The Centrality of “Religion” in the Life of B. R. Ambedkar

(in multiple parts)

Part I of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

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B. R. Ambedkar

“There is no doubt in my mind that in the majority of quarrels”, wrote a famous Indian, “the Hindus come out second best.  My own experience but confirms the opinion that the Mussulman [the everyday Hindustani world for Muslim] as a rule is a bully, and the Hindu as a rule is a coward.”  These rather querulous words belong to Mohandas Gandhi, writing at the tail end of the Khilafat Movement at a difficult moment in the struggle for Hindu-Muslim unity, a subject which was to preoccupy Gandhi his entire adult life in India.  But they could just as easily have emanated from the pen of B. R. [Babasaheb] Ambedkar, whose withering critiques of caste Hindu society are now part of the commonsense of the liberal and secular Hindu worldview but whose views on Islam, and more specifically on the history of Muslims in India, have received little critical scrutiny.  Ambedkar would almost certainly have contested whether there is even such a thing as a “liberal and secular Hindu”, but let that pass:  what cannot, however, be doubted is that, beyond seeing Hindu-Muslim unity as a chimera, he was predisposed, and for good reasons, towards viewing nearly everything from the standpoint of the Dalits.  His observations at the First Round Table Conference in London, held between November 1930 and January 1931, are telling in this respect:  “The Depressed Classes welcomed the British as their deliverers from age-long tyranny and oppression by the orthodox Hindus.  They fought their battle against the Hindus, the Mussalmans and the Sikhs, and won for them this great Empire of India.”  The particular manner in which Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs are, without any fanfare, merely placed in apposition to each other points to Ambedkar’s own priorities and the historical and philosophical viewpoint from which he assessed the Indian past. He earmarked the Hindu as the eternal and mortal foe of the Dalits, their unrepentant and degenerate oppressor, but, for reasons that he would delve into here and there, he also found it difficult to embrace Sikhs and Muslims, religious minorities in India, as brothers bound together in a fellowship of suffering.

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Belated Recognition for a Genocide:  The Armenian Holocaust

In the midst of the noise and clamor, and—in the jargon of the day—“bitter partisan divide” generated by the imminent impeachment of President Donald J. Trump, people may be forgiven if they have overlooked the fact that, more than 100 years after the Turks set themselves the task of engaging in the mass murder of Armenians, the United States Senate on Thursday voted unanimously to recognize the Armenian Genocide.  One cannot simply ascribe the inordinate delay in acknowledging the brute fact of the Armenian Genocide to amnesia, since Armenians have been especially vigilant in drawing the world’s attention to what has sometimes been termed the “first holocaust” of the 20th century.  Nevertheless, Armenians have also had to live with the fact that the world has often chosen to overlook the genocide that was directed at them.

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Cover of the massive compendium put together by Richard Diiran Kloian (1980), and distributed by Armenian Commemorative Committee of San Francisco Bay Area.  Collection: V. Lal.  The following three images are drawn from the same source.

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The Undeveloped Heart:  Gandhi on Education

(Third in an occasional series that will run for several months on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.)

October 2nd, Gandhi Jayanti, has come and gone.  Thousands of statues of Gandhi were doubtless garlanded, and I suspect that some new statues were installed.  We all know, of course, that Mohandas Gandhi would have sharply disapproved of these celebrations. He never had much use for statues, having noted that they were perhaps most useful to pigeons.  That flowers should be plucked to create garlands which make their way from statues to streets and garbage bins struck him as not merely senseless but as a form of violence. Barely anyone listened to him in his lifetime, certainly not in his last painful years, and fewer still are those who listen to him now.

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Gandhi and the Ecological Sensibility

(Second of a long series that will continue through the year on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi.)

The word ‘ecology’ appears nowhere in Gandhi’s writings and similarly he never spoke on environmental protection as such. Yet, as the Chipko Movement and the Narmada Bachao Andolan, or, in a very different context, the manifesto of the German Greens and the action against the Mardola dam in Norway have clearly shown, the impress of Gandhi’s thinking on ecological movements has been felt widely.  The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who traveled through India in 1969 with Johan Galtung and Sigmund Kvaloy, and with whose name “deep ecology” is associated, confessed that it is from Gandhi that he came to the realization of “the essential oneness of all life.”  Gandhi was a practitioner of recycling decades before the idea caught on in the West and he initiated perhaps the most far-reaching critiques of the ideas of consumption and that fetish of the economist called “growth” that we have ever seen.  Thus, in myriad ways, we can begin to entertain the idea that he was a thinker with a profoundly ecological sensibility.

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The Assault on Public Universities and l’affaire Romila Thapar 

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There has been much outrage expressed, and quite rightly so, over the action taken some days ago by the administration at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to ask Professor Emerita Romila Thapar for her CV to determine if she was still fit to hold that distinguished title which was conferred on her more than 25 years ago.  JNU has, since its inception, easily been one the country’s leading universities; and Professor Thapar, one can say with even greater certitude, has added more lustre to JNU than nearly anyone else in the humanities and social sciences, and that too over the course of half a century, including the 21 years that she was on its faculty from 1970-91.  Professor Thapar is recognized the world over for her scholarship on ancient Indian history, having earned accolades that most academics can only dream of, but in India she has also had an outsized presence as a prolific public intellectual.

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*History, the Nation-State, and Self-Liberation:  A Gandhian Reading of Kashmir

New Delhi, August 15, “Independence Day”

The “integration” of Kashmir into India, or what some (if a distinct minority) would call its annexation by the Indian nation-state, has been discussed largely from the legal, national security, policy, and geopolitical standpoints.  But what might a Gandhian reading of Kashmir look like?  The BJP claims that it is now freeing Kashmir from the stranglehold of a colonial-era politics and the Nehruvian dispensation which had no stomach for a truly manly politics.  The BJP is thus in the process of creating a narrative around the abrogation of Article 370, the removal of J & K’s “special status”, and the “opening up”—an expression that, in such contexts, has meant nothing more than asking for the abject surrender of a people to the regimes of neo-liberalization and rapacious “development”—of the state as the beginning of the “liberation” of Kashmir.

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*Reterritorialization and Neo-Liberalization:  “Opening Up” Kashmir

Even as much of the country has erupted with joy at the BJP’s audacious steps in abolishing the state of Jammu & Kashmir, creating two new Union Territories—little more than “Bantustans”, say some—and thereby, as is assumed to be the case, “integrating” the Kashmir Valley into the Union of India, some serious questions have arisen about the possible consequences of these changes.  Article 35(A), which was added to the Constitution through a Presidential Order on 14 May 1954, conferred on the legislature of Jammu & Kashmir the power to define “permanent residents” and the rights that accrued solely to them, among them the privilege of being able to buy land and property in Kashmir.  This provision has now been scrapped.

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*A Loss too Great to Behold:  The Passing of S. M. Mohamed Idris (1926-2019)

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S M Mohamed Idris, the Grand Old Man of Penang to the world, or “Uncle Idris” as he was known affectionately to his younger friends—and everyone was younger to him—passed on a late Friday afternoon a little less than three weeks ago.  He was the last of his kind:  kind and devout, yet fiercely disciplined and a taskmaster to everyone but never more so than to himself, a man of intense moral probity and perhaps more than anything else a relentless enemy of injustice, wherever and in whatever form it appeared.  Oh, yes, there was something else about him:  it was nearly impossible not to feel affectionate towards Uncle Idris, such was the radiance and goodwill that emanated from him.

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*The Moral Ambiguities of Sabarimala

First published under the same title on ABP Live on 18 November 2018 (IST).

Nearly two months after the Supreme Court on September 28 ruled by a majority of 4-1 to allow women of menstruating age to enter the temple at Sabarimala, the battle-lines appear to have been firmly drawn.  The dispute has been represented largely as one which pits tradition against modernity, religious conservatism against liberalism, patriarchy against women’s equality, and faith against science.   A former Justice of the Supreme Court, Markandey Katju, has stated quite unequivocally that “regarding the Sabarimala verdict, either one can agree with it or disagree with it – there is no middle ground.”

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A protest on the re-opening of the Sabarimala Temple on 17 October 2018, around 20 days after the Supreme Court’s verdict of September 28.

But is that really so?  That someone of Katju’s standing thinks so illustrates the predictably circumscribed nature of public discourse, and is also a stark reminder of the fact that we have become increasingly incapable of recognizing the imperative of moral ambiguity.  A court is obviously burdened with the necessity of delivering a judgment that has the force of law, but it is open to every individual to consider an issue from every perspective.  The Jaina doctrine of anekantavada, or many-sidedness, suggests that, in nearly every case of this kind, every position is partially right and partially wrong.

Let us consider first the perspective of those who are convinced that matters of faith and religious tradition cannot be legislated.   This view is not without merit, and indeed one might reasonably argue that even social equality cannot be achieved primarily through legislation.  If there is no widespread social acceptance of a proposed or legislated reform, the law will not only be ineffective and resented, but it may also have the effect of aggravating social tensions and, oddly enough, obfuscating the problem.  Legislation against the giving and taking of dowry was passed in India over four decades ago, but such legislation never had widespread acceptance; moreover, once the legislation was passed, some people supposed that the problem had been ‘resolved’.  The Indian Constitution states that discrimination against Dalits is a punishable offence, but atrocities against Dalits have scarcely diminished—and, if they did, it would surely not be on account of any new-found respect that the upper castes have developed for the lower castes.  As Gandhi famously declared at his trial in 1922 on charges of sedition, “Affection cannot be manufactured by the law.”

There are yet other arguments that have been advanced against the Supreme Court’s decision, some by liberals and centrists who have declared their opposition on the grounds that the Court’s decision furnishes the RSS with the opening that it had been looking for in Kerala.  This objection is only of marginal interest and is in fact quite erroneous in some respects:  not only has the RSS been making inroads into Kerala for some time, but what Sabarimala brings to the fore is the problem not of religious mobilization but rather the consolidation of social conservatism.  It has also been argued that Kerala is a matrilineal society, with an extraordinarily high female literacy rate, and that many women, perhaps a majority, are themselves opposed to opening the doors of Sabarimala to females between the ages of 10-50.  Some elements of this view, however, cannot be sustained.  The anthropological and empirical fact of matriliny in Kerala notwithstanding, the indubitable fact is that Kerala records one of the highest rates of violence against women in India, and the percentage of women in the workforce is an abysmal 25%.

The arguments in support of the Supreme Court’s decision are, as I have already hinted, many.  To suggest that progressive legislation is often ineffective is not to say that legislation cannot be a tool for social reform.  Those who advocate for change are under no illusion that, under a regime of liberalism and social equality, we will all start loving each other.  But there is a much stronger argument.  It is claimed that by “tradition” women of menstrual age have never been permitted in the temple and that the prohibition on their entry is “centuries-old”.  Quite to the contrary, the restriction on their entry was first enacted into law by the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, and the Kerala High Court in its decision of 1991 unfortunately, and quite erroneously, argued that the restriction “is in accordance with the usage prevalent from time immemorial.”  This is what historians have described as “the invention of tradition”.  The Supreme Court’s decision takes note, quite explicitly, of the presence of women worshippers between the ages of 10-50 in the temple on many previous occasions.

There is, finally, the most pertinent set of considerations. The devotees and protestors who have been gathered to obstruct the implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision argue that the reigning deity, Lord Ayappa, is celibate and the presence of females of menstruating age is an affront to his dignity and violates his asceticism. The trope of the male ascetic and saint being tempted by women is, shall we say, as old as Indian civilization. There is, further, the supposition that menstruating women are polluting.  These twin arguments have long offered a pretext both for the suppression of women and even for suggesting that women do not have the same reservoirs of spirituality as men. We may ask why there is no comparable narrative tradition of holy women being tempted by men, and equally whether it might not be the case that contemporary Indian society has not come to terms with the fact of women’s sexuality.  What can we say about a society that has little faith in its women, and, ironically, in its gods?

 

 

 

 

*Blasphemy and the Colonized Indian Mind

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Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh and other ministers and MLAs at the Vidhan Sabha [Punjab Assembly], Chandigarh, March 2017.  Photo & Copyright: Keshav Singh, Hindustan Times.  

The Cabinet of the Punjab Government has approved an amendment to Sec. 295A of the Indian Penal Code and will place a bill before the Assembly to secure passage of legislation that would impose a life sentence upon those convicted of desecrating religious texts.  Sec. 295A presently stipulates a prison term of no more than three years for anyone found guilty of outraging, or attempting with malicious intent to outrage, the religious sentiments of the practitioners of any faith.  A number of commentators have in recent days objected strenuously and with passionate conviction to legislation that is unquestionably liable to abuse and will almost certainly further undermine the already endangered secular structure of the Indian polity, but their arguments, as I shall suggest shortly, do not go far enough; indeed, their arguments do not as much as recognize the principal intellectual shortcoming of the proposed legislation.

Before a consideration of the immense difficulties that inhere in this proposed legislation, let it be said that most of the commonplace arguments that have been raised against this extremely foolish and dangerous gesture on the part of the Congress government are not insignificant.  First, it must be recognized that there was a spate of incidents in late 2015 involving the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib and police firing in Faridkot against aggrieved demonstrators.  Consequently, the concern with desecration of religious texts is not without substance. There is, secondly, the question of political expediency: the country will be going to elections in much less than an year, and the Congress is keen to remind voters in one of the few states where it has a real presence that it has done more than the Akali Dal to defend the religious sentiments of the Sikhs. This would scarcely be the first time, of course, that the Congress would be attempting to position itself as a champion of religious minorities. Judging from its previous forays in this direction, one can hazard the speculation that the outcome on this occasion will once again do no credit to the Congress.

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Demonstration by SGPC [Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee] activists agains the allleged descration of the Guru Granth Sahib in the Punjab, 2015.  Photo copyright: Agence France-Presse (AFP).  

Thirdly, the Akali Dal government in 2016 did pass legislation that sought life imprisonment for desecrating the Sikh holy book, as well as an enhanced prison term of ten years for offenders against other religious faiths, but the Central Government returned the legislation both on the grounds that the prescribed punishments were “excessive in law” and, more importantly, in violation of the principles of secularism enshrined in the Constitution. The violation was construed as emanating not even remotely from the fact that the state had no business in using its coercive powers to enforce religious belief, but rather from the curious fact that in prescribing a higher penalty for desecrators of the Guru Granth Sahib than for those had insulted the holy books of other faiths, the Centre charged the state government with elevating one religion over another and thereby violating the central tenet of Indian secularism which insists on parity for all religions.  It is for this reason that the proposed amendment to Sec. 295A stipulates that “whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Srimad Bhagwad Gita, Holy Quran and Holy Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people, shall be punished with imprisonment for life”.  What was deemed as “excessive” punishment is now sought to be imposed with uniformity upon an offender found guilty of the said offence, regardless of religion.  Apparently, barbarism towards all is to be preferred to a barbarism that is partial.

Much else has been said, and with due reason, against the amendment to the IPC.  The application of “blasphemy laws” in neighboring Pakistan, about which I shall have much more to say in another essay soon, demonstrates the extraordinary hazards of such legislation:  people often falsely charge others to settle personal scores, and those alleged to have committed an offence have sometimes been killed in acts of vigilante justice by mobs acting at the instigation of religious zealots.  Existing laws in India are sufficient to deal with whatever cases of the desecration of religious books or sites of worship might arise; in this matter as in in nearly every other, such as for instance the entire question of ‘lynching’, the laws are rigorous enough and it has long been recognized that the problem resides rather in the fact that there is no will to enforce them.  There is also the equally substantive issue that the threshold for what is deemed ‘religious hurt’ continues to be lowered.  The three dozen retired civil servants, many with considerable standing in Indian society, who have addressed an open letter to the Punjab Chief Minister quite rightly point to the “ill-founded prosecutions” that are likely to arise from such legislation, and they are doubtless right in arguing that “blasphemy laws are a direct threat to freedom of speech and expression, a fundamental right.”

While all these arguments have merit, they nevertheless occlude the most fundamental problem not only in the framing of the new legislation but in the interpretation of Indian society.  Let us note the use of the phrase, “blasphemy laws”, common to nearly everything that has been written on the subject.  The legislation in question does not use the word “blasphemy”, but all commentators have understood the gist of it as prescribing penalties for blasphemy.  Like many of the categories that inform our intellectual discourse in India, “blasphemy” is part of the Judeo-Christian inheritance that was handed down to India in the wake of colonial rule.  Moses is told by the Lord to tell the Israelites, “When any man whatever blasphemes his God, he shall accept responsibility for his sin . . . . all the community shall stone him; alien or native, if he utters the Name, he shall be put to death” (Leviticus 24:15-16).  Moral theologians regarded blasphemy as a sin; some, such as Aquinas, held it as a sin against faith.  The Eastern Roman Emperor, Justinian I, decreed the death penalty for blasphemy, and in large parts of the Christian world blasphemy remained punishable by death until comparatively recent times.

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A cartoon by the Brazilian Carlos Latuff.  Copyright:   Carlos Latuff.  Source: https://theintercept.com/2015/01/09/solidarity-charlie-hebdo-cartoons/

What is absolutely striking, and germane for us in India, is the fact that the idea of blasphemy has no point of reference or analogue in Hinduism, Jainism, or Buddhism. The idea is absolutely foreign to at least the adherents of these religions.  Indians, whatever their religious faith, understand the reverence in which holy books are to be held, or the respect that is to be paid to religious shrines, but it is questionable whether most of them would be moved by arguments about “blasphemy”.   What does blasphemy mean to a Hindu, and what is “the holy book” that is being blasphemed against?  On whose authority does the Punjab Government pronounce that the Bhagavad Gita is to the Hindu what the Bible is to the Christian or the Quran to the Muslim?  How did the view of a certain, and to a considerable extent Anglicized, element of the Hindu middle class about the Gita, come to represent the view of all Hindus?  How does one even begin to understand that every faith, and not only Hinduism, began to be shaped in the image of Protestant Christianity commencing in the late 18th century?  We have here, in the present debate about “blasphemy laws”, another instance of how our thinking takes place without any reference to the categories produced by Indian thought and without any awareness of the fact that the intellectual legacies of the Judeo-Christian tradition are unthinkingly deployed to frame very different experiences.

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So should we view this as “Hindu Blasphemy”?  The cover of Business Today shows cricketer M. S. Dhoni, one of the many new Gods of modern India.

I am reminded, finally, of an anecdote from the life of Vivekananda.  It is reported that on a visit to Kashmir, some of Vivekananda’s followers were both despondent and angry at seeing the broken images of the goddess strewn over the countryside.  They swore that henceforth they would not permit the images of the goddess to be defiled. Vivekananda turned to them with a retort, “Do you protect the Goddess, or does the Goddess protect you?”  The Chief Minister and the other self-appointed guardians of religion can usefully take home a lesson from this story.  It is arrogant for them to believe that the great faiths of India require the protections of the Indian state; and this is, of course, apart from any consideration of whether the Indian state, which has more often than not shown reckless disregard for the citizens of this country, has any moral standing to uplift these faiths.  On nearly every ground that one can think of, the Punjab and Central governments would be well advised to withdraw the contemplated amendment to Sec. 295A of the Indian Penal Code.

(A shorter version of this was published as “A Foreign Offence” in the Indian Express (print edition), 11 September 2018.