Print Edition - 2014-07-13  |  Free the Words

Good samaritans

  • The country needs a Civic Responsibility Act to increase the moral responsibility of Nepali society
- SEEMA PANDEY
Good samaritans

Jul 12, 2014-Around the globe, there are numerous examples of practices that enforce civic responsibility. In  Europe and the US, for instance, every citizen has a responsibility to call for help if unusual activities or a violent incident is assumed to be taking place. In Europe, it is your moral obligation to stop your vehicle at the sight of an accident as the first person passing by the site of incidence. If not, wanton disregard may lead to certain forms of penalisation.

In the western world, civic responsibility dates back to ancient Rome. In the US, it was officially sanctioned as an outline for democracy in 1787 by ratifying it in the constitution. The Constitution of the US declares, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States.”

In Hindu scriptures, the responsibility of citizens was largely communicated through the Dharma Shastra, the duties of the ruler and the ruled. However, in the constitutions of Nepal (1990 and 2007), there is only one Article that gently invokes the idea of civic responsibility. Article 2, Preliminary Part (I) of the constitutions states, “It shall be the duty of every person to uphold this Constitution”. It is vague but somehow suggests that apart from rights, everyone has a responsibility to uphold values enshrined in the constitution.  However, the constitutions do not specify the responsibility its citizens are expected to undertake. Rights are relatively well-described while duties are not.

Rights and duties

For a civilised society, assigning responsibilities is as important as delegating rights. It is clear that social evils, like social exclusion, ethnic and caste discrimination and violence against women are inherited in society and expand through societal validation. So a way to forbid such actions could come from society itself. A law to build a sense of civic responsibility could oblige people to react and respond to such illegal social practices. Such a law could hold citizens responsible for not acting in a civilised manner for human welfare by penalising them for not responding to malpractices taking place in their own neighbourhoods. For instance, in cases of giving or taking dowry, physical and mental torture, wife-battering, bride-burning, racial and caste discrimination, a cautious reaction from a neighbour or a relative could maybe have prevented such actions and demotivated offenders by building peer pressure around them to act humanely and morally.

For example,  a woman was rescued by a neighbour from being burnt-alive by her husband in Nepalgung in June. Similarly, in another case of bride-burning for dowry in Nepalgunj, in April, the incident could not be prevented even though her neighbours were aware about the continuous mental and physical torture faced by the woman before she was burnt alive. The insensitivity and unaccountability of neighbours pushed the survivor into a state of life time trauma.

Act for civic responsibility

The same applies to incidents of racism, caste-discrimination, eve-teasing, sexual harassment and so on, where individuals do not deem it necessary to criticise or respond. Considering such examples, an act obliging individuals to respond to social malpractices could prevent most forms of violence against women, racism (Madhesi-Pahadi) and caste-discrimination to a large extent. A law that enforces morality can work miracles. An act as such would be ain to citizen policing, applying pressure on citizens to do something and make others act appropriately in line with the notion of humanity. It could hold every citizen—family members, relatives, neighbours, police or anyone else—who witnessed the perceived threat or a crime but failed to respond in any way, accountable. Going by facts, in most instances of gender-violence, victims in particular do not have a medium or an opportunity to seek help. So spectators and those who are aware about the situation may play an important role. Imposing consequences for not acting humanely and responding to the crisis of a fellow citizen in need seems like a legitimate way to go forward.

Nevertheless, some may argue that since the protection mechanism for victims themselves is frail, it is unfair to oblige society to take on the burden of helping and protecting others. Careful attention must be paid to this concern. However, it does not mean that such an act cannot be pursued.  For that, building a protection mechanism for he victims, the rescuer and witnesses should go hand in hand. It seems agreeable that by formulating a penalty for those who did not respond to the call of a victim in crisis or of the perceived threat to a possible victim could play an important role in moulding societal perception and reaction to social malpractices. In one of the cases discussed above, neighbours who were aware of the situation of a victim did not take any action to protect her. Perhaps only a call to the police informing them about her situation could have saved her from being burnt alive with a seven-month old baby in her womb.

A Civil Responsibility Act would thus create an obligation on society to treat social issues as its own and can play a significant role in the transformation of society to a more civilised and sensitive one. The example wherein a neighbour played an important role in saving a woman from a death is an instance of how one individual can play a major role in putting a halt to social evils.

It is not uncommon to hear that Nepal may not be ready for any such act and that literacy would automatically raise human sensitivity, leading citizens to undertake moral responsibility for human welfare. Literacy in itself cannot create responsible and sensitive citizens. It largely depends on individuals’ morality, integrity and ethics. University degrees are not guarantees that individuals will act with a higher level of morality and sensitivity. However, if enforced through law, people will be obliged to act morally for the welfare of fellow citizens. Additionally, including the concept of civil responsibility in academic curricula would also be highly relevant.

Although the campaigns of civil society organisations are effective in fighting social evils, they are not sufficient. There is a need for integrated efforts from human right organisations and individuals. Dependence on civil society organisations, for example, to raise anti-caste discriminatory and gender-awareness campaigns is not sufficient. A more rigorous approach is necessary to build a sensitive and responsible society to end all forms of discrimination, along with gender-violence.  

In the constitution

Including civic responsibility in the Constitution of Nepal would be key to establishing Nepali people as duty-bearers and not just as right-holders. The importance of civic responsibility is utmost to the success of a democracy. By engaging in civic responsibility, citizens ensure and uphold human rights, democratic values and duties, which include justice, freedom, equality, diversity, participation, truth, human rights, rule of law, tolerance, mutual assistance, self-restraint and human integrity.

As constitution drafting is underway, this could be food for thought to Constituent Assembly members. Cultivating civic sense through the constitution by including a section on civic responsibility could be the foundation for a New Nepal where inclusion, non-discrimination, participation, respect and tolerance are the principles of Nepali society, and society is also duty-boundto ensure that all these principles are carried with sensitivity and accountability.

Pandey holds a Masters in International Relations and Political Science from Universidade Fernando Pessoa, Portugal

Published: 13-07-2014 09:41

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