The recent policy implementation of the 10% reservation for Economic Weaker Sections (EWS) by the BJP government has blurred the boundaries between social justice and consolidating political power. The idea of social justice in Indian political discourse is understood in a very limited manner and hence it gave all powers to the ruling elite (read as predominantly the upper castes) to change its form and substance. In politics, manufacturing emotions at first and then consolidating it is risky statecraft and the issue of reservations for the BJP has become a testing point of how it responds to the social divisiveness.
It became an easy exercise for the BJP to think over and implement the EWS reservation without many hurdles, unlike the dilemma it faced with the issue of OBC reservations. If social justice has to be understood in terms of the moral preparedness that the government initiates in minimising inequalities, the Hindu Nationalist’s tryst with social justice primarily suggests the other way around with its continuous limitation of the social justice to the idea of reservations.
The upper caste ‘emotions’ against the SC/ST atrocity act was handled carefully which led the government to announce 10% reservation for the economically weaker sections of the forward castes. The idea of poor, weaker and backward has been brought on to the same platform and the NDA government implemented its long-awaiting agenda in a great rush. This rush in protecting the interests of the upper castes is always endorsed as an act of national interest, whereas the lackadaisical approach in protecting the interests of the marginalized sections is always seen as an act of social justice that goes against the national interest and integration.
The idea of nation and national interest was systematically idealised as a ‘homogenous’ Idea of India. But with the diversifying forces participating and evaluating the future of the country, that monolithic idea came under severe contestation, especially from the anti-caste movement.
The radical mobilization of the Shudras-atishudras across the country (against the brahminical hegemony) emphasized that the idea and politics of Indian Nationalism in many ways subsumed the question of social freedom and thus limited the radical notion of emancipation. This contradiction was aptly exposed by Dr Ambedkar, where he states…Instead of surrendering its privileges in the name of nationalism, the governing class in India is using or misusing the slogan of nationalism to maintain its privileges. Whenever the servile classes ask for reservations in the Legislatures, in the Executive and in public services, the governing class raises the cry of ‘nationalism in danger’.
The slogan of nationalism along with the intersection of culture strengthened the power of the local national elite (Caste Hindus) in subverting and containing the emergence of the sub-subaltern groups. Though the nationalist movement was believed to be a mass movement with no sectarian impulses, the brahminical worldview is still engulfed in its very substance and ideology. Even the Gandhian thinking and practice upheld the various instances of the Sanatana dharmic worldview that sanctified the graded inequality. And the Hindu Nationalists majorly being the proponents of Hindutva and Hindu Rashtra also enhanced the idea of monolith i.e. Indian by default Hindu.
Post-Independent Transformation and its Paradox
After Independence, India’s journey with its ‘political democracy’ is often ‘commended’ as a successful one at many levels in actualizing the principles that are enshrined in the Preamble. The idea of equality and justice and the discourse of ‘social justice’ were further ‘popularized’ in post-independent India by acknowledging the politics, thinking and emancipatory potential of the movement led by Dr Ambedkar and other depressed class leaders.
This moment of commendation and popularisation took place when India witnessed a radical shift in its economic and political sphere (post-1990’s) where social justice as a concept and policy gained wide attention due to the democratisation of the polity and growing assertion of the lower and backward caste groups. On the other hand, the politics of Hindu nationalism was on the resurgence and it systematically handled the question of social justice from the worldview of Brahminism.
The Hindu nationalists quest for and pursuit with social justice politics through various means and for various reasons is not devoid of paradoxes. It is through this paradox this article critiques the alliance of these both political processes by further highlighting the contradicting and conflicting views of its idea of Social. It also problematizes the narratives and symbols as used by the Hindu nationalists in subsuming the radical notion of social justice and emancipatory politics.
An Ambedkarian reading of Hindu nationalism provides manifold methods in understanding the subterranean agenda of the traditional upholders of the hierarchical notion of justice. This notion puts ‘karma’ in a central place and thus evades the justice principle of living present. To be precise, Hindu nationalism makes the mythical characters of the past (for example Manusmriti) to be living guidance that can restrict the mobility and further compartmentalize the social structure whereas the social justice politics in principle vows to break the boundaries and challenge the brahminical modernity.
In the Indian political process after the ascendance of Hindu nationalism, especially after 1990 sets a landmark phase in allowing us to understand the limits of constitutional practice and also the recalcitrant nature of the Caste Hindus. This recalcitrant nature adopted the narrative of ‘nationalism in danger’ during the implementation of Mandal Commission report. It is also important to note that when the Congress Nationalists narrative of ‘nationalism in danger’ was against the colonial injustices done by the British; the Hindu Nationalists place culture as a primary category in showing that it is the Hindu nation and their nationalism which is in danger. It is here that the Mandal Commission report was seen as an act of ‘daylight robbery’ of the (Hindu) Nation.
After the announcement of Mandal recommendations implementation by V.P.Singh, the Hindu Nationalists aggressively campaigned against the decision and called the move a bid to divide the Hindu society and perpetuate casteism. For instance, the October 7th editorial of Organiser (RSS mouthpiece) in 1990 states …whole treacherous Mandalisation exercise is for creating a personal base at the cost of national integrity. Another big lie of course was that the Mandal report had been implemented to give ‘social justice’ to the backwards and not to deprive anyone of employment opportunities. On the contrary, it is a brazen bid to build a sectarian vote bank by robbing Peter to pay Paul, by closing all employment avenues to the youth of the so called forward classes. And by calling the move as political arson it further stated …It is not social justice but a blueprint for caste polarization and disintegration of society by large scale injustice and day light robbery.
This agony of Hindu nationalists shows the dilemma that they grappled with the emergence of lower and backward castes. The claim that the reservations would further divide the Hindu society can be on the other hand challenged by understanding the solidarity of the Dalits, Muslims in fighting for the Mandal Commission implementation. This clearly suggests that tension exists in the Indian political history between the cultural and political nationalists. This point was well evaluated by G. Aloysius in his classic work Nationalism without a Nation in India (page 152, 2014 impression) where he states “The cultural-nationalist ideology of the political movement was the dominant and determining inspiration behind the birth and development of modern historiographical and social science paradigms in the subcontinent. The three dimensions of cultural nationalism, Vedic Brahminism, a pan-Indian territory and an antagonism to modernity became the basic value orientations upon which the objectivity of modern Indian social science was sought to be established in both its theoretical and empirical aspects. Sanskritic Vedic texts were the source and foundation for a disciplinary diversification.”
To further expand it, the cultural nationalism of Hindu nationalists through the power and sanctity of the Vedic Brahminism enabled them to resolve the dilemma mentioned above. They subsumed the question of social justice within the larger narrative of cultural justice i.e. by invoking Ram and Otherizing Muslims in fighting against Mandal. This resolution of dilemma is nothing but to maintain the Brahmanic social order intact and to neglect the glaring social inequalities.
Social Justice through Ram Rajya and a bigoted notion of Social Democracy
The political process in 1990s seemingly made the nation to believe that the Hindu nationalists can consolidate the Hindu bloc against all forms of diversifications. This period witnessed a major shift in the economy and polity which disrupted the social base of political parties. The three events (anti-Mandal agitation to the opening up of the economy and finally the destruction of Babri Masjid) in the Indian political history in a much better way benefitted the Hindu Nationalists, especially the BJP.
The emergence of a new middle class and the growing economic desire of the same and other elite after opening up of economy allowed the BJP to take advantage of the anti-Mandal sentiment prevailing among the upper caste youth. After V.P.Singh decided to implement Mandal recommendations amid the anti-Mandal agitation, Advani started the Ram rath yatra in September 1990 and thus he was setting up the BJP on an anti-Congress-anti-Janata Dal track and his speeches, wherever the rath stopped, were a blend of aggressive Hindutva and anti-Mandal. And in the context of the lull in the anti-Mandal agitation after 2 October 1990, Advani provided the upper-caste youth, across the northern states, with a political alternative that they could look up to. The association of the symbol of Ram and Ayodhya with this also helped the BJP forge a Hindu identity that was not restricted to the upper castes and had a lot of space for the OBCs, the Dalits and the Adivasis, among whom the VHP had been active for some years now. On the other hand, RSS affiliated labour organization BMS has postponed its annual session (scheduled on 25-27 October 1990 at Ahmedabad) to enable “workers” to participate in Kar Sewa. By seeing the government’s inaction in constructing temple as a case of national crisis, the then General Secretary of BMS has advised its workers to put in all-out efforts for the construction of Ram temple at Ayodhya.
In a more disturbing part, the Sangh fraternity by conveniently invoking Ram against Mandal they symbolized (page 10, May 30, 1993, Organiser) Dr Ambedkar as one who represents the modern Hindu concept of social reconstruction. They viewed that the Ramraja and Bhimrao go hand in hand. One aspect of the Hindu Nationalist thinking is the way they eulogize the brahminical norms implicitly. By calling the Ayodhya Ramjanambhoomi movement and destruction of Babri act a revolution, they went ahead in stating that the majority of karsevaks at Ayodhya were from the so-called lower castes or even casteless tribes. For them Ram was something they could not think of compromising with V.P.Singh’s Mandal mania. It is these Rambhaktas who brought down the Babri structure. For once the Hindus assembled at Ayodhya were completely oblivious of their caste differences. They lived together, dined together, slept together. In an otherwise caste-conscious society this was something of a miracle. The people at Ayodhya know only one identity, that of the votary of Ram. In the true sense of revolution, Ayodhya, in a manner of speaking, derecognized chaturvarnya, or, to be more precise, the degenerated form of the caste system. This celebration of violence and assimilation or consolidation of the so-called Hindu monolith against the ‘Other’ explains another factor i.e. its acceptance of the multiple local traditions.
The successful embrace of the Rath Yatra, as described by one of its proponents Swapan Dasgupta in an article in The Times of India (page 10, October 23, 1990), is linked to the hindu nationalist’s attachment to the grassroots local tradition as its mobilisation has not been effected through the ‘high church’ of the Brahminical faith but through the folk tradition of roadside temples.
There are two ways to understand this grass-root spread that also pose as another paradox in the body-politic of Hindu nationalism. In ideological terms, Hindutva politics is essentially a Brahminical appropriation of the non- Brahminical ideological currents and in doing so it incorporates the peripheral aspects of the opposition and suppresses its essence. To be more precise, in suppressing the Mandal movement by invoking Ram the Hindu nationalists could posit a monolithic self in opposition to a monolithic cultural other in order to gain political and cultural legitimacy in the eyes of the subalterns. Whereas in political terms, Hindutva is set against granting rights of self-determination or autonomy for local cultures; every demand for more decentralised distribution of power is decried as secessionism and separatism. By using the narrative ‘hindu nationalism is in danger’ via Mandal and Muslims, Hindu nationalists warned the nation of its danger to national unity and Hindu consolidation.
The language, narratives, symbols used by the Hindu nationalists idealised mandir as a symbol of patriotism whereas Mandal an epitome of divisiveness and new social disorder. The issue of social justice endorses a new social order for which the Sangh fraternity was not ready to accept as they saw the goal of social equality (via social harmony) to be achieved only by bringing the Ram rajya. Despite this same Ram rajya which is known for killing a Shudra named Shambuka for transgressing his Varna, the Hindu nationalists emphasised the necessity of Gandhi’s Ram rajya.
The contradiction remains here when the idea of Ram rajya is further explored through Ambedkar’s interventions. In Annihilation of Caste, he stated Ram rajya is based on chaturvarnya and Rama hence required not only penal sanction but also a penalty of death for the transgression of Varna. Also if social democracy is defined on the grounds of Sanskrit Vedic texts, the whole justice principle becomes elusive as there will be a place only for selective justice that destroys the pure moral authority which even Gandhi wanted for his dream of Ram rajya.
The bigoted notion of social democracy with all paradoxes can be better understood in the words of Ram Madhav, a senior leader of BJP. He states Gandhi feared that for a country such as India, democracies could end up as mobocracies. That was why he used to insist upon the concept of Ram Rajya. Gandhi’s Ram Rajya was a non-majoritarian democracy, where the minutest minority too has its voice heard. Ambedkar used to insist that without social democracy, political democracy is bound to fail. By social democracy, what he meant was not just participation but a sense of stakeholdership of different sections of society in the decision-making process. Ram Rajya and social democracy are concepts worth revisiting at this juncture to avert the challenges and enhance the efficacy of our democratic institutions.
Two conflicting views on the Idea of Social
The naming and identification of the culture as a sanctified one by the cultural nationalists (proponents of Hindu/Hindi/Hindustan) was dominant and it consolidated the brahminical social imagination and promoted graded inequality. Concomitantly, the political nationalists imagined and practised an egalitarian social order. However, the struggle for the actualisation of social order by the Shudras-Atishudras made the idea of justice and emancipation a universal category. This radical notion of ‘social’ and ‘justice’ has the theoretical and practical potential in challenging the worldview of the Hindu nationalists who relegate social justice and prioritise social harmony.
The Hindutva notion of ‘justice’ and ‘social’ is primarily built on the philosophical foundations of the harmonious, no-conflict approach that views inequality as a social reality and thus it is the basis of harmonious order. Thinkers like Deendayal Upadhyaya, Dattopant Thengadi systematically upheld the view of harmony between individual and society where dharma regulates the order and justice. Thus the dharmic notion of justice is seen as a perfect approach that would keep the social order intact. The idea of social here is an imaginary associated one guided by dharma contrary to its actual disassociated living that is executed by the graded caste inequality. The Hindu nationalists symbolize idea of India as morally superior, united across the communities and ironically there exists no place for opposition and freedom.
Now, how does one look at their fight against injustice (cultural primarily) to preserve their idea of social? By describing the cultural discrimination during the nationalist movement, Gopal Guru aptly points out that their sense of injustice (cultural) is addressed within the background of the colonial configuration of power as it was less likely that they would focus their attention on the issue of social injustice that emanated from the local configuration of power built up around Brahminical Hinduism. And whenever they sought to respond to the question of social justice, it was rhetorical and pragmatic to the extent that it was necessary to meet the challenge of the Christian missionaries on the one hand and the colonial state on the other. The result was apparent in embodying such notion of justice i.e. the Hindutva forces sought to seek the nationalist resolution of cultural injustice in self-rule, they however subsumed the question of social justice in this rather centralizing category. As a result, their politics and thinking suggested primacy of self-rule over self-respect.
This practice of subsuming the question of social freedom, social justice and self-respect was inherent in their thinking and practice throughout and when we understand the idea of social in its worldview, it becomes evident. The idea of social for the Hindu nationalists is majorly characterized as an anti-social change and hierarchical substance. When evaluating the practice of social justice, the radical notion of it allows the agents to interrogate the system of hierarchical social relations and to alter it. Thus the social in social justice makes the justice principle a transformative and outcome entity where there is no scope of making it a passive concept. Thus the idea of social in the Hindu Nationalist thought (that also argues for the Hindu nation without any associated mode of living among all the sections equally) stands quite opposite to the idea of social of the politics of social justice and the ambedkarite thinking.
Few points have to be emphasized here about the question of why is justice social or what makes justice social before understanding the idea of social in ambedkarite thinking and practice. In explaining these Gopal Guru states …the struggle concept of social justice is basically contestory in nature because, first, it belongs to the realm of the oppositional imagination which involves subaltern contestations of dominant or elite notions of justice and seeks to convert them in favour of an egalitarian social order. Second, the contest notion of justice is primarily social because all contestations involve social groups with competing claims for refashioning and reordering their life vision through re-description and redistribution of moral and material resource. He further states Justice acquires its social character in as much as it motivates struggling social groups to forge solidarity and Justice also acquires a social character fundamentally because it seeks to reorient social relationships along lines of mutual recognition, dignity and self-respect.
Thus, in the ambedkarite thinking and politics, the idea of dignity and self-respect combines with the social justice agenda which doesn’t allow the upper caste elite and brahminical state to decide its course. In this radical socio-political process, the politics and agenda of social justice can act as a socially unifying principle that can be deployed for the contestation of dominant structures. And as pointed earlier, the idea of social in the Hindu nationalist thinking is hierarchical which makes ‘justice’ selective and protects the interests of the Caste Hindus. None of the above features outlined would describe the idea of social or justice in the Hindu nationalist worldview and it also shows that the paradoxical alliance of Hindu nationalism and social justice is out of political compulsion but not of a radical social conviction.
Whither Social Justice?
India’s comfortable tryst with Hindu nationalism and contemptuous tryst with the question of social justice exposes the great Indian paradox that still keeps its masses in an imaginary world of equality. The nationalist elite and the Hindu nationalists lament that the issue of reservation per se is an ‘emotional issue’ that should be dealt ‘delicately’. Senior BJP leader Uma Bharati, writing on the idea of Social Justice (The BJP, Seminar 417, May 1994) observed that, the nation’s own identity is Hindutva and to label it as a Brahmanical and exploitative order is to do it a gross injustice. She expresses her anguish in mentioning that social justice became a new buzzword and social integration and unity became victims of neglect. This shows the contempt towards any attempt of social restructuring either through reservation or the political power to the lower and backward castes. Breaking status quo is seen as an excuse in destroying social unity.
Hindu nationalists limited the issue of social justice to the reservations and thus it always evoked discomfort from its upper-caste core base. And to comfort that core base, the same ‘emotional reservation issue’ is handled ‘delicately’ and thereby it facilitated the case for 10% EWS reservation. If this doesn’t destroy social unity then how the earlier demands of marginalized groups for the same is considered as a step towards social disorder? Or is this to convey that by providing reservations to the upper castes the ‘ground is levelled’ to protect the social harmony? If the idea of reservations evokes such discomfort from their core base what would be the possible reaction then if the Hindu nationalists further mandalize and dalitize the political party to remain in power for a longer duration? Questions of this sort enable us to understand the world of Hindutva pragmatism that endorses the idea of social harmony but not social justice.
The world of Hindutva pragmatism can be further evaluated lucidly through their vigorous political mobilisation of the marginalised groups. In this process, one can observe their shift of narrative from social harmony to social justice. When the constitutional status was granted to the Backward Classes Commission in 2018, BJP pledged to observe social justice week in august every year. Though it is completely neglected in 2019 and 2020, what is important here is to understand the essence of the paradox that lies beneath the body politic of Hindu Nationalists. The category which was seen as detrimental to social unity if uplifted has now being used as a modern political category. They successfully created capital and cultural sense with Modi using OBC card. This is to say that, they can anytime make the backward category a derogatory and an honorary one. And under their thraldom, the community fails to understand ‘if truly they became a modern political community’ that encompasses ‘equality’ and ‘justice’ as overarching principles.
The new paradigm of social justice in the world of paradox suggests that the Hindu nationalists’ phase of a ‘quest’ is over and what we witness now is a brahminical pursuit. And this pursuit operates in a framework of Atmavat Sarvabhutesu (the wise man looks upon all creatures as him) under the leadership of Narendra Modi with all help from the RSS. If this charlatanism and paradoxical quest during Mandal movement and contemptuous-cum-benevolent pursuit after 2014 is not understood and challenged, there is a greater possibility that the idea of justice and equality will turn to be an occasional (samayanukul) political and moral principle contrary to what Dr Ambedkar emphasized for it to be an eternal (shashwat) principle.
- Manikanta is a Phule-Ambedkarite scholar and activist from Telangana, who worked with BSF in HCU and BAPSA in JNU. He is one of the contributors to the forthcoming volume ‘The Shudras-Vision for a New Path’, edited by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd and Karthik Raja Karuppusamy, Penguin.
Image Courtesy: Prime Minister’s Office GODL-India