil Nadu government employees case, I would like to present a simple proposition: If democracy is about 'responsibilities' as much as 'rights', it follows that democracy can work only if there is discipline, restraint, understanding and tolerance -- tolerance not only of dissenting and minority views, but also of so-called 'majority' views and feelings.

In other words, democracy works best when efforts are made to achieve compromise and consensus, not when there is friction and fissure.

The idea of democracy in India has been reduced to a caricature by a self-centred obsession with rights. Most institutions -- from the executive to the legislature to the judiciary and to the press -- have been subverted at some level or the other by their preoccupation with 'rights' without reference to 'responsibilities.'

Rights are part of democracy, not the whole. If unions think they have a right to strike (with no responsibility to customers), if employers think they have a right to lockouts (with no responsibility to employees' welfare), if the press thinks it has a right to present news as pure entertainment (without thinking about how it will impact social attitudes), if legislators think they can disrupt Parliament or Assemblies at will (without asking themselves why they have been elected in the first place), how can democracy work? If the parts don't work democratically, how can the whole be called a democracy?

I may have a 'right' to walk on clean pavements, but is the issue merely one of me demanding my 'rights' or is someone, somewhere not taking his 'responsibilities' seriously? Don't municipal officers and political leaders have a responsibility to educate municipal workers about their responsibilities and motivate them to keep streets clean?

Or let's take minority rights. Most alleged secularists defend minority rights without understanding that there is no minority right as separate from human rights. The whole concept of minority itself is an artificial construct, because it is relative.

In a group of 100, 10 may be a minority, but within this group of 10, nine is a majority. The 10 who claim minority status vis-a-vis a larger majority have a responsibility to ensure that they practice internally what they preach to outsiders. They cannot deny human rights to their own internal minorities what they claim as minority rights with the world outside.

Human rights is about ensuring rights even to minorities of one. Thus so-called minorities have responsibilities to their own internal micro-minorities apart from the world outside.

Companies and managements have responsibilities to shareholders, employees and societies at large, employees have responsibilities to customers, customers have a responsibility to give corporates feedback on products, majorities have a responsibility to keep their minorities happy, and minorities, in turn, have a responsibility to listen to their own internal micro-minorities apart from a responsibility to build bridges to the larger society they live in.

If democracy has to have real meaning in our lives, all individuals and institutions who claim any kind of right need to pull back and start considering their responsibilities.

The government employees who were at the receiving end of the Supreme Court's advice need to mull over this reality. Just like all of us.

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