In my 7th standard Civics class, we were taught about the rights and duties of a citizen. There on the page was written that the Indian constitution guaranteed free and compulsory education to every child a free and compulsory education till the age of 14. This seemed rather odd to my 7th grade self. It was clearly not true the country had a literacy rate of just over 60% and we had been independent for nearly 50 years. Also, every street corner in Delhi had a child beggar. At best the right could be called hopeful (or in today’s parlance “aspirational”), at worst it was just one more piece of the hypocrisy that surrounded every aspect of Indian life.
But, what is a right? In the ancient world, rights were restricted. For instance, if you were a citizen of Rome, you could not be sentenced without a trial. But if you were not a citizen and if especially if you had the misfortune of being born a slave, your rights were almost non-existent.
The idea that every human being has a right was a product of the European Enlightenment of the 17th century. Even so, its proponents often had their doubts. Voltaire has famously been described as a believer in the rights of man but not of the lower classes. With the French Revolution, a Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was created as a cornerstone of the French Republic.
I wish I could continue this story as a progression of advancements as man climbed the long road to enlightenment. But that is not what happened. Lofty thoughts met cruel reality and failed. In the 1930s, the Nazi pogrom created a flood of unwanted refugees. The political theorist Hannah Arendt drew upon her experiences as a stateless Jewish refugee and declared that human rights were dead. A person without a state to look after them was not considered to have rights.
Today as other war drums beat and another flood of refugees risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean, the same stresses are producing the same results.
Thomas Paine believed that enshrining the rights of man into law was counterproductive. Laws could be revoked, but the rights of a man were based on Natural laws which outweighed anything a government could form.
I humbly disagree. Forces of nature don’t need to be fought for. I believe rights are something we earn for ourselves by giving them to others.