Is Savarkarite Ambedkarism the New Postcolonial Reality?
BR Ambedkar’s 113th birth anniversary in 2022 came amidst a completely different context from the one he had envisaged. I argued in 2014 that we are witnessing a durable shift to the Right in Dalit-Bahujan politics. The Right has captured the momentum and aspirations of the Dalit-Bahujans and aligned them to its Hindu supremacist agenda. Caste differences were thought of as a “natural” check on the confessional majority, but today, they are actively contributing to building a muscular Hindu majority.
We can no longer explain the rightward shift merely through the idea of “lower” caste groups being manipulated and hoodwinked into becoming footsoldiers of Hindutva. It needs to be explained through how an ethic internal to caste politics has got aligned and identified with a momentum created by the Right, which is very distinct from how Ambedkar had analysed and critiqued Hinduism.
Today, there is a possible convergence between the social content provided by Savarkar and the optics of resistance that Ambedkar symbolises. Following Ambedkar would mean raising far more fundamental questions of “liberty, equality and fraternity”, but it would also require taking cues from his ideas to dig deeper into the ethics produced by the graded inequalities of caste. Instead, it has turned out that Ambedkarism has been reduced to a legitimisation of gaining political power without adopting his social philosophy. That is, Savarkarite social philosophy is getting aligned to the Ambedkarite emphasis that the Bahujans must attain political power to become governing agents, not merely subjects.
Ambedkar saw the questioning of dominant social philosophy as an outcome of strategies to gain political power. However, today, the dominant philosophy is seen as a route to power. This shift is not limited to Dalit-Bahujan politics but marks the larger change in how resistance itself is seen as a strategy internal to hegemony, not outside of it. For example, Muslim women today visualise a space within religious practices, including their appropriation of the hijab; sex workers strive to empower as sex workers through legal rights; Shudras offer a new path by offering a Shudra critique; the urban poor bend those in power via struggles to gain transactional welfare and subsistence benefits. There is no agenda of annihilation or abolition here. It is believed that a strategy internal to hegemony is a more practical and effective way to negotiate within the present context. Power and exclusion are being fought through seeking recognition and accommodation.
The hegemonic imagination is the only vision of the future because it has built itself up on the internal contradictions of secular-progressive alternatives. The dominant imagination promises to deliver all that progressive politics holds out too, but through accommodation, not resistance. Accommodation itself has come to be seen as the power of the marginalised to bend power. The silencing of resistance has become possible through fanning assertion against those who are relatively more vulnerable. In other words, a process of vertical alignment and lateral assertion is on.
The catch is that a model where accommodation itself is seen as power necessarily requires an adversary, so Muslims cannot be fully accommodated in it. Therefore, it might lead to internal divisions within the minorities with one sect or caste played against the other. At one level, gendered practices could unite all Muslims, but even here, majoritarian politics is unhappy with burqa-clad women and equally irked by independent Muslim women. While the burqa-clad are denied education, independent women are auctioned on sites such as “sulli deals”. The women who protested at Shaheen Bagh heard comments that Muslim men were hiding behind them even as they were being “liberated” from triple talaq. It is as if a hegemonic majority alone can “emancipate” Muslim women, since there was little change from within, or endless entanglements with a “politics of differences” and identifying “minorities within minorities”.
Postcolonial scholarship wished to dignify the choices of subalterns and rely on the “creative power of the community”, but it did not empower them. Instead, it delegitimised the Utopia of thinking outside dominant registers. Further, postcolonial methods of neutralising hierarchies by naming them as “cultural practices” provided dominant groups a means to frame other exclusionary practices also as cultural beliefs. Suppose we cannot question the veiling of women as a regressive control over women’s bodies because it falls within the exclusive domain of Muslim women’s relationship with god. In the same way, the claim emerging from Dalit politics is that their “lived experiences” cannot be easily understood and, therefore, there is no way of questioning the exclusion they face or inflict on the more vulnerable within them. Even this question of internal power relations was left to the “creative power of the community” to “autonomously” arrive at a way to deal with.
Secularism not only culturalised post-coloniality but privileged regressive practices as personal laws and markers of minority rights, empowerment and India’s secular credentials. [Just wondering, did we have a choice in the fifties after Partition?]
Today, this story has come full circle with Brahmins in Bengaluru wanting to live in exclusive Brahmin neighbourhoods justifying it as a marker of culture and new age civility—not prejudice. If cosmopolitanism and composite culture cannot be “imposed” on the excluded, how can it be justified for the dominant groups? The invisibilisation of power relations by seeing it as legitimate cultural practices, done by both secular-progressive and cultural-postcolonial politics, created a template for majoritarian unification and the notion that working within hegemonic tropes can amount to resistance.
The Right in India has rather unequivocally appropriated the moment by converting majoritarianism into a cultural credo and neo-liberal bargaining into new age resistance. Ambedkar had warned us that “constitutional morality” had to be built and is not readily available. Therefore, he chose to resign from Nehru’s Cabinet over the Hindu Code Bill. Today, his resignation and demand would have been seen as an external—Western—imposition of a “modern” sensibility alien to the Indian civilizational ethos. Perhaps it was seen that way even in 1950s. However, the fact that Ambedkar did not hesitate to resign on the question of property rights for Hindu women is forgotten today.
Ambedkar thought such changes were precursors to changing caste relations in India. But the rejection of the changes he proposed preserved the ethic that change could come from within the dominant hegemony. It is this ethic that we can now see as Savarkarite Ambedkarism.
The author is an associate professor at the Center for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His forthcoming book is Politics, Ethics and Emotions in ‘New India’ (Routledge, London, 2022). The views are personal.
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