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Gandhi On Corresponding Duties / Rights

By Mark Lindley

Gandhi has remarked that “a duty well performed creates a corresponding right” (my italics).  From a survey of the Collected Works, I have found that Gandhi appears to have made explicit use of the concept of specifically corresponding duties/rights less than twenty times, but the rather modest number of such occasions is, I think, compensated for by the remarkable variety of contexts in which he did evoke the concept.  I will cite eight examples. 

His first recorded use of the concept (that I have been able to find) was on August 4th, 1909, when he wrote in a letter to Arthur Russell, the Baron of Ampthill (an actively sympathetic member of the House of Lords, who had served as a Governor of Madras from 1899 t0 1906 and as acting Viceroy and Governor-General of India in 1904, and who, three weeks later, was to contribute a foreword to Joseph Doke’s M.K. Gandhi, An Indian Patriot in South Africa). 

“I know that under the British Constitution, British subjects, no matter what race they belong, have never got and never can get their rights until they have performed their corresponding duties and until they are willing to fight for them.  The fight takes the form either of physical violence, as in the case of the extremists in India, or of personal suffering by the fighters, as in the case of our passive resisters in the Transvaal.” 

Soon afterwards Gandhi wrote in chapter 16 (entitled “Brute Force”) in Hind Swaraj

“The English in 11833 obtained greater voting power by violence.  Did they by using brute force better appreciate their duty?  They wanted the right of voting, which they obtained by using physical force.  But real rights are a result of performance of duty; these rights they have not obtained…..I do not wish to imply that they do no duties.  They don’t perform the duties corresponding to those rights; and as they do not perform that particular duty, namely, [to] acquire fitness, their rights have proved a burden to them.” 

On September 16, 1921, he delivered a speech in English (which was immediately translated into Tamil) to a large gathering of labourers on strike in Madras.  The speech, which lasted more than 45 minutes, included the following remarks: 

“It is your right to be advised by whomsoever you may choose and the company cannot dictate to you that you may not be advised by outsiders.  You must insist upon your inherent right of selecting any Chairman or President you like of your Union, whether out of your own ranks or anybody else….You have a right to demand such wages as will enable you to sustain life, to educate your children and live as decent human beings.  You are entitled to the same fresh water and fresh air as your employers.  You are entitled to insist upon having leisure and recreation from day to day.  But you have also corresponding duties to perform.  You must render diligent and faithful service to your employers.  You have to look after the property of your employers as if it were your own….These simple rights and duties once being understood must always be insisted upon and fulfilled as the case may be.” 

In 1924 he wrote in Chapter 10 (entitled “After the War”) of Satyagraha in South Africa

[T]he Indian question cannot be resolved into one of trade jealousy or race hatred.  The problem is simply one of…..enjoying the supreme right of self-preservation and discharging the corresponding duty.” 

In a brief essay, entitled “Can you avoid Class War”?, in the March 26, 1931 issue of Young India, he wrote: 

“Every man has an equal right to the necessaries of life even as birds and beasts have.  And since every right carries with it a corresponding duty and a corresponding remedy for resisting any attack upon it, it is merely a matter of finding out the corresponding duties and remedies to vindicate the elementary fundamental equality.  The corresponding duty is to labour with my limbs and the corresponding remedy is to non-cooperate with him who deprives me of the fruit of my labour.” 

In a letter of June 14, 1934, he wrote: 

“I welcome the rise of the Socialist Party in Congress.  But I can’t say that I like the programme as it appears in the printed pamphlet.  It seems to me to ignore Indian conditions and I do not like the assumption underlying many of its propositions which go to show that there is necessarily antagonism between the classes and the masses or between the labourers and the capitalist, such that they can never work for mutual good.  My own experience covering a fairly long period is to the contrary.  What is necessary is that labourers or workers should know their rights and should also know how to assert them.  And since there never has been any right without a corresponding duty, in my opinion a manifesto is incomplete without emphasizing the necessity of performance of duty and showing what duty is.” 

In October 6, 1946, issue of Harijan, he wrote: 

“I have received letters from Harijan friends and some have been to see me to.  They feel that now that power is in the hands of the people, there should be more than one Harijan minister [in the cabinet of the government of the Republic of India].  According to the population ratio, the number should be at least three, and they should be similarly represented in every department….I am not ready to admit the correctness of all they say.  My ideas in this regard are different….Rights spring only from duties well done.  Such rights alone are becoming and lasting….Holding the views I do, and having acted on them and made others act on them over the last fifty years, I have no interest left in fighting for personal rights.  I shall therefore advise Harijan brethren that they should think only of their duties.  They may be sure that rights will follow fast on the heels of duties done.” 

And, in a latter of May 25, 1947 to Julian Huxley, Gandhi wrote (and then this same passage was published in the June 8 issue of Harijan): 

[T]he very right to live accrues to us only when we do the duty of citizenship of the world.  From this one fundamental statement, perhaps it is easy enough to define the duties of man and woman, and correlate every right to some corresponding duty to be first performed.  Every other right can be shown to be usurpation hardly worth fighting for.” 

Source: Anasakti Darshan Vol. 2, No. 2, July-December 2006