More Than Political Vandalism, Indifference Towards These Acts Is the Problem: Aishwary Kumar

In an interview with The Wire, Kumar discusses a range of issues – including freedom, democracy, caste and political violence.

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Aishwary Kumar, the Professorial Fellow at Stanford University spoke to Huzaifa Omair Siddiqi in an interview for The Wire. Kumar, who will soon be the Shri Shantinath Chair in Political Non-Violence at Cal Poly Pomona, Los Angeles, discusses a range of issues: from the problem of caste to the direction in which democracy is heading and how ‘neglect’ or indifference is as much a problem – if not more – than the act of political violence.

This is a transcript of the interview. It has been slightly edited for style and clarity.


Professor Kumar is going to talk to us about many things. But first of all, we have to realise that this year, 2022 is the 75th year of Indian independence. As the government has proclaimed at every corner, this is ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’. So how do we think about freedom 75 years after the Independence movement has ended? What do you think professor Kumar, how do we think of this question of freedom?

Well, firstly, thank you, Huzaifa for having me here at The Wire and the editorial team of The Wire for making this conversation possible. You’re right, this is a very important year, a landmark moment in the history of not just anti-colonial self-determination, but in the history of democratic life and the democratic life and democratic world at large. 

We are sitting right in the capital of the world’s most populous democracy. Some might still claim, a liberal democracy – at least in the way it was fashioned, the way it was dreamed about and the way it was brought about. Some of those tenets of the founding moment are alive. There is something absolutely immovable about them. There is something deeply democratic about how India lives and India breathes.

But that on the other hand, cannot conceal some of the more graver problems: the problem above all, of political violence, of endemic strife that we currently witness. Like I always say, anything that happens to democracy in India happens to democracy worldwide. It is a very, very large swathe of humanity we are talking about; a very, very large swathe of humanity whose freedom is at stake. 

Now freedom, to come more directly to your question, is a tricky word for Indian political thought insofar as there is, now, an Indian political thought. There is no real word for it in Indian traditions, and this is why – not to premeditate – someone like B.R. Ambedkar is so important. He is not only a thinker of our present, but possibly, in a prophetic radical sense, also someone who is a guide for our future. Not only our political future but also linguistic future. Here is the question he poses repeatedly, what happens to freedom – to political freedom – in traditions that have no word for it? Now we have struggled with this problem throughout even though explicitly, we have never argued that this is in the end also a struggle also over political language. And, therefore, also a struggle about political memory. But in the end, it comes down to the question of language. 

We have used, often conventionally speaking, words like swatantrata – which is not freedom, because it assumes an apparatus, a structure, a tantra, a machine even. We have spoken of freedom in the language of swadheenta – which is interesting because it is basically self-subservient to itself, swa and adheen. We have spoken of freedom as swaraj, which is usually now widely accepted is best translated as self-rule – although initially, Gandhi would use “home rule” for it, in the way Tilak before him had used.

In all of these, what strikes me as the most unexamined part of our linguistic heritage or inheritance is that in all of these, freedom is understood as ‘constraint’. In all of these, freedom is not seen as something that comes before or beyond the law, what the Greeks would call isonomy, the non-rule. No word that we have for freedom actually frees itself from constraint, and I believe therein lies the problem – which is not only, or merely, a conceptual problem. It unleashes a whole series of political manoeuvres in our time in which, somehow, the responsibility for freedom falls on the most servile, the most dominated, the most vulnerable. That is the question that we need to ask about where freedom will go from here.

That is very interesting, because we have to think about the formulation of this phrase, ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’. They have used the word Azadi which has been vilified repeatedly because Kashmiri people use the word azadi, JNU students use the word azadi. That lack of a real word, of an actual word for freedom in the Indic political tradition, means that they had to settle for a word like azadi which they know they do not like. That is something very interesting.

The second question we can get into is that you mentioned that there is something very democratic about India, that everybody feels that there is some level of democracy here, even whether it is dying or not – that’s a question we don’t really have the answer to. But the problem is that in your recent essay, ‘A Jurisprudence of Neglect’, you make the claim that democracy is not dying in India. The problem is not that democracy is dying, the problem is that democracy is intensifying. How does that become a problem?

That’s a great question and that’s a very complicated question with, as we now know, a very complicated history. The question of azadi is interesting, partly because many in the ruling dispensation of our time, will not even agree that India became independent in 1947. Some will argue that it happened only in 2014, or at least nod an approval to such a preposterous claim. So, it is interesting that when it comes to the construction of a tradition of Indian independence, or azadi, they count all those years, but in the end, when it comes to the question of power, it takes a completely different sense of periodisation.

The question that I think democracy in India has often struggled with, which is under-formulated and still very obliquely articulated, is at the stroke of that fabulous midnight, as we have been told, the question was not simply about who we were or what we would become. 

The question would also be, and that was left unsaid, is what comes after the great triumph of the anti-colonial subject? This figure that is born out of India’s glorious struggle against the Empire, it brings about a certain kind of a heroic subject. It is also a very, very sacrificial subject. It is also at one level a very, very ascetic subject. It is a highly politicised subject, it is also an enfranchised subject.

But the question at that point, which is not asked, is to what end are these different kinds of subjectivities being claimed? What is really, in the end, going to come after we have proclaimed these triumphs on our own behalf, as a people? And I think the struggle that Indian liberalism and liberal democracy now has, is to actually articulate a counter-subject to the perversions or the perversities of that subject that has been appropriated, or that subject over whom the current fight is raging. The current fight is raging therefore, not incidentally, on the question of a national past, a national history – because that is where this fight is really going to be and it is already unfolding in that way. 

Part of why we have a uniquely violent struggle for history, it is unique in the history of liberal democracy at large. This is not to say that American democracy does not itself go through churnings about the history of slavery. But in India, the question is not about subjects who were of the past, but actually what will come out of that – that is left indeterminate and unsaid. And I think all of the struggles right now are simply about the past, which is because that question is still to be posed. What kind of society is it that we really are fighting for?

That’s interesting, because while you are working on political philosophy, you were trained as a historian, and history as a subject, as a discipline in India is very recent. It is a modern invention. Indian history as such is a very modern, colonial invention, and a lot of historians are struggling with that legacy, that heritage.

What is interesting is that Ambedkar, when he writes on untouchability, he tries to find a history of untouchability, but he is really not able to. Indian history is not really about finding a fact and a date, and saying that this event happened on this date and people contesting it. There are also certain gaps, certain lacunae in this huge swathes of historical time that can never be filled up. For example, the history of untouchability. So, what do you think, as a historian, about this problem?

Ambedkar’s exit out of this problematic [gap] is exactly to engage in what he calls ‘palaeontology’, to put the bones of a species that is now extinct. To put those bones back together, in order to construct not a history, not a past, but a premonition of a democratic future. This is not a man who dwells in the past. He needs the past. He needs a past in order to rewrite a certain vision of the future, and you see that not only in his more ‘archaeological works’, as he calls them, the Shudras, who were the Shudras, the Untouchables, those sets of works he produces in the 1940s, which are the most archaeological. He is very clear, that it is not a matter of historical craft. It is a matter of political emancipation

Now, this is why he stands in contrast to so many others whose purposes were very close to him – they were not similar – and in many ways, they worked to undercut some of his visionary proposals for a truly revolutionary democracy, as it were. Think of the fallout he has over the Hindu Code Bill, for example. And this is after the Constituent Assembly debates, where he first proposes that if we do not solve the problem of inequality then we will not remain free. It’s a very important move because, generally in the normative ways of thinking about liberty, liberty is constrained by equality and in return constrains equality. Ambedkar’s point or argument is that there is something about inequality, which if not unconditionally abolished, will in the end wreck our freedom itself. We have convinced ourselves that our peace, our freedom, our liberties, are better served by maintaining a certain sort of distance between the state and everyday practices. That is one of the many distances we practice, in theory. Ambedkar’s point is that this is not the way freedom will ever come, let alone find its home in India. This is why he is so important, because he is a thinker of inequality.

On 20 May 1951, Dr. Ambedkar addressed a conference on the occasion of Buddha Jayanti organised at Ambedkar Bhawan, Delhi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons – CC0 1.0

Your first book, Radical Equality is very popular. But you are writing a new book and it is tentatively titled Neodemocracy. Why do you call it Neodemocracy? When you think of this term ‘neo’, when it is applied to political situations, we have something like neoconservative, neoliberal, neofascist, neo-Islamist, and none of these have any positive connotations. When you put the word ‘neo’ in something it becomes a political pejorative. So why have you titled your book Neodemocracy and how does it have a structure to analyse the way democracies are developing in the 21st century?

That’s a very perceptive observation. I can begin by saying that part of what I have been trying to get at is the broader history of prejudice against the rule of the people. The history of prejudice is a long one and you can go back to the classical Greek tradition, where democracy is not a rule by the people because in the end it is an invitation to rule by demagoguery and the demagogues and so on. There is a very long history of bias. And we could even say that democracy has never freed itself from that distrust of the people. Thus, the expression ‘liberal’ democracy, not ‘radical’ democracy. It is liberal democracy because it has at its heart, a certain distrust of the people. To the question that can the people rule, that very classical question, we have at best equivocal answers. 

Neo-democracy takes that prejudice into account and tries to understand what happens, for good or worse, when democracy is truly intensified to its extremities. And the extremities of democracy – this is the aporia, this is the problem – the extremities of democracy of political democracy, let alone social democracy, can be extremely depoliticising. Because it takes our compulsions to violence, to take one very specific example, to a point of no return. To a point where violence itself becomes the point. Neodemocracy is not simply the invention and complete desolation of existing forms of democracy. Neodemocracy is the new pressure point in the global life of democratic politics in which we are finally beginning to see the toxic combination of the modern and the archaic: the neoliberal hatred of the poor combined with newer struggles over identities, what we broadly call identity politics. My worry is that what was in the beginning called ‘identity politics’ is now itself in the shadows of a neoliberal hatred of the underprivileged, of the poor. 

The Washington Post, an American newspaper, has had for long had on its masthead: ‘Democracy dies in darkness’. They have been saying that since Donald Trump came to power, that democracy is dying. But you’re saying that democracy is dying but it’s not being killed from the outside, but from its own logical presuppositions within the democratic contract, which are being intensified.

In a certain sense, we can say that the BJP has got 40% of the vote in most places in India. In America, the Republican party will probably come to power in Congress this year and maybe a Republican president next time. It is not as if these people are riding on minority support, there is a widespread public support that they have.

Is your work trying to address this widespread public support for majoritarianism? Because there is a lot of work in the European context. For example, Wilhelm Reich in the 1950s and 60s, he writes on fascism. And Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, two very important French thinkers, they also write on why the masses desire fascism. Are you also trying to put yourself on that path?

I wouldn’t say that the masses desire fascism. But we do need a course correction in our theoretical vision, where it is often the work of a few misguided toxic demagogues who take the masses, pull them away from their intrinsic democratic commitments. Neither is entirely tenable. We need a course correction in the way we understand this current moment and what it might lead to. I think the idea that somehow people take pleasure in violence obfuscates something very singular about the neodemocratic condition, which is that the greatest cruelty can now be executed, very actively, not through blood spilling, but through cultivated indifference. Much of the violence we see – this is not to say that there is no active destruction of life, no active destruction of things, all of these are true – but I think the real problem of what I am calling the ‘neodemocratic condition’, is that civic life has now come to a point of curated indifference to things. 

There used to be a tradition of thinking of liberal democracy in which coming to power, or what we used call the electoral mandate, was often tied to the notion or the idea of public goods. Ruling parties in democracies worldwide would actually win or lose elections on the basis of how much goods they had redistributed. And that in many ways became the ground for understanding social justice itself.

I think what has now happened is a twofold development. One which we are still unable or unwilling to comprehend or grasp, is the notion of a fascist competence. There are fascists or populists who have come to power by legitimate electoral means – as they often do in history – who are not ill-read, under-formed, incompetent fools. It used to be that they couldn’t take a joke, and we thought these are self-righteous, incompetent people who don’t even understand a joke because they have never read anything. That might still be true. Unfortunately, that is most likely and most palpably true. But what is also true is a certain kind of competence that fascism now has and a certain sort of awareness of what political power feels like and what it can achieve. 

The qualitative difference between right-wing governments when they come to power for the first time – because they are learning, when their first tack of attack is the media. Remember the 90s, when the first time a right-wing government comes to power, it comes to power riding on the wave of media-savvy young politicians, some of them now gone. By the time that happens again, in the mid-2010s, the entire structure has changed, including the caste structure. This is a ruling formation that in some ways continues to appropriate the anti-Brahmanical, radical democratic energies for its own purposes. And it does so, partly because, it now knows what political power is, and it has embraced what political power can do. 

You were talking about the United States, which is a completely different situation, on the same register. There is a lot of outrage about the Republican party’s policies, whether it is the support of the NRA, the support of Confederate flags, or Confederate generals who fought to keep American slavery alive. But the American system is also one in which, it is claimed, this is to your point, that it is a system of minority rule. At one level it is absolutely true. The American senate is a highly undemocratic institution. More than half of the American senate represents only 17% of the population. That is minority rule, but on the other hand, the broader thrust of American backlash is a racist backlash against the Obama years. Every time there has been a progressive step taken towards a post-caste, a post-racial order so to speak, these are still rhetorical devices that we use, there has been a long history of an equally ferocious backlash. And that is how we need to understand this moment. What is it that came before, for us to be finding ourselves in this moment?

That is a point that many people have made, that post-Mandal politics has this kind of reactionary atmosphere, this reaction against a great step taken forward with Mandal and the reservation system being implemented fully. I am trying to understand this point that you are making. You are saying that indifference, a kind of neglect, how can that be something as dangerous to democracy as actively destroying people’s houses, actively rioting? How is this such a dangerous thing? Because neglect seems, on the surface of it, to be something passive. You neglect to close the door, you neglect to take the umbrella. So how can neglect be a part of a systemic way to oppress people?

I think this is a good paradox to unpack. The paradox is simply this: as a political device, or political vice, neglect is profoundly democratic. Which is to say, its political effects are most decisive and destructive in a democratic context. In no other context can neglect become active.

Often, you are right, neglect is seen to be a negative practice. We walk away from something when we could have done something. We walk away from an act of violence, we let someone be killed, when actually saving that life might have been easier, let alone more moral. That is what neglect is, a decision to walk away from. Ambedkar has this remarkable example in his abandoned autobiography, Waiting for a Visa, where he is talking about a doctor who goes to check on a dying, very sick patient, and she is lying there, dying. He enters the house and he suddenly realises that the family is outcaste. And he is going to touch her to check her pulse, and he suddenly decides that he can’t do it. He says, sorry I can’t touch her and she dies. And Ambedkar ends that fragment by saying, “The Hindu would rather be inhuman than touch an Untouchable.”

Now conventionally understood, that form of neglect is passive. We walk away, we let someone die. But in a democratic context, its ramifications are extremely grave because no matter what a group of people do – and you are right, they actively lynch young boys accused of killing cows, or a Muslim man accused of keeping beef in his refrigerator, or some Mughal emperor having built a mosque over temples, and this is a cycle that will not be broken. Now it is true that only a few – it is a country of over 1.5 billion people – very few people engage in these acts of active political vandalism. You would imagine, if broadly the Indian majority, which is Hindu, did not agree with that politics or found that kind of politics remotely reprehensible, they would vote against it. But what these acts are met with, is absolute indifference. They do not dent the capacity of these people to come back to power with even higher, stronger, vote shares, or a more rousing mandate. It happened in Uttar Pradesh just weeks ago. It was globally catalogued the scale of sheer death and not just death [during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic], which is true of much of the world right now, but actually a mismanagement of life itself. You would imagine that the particular kind of majority, Ambedkar has a name for this majority: this is not a political majority, this is an impenetrable, invisible, silent, communal majority, that finds certain acts reprehensible but lets them slide and meets them with a certain kind of indifference. And it is at that point of indifference we know, as I was saying, that it is not violence that has become the problem, but a certain kind of cruelty that has infiltrated political life itself. And it is that infiltration that we need to understand. 

There are some quasi-Orientalist tirades against India these days that say that Indians take pleasure in violence. I doubt that is the case. I think these are salutary examples that are few and far in between, but there are enough examples that a very formidable tradition of political non-violence is alive. And we need to rethink, therefore, our relationship to non-violence itself, a non-violence that is inappropriable by fascism.

A homeless girl asks for alms outside a coffee shop in Mumbai, India, June 24, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Two questions come up. If you think about the way the Hindu right-wing propagates itself, they say, ‘We are not really violent, we are nonviolent. Sometimes, yes, we burst into violence, but that is usually a reaction to a kind of premeditated violence by the other side.’ You’re saying that this kind of active neglect is actually as dangerous, or perhaps even more dangerous than the active violence the other side, the Leftists or Islamists are accused of perpetrating. And secondly, you claim that this active neglect is related to the system of caste.

I think the important part of that paradox is to understand that neglect is something that cuts through the dichotomy or binary between violence and non-violence. And sometimes, this again is a question we owe to Ambedkar, who repeatedly, in different ways, asks, precisely because he is unconvinced about India’s non-violent inheritance, is how do we conceive of freedom, and how do we secure freedom in a society where extreme violence takes the form not always of blood spilling but of abandonment; not always of sacrifice, but sometimes of pure, passive indifference. And the expression he often uses is cruelty or cruel wrong, in his 1936 work The Annihilation of Caste, which is the doubling of a certain form of cruelty. 

Now to understand neglect as something that is neither necessarily violent nor nonviolent but a certain relationship to life itself; its a certain relationship to, or a certain willingness or even acceptance of the fact that the question of someone else living or dying is a secondary question. So neglect becomes a political framework, perhaps even a political creed when you develop the idea of disposability of life, of a very superfluous humanity, whose loss, whose disappearance, whose suffering, whose total annihilation even, not to mention whose extermination, will have no effect on the moral fabric within which you visualise your social order. Now, there is a name for this visualisation of the social order, in which the part of humanity is deemed easily superfluous and disposable – and that name is the caste system. 

It is in that sense very appropriately called a caste system, because it is a system in the true sense of the word, in that it has three components to it. A logic of caste: its cognitive logic, its moral reflexes. There is a structure, secondly to caste, a structure in which different sorts of linguistic and ideological commitments insinuate themselves. Caste is not one system among others, caste society is a structure in which other forms of oppressions can insinuate themselves and grow. Which is why caste grew. This is where Ambedkar found his own limit in the end, his belief that the big Indian city will be a refuge from the horrors and monstrosities of caste violence and atrocities. It is not. It is not. And finally, it has an apparatus, a machinery – a mechanism, Ambedkar calls it – a mechanism above all, through which it reproduces itself actively.

What is fascinating about our current moment is that it reproduces itself in the language of dominant or ruling power in a way it never has before. Never before has a ruling party combined the rhetoric of technocratic monstrosities, on the one hand, and the logic of sometimes very emancipatory caste rhetoric. It has proceeded on two levels, and that is why we need to understand the relationship we have – before violence – the relationship we have with non-violence.

How is it that we can still smugly declare that we are a non-violent civilisation? And I think we can smugly declare that, because, at the heart of the caste order, the caste universe that we inhabit, at the heart of it is a profound denialism. It is the beginning of a lie, caste is a long lie. That is what Ambedkar’s point is: it is a lie that has been transformed into a myth. But what is also at work right now is a certain form of denialism. 

One of the points that I think you are trying to make, a radically new point, is that caste is not really an archaic mechanism that existed a thousand years back and that we have gone past it, dissolved it. We have got reservations, so let us not think about it anymore. What you are trying to say is that it is not just something in the past or something that exists in the present, but something that is haunting the future of democracy. In a certain sense caste is the future of democracy. And if political philosophy is at an impasse, with regard to whatever is happening today, then that impasse can get the name of caste. Because caste is the future. And therefore, that would mean, in a very strange way, that you can conjoin two things that people have never thought to conjoin: that is to annihilate caste and contribute to philosophy. I think that is what I call ‘Subcontinental Philosophy’. You can tell me what you think about this problem that is.. 

The most important political and philosophical but perhaps even moral question for the future, and for us to reimagine a democratic future, is to rethink how we must find a way to annihilate caste. There is now a growing awareness of a very long, profoundly powerful tradition of abolitionist democracy which takes caste not only to be an Indian form of life – whatever its advantages some people claim it has. It is a very universal sort of blight. You think of Frederic Douglass’s abolitionist speeches in the 19th century, you think of [W.E.B.] DuBois, you think slightly later, half a century later maybe of James Baldwin. It is in that abolitionist tradition that we find someone like Ambedkar today, because it is in that sense that he is making a future visible: what is the philosophical and political task we have in order for us to retain, forget secure, retain some semblance of a democratic future.

And that is to understand that caste is not simply a social and therefore a local question of everyday interactions. Caste is an exemplary paradigm of oblique violence. Not all of it will be called or legislated upon as an atrocity. But there is something much more obdurate, obstinate in caste, that infiltrates every form of human life, and that is our compulsion to make someone’s inequality really hurt. There is a way in which cruelty becomes a philosophical problem; it becomes a philosophical problem not because there is violence around us, but because our inequality has acquired the form of an obstinate, smug snobbery.

And I think the real issue for a democratic reimagining is not simply restitution, and reparation and so on. Those debates can, and will, go on. The real question is how to reimagine an equal world in which hurting someone for being poor and inequal has ceased to be part of our democratic mandate and our democratic power. This is why neglect opens up a new paradox for democracy, because it is only in democracy that neglect becomes a political vice, that it translates into certain patterns of voting and therefore becomes an active decision to destroy and sometimes exterminate those with whom we actually have no qualms or problems.

Statistically speaking, a majority of affluent urban, middle-class Indian liberals – liberals not in the philosophical sense, who are more rigorous than this – but a very vast swathe of affluent Indians actually have had no opportunity to have a meaningful interaction with some kind of minority life that they detest. It is all on the airwaves and that is how neglect becomes a political weapon.

This is an apt time to end this conversation because we are at an impasse and there are many ways out of it but I don’t know which one will work. But I am looking forward to your new book when it comes out, maybe it will refill our depleted theoretical arsenal, and help us to think about and reimagine how we can get past this impasse which is haunting us at every step.

So, thank you so much Professor Kumar.