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India’s democracy has always been described as a paradox, and the consequences of the ‘success’ of a paradoxical model are slowly but surely unraveling themselves. Babasaheb Ambedkar, unlike most other ‘makers of modern India’, was prescient in forewarning us about the distinct possibility of a ‘counter-revolution’.
This, he argued, owes its origins to the paradox of political equality co-existing with social hierarchies and centralisation of economic power:
“How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.”
While Ambedkar correctly located the contradiction, his fear that it might be resolved only by subalterns blowing “up the structure of political democracy” seems to undermine the promise of political democracy.
Political democracy in India has constantly reinvented itself, so that the transformation of social and economic hierarchies has remained staggered, even as the aspirations created by electoral and representative politics assumed newer heights. The subaltern social castes and classes in India have neither become ‘revolutionary’ enough to ‘blow up’ anything, nor gained dignity as citizens to build a ‘fraternity’. What we have is constitutional morality appropriated by counter-revolution, and counter-revolution appropriated by subaltern agency.
The latest in this paradoxical saga is the rise to fame of Praveen Kumar, a former IPS officer and a Dalit who now joined the Bahujan Samaj Party in Telangana with a call to Dalit-Bahujans to realise Ambedkar’s dream of gaining political power. He attracted a large turnout at a public meeting he organised to launch himself.
Kumar rose to fame in Telangana when he was the SP of Karimnagar district and was at the forefront of tackling what is often referred to as ‘left-wing extremism’ through ‘encounters’ and extra-judicial killings, in which several people killed were from marginalised sections. Though Kumar claimed the violence under his watch was exclusively in self-defence and within the limits of the constitution, his notoriety made him a possible target of the Maoists and that is when he ‘changed course’ somewhat and proceeded to pursue a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University.
He returned to get a posting as the secretary of Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society (TSWREIS) and Telangana Tribal Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society (TTWREIS). Here, he made various innovative attempts to get education for over two lakh of students from marginalised backgrounds. He attempted to streamline government schools and was known to reprimand teachers from dominant caste backgrounds for not taking teaching seriously because most children in government schools belonged to ‘lower’ castes. Through such interventions, Kumar gained a following among the youth and students belonging to underprivileged backgrounds. He reiterated his commitment to provide liberation through education, as envisaged by Babasaheb Ambedkar. He organised an event where two of the students he mentored scaled Mount Everest.
Kumar also landed in a controversy when Left-leaning civil rights leaders in Telangana took objection to his extra-legal methods and intimidation of school teachers, while Dalit-Bahujan groups legitimately asked why he could not reprimand teachers for failing in their duties out of caste prejudices.
On March 15, 2021 he administered an oath to students that was similar to the one Ambedkar did in his plea to convert to Buddhism. The oath that was recited had the following lines:“I do not have faith in Gowri, Ganapathi or other Hindu gods. I will not worship them. I do not accept the concept of avatars of God. I will not do Sraadha Karma, nor do Pinda Daan. I will not do anything that is against the principles and teachings of Buddha. I will not consume alcohol. I do not believe in Rama, Krishna. I will not worship them.”
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal lodged cases across Telangana against Kumar for ‘hurting’ Hindu sentiments. The wheel came full circle when Kumar, known for his anti-Naxal operations as a police officer, was accused of being an ‘Urban Naxal’ for provoking anti-Hindu sentiments.
The situation was rather poignantly explained by Kumar himself when he said, “See the paradoxes. My children unfurled the national flag on Everest, but I am called an anti-national. I received the prestigious police medal for gallantry from the former President of India Pranab Mukherjee, but now a complaint against me has been lodged with the president. As a police officer, I received accolades for combating left-wing extremism, but now I am called an urban Naxal.” Revolution and counter-revolution seem to have seamlessly merged into one, something Ambedkar could not have envisaged.
Kumar, after now joining the BSP, wishes to usher in a ‘social revolution’ as envisaged by Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram. He also wishes to forge a ‘social revolution’ by bringing the various castes of Dalit-Bahujans together, along the lines of new experiments by Jignesh Mevani in Gujarat and Chandrasekhar Azad in Uttar Pradesh. The challenge they faced in terms of being reduced to the following of their own sub-caste, of Jatavs in the case of Azad and Madigas in the case of Kumar, looms large. Such larger solidarity needs a certain approach that may not be part of the politics and persona of Kumar. Ambedkar had himself said that fraternity cannot be a constitutional principle; it is more of an ethical and social imagination. The limits of representational politics in forging larger solidarities are, yet again, born from the same social hierarchies.
There seems to be no easy way out of this conundrum. The paradox is visible not merely in the pathways that new Dalit-Bahujan leaders are carving out but in Ambedkar’s vision itself. Even as he warned the Constituent Assembly of the possibility of later generations ‘blowing up’ political democracy because social hierarchies remain fossilised, Ambedkar, who otherwise felt Gandhi was a conservative, argued paradoxically that
“The first thing in my judgment we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. 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. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.”
Ajay Gudavarthy is an associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU.