[‘Parapolitics’ began on 16 January 2020 as a weekly column at the height of the anti-CAA movement. After eight weeks, it was made into a fortnightly column and now, eighteen months and 44 posts later, as I get involved with a study of Marxisms in the ‘Global South’, beginning with this post, this column will now appear once a month, on the second Saturday of every month.]
What happened at Jantar Mantar on 9 August – the anniversary of the Quit India movement – was not just violently anti-Muslim in the slogans raised; it was also symptomatic of the larger counter-revolutionary shift that has taken place in our politics. That Quit India or the ‘August revolution’ day was sought to be taken over as a final gesture of that grand victory that the Sangh Combine believes it has already won, is telling. It is telling also because it is a formation that studiously stayed away from the mainstream of the anticolonial struggle but now wants to take over that legacy and saffronize it. How the rally was organized and continued to be held despite the police claiming it had no permission to do so, does not remain so much of a mystery once you realize that the key organizers are Sangh/BJP leaders or parts of the larger network of terror associated with them. But that is another matter. It is important to recognize that incidents like these are but signs of a new stage in the ongoing counter-revolution where the Hindu Right is no longer content with claiming its own distinctiveness in opposing mainstream (Congress-led) nationalism but is out to make a determined bid to appropriate the entire legacy of that nationalism. The insistence, in recent times, on the national tricolour as a sign of its aggressive nationalism, is entirely of a piece with this attempt to occupy the mainstream.
This attempt to claim the mantle of the anticolonial legacy was also evident in the organizers’ claim that the march was against ‘colonial era laws’ and to demand making of ‘uniform laws’, especially a uniform civil code. In this way, an anticolonial rhetoric is deployed to make the nationalist claim of the Sangh combine sound legitimate. Politically – and rhetorically – we can, and must, attack them for appropriating the anticolonial legacy. We must also go on repeating that they had played nothing but a negative role (of turning anti-British sentiment into an anti-Muslim sentiment) throughout the ‘national movement’ but I want to suggest that if we are to effectively fight this fascist formation, we need to come to grips with the larger phenomenon that it now embodies.
Counter-Revolution and the Failure of Ambedkar’s Project
In his concluding speech before the Constituent Assembly (cited above), Ambedkar had expressed the fear that if the contradiction between equality at the political level and inequality and oppression at the social and economic levels were not resolved there might be a revolution. This was not a very happy prospect for Ambedkar as is evident from that very speech and its warnings. ‘Those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy, which this Assembly has so laboriously built up,’ he had underlined. And Ambedkar was not talking only about caste inequality in that lecture but also the extreme poverty faced by the majority of the people. It seems, in retrospect, that Ambedkar, despite the fears expressed in this much-quoted passage, actually placed too much trust on ‘democracy’ in its liberal avatar – by which I mean, the deliberative model.
If one looks at the three warnings that he issued in that speech, it becomes evident that faith in constitutional methods and institutions was his key concern at that moment. It is true that the third warning was about the efficacy, indeed survival, of political democracy in the absence of what he called ‘social democracy’ which continued to elude us because of the complete absence of equality and fraternity between different caste groups and extreme poverty. Though his speech marked somewhat of a departure from the liberal conception insofar as he emphasized the inseparability of equality and liberty, there is little by way of any direction as to what recourse to take if the provisions of the Constitution or the procedures of the deliberative institutions were sought to be sabotaged by the powerful. He is scathing in his critique:
“The castes are anti-national. In the first place because they bring about separation in social life. They are anti-national also because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste. But we must overcome all these difficulties if we wish to become a nation in reality. For fraternity can be a fact only when there is a nation.“
He goes further:
“But there can be no gainsaying that political power in this country has too long been the monopoly of a few and the many are only beasts of burden, but also beasts of prey. This monopoly has not merely deprived them of their chance of betterment, it has sapped them of what may be called the significance of life. These down-trodden classes are tired of being governed. They are impatient to govern themselves.”
How were these downtrodden classes to govern? How were they to acquire that position without displacing the power of the few who had monopolized it? Unfortunately, Ambedkar skirts this question for by the time he has come this third warning, he has already made a fervent appeal to “hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives.” He makes it very clear as to what he means by it – that we must “abandon the bloody methods of revolution” and “the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha”, which, according to him, made no sense in a situation where constitutional ways and avenues are available. “These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us”, he went on to assert.
His call to entirely abandon the methods of struggle and agitation meant a call to effectively demobilize and disband organizations of struggle. All in good faith, no doubt. On this point the communists and socialists, whom he criticized for criticizing the Constitution, were certainly right. They were right to believe that in struggle alone was there any guarantee of keeping even liberal institutions on the right, democratic track. Even though the communist reduction of democracy to bourgeois democracy, to a mere emanation of capitalism, was highly erroneous, there is something to be said about the communist insistence that democracy remains merely formal, as long as property relations and the economic power of the dominant remain intact, untouched. Ram Manohar Lohia’s well known statement “agar sadken khamosh ho jayen to sansad awara ho jayegi” (“if the streets fall silent, the parliament will become wayward”) underlined the need for continuous democratic mobilization and occupation of the streets.
What we are seeing today is the very opposite of what Ambedkar had expected – an aggressive reversal of every gain made through the anticolonial struggle and embodied in the Constitution. Alongside, we are seeing the reassertion of the power of the rural upper caste elite, at least across North India, where the democratic upsurge of the 1990s had put the upper castes on the defensive. On an earlier occasion after the Hathras incident, I had written about the ongoing counter-revolution in Uttar Pradesh since Adityanath’s rise to power. I had also argued that in a sense, that Dalit-bahujan upsurge of the 1990s was destined to be derailed because, among other reasons, it failed to produce an economic programme that would empower the Dalits and break the power of the rural elite. Let me now put it more bluntly: The delegitimation of the ‘class question’ actually suited the neoliberal ethos of the times and enabled a safe space of emergence for the Dalit-bahujan upsurge, where the ‘confrontation’ would remain at the purely symbolic level – for even the more substantial question of reservations was under attack under the neoliberal regime. I want to emphasize here, following Rao Saheb Kasbe (in his Ambedkar aur Marx), that Ambedkar indeed had an economic programme that was incorporated in the Manifesto of the Independent Labour Party, way back in 1936. The programme was evident in the fact that it included the state takeover of the means of production, formation of a land mortgage, an agricultural produce market for peasants, and the setting up of cooperatives. A decade later, in the memorandum submitted to the Constituent Assembly (published as ‘States and Minorities’) he went on to make a full-fledged case for ‘state socialism’, where to my mind the argument for socialism rested precisely on the need to break the economic power of the landed interests. This part of Ambedkar’s legacy has fallen by the wayside and accounts substantially, in my reckoning, to the failure of his project.
The second disaster ensued from the fact that, in the spirit of Ambedkar’s 1949 behest, the 1990s upsurge remained a purely electoral affair – situated squarely within the logic of constitutional methods adumbrated by him. Mass struggles were never part of the imagination of the emerging Dalit-bahujan elite and its confinement therefore to legal-constitutional and electoral arena actually fitted very well with the abandoning of complex class-related issues.
Our experience here as others elsewhere (e.g. the rise of Nazism after the failed German revolution of 1918, to mention one) underlines one thing very clearly: that a revolution cannot be left half-done. For the powerful will never reconcile themselves to the fact that their power has been curtailed and subjected to democratic constraints. A revolution carried out in absent-mindedness – that is to say a revolution that is simply not aware of what it is doing – is worse, for this ensures its defeat in advance. The power of the upper castes was curtailed, for instance, by the Abolition of Untouchability (Article 17 of the Constitution) or Article 15 that secures the citizen from discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth and other such provisions of the Law. These provisions place restrictions on the discriminatory and oppressive practices based on ‘customary’ privilege and power.
The Long Democratic Revolution
However, the revolution that this counter-revolution seeks to upturn is not just the democratic upsurge of the 1990s, nor even the great advances registered in the politico-juridical domain in the course of the anticolonial struggle and the process of constitution-making. The revolution that the RSS wants to – has always wanted to – reverse is the long revolution that we might call the democratic revolution. That revolution is actually indicated in Ambedkar’s third warning – the one that pushes for extending the logic of equality from the political to the social and economic realms. The RSS has always positioned itself against all forms of equality – the idea that forms the linchpin of the democratic revolution. The formation of the RSS in the mid-1920s clearly had nothing to do with the Constitution or the democratic upsurge of the 1990s. It was an attempt rather, to connect with the attempts in the preceding decades to re-imagine a period of Hindu glory that would become the basis of Indian nationhood of its imagination. However, that supposed Hindu glory was marked by its most fundamental faith in varnashramadharma, though many modern Hindu reformers had begun seeing it as an impediment to the realization of Hindu unity and a Hindu nation, given its deeply abhorrent practices like untouchability.
Both the democratic revolution and the counter-revolution that we are seeing today are not the sudden ‘ten days that shook the world’ kind of phenomena, but more like the Buddhist revolution and the Brahmanical counter-revolution (in Ambedkar’s classic rendering) – spread over decades, often rolling into centuries.
However, it is not that the very birth of the RSS started a counter-revolution way back in the 1920s; rather, in a manner of speaking, through the twentieth century, we have seen the advance of the democratic revolution, both in India and across the world. In India, through the advance of the anticolonial struggle, the moment of Constitution-making and the advent of the postcolonial Independent state, we have been witness to the relatively steady (with occasional minor setbacks) expansion of our democratic rights and the claims of equality. The RSS only provided a counter-discourse and a rallying point for the forces that were losing out with the advance of the democratic revolution without being able to make much headway for long spells of time.
The gender and caste questions were, in different ways, at the centre of the great battles for equality that were playing out over the decades, though ‘caste’ faced an additional difficulty insofar as it stood de-legitimized in ways we are now only too familiar with. Thus the long trek from the Kaka Kalelkar Commission of the mid-1950s to the Mandal Commission in 1980, put once again in cold storage for a decade, illustrates the massive hurdles that that struggle had to face. The most vicious face of that upper caste opposition to its loss of power emerged during the anti-Mandal agitations 1990.
It is from this point on that we can actually see the coming together of three separate discourses, three distinct histories that marked a discursive break and prepared the ground for the counter-revolution to take shape –
It is at this point that the alliance of the privileged upper castes, the political forces of Hindutva and capital are forged. Capital, of course, never puts all its eggs in one basket and the Congress of the neoliberal era was its best bet. This alliance therefore remained unstable, in political terms, till the massive struggles against land acquisition led to what was called the UPA government’s ‘policy paralysis’. It is not possible to go into the details of all that happened, but it was while the Tatas were pulling out of West Bengal, following the Singur fiasco that Narendra Modi entered the picture, offering land to the Tatas overnight. Corporate capital had found its hero – the pied piper who would lead the intoxicated Hindu masses to lynch Muslims and keep them busy, while they gobbled up every bit of state/ public property and the commons .
To conclude then, I want to suggest that if this be case, any effective response to this threat will have to reappraise the limitations of our democratic revolution and reassess the reasons for its failure. We will have to recognize that the power of the powerful cannot be broken without breaking their economic stranglehold. The caste question cannot, as Ambedkar seems to have realized, be divorced from the class question.
- Some of these developments between 2006 and 2014 have been discussed in the ‘Epilogue’ of the 2nd edition of Power and Contestation: India After 1989 (Nivedita Menon and Aditya Nigam, Orient Blackswan 2014)