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Millennium Post

Dishonoured contract

Disruptive events unfolding during the lockdown in India are indicative of a breakdown of the constitutional contract that normally exists between the State and its citizens

Dishonoured contract
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India's progress and day-to-day civic life is guaranteed and reassured with a set of fundamental rights ensured by the state and the corresponding expectations of parallel duties by the citizenry. While the duties were not specifically incorporated in the original text of the Indian constitution, these were added later by the 42nd and 86th Constitutional Amendment Acts. This was an important addition to the constitutional framework of India because no relationship exists without a mix of rights and reciprocal duties that are obligated amongst contracted parties and therefore, the virtual 'contract' between the individual and the state, is one such relationship. The nobility of the Indian state can be seen through the sort of aspired civic life that this set of rights and duties obligates and bears on its literal signatories. This is not a one-way street and Article 51A spelt out the fundamental duties of every citizen of India, that ensures the overall direction, order and support to the Indian state.

It is important to note that while some rights are indeed absolute, a lot of other rights that are normally observed are still conditional to considerations like national security, contempt of court, public decency, etc. At times, the state can compromise, dilute and even completely suspend some rights, owing to prevailing societal and national conditions like external aggression or other forms of threat to the nation or national lives, hence these are qualified rights. As long as the compromise of these rights is temporary, for the 'larger good' and subject to the completion of the stated exigency, these can and should be undertaken with due caution, care and planning to mitigate the situation for the citizenry. It is important to note that the state must always endeavour to retain the overall constitutional spirit, obligations and morality, even in these times of 'temporary suspension' as the situation by its very nature, is assumed to be temporary and cannot give the state leeway to walk away from the constitutional morality. Equally, it is incumbent on the citizenry to respect and wholeheartedly support the temporary suspension of rights, as it is assumed

The ongoing Coronavirus crisis and the resultant lockdown is the backdrop for one such temporary suspension of certain rights and it is unanimously agreed to be for the 'larger good'. This emergency protocol requires complete prevention of movement and confinement to an area and this 21-day tenure provides the national government to have an overarching control over the execution of all nation decisions, especially those pertaining to the crisis itself.

However, the scenes and stories of the recent lockdown point to a sad breakdown of the 'contract' that is applicable between the State and the citizenry, even in these extraordinary times. Clearly, the State was fully justified in announcing and implementing the lockdown but the seemingly under planned and chaotic manner with which it was implemented, is a lapse. The mass migration of urban migrants, daily-wagers, unskilled/semi-skilled workers and such like people on the fringes of survival, making journeys on foot without food or shelter, makes the national head hang in shame. The videos of authorities using disinfectants on hapless people sitting on roads or the total lack of clarity on what is allowed and what isn't, completed a dismal picture of the Indian state's sub-optimal governance. Equally, the citizens in various parts of the country were seen ignoring the governmental advisories and going as far as attacking the doctors and policemen, who were doing a most inhospitable and challenging job themselves. The basic duty of the citizens to comply with the most important task of social-distancing and other precautions was routinely flouted under the garb of social and religious congregations. Both the State and the citizenry dangerously failed each other, especially when the need of the hour is to honour the sacred 'contract' was most important.

Resorting to meaningless justifications to explain why some citizens or groups did not abide by the governmental orders, or for the Government to persist with meaningless symbolism to distract attention from its colossal failures, is a continuing violation of the 'contract'. Given that this is only a temporary situation and the rights and duties would soon be restored, it is important for both sides to remember that history will judge them by how they responded to each other in these trying times. Countries like Singapore are often quoted as model examples of picture-perfect civic life. What lies under that perfection is genuine honouring of the constitutional 'contract' by both its parties i.e., government and the citizenry. The calm, detailed and fact-based approach of the Singaporean leadership was without any unnecessary theatrics or symbolism. Equally, the reaction and compliance of its citizenry to the lockdown was admirable. While we are a much larger, more complex and diverse nation, unless we acknowledge our own shortcomings without any political angle attached to it, we will remain destined to our chaotic, dramatic and painful way of life. The Coronavirus lockdown has tested the sincerity and commitment to the constitutional 'contract', and unfortunately, neither the state nor the citizenry has come out it, looking good. Like all relationships, it is the extraordinary times that test our loyalty, not normal times.

Views expressed are strictly personal

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