Two months before the 131st birth anniversary of Dr B.R. Ambedkar on April 14, 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi derided and devalued his legacy by coining the phrase ‘andolan jivi’.
The prime minister defined this phrase as people who earn a living by engaging in agitation. He coined it during the last budget session of parliament on February 8 as he spoke on the motion of thanks for the president’s address in the Rajya Sabha. Used in a highly pejorative and derogatory sense, the phrase was aimed at those from within India and outside who supported and tweeted in favour of the ongoing agitation of India’s farmers against three farm laws that had been passed by violating the constitution and parliamentary rules of procedure and conduct of business. Modi employed the phrase disparagingly and with utter contempt for all those protesting and agitating against the laws and policies that his government had framed without consulting all the stakeholders and then imposed on the people.
Modi said on that day:
“There is a new community in India now, called ‘andolan jivi’. This community will be spotted at any agitation, be it an agitation by lawyers, students, or labourers – explicitly or implicitly, this community will reach there. They cannot live without andolan and constantly look for reasons to protest. We have to identify such people who reach all such spots and give a seemingly great ideological stand to lead people astray. We should ensure that the nation is protected from them. These andolan jivis are like parasites.”
These words from the Prime Minister of India ridiculed the culture and glorious history of India’s protest movement which had been led by Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar. By demeaning those who are at the forefront of the farmers’ protests, those who provide leadership to the protestors, Modi insulted both Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s legacies which inspire people to protest and stand against unjust decisions made not only by the government, but also many other entities perpetuating structures of inequality and injustice.
A rallying cry
The phrase ‘andolan jivi’ is particularly insulting to Ambedkar. One of the key components of his legacy is embodied in his iconic slogan, ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’. Those three electrifying words were his concluding utterances at the All India Depressed Classes Conference held in Nagpur in 1942. Seventy-nine years later, when the Prime Minister of India denounced agitation and sarcastically said in the context of the prolonged farmers’ agitation that the protesters are “andolan jivis”, he denounced Ambedkar himself.
In their book An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, professors Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen invoke the slogan “Educate, Agitate, Organise” several times in the chapter titled ‘A New India’ and wrote:
“B.R. Ambedkar, the champion of the socially and economically discriminated (who did not shy away from challenging the Indian nationalist leaders for their absence of engagement with ‘economic and social democracy’), insisted that we have reason to pursue, rather than lose faith in, the power to ‘educate, agitate and organise’.”
Therefore, in ridiculing the protestors as andolan jivis, the prime minister ridiculed the concept of ‘educate, agitate and organise’ which constitutes a pillar of public reasoning indispensable for the deepening of democracy and fine-tuning of governance.
Dreze and Sen argue in their book that Ambedkar’s invitation to ‘educate, agitate and organise’ is possible in a democracy but not in the absence of one. The writers continue: “But, as Ambedkar also argued, organisation and agitation have to be based on good and informed reasoning. The first item in his call, ‘educate’, is important here … We are much inspired by Ambedkar’s vision of informed and reasoned public engagement. The important task is not so much to find a ‘new India’, but to contribute to making one.”
When Alex von Tunzelmann, author of Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of Empire, reviewed the book by Dreze and Sen in the Telegraph, UK, she wrote: “This book’s rallying cry is a quotation from one of the great figures of the independence years, B.R. Ambedkar: ‘educate, agitate and organise’.”
In the new India conjured up by Modi, the scope for agitation is almost absent. Dissent and agitation have been visited with massive powers of the state and numerous dissenters and agitators are now facing sedition and other grave charges. Anyone inspired to follow Ambedkar’s slogan would be dubbed an andolan jivi and face concomitant ridicule, sarcasm and criminal action. It is indeed tragic that the Modi regime, which celebrates November 29 as India’s Constitution Day and blows its own trumpet for doing this or that to perpetuate the legacy of Ambedkar is now negating Ambedkar’s own slogan, one of the key constituents of which is ‘agitation’.
Even Mahatma Gandhi recommended adequate space for civil disobedience or agitation in independent India. As early as January 29, 1925, he wrote in Young India: “Real Swaraj [freedom] will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words, Swaraj is to be obtained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.” Gandhi’s ideas involved agitation as well.
But when people seek to achieve the regulation and control of authority through agitation, they are mocked with the phrase andolan jivi.
It is, therefore, appropriate to remain wedded to Ambedkar’s slogan, “Educate, Agitate, Organise”, to regulate the power of those who strike at the root of public reasoning by describing the lawful agitation of people as the work of andolan jivis. This would be the real tribute to Ambedkar on the occasion of his birth anniversary.
S.N. Sahu served as OSD and press secretary to former President of India, K.R. Narayanan.