The Unity Conference and the relativity of rights
[A] In the discussions at tbe Unity Conference held at Delhi, one thing struck me very forcibly. That was the fact that so many of the ablest and most patriotic Muhammadan young men, as well as a few Hindus, were obsessed with the idea of “absolute rights.” Time after time it was said that the Muhammadans had an inherent right to slaughter cows, and that that right could only be curtailed by their own voluntary sacrifice. It was on the basis of absolute right that draft resolutions had actually been prepared by a number of young men who counted among them some of the most brilliant and self-sacrificing workers in the Congress organization. And yet, as I have pointed out more than once, the idea of absolute rights is a fallacious one, and has really no foundation in law. Pandit Motilal Nehru, the President, also took pains to explain the same point of view. I am not quite sure, however, that the explanations were quite satisfactory; and as the idea seems to me to be shared by a large number of men, I would like to deal with it at some length.
[B] I contend that there is no such thing as an absolute right vested in any individual or in any community forming part of a nation; that all rights are relative, that no society can remain intact even for twenty-four hours an the basis of absolute rights, that the idea of absolute rights was exploded long ago, because it was found to [] be not only wrong in theory but pernicious in practice. I have no desire to encumber this paper with quotations from the writings of great thinkers and legislators of the West. The point seems to me to be so simple as not to require much labouring. All organic relations depend upon the mutual obligations of the members composing the organism. No part of the organism has any absolute right.
Firstly, all the rights of an individual. are subject to the equal rights of others, which fact creates duties and obligations on the part of the different members of a society towards each other. In a well ordered social organism no one has a right to do anything which will unreasonably clash with the legal interests of anyone else. Nay, in order to secure goodwill and progress, the more advanced members of a social organism have sometimes to go further and sacrifice their interests for the commonweal; or for the benefit of the other members of the community. The protection of the poor, solicitude for providing for the necessities of those who cannot look after themselves, the widows, the orphans, the blind, the lame, the aged, the minor, etc., all fall under this category.
[C] There was a time in the history of Europe when great emphasis was laid on the rights of man. That was the time of the French Revolution. Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man” was a typical reflection of the mentality of that generation. Within less than fifty years it was found that the theory was entirely fallacious and pernicious. Mazzini’s “Duties of Man” was a complete and convincing reply to Paine’s “Rights of Man.” The French Revolution was based on the Rights of Man, and the constitution with the declaration of the rights of man. The American constitution makes the same attempt. In actual practice, however, the rights are subject to great limitations in both.
Take, for example, the liberty of speech and the liberty of the press which are guaranteed by both the constitutions. Can anyone in his senses contend that either the French or the American Government is in the least deterred from curtailing these rights whenever it thinks it best in the interest of the nation to do so? I happened to be in the United States during the [First World] War, and I saw with my own eyes how the so-called fundamental rights guaranteed to the people by the constitution were taken away by them under one pretence or another, either by Federal Legislation or by the action of the Government. Everyone seems to have the right not to be forced to fight against his will. Yet during the Great War, this right was denied by all the several governments concerned, and everywhere people were forced into the army against their will. Everybody knows what a great fight the conscientious objectors had to make against this curtailment of their so-called rights, and the sufferings which they were made, in consequence, to undergo. An individual may have an absolute right to think what he wishes, but the moment it comes to the expression of the thought in speech and action, his right is hedged round by conditions and limitations. This is the legal and the constitutional aspect of the question.
As regards its ethical aspect, it is absolutely clear that it is nobler to emphasize duties rather than rights. People who insist on rights rather than duties become selfish, proud, and self-centred. Those who emphasise duties, are quite the reverse. The highest dovelopment of humanity and of the spirit of service requires greater emphasis being laid on duties than on rights. That is the teaching of almost all the great religions of the world, if properly understood and rightly interpreted. That is the teaching of Buddha, Christ, and Gandhi. It is also the lesson of actual day to day experience. It is certainly productive of infinitely greater good in a community if its members are inspired by the ideal of doing nothing which may be painful to other members, even if this means the denial to themselves of some of their so-called rights. Anyway one thing is certain. No member of a society can be allowed to exercise his rights in such a way as to clash with the just rights of others. The two rights must be so adjusted and co-related that they might be exercised without doing injury to each other.
[D] I was really astonished to find that some of these young men who have been in the closest touch with Mahatma Gandhi, should have been found harping on this doctrine of rights, because, as already stated and as was pointed out at the Conference itself by Mr. Rajagopalachari, his teaching is obviously based more on the doctrine of duties than on that of rights. I would advise my young countrymen to think over this question a little more deeply, to read the literature on the subject a little more carefully, and to free themselves from the obsession of this pernicious doctrine of rights. Unless this is done, there is no hope for unity in India. We must always remember that we are a sort of polyglot nation, much less homogeneous than any of those European or Western nations who have had to fight for their freedom. Such a country can never win its freedom, or having won freedom, can never maintain it, unless the various communities composing its people are inspired more by the ideal of duties than of rights. No unity is possible if everyone insists on his pound of flesh, and without unity there is no freedom.
SOURCE: The Hindu-Muslim Problem (1924)