How to Resist the Right: The Case for Cultivating Self Reflection

We must move towards a secular-emancipatory discourse that is prepared to combine resistance with critical self-reflection.

Is the cultural majoritarianism that we are witnessing organic or is it being forcefully constructed by the RSS-BJP combine?

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had forewarned us: “Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic.”

If we were to take this warning of Ambedkar seriously, then are the current secular-progressive politics sufficiently responding to this underlying reality?

Would it be right to then argue that merely criticising and resisting the RSS-BJP combine alone, without doing something about the underlying social muck that is allowing for the majoritarian surge would be misplaced? If anything, the former approach further entrenches the process of exclusion and discrimination inherent in rightwing politics.

In an irony of history, the Modi-Shah duo are holding a mirror to the underlying reality of India that is marked by consent to power and exclusion.

The anti-Muslim rhetoric and hatred towards religious minorities is a consolidated expression of fossilised social ethos. The anti-Muslim rhetoric allows the RSS-BJP combine to find justification to celebrate the underlying discriminatory and abjectly prejudicial social ethos without exposing the source from which it emanates.

It displaces a social question by countering it with cultural politics of identity.

Also read: Can the Subaltern Speak Constitutionally?

Secular-progressive response to the rightwing strategy has been struggling because it too avoids this larger and a more complex question of social ethos in resisting the right without questioning the absence of constitutional morality as a natural sentiment.

Social groups have selectively appropriated constitutional discourse as and when it serves them and abdicated it when it has begun to question the power and discrimination internal to it.

Religious minorities and recent protests at Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere have made a strong pitch for protecting the constitution, without addressing those ‘internal’ social and cultural practices that stand against the letter and spirit of the constitution.

Conservativism among the religious minorities finds itself more in consonance with the worldview of conservative majoritarianism rather than a project of justice.

Those liberal Muslim voices that are today standing up to protest against the majoritarian surge are unable to have a dialogue with the conservatism of their own ilk. In this they are as much outsiders as anyone else.

They are likely to be hated more than those who might offer a critique standing outside the borders of community identity.

Similar is the case with Dalit-Bahujan politics. Without addressing the issue of discrimination within subaltern castes, and exclusively offering a critique of the Brahminical system identified with the dominant caste groups compromises the fight for justice and constitutional morality. Those ‘internal’ scholars and activists who chose to raise questions of internal discrimination stand ostracised. In this, neither essentialised identity nor experiential authenticity come to their rescue.

Hindutva politics today represents not merely top-down authoritarianism but bottom-up consent based on the widely prevalent social ethos that endorses discrimination and exclusion.

Intolerance of the RSS-BJP is then a modality of preserving social privileges and justifying discrimination. Justice or constitutional morality, then, by default becomes a discourse that signifies loss of privilege across castes, classes and religions.

A Muslim girl holds a tri-colour near the site of the ongoing protest against Citizenship Amendment Act, at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi, Friday, February 7, 2020. Photo: PTI

Secular-progressive politics in India have allowed for selectively raising questions of discrimination, exclusion and injustice by the same groups whose very practices reproduce them, even if it is at a smaller scale.

The micro-foundations of the surging consent to majoritarianism lie in these everyday practices and routinised discrimination. It is therefore easy for Hindutva kind of politics to depict every struggle for justice as being selective and therefore unjustified and motivated.

A case in point is Muslim women, who have until now been in houses and situations that are very different from the protests in Shaheen Bagh, for which they have stood up.

It may not be wrong to argue that this round of protests by religious minorities may open up space for internal churning, in bringing into question the hold of conservative religious leadership and everyday practices of power and exclusion.

This process, however, now requires a more open acknowledgement and articulation, if such protests are not to aid a process of polarisation that the RSS-BJP are expecting them to be.

The general anxiety with this line of argument has been either denial of internal discrimination, silence or a moralistic appeal against ‘victimising the victim’.

It is often sought to be argued, even by the best of the liberals that internal power dynamics are not related to or fighting them cannot be a precondition to demanding equal rights, citizenship or invoking constitutional morality. This attempted segregation of reality and the crevices it creates is where the majoritarian Hindutva discourse finds its natural habitation.

The earlier secular-progressive modality of raising issues of justice in an incremental manner, keeping in mind the gap in social power between differentially located groups seems to no longer work. Even the strategy of blaming the upper echelons of perpetuating and being primarily responsible for this kind of discriminatory ethos can no longer work in modern democracies riding on communication revolution that has opened up every social corner for public scrutiny.

Also read: ‘There Is No Going Back’: Women Lead Shaheen Bagh-Style Protest in UP’s Deoband

Dr. Ambedkar himself very tenuously acknowledges discriminatory practices within Dalits and depressed classes, and while remaining critical of it offers no tangible mode of fighting against it, except to argue that the burden of it falls on the Brahmins and other dominant castes. While this is not entirely untrue it cannot possibly be a complete explanation.

But he remained insightful in forewarning us of the possibility of a counter-revolution that we are currently witnessing.

It is the near-universal spread of the underlying discriminatory social ethos cutting across castes and religions that disallow a moral propensity to oppositional struggles, be it Muslims, or be it the Dalit-Bahujans.

We will have to find a new political discourse that can now connect internal modes of discrimination to those that are external and comprehend the inextricable link and mutual strengthening they find in each other.

We need to move from a ‘secular sectarian’ discourse that vouches for a selective invoking of constitutional morality to a secular-emancipatory discourse that is prepared to combine resistance with critical self-reflection.

Ajay Gudavarthy is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU.