Informed citizens play a pivotal role in the growth of a nation. In an extraordinarily large democracy like India, over a billion citizens have the liberty to exercise their right to vote. It is indeed pitiful that only a few hundred thousand of these citizens actually end up voting. Most citizens are ignorant of the power that this right bestows upon them. This right can effectively be enforced only when citizens are made aware of the rights and obligations provided to them under the Constitution of India.
The latin phrase ‘Ignorantia juris non excusat’ essentially means ignorance of the law is not an excuse. It is not open to the citizens to take this defence when they are found in contravention of the law. It is also not expected of a layman to memorise every statute in every book, however a controlled exposure to legal provisions at a young age is an effective way of developing informed citizens.
Students ought to be exposed to Constitutional ideas, penal provisions, and repercussions of contravening the laws of the land. The aim is to increase the students’ knowledge of the justice system, government, and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in a constitutional democracy. Such an exposure at a crucial age will aid the development of skills in civic participation, decision making, and critical thinking. We need citizens who respond to government decisions, and not react. A response carries the implication of being well thought out, whereas a reaction is associated with impulse. Reactions often lead to chaos, causing social disorder, riotous situations, and destruction of public property amongst other things.
It is the need of the hour to sensitise future citizens of this country toward the law. It needs to be told that laws are enacted to protect citizens so that this will help in arresting delinquent behaviour among children. If they are told that repercussions of contravening the laws of the land – especially in cases of bodily harm or drug abuse – are far reaching, perhaps we may see a reduction in the number of cases where children have been found in conflict with the law. We are collectively responsible for creating a breathable space for future generations. Such a space does not have room for suffocating ideas like caste biases, religious intolerance, etc. Schools are entrusted with the task of creating these rational minds within these spaces.
The true strength of India lies in its youth. There is the very real danger of older generations influencing these young minds for petty political ambitions. Urging schools to start a dialogue on legal sensitisation with the children is the best defence. Young minds must be exposed to concepts like constitutional rights and obligations, legal consequences of drug and alcohol abuse, and legal definitions like ‘consent’, ‘modesty’, ‘harassment’ and ‘delinquency’ amongst others. Such frank interactions and discussions will inform the decisions of future citizens, and empower them to exercise their rights and discharge their duties adequately.
In a recent interaction with a class of young adults in the 16-18 age group on the subject of legal sensitisation, I broached these very topics. The response was overwhelming and the curiosity of the young minds has reinforced my belief that it is required to introduce citizens at a formative age to such concepts. Some of the female participants opened up about their feelings, especially how uncomfortable it is when their male friends tickle them or pull their hair, albeit in a playful way with innocent intent. Most of them were of the view that it’s better to keep quiet than to ruin friendships by conveying their displeasure. But at what juncture does innocent mischief turn to unintentional harassment?
We need to speak more and frankly with these young, impressionable minds. It is for their own benefit since it will help them better discern between right and wrong; good and bad; legal and illegal. My experience has further affirmed that an open dialogue and legal sensitisation will certainly pave the way to creating well-informed citizens in the near future.
“Every good citizen adds to the strength of a nation.”
– Gordon B Hinckley
The author, Pratik Rajopadhye, is an Advocate in the Supreme Court. His work focuses on Constitutional law and legal education.
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