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Tracing the Resonance of Ambedkarite Thought with Anti-CAA Protests

By Mridula Sharma


Ambedkar’s concern with the suppression of Dalit consciousness in Indian popular imagination necessitates the urgency of examination of caste politics even in contemporary times. Ambedkarite thought illustrates the consolidation of non-violent revolution to allow the possibility of socio-political transformation using peaceful measures. Various political parties have attempted to appropriate Ambedkar’s ideology and vision for accomplishing private goals.

The introduction of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act by the central government in 2019 caused widespread dissent in the global community. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has raised concerns over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act since it gives a license to citizenship for immigrants by specifically excluding Muslims. By setting a legal criterion for citizenship on the grounds of religion, the Act opposes the fundamental fabric of democracy by ignoring India’s history of secular pluralism and allowing the exacerbation of communal politics within the country.

The combination of the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposal to create a National Register of Citizens (NRC) has urged thousands of people to demonstrate various forms of presentation of opposition. The redefinition of citizenship has resulted in increasing exhibitions of dissent which have subsequently witnessed the government’s attempt at suppression. Some draconian methods include arbitrary arrests and Internet shutdowns.

The rise in anti-CAA protests across the world is a significant moment of political importance for India. That women are becoming harbingers of social change by leading various such protests is another factor that increases the pertinence of examining the scenario against the backdrop of organic feminist movements. This paper primarily attempts to trace the resonance of Ambedkarite thought and ideology with anti-CAA protests.

A background to anti-CAA protests

Ambedkar has extensively criticized the principal model of Hinduism. He argued that the Hindu society is not a democratic society since its “undemocratic character” has enabled it to enforce unreasonable injustices on millions of non-Brahmins, particularly Dalits. However, in Pakistan or Partition of India, he poses a pertinent question: “But it is right to ask if the Musalmans are the only sufferers from the evils that admittedly result from the undemocratic character of Hindu society. Are not the millions of Shudras and non-Brahmins, or millions of the Untouchables, suffering the worst consequences of the undemocratic character of Hindu society?”

Ambedkar points out that the Muslim population cannot necessarily be the worst victims under Hindu rule since the absolute relegation of the so-called lower castes within the hierarchy of Hinduism cannot be compared with the possible plight of Muslims under a nation populated with a majority of Hindus. The Dalit movement in post-independent India remains important due to the preservation of caste inequalities which remains conveniently ignored until they become relevant for a political party’s agenda.

The contemporary model of Hindutva that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing political party in India, advocates has drastically shifted power dynamics in the country. The election of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister in 2014 has legitimized a militant group called Bajrang Dal. Paul Richard Brass calls the Bajrang Dal “a somewhat pathetic but nevertheless dangerous version of the Nazi S.A.” in his book, The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India. In the past seven years, there have been about a hundred and sixty-eight attacks by Hindu extremists against Muslims and other religious minorities in the name of protecting cows which are typically worshipped by Hindus.

Under the Bharatiya Janata Party-controlled national government, some state governments have passed anti-conversion laws to shield Hindus from proselytizing by Christian or Muslim factions. This is a hindrance to thousands of Dalits whose route of escape from the rigid strictures of Hinduism’s hierarchy has been blocked. This measure is further accompanied by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s endeavour to ‘saffronize’ Ambedkar’s ideology and politics because Ambedkar’s abhorrence for Hinduism does not suit the narrative of the Sangh’s attempt to make India a ‘Hindu rashtra’.

In his book titled, Republic of Caste, Anand Teltumbde argues that the Sangh cannot neglect the incorporation of Ambedkarite thought for political reasons. Since the actuality of Ambedkar’s opposition to Hinduism cannot be erased from the footnotes of history, the Sangh is forced to appropriate the works of Ambedkar for achieving private goals. Therefore, Ambedkar was ultimately projected as an ardent admirer of the RSS and an opposer to Muslims and communists.

Further, in Hindutva and Dalits: Perspectives for Understanding Communal Praxis, Teltumbde states that Hindutva, the defender of the parochial hierarchy of Hindu traditions, strategically co-opts Dalits into its propaganda by manufacturing non-existent discourses to deceive the Dalit community into supporting its mission of creating a ‘Hindu rashtra’. That Hindutva’s ideologues acknowledge, appreciate and subscribe to Manusmriti, an anti-Dalit and anti-women text, testifies to its inherent belief in the inferiority of Dalits. The manipulation of historically validated truth is an attempt to reinstate Hindutva in the popular imagination.

Tens of thousands had been gathering on the streets to read out the preamble of the Indian constitution and use the symbolic gesture as a means of protest against the CAA. Reputed journals like Nature have labelled the new citizenship law ‘discriminatory’ and Geneva-based Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has announced that it plans to file an application in the Supreme Court of India to be impleaded in the petitions challenging the CAA. Protests have also been organized in England, Switzerland, Australia, Germany and the United States of America.

The severity of police action in university campuses like Jamia Milia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University has prompted international concern over the unreasonable extent of backlash against public protests in India. Systemic suppression of protestors has urged a chorus of disquietude within the country since dissent is a democratic right, not a public privilege. Further, social activists have recently reported that the national lockdown imposed as a cautionary measure in response to the COVID-19 outbreak is being utilized by the police to track down and arrest protesters.

Do anti-CAA protests resonate with Ambedkarite thought?

Contemporary Muslims cannot be directly compared to Dalits because traumatic experiences and socio-political marginalisation cannot be empirically measured. Further, while Dalits have faced exclusion to the extent that the absence of professional opportunities for financial upliftment have almost obliterated the idea of their dignified existence, Muslims in India might not have necessarily undergone a similar state of social exclusion.

The anti-CAA protests, which are aimed at opposing the formulation of religion as the grounds of attaining citizenship within the proposed act, are, however, not organized merely by the Muslim population of India. The diversity of protesters is a testament to the integration of various mobilized groups that are founded for the purpose of opposing a law that is being perceived as discriminatory by various individuals, institutions and organizations.

The large scale mobilization for the conduction of the protests across the country has been largely peaceful. Contrary to what many platforms have broadcasted, none of the people arrested by the Delhi police for instigating violence during the protests at Jamia Milia Islamia were Jamia students. The protests by women at Shaheen Bagh is another case in point that bolsters the veracity of the narrative of peaceful protests against the CAA.

Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim working class neighbourhood in Delhi, has emerged as an epicentre of anti-CAA protests across the country. What has been dubbed as an anti-national activity is, as Elizabeth Puranam writes, “a community centre facilitating discussions” on contemporary political discourse in the country.

Since the protesters across the country are opposing the potential consequences of the Citizenship Amendment Act, it has been easy to provoke the dismissal of the relevance of the fundamental agenda of these protests. However, the protests against the CAA serve to function as a precautionary measure to collectively renounce the idea of communal segregation. The protests cannot be viewed as simply a response to the advocacy of the Citizenship Amendment Act by the government because the consequences of implementation are not wholly clear.

Social movements against the institutionalised upholders of power have created transformational change throughout history and the protests organised at Shaheen Bagh are emerging as a novel event of global importance. Since 15 December 2019, women have led over 330 protests and indefinite sit-ins across various cities, towns and villages in India. In fact, the protest at Shaheen Bagh even shifted to a symbolic protest with about five women after the government dictated the mandates of the “Janata Curfew” in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The temporary halt of protests due to the nationwide lockdown is, however, not the end of displaying opposition by these debutante protestors.

Shaheen Bagh is now undoubtedly the prime metaphor of the national movement building against the CAA. Its resolve has already resulted in the emergence of a national sentiment against the policies of the central government. The diversity of people protesting at Shaheen Bagh further exemplifies an antithesis to the principles of Hindutva that seek to establish the hegemony of Hindus.

The central government’s version of Hindutva is being advanced by hyper-masculine nationalists whose act of religious sermonizing is accompanied by an engagement in the act of ‘othering’ Muslims. The stigmatization of the Muslim population of India is likely to increase with the growing prospects of Hindutva ideology in the country. Ambedkar resisted the social isolation of the Dalit community because his personal experiences of alienation strengthened his resolve to oppose the marginalization faced by the Dalit community.

However, Ambedkarite thought can be extended to the resistance against State repression of the marginalized population. Ambedkar’s outlook on the case of Partition will highlight his ideology: “Can Pakistan prevent the establishment of Hindu Raj at the centre over Muslim minorities that will remain [in] Hindustan? It is plain that it cannot. What good is Pakistan then? Only to prevent Hindu Raj in Provinces in which the Muslims are in a majority and in which there could never be Hindu Raj!! To put it differently, Pakistan is unnecessary to Muslims where they are in a majority because there, there is no fear of Hindu Raj. It is worse than useless to Muslims where they are in a minority, because Pakistan or no Pakistan, they will have to face a Hindu Raj.”

Ambedkar’s statement is founded on the assumption that the Indian government will be unable or unwilling to support Indian Muslims. The subtraction of his hypothesis still sustains the fact that the independence of Pakistan has failed to support the Muslims in India because the national differences between the two countries have outweighed any sentiment of solidarity founded on religious grounds. Ambedkar’s criticism against the futility of the creation of Pakistan as a separate nation rightly questions the inability of an independent Pakistan to provide a refuge to Muslims in India.

However, Ambedkar’s detestation of the hierarchy within Hinduism and his support for marginalized communities appear to hint at a resonance between his thought and the fundamental objective of anti-CAA protests. Though Ambedkar urged the abandonment of “bloody methods of revolution” and civil disobedience in his final speech to the Constituent Assembly in November 1949, he accepted the justification of public protests in the absence of the implementation of constitutional methods: “When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods.”

Whether or not the anti-CAA protests are pertinent, they are essentially organized for the advancement of public agitation to demand adherence to the Indian Constitution. The agency displayed by students and women in anti-CAA protests is in the spirit of Ambedkar’s call to “educate, organize, and agitate.” The protests are sites of resistance that insist on enabling collaboration between diverse communities to uphold democratic values against the propaganda of majoritarianism by the central government. These demonstrations are ultimately a challenge to the Hindutva project.

Ambedkar’s opposition to the institutional structure of Hinduism primarily stemmed from the inability of the marginalized Dalits to get recognition and representation on national fora. The contemporary anti-CAA protests are aimed at the prevention of the legalization of a system that obfuscates the process of seeking citizenship for certain communities under the rubric of the nation. The establishment of religion as a nominative marker of citizenship is not only against the spirit of Ambedkar’s constitution, but also another means of erasure of the Muslim population of India from the social, political and cultural spheres of the country.

Ambedkar has argued that “in every country the intellectual class is the most influential class.” The discourse of the institutionalized attempt to homogenize Hindutva still remains distant from the crevices of academic dialogue. The concepts of secularism and citizenship are being reinstated and redefined in the popular culture by anti-CAA protesters on the streets and in the crevices of social media.

The inadequacy of the academia to lead research and dialogue in the context of the CAA and the emerging anti-CAA protests highlights its inability to comprehend the vocabulary created by the protesters in their pursuit of radical change. It is imperative for the academia to initiate political discourse within and beyond literature to examine the socio-cultural changes in pursuit of demanding an adherence to constitutional values.

Photo: Forward Press

Mridula Sharma is a passionate reader. She enjoys writing poetry and discussing existential economics. Her research papers have been published in national and international journals.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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