The Perils of Love and Dissent in a Lawless State:  The Ordeal of Harsh Mander


Harsh Mander in his office at the Centre for Equity Studies, New Delhi. Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar.  Source:  The Hindu Group.

Once upon a time, Harsh Mander was a member of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).  His predecessors in the colonial-era Indian Civil Service were known as the ‘heaven-born’.  Then, in 2002, Gujarat was convulsed by hatred and orchestrated violence, and at least 1044 people—and more likely as many as 2000, according to the Concerned Citizens Tribunal as well as other independent investigative bodies—were killed, predominantly Muslims. More than 100,000, and perhaps twice as many, Muslims were displaced.  It is at this time that Mander resigned from the IAS, giving up what has long been one of the most coveted jobs in the country, and turned to a life of political and social activism. One might say that he had found his voice and his calling. Since those dark days in Gujarat nearly two decades ago, Mander has more than distinguished himself as a human rights activist, a tireless advocate of social justice, a friend sans pareil to the poor, the homeless, and the hungry, and as the very conscience of a nation that is now being undone by those who are utterly bereft of principles, compassion, and the ethical mores that make possible brotherhood and sisterhood.

Mander is soft spoken, perhaps civil to a fault; he never raises his voice, whatever the provocation, and has embodied what in one verse after another has been described in the Mahabharata as akrodh, non-anger.  “Anger is in this world,” we read in the Vana Parva (“Forest Book”), “the root of the destruction of mankind. From anger, a man may kill one who should not be killed and adore one that should be slain; an angry man may even despatch his own self to the abode of Yama.  Beholding these evils, anger must be conquered.” An artist friend in Goa who also knows Mander well recently described him to me as someone very much in the mold of Gandhi.  In happier times, that would have been seen as a decisive mark of approbation, but we are living in obscene times when a comparison to Gandhi is seen by many as unflattering.  In these days of bloodlust, when decent people have to prove that they are not anti-national and marauding mobs lynch at will, and when Gandhi himself has been cast as a traitor to the nation, it is not surprising that the qualities that Gandhi stood for are despised by many who now wield power and their acolytes on the streets and in middle-class homes.  Mander is, in any case, much too modest to claim to be anything more than someone who is committed to the practice of nonviolence, to the secular values on which the foundation of modern India was laid, and to the hopes of millions of India who in their own fashion cherish the very promise that is the Constitution of India.


Mander sitting in dharna, during his Karavan-e-Mohabbat (literally, the Caravan of Love), a unique experiment in testing the strength of love to produce social cohesion and a culture of compassion.

Mander has been a thorn in the side of Hindu nationalists since they came to power in 2014 and they have undoubtedly been thirsting for his blood ever since. But the trial to which he is now being subjected staggers the imagination, more so because of the unlikely scenario that has precipitated the allegations against him by the Delhi Police. Mander has been critical, and rightly so, of the failure of the Delhi Police to stem the recent bloodbath in northeast Delhi, even as he also condemned all political parties for their wholly inadequate response. At a news conference on March 3rd, he was blunt in his appraisal of the Delhi Police’s role as “shameful”:  “Even the biggest riot cannot go on if the state does not want it. . . . Even a very big riot can be controlled within six hours.  And this was not such a big riot.”

On March 4th, Mander appeared before the Supreme Court in an effort to seek a FIR against BJP leaders Kapil Mishra, Anurag Thakur, and others for having indulged in hate speech that was a prelude to the killings that commenced in North East Delhi on the night of February 23 and continued for several days before being brought under control.  India’s Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Government of India, turned the tables on Mander and sought to persuade the court that he himself had engaged in hate speech, besides bringing the Supreme Court into disrepute.  By way of evidence, Mehta produced an edited segment of a speech delivered by Mander on December 16 at Jamia Millia Islamia, where, on the previous night, Delhi Police had barged into the university, brutally beaten up dozens of students, and engaged in absolutely lawless behavior.  Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde summarily dismissed Mander’s petition and reprimanded him thus:  “You made statements against the Supreme Court.  We will not hear you now. If this is what Harsh Mander feels about the Supreme Court, then we will have to decide on that first.”  The Hindu newspaper reported it a bit differently, making the Chief Justice’s stern admonition to Mander sound more ominous:  “If this is what you [Mander] feel about the Supreme Court, then we have to decide what to do with you.”  The Supreme Court has since also asked Mander to respond to the allegations levelled against him by the Delhi Police that he delivered hate speeches during the anti-CAA protests in the capital.

As senior advocate Dushyant Dave, who is representing Mander, has aptly noted, this appears to be a case of the government wanting to shoot the messenger and refusing to “to take action against those whose speeches are actually causing unrest.”  So what did Mander say during his seven-minute address on the evening of December 16 to the crowd gathered outside Jamia?  This fight, he begins, “is a fight for our country, our constitution, and our love.”  He argues that the government has instigated a war against the people of India:  it is supremely ironic that the ruling party, inspired by those who played no role in India’s independence struggle, yet feels emboldened to wage a vendetta against those who stand for the values enshrined in the constitution, even daring to brand all those who stand in opposition to it as “anti-nationals”. This is not, of course, what the Supreme Court took offense at, however much slighted the BJP and RSS might feel by the claim, which Mander is scarcely alone in making, that the ideological forefathers of today’s Hindu nationalists did absolutely nothing to aid the anti-colonial struggle.  In describing the anti-CAA protests and the spirit of resistance that was already beginning to be felt throughout the country by mid-December, Mander goes on to state, in the most critical part of his address:  “This fight will not be won in the [Indian] Parliament.  Nor will it be won in the Supreme Court.  This matter will be resolved neither in the Parliament nor in the Supreme Court, but rather on the streets.”  Mander goes on to affirm, in wholly unambiguous language, that the answer to darkness is light, and that the only answer to hatred is love (mohabbat).

It is astonishing that a bench of the Supreme Court headed by the Chief Justice should have dismissed Mander’s petition for a FIR against those who openly advocated hatred of a religious community and should have prioritized what the judges deemed to be aspersions on the highest court of the land.  It is astonishing that the highest court should have failed to comprehend the underlying meaning of Mander’s claim that the matters before the nation cannot be resolved in Parliament or by judicial bodies.  Mohandas Gandhi, put on trial in 1922 on charges of sedition and fomenting contempt for His Majesty’s Government “duly established by law”, famously said to the court:  “Affection cannot be manufactured by the law.”  The Supreme Court cannot make us love one another; the law can stipulate that one might not discriminate against another on grounds of religion, caste, sex, or some other characteristic, but it cannot even make us respect one another.  Far from advocating lawlessness, or instigating people to violence, Mander was bold enough to suggest that the state cannot win over, in the classic expression, “the minds and hearts” of people except through love and the disavowal of violence.  Moreover, it is the people of India who, in the last analysis, must through nonviolence take the fight to the state and so give to themselves the liberty, justice, equality, and feelings of brotherhood that are enshrined in the preamble to the Indian Constitution.

It is astonishing, too, that Harsh Mander, the very person whose indomitable will and courage have time and again been placed in the service of the nation should now have to answer charges of having indulged in hate speech.  It may be that, for the sophisticated, talk of love is sentimental drivel. Harsh Mander has never been embarrassed in speaking the language of love. As the agenda of the state against him has established, he does so at his own peril.  Pity the nation, says a character in Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo, that breeds no heroes; “pity the nation”, replies Galileo, that “needs a hero.”  Pity the nation, I would say, that has so lost its moral compass that it cannot recognize one who stands by not only the Constitution of India but by the twin languages of nonviolence and love.

This is a very slightly revised version of an article first published on March 10 at, here.

The Hindi version of the article was also published at, here .








Deconstruction of an Icon of Resistance

(concluding part of 5 parts of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”)


Poster of Ambedkar outside Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, with the exhortation:  “Save the nation, Save the Constitution.”  Photo:  Vinay Lal, 23 January 2020.

As if Hinduism was not sufficiently offensive, repugnant to every person with only a modicum of moral sensibility and not altogether devoid of the notion of human dignity, India had to bear the oppressive burden of a faith that, whatever its history in other countries, further diminished the prospects of human freedom in that ancient land.  “Islam speaks of brotherhood”, and “everybody infers that Islam must be free from slavery and caste”, but, in truth, says Ambedkar, “Islam divides as inexorably as it binds” and it cannot but abide by a firm distinction between “Muslims and non-Muslims”.  The brotherhood it promises is “for Muslims only”, and for “those outside the corporation, there is nothing but contempt and enmity.” But this is far from being its only offense in this respect, since the Muslim is also enjoined, by the terms of “Muslim Canon Law”, to withdraw his cooperation from non-Muslims if he should happen to live in a country that is not governed by his brethren.  Ambedkar is quite clear on this—grist for the mill for those Hindus who have long harbored a suspicion that the Indian Muslim’s loyalty to Islam precedes his or her loyalty to India.  What Ambedkar understood by the requirement of “Muslim Canon Law” may have been very different than what is understood by those who are content to insist that many Indian Muslims would rather cheer for the visiting Pakistani cricket team than for the Indian team, but the sense that the Muslim is disinclined to live under the jurisdiction of any religion other than Islam is pervasive.  Whether the Muslim is singularly alone in having such a disposition is however a question that is seldom posed.


In terms highly reminiscent of colonial writings, such as W. W. Hunter’s The Indian Musulmans (1876), Ambedkar suggests that the tendency to divide the world into two camps, Dar-ul-Islam (abode of Islam) and Dar-ul-Harb (abode of war), makes it impossible for the Muslim to think of India as the “common motherland of the Hindus and the Musulmans”—and certainly not one where both might live “as equals”.  There is something yet more disturbing in Ambedkar’s understanding of Indian Islam, which he views more critically and unfavorably than Islam elsewhere, as for example in Turkey.  One might have thought that Ambedkar might have found the world of Indian Islam more hospitable than its more austere and putatively “authentic” version in Arabia, but that is far from being the case since, to his mind, social reform movements succeeded in altering Islam for the better in some Islamic countries but certainly not in India. When Ambedkar revisits the Indian past, he does not do so from the standpoint of taking up the challenge, as the Congress-appointed Kanpur Riots Inquiry Committee (1931) did so in its extraordinary report, of seeking, and then affirming, the myriad ways in the convergence of Hindus and Muslims wrought a distinct Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis.  That the artistic and cultural achievements of the Indo-Persian and more broadly Indo-Islamic world taken as a whole constitute one of the glories of the world is not an idea that appears to have struck Ambedkar as being of any consequence.  What is equally conspicuous is his firm, even unbending allegiance to the idea that Hindu-Muslim unity is a mirage, and that nothing in the character, disposition, customs, and manners of Indians even remotely suggests that they ever strove for “unity” or “fusion”.

Barbarism upon barbarism:  that is the standpoint from which Ambedkar considers the encroachment of Islam in India. The insularity and stagnation that mark the history of Muslims in India become, in his narrative, yet another dead weight sitting atop that putrid mass called Hinduism. Ambedkar’s unsparing indictment of Hindu caste society is widely known and, at least according to the canons of liberal thought, largely acceptable. What appears not to be acknowledged is that he found even less in Indian Islam that he could commend to anyone else, and in Pakistan or the Partition of India he took it upon himself to nail the truth about the endemic “social stagnation” in which the Muslims of India were trapped.  Katherine Mayo’s notorious Mother India (1930), he notes, exposed the world to the “social evils” that had beset Hindu society, but the work had created the “unfortunate impression throughout the world that while the Hindus were groveling in the mud of these social evils and were conservative, the Muslims in India were free from them, and as compared to the Hindus, were a progressive people.” Ambedkar declares his astonishment that such an impression should prevail:  “One may well ask if there is any social evil which is found among the Hindus and is not found among the Muslims?”  To the contrary, he says, “the Muslims have all the social evils of the Hindus and something more”, adducing as an example “the compulsory system of purdah for Muslim women.”

One might go on in this vein, ad infinitum.  This may not seem like an opportune moment to deliver a critical reading of Ambedkar’s views of the history of Islam in India.  There has been reason to believe since Narendra Modi rose to power in 2014 that the ruling party over which he presides is committed to the project of turning India into a Hindu state (rashtra) and some Muslims undoubtedly fear that in such a state they may be reduced to second-class citizens.  The recent passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, against which the country has erupted in protests, gives not only Muslims but many others in India who recognize discrimination for what it is reason for grave alarm.  Moreover, Indian Muslims would be within reason to experience the assault upon them as emanating not only from the state but from a good number of their Hindu countrymen.  Dalits and Muslims have been the targets of roving mobs—and I say this with full awareness of how the very word “mob” has, at other times and at other places, also been deployed to minimize and even criminalize public gatherings—that, acting as prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner, have engaged in barbaric acts of public lynching.

One of the more distinctive aspects of the demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act, now in their third month, is that the protestors are everywhere seen holding aloft pictures of Ambedkar and often Gandhi.  The historian, novelist, and public commentator, Mukul Kesavan, observed that Gandhi is “missing” from these protests, since the radical satyagrahi has been turned into a “sarkari saint”.  He may have mis-read whether Gandhi is indeed missing from these protests, but that is another story:  what is more sustainable is his claim that “Ambedkar is, quite literally, the face of the movement”.  The gist of it is that Ambedkar is held in great regard not only by Dalits but by many Muslims and other Indians who are committed to notions of equality, social justice, and secularism.  Some readers of this essay may thus be tempted to rush to judgment, declaring it to be an affront to Ambedkar, an unnecessary provocation at such a juncture, and even as a source of solace to the “enemy”, and to them these questions may be posed:  Is there ever an “opportune moment” for inviting one to reflection, to a reconsideration of the received narrative, and to a quest for the truth?  What has brought us to our present state if not the fact that there has never been an opportune moment for subjecting Ambedkar to the same stringent critiques that he rightfully and unhesitatingly levelled at others?  Or should we in our “post-truth” times just resign ourselves to saying that there Ambedkar is the last “post” beyond which we may not pass?


Anti-CAA protests in solidarity with students at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, late December 2019.  Photo:  Shiv Kumar Pushpakar.  Source:  The Hindu.

See also Part I:  “The Centrality of ‘Religion’ in the Life of B. R. Ambedkar”, here.

Part II:  “Buddha not Marx:  Ambedkar’s Unequivocal Affirmation of a ‘Modern Religion’”, here.

Part III:  “Ambedkar on Buddhism and Religion in the Indian Past”, here.

Part IV:  “The Muslim Conqueror Comes ‘Singing a Hymn of Hate'”, here.

The five parts of this article together constitute a longer and slightly revised version of a piece first published as “Was Ambedkar Anti-Islamic?”, Open Magazine (27 December 2019), New Year’s Double Issue.  The article can be accessed here.

Readers are also invited to view my lecture on “Ambedkar and Religion” delivered at the Kerala Literary Festival, Kozikhode [Calicut], January 2020, here.

Ambedkar on Buddhism and Religion in the Indian Past

(in multiple parts)

Part III of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

Screen Shot 2019-12-31 at 4.03.23 PM

A popular print of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, chief architect of the Indian Constitution, and founder of Navayana Buddhism.

In his writings on Buddhism, Ambedkar drew overwhelmingly upon his understanding of the Indian past and the place of religion in it.  It is the historical specificity of Buddhism in India to which he was drawn when Ambedkar would make his final case for Buddhism and its attractiveness to Dalits.  There are a number of arguments that Ambedkar advances which it will suffice to mention.  First, his own research led him to the conclusion, which finds its most elaborate exposition in a book entitled The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? (1948), that the Untouchables were ur-Buddhists or none other than the original Buddhists of India.  Secondly, and consequently, in converting to Buddhism, the Dalits would only be returning to their home.  We, in India, have heard in recent years of ghar wapsi, or the attempt to steer Muslims and Christians back to the Hindu fold from where they were allegedly enticed by clever proselytizers, but Ambedkar had something quite different in mind when he would counsel the Dalits to convert.  This was going to be a different form of ghar wapsi, the return, in myriad ways, to the warmth, security, and nourishment of the womb.  Thirdly, the very fact that the Hindu caste order had reduced the ur-Buddhists to the status of Untouchables pointed to the twin facts that Buddhism alone had offered resistance to Brahminism and had not succumbed to the hideous system of caste.  On Ambedkar’s reading, the “Four Noble Truths” that the Buddha had discovered, even as they constituted a set of precepts for humankind in general, held a specific and historically conditioned meaning for Dalits.  Too much has sometimes been made of Ambedkar’s embrace of Buddhism as a religion that came out of the soil of India, but there can be no doubt that in his mind Buddhism’s very constitutive being had been shaped by the experience of the lower castes.  Thus Buddhism alone could become a spiritual and political home for Dalits.


Babasaheb Ambedkar delivering a speech at the mass conversion at Nagpur on 14 October 1956

It should not be supposed that Ambedkar, especially as he continued his studies in both comparative religion and Indian history, never entertained any doubts about the suitability of Buddhism for Dalits.  The predominant understanding of Hinduism, especially in the public domain, insisted upon treating Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism as variations on Hinduism, certainly as cognate religions that, to use the language of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, enjoyed a “family resemblance”.  Ambedkar was fully aware that many Hindus were wholly comfortable with the idea of the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. It is immaterial, for our purposes, how Ambedkar negotiated this slippery terrain and what views he held on the deviousness of the Hindu mind, and far more germane that he may have understood Buddhism’s putative similarity to Hinduism equally as an asset and a liability.  Dalit converts might benefit from conversion to Buddhism without incurring the hostility of orthodox Hindus:  if the sheer crassness of this analogy may be forgiven, it would be akin to shopping at a different branch of the same gigantic store.  On the other hand, at least in the 1920s and through the 1930s, Ambedkar very much doubted that anything was to be gained by “becoming Buddhist or Arya Samajist” as such conversions would do nothing to eradicate “the prejudices of the people who call themselves as belonging to [the] upper varna”.  The July 1927 article in his journal Bahishkrit Bharat continues thus:  “If we want to successfully confront the prejudices of Hindus, we have to convert to either Christianity or Islam in order to secure the backing of some rebellious community.  It is only then the blot of untouchability on Dalits will be washed away.”  Two years later, writing in the same journal on March 15, Ambedkar put forward the programmatic formula for possible Dalit liberation blandly and without equivocation:  “If you have to convert, become Musulman.”  The communication would be preceded by what some might have taken to be a rather ominous headline, “Notice to Hinduism.”

To what extent increasing Muslim separatism eventually turned Ambedkar away from Islam as a possible home for Dalits is an interesting question.  In arguing that Ambedkar saw Buddhism as singular in its repudiation of caste, I have already suggested the grounds on which he rejected both Sikhism and Christianity as viable alternatives. Nothing more need be said on this count except to aver that, on Ambedkar’s view, neither religion had been able to escape the dragnet of caste; moreover, the hostility of upper-caste Christian converts and Sikh leaders alike to mass conversion, which it was feared would lead to the Dalitization of the faith in each case, was all too palpable. How far one can agree with Ambedkar’s assessment of Sikhism is a question for anyone who is invested in seriously probing why he eventually opted for Buddhism rather than one of the other faiths that had originated in India or taken root in the country’s soil. Just as his understanding of Marx’s views on religion seems rather conventional, shaped partly one might say by the climate of opinion engendered at a time when Stalin’s Soviet Union had made the public profession of religious belief altogether disreputable if not hazardous, similarly one is uncertain how far he had really made a study of Sikhism and its scriptures before coming to a determination that it did not offer Dalits the religious home that he sought for the community.

Whatever benefits the converts to Christianity might have been said to have enjoyed before independence by belonging to the faith of the ruling colonial elite would obviously be short-lived in the wake of the liberation of the country from the yoke of foreign rule.  Muslims in India, on the other hand, enjoyed the security assured to a very sizable and vocal minority—indeed, even as Muslims were a minority in India, Islam was a worldwide religion and Indian Muslims had the power to make their grievances known to Muslims elsewhere in the world.  It rebounded to Islam’s credit that it had a global presence and Ambedkar appears to have held the view that, at least outside India, Islam had shown itself capable of mounting a challenge to social ills.  Muslims in some of these respects offered a stark contrast to Dalits:  if the notion of the Muslim ummah was something of a guarantee that oppression of Muslims would at least not go unnoticed, there seemed to be no one outside India who was prepared to take up the cudgels on behalf of the Dalits.


Ambedkar Yatra [Journey]:  Popular or Bazaar Print showing Dr. and Mrs. Ambedkar and the Buddha bestowing his benediction on them.

After all this, Ambedkar still found Islam inhospitable.  There is really no other way to put it, even if the impulse to disguise this sentiment is irresistible.  By the mid-1930s, the Hindu-Muslim question had been rising to the fore and had become much more than a festering sore, and the so-called “Pakistan Resolution”—so-called since Pakistan was never mentioned by name—of the All-India Muslim League, passed at the annual session of the organization at Lahore in March 1940, had spawned in the minds of Muslims the idea that a Muslim homeland in the Indian subcontinent might be theirs for the asking.  This might have been the time to lead his fellow Dalits to the promised land; to the contrary, Ambedkar made a decisive turn away from Islam. There is a noticeable and disturbing streak of positivism in some of his writings, something to which the scholarly assessments of his work have paid no attention whatsoever, but it is to his credit that he was no adherent of Social Darwinism—the very opposite of Vinayak Savarkar, whose lionization by the Hindu right as some kind of thinker and brave soul is laughable and an effrontery to all canons of evidence, reasoning, and common sense.  Had Ambedkar been so, he might have counseled the Dalits to convert to Islam at this opportune moment and add considerably to the already sizable number of Muslims in South Asia.  However, as Muslims sought to close ranks behind them, it had become inescapably clear to Ambedkar that they were so self-absorbed in their own history that any consideration for Dalits could only arise from rank self-interest.  The “Depressed Classes”, he had claimed in late 1930 at the Round Table Conference, “had no friend”:  even the “Muhammadans refuse to recognize their separate existence because they fear that their privileges may be curtailed by the admission of a rival.”

It has been an article of belief for the most loyal Ambedkar scholars that any talk of his antagonism towards Muslims is a form of mischief-making when it is not an expression of virulent misrepresentation and even hatred of the great man.  Anand Teltumbde, a Dalit scholar of formidable reputation who is also married to one of Ambedkar’s granddaughters, attempted to preempt criticisms of Ambedkar’s views on Islam with a short, poorly written, and rather ill-conceived book called Ambedkar on Islam (2003) that purports to take apart eleven “myths”.  Leaving aside the question of whether Teltumbde has any comprehension at all of “myth” outside the rather jejune and positivistic framework which places it in opposition to “history”, the question is whether, as “Myth 1” states, “Ambedkar was against the Muslims.”  Does the critical apparatus of thinking necessitate that one should be against or for something?  That Ambedkar may have formulated a highly critical history of Indian Muslims should come as no surprise and need not be construed as a sign of Islamophobia.  Ambedkar was seldom reticent in his views and in this vein appears to have subscribed to a hierarchy of religions.  He welcomed the discipline of “comparative religion” as it had helped to break down “the arrogant claims of all revealed religions that they alone are true”, but he also found it a matter of discredit to such a “science” that it had “created the general impression that all religions are good and there is no use and purpose in discriminating them.”  It may be inadvisable on the grounds of political expediency to advert to Ambedkar’s critical assessment of Islam, but Ambedkar himself never shirked from adopting positions which he had arrived at after careful study and reflection.

(to be continued)

For Part I, “The Centrality of ‘Religion’ in the Life of B. R. Ambedkar”, go to:

For Part II, ‘Buddha not Marx:  Ambedkar’s Unequivocal Affirmation of a ‘Modern Religion’, go to:


Buddha not Marx:  Ambedkar’s Unequivocal Affirmation of a “Modern Religion”

(in multiple parts)

Part II of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

I have argued in the first part of this essay that Ambedkar was never far removed the ideal of spiritual fulfillment and that he sought to achieve this within the matrix of institutionalized religion in some form or the other.  What, then, of his relationship to Marx?  In spite of his relentless critique of Hinduism, some would say more specifically Brahminism, Ambedkar could not escape some of the very idioms that have given Hinduism and the other religions that have arisen from the soil of India their distinctive character.  As an illustration, and at least as a provocation, one might want to consider his warm acceptance of the idea of a guru, a status he bestowed on the Buddha and, quite possibly, on Kabir and Jyotirao Phule.  He had a more complicated relationship to Marx, with whose writings he had acquired considerable familiarity as a student of Vladimir Simkhovitch at Columbia University in 1913-14.  Simkhovitch had published in 1913 a book entitled Marxism versus Socialism, the very title of which is suggestive of the critical if appreciative outlook that Ambedkar’s teacher, and later Ambedkar himself, would have of Marx’s body of thought and all that it had wrought.

Ambedkar continued his studies in economic history, social thought, and sociology over the years, and he accepted most of Marx’s theses about the oppressive nature of capitalism and the inevitability of class struggle even if he found his ideas of historical materialism and what may be called the iron laws of history somewhat rigid and overly determined by Marx’s grounding in the history of the West.  Marx read widely, no doubt, but much of what he had to say of India can be encapsulated under the Asiatic Mode of Production.  (No doubt, too, some of his more rigid defenders will take umbrage at this characterization, but many of Marx’s sources have to read with extreme circumspection.) Besides all this, of course, was the brute fact that, as a Dalit, Ambedkar was assimilated to the experience of oppression from birth.  Books could sharpen his understanding of humiliation and exploitation, and move him to explore what drove men to find satisfaction even enjoyment from degrading others, but he knew firsthand what it meant for a people to be born into poverty, reduced to indignity at every turn, thwarted in every endeavor to improve themselves, and ground into the dust. “Had Karl Marx been born in India and written his famous treatise Das Capital sitting in India,” Ambedkar was to say, “he would have had to write in an entirely different fashion.”  The very first question that Ambedkar might have put to Marx would have most likely been this:  How would the dictatorship of the proletariat contend with caste? Did Marx really have a comprehension of this phenomenon called caste?

The late essay, “Buddha or Karl Marx”, a fragment from a larger book that Ambedkar may have written but the manuscript of which has not been found, offers the reader a keener sense of the shortcomings that he attributed to Marxism and the reasons for his attraction and conversion to Buddhism—all this, perforce, also being the backdrop to his outlook on the history of Islam in India.  We need only to turn to it very briefly.  He argues that little survives of Marxism of the mid-19th century and “much of the ideological structure raised by Karl Marx has broken to pieces.  There is hardly any doubt that [the] Marxist claim that his socialism was inevitable has been completely disproved.”  What remains of the “Marxist creed”, says Ambedkar, can be summarized in a Buddha-like four-fold path:  the function of philosophy is to reconstruct the world; there is class conflict; the private ownership of property entails exploitation and sorrow; and, lastly, as private property is the source of such sorrow, it must be abolished.


Dr. Ambedkar is shown delivering his historic speech, “The Buddha and Karl Marx”, on 20 November 1956 before delegates of the 4th World Buddhist Conference held at Katmandu, Nepal. KIng Mahendra of Nepal (extreme right) and Mrs. Ambedkar are also shown in the photograph.

In the achievement of these objectives, Ambedkar argues, communism commits its gravest sins.  The Marxist creed is addicted to violence and to the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat.  The Buddha, by contrast, was a proponent of ahimsa, but he did not adhere to as rigid a conception of ahimsa as did Mahavira, the founder of Jainism.  To this end, he was more reasonable since he recognized that the use of “force” may be necessitated at times and that it is critical to distinguish between “force as [creative] energy” and “force as violence”.  As for dictatorship, the idea was entirely foreign to the Buddha:  “he would have none of it” and he was a “thorough equalitarian.”  The Buddha and Marx may have sought similar ends, but Ambedkar declares that the Buddhist way is far more efficacious and far more in keeping with notions of human dignity and freedom: “One has to choose between government by force and government by moral disposition.”  The Buddha sought only that each person brought up under his teachings should “become a sentinel for the kingdom of righteousness”, a paragon for others in that he would do what was good not because he had been forced to do so but because his “moral disposition” had shaped him to do the same “voluntarily”.  Ambedkar rounds off the essay with a denunciation of communism’s moral failings with what should by now be recognized as a characteristic affirmation of the centrality of religious life:  “But to the Communists religion is anathema.  Their hatred of religion is so deep-seated that they will not even discriminate between religions which are helpful to Communism and religions which are not.”


The reasons that led Ambedkar to steer clear of Marxism also explain, in part, his turn towards Buddhism. So much has been written on what finally led him to embrace Buddhism that it is unnecessary to visit this terrain except in the briefest terms to clear the path that leads us to his views on Islam.  The Buddha, to reiterate, was to him a figure who was democratic to the core and without peers as a moral exemplar.  In one speech after another, Ambedkar described how his political philosophy was enshrined in three words:  “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” People might naturally imagine that he had derived these values from the French Revolution, but they were mistaken in holding to this conception:  “My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science.  I have derived them from the teachings of my master, not Marx.”  Classical liberal thought compromised on equality, and communism had little regard for liberty:  “It seems that the three can co-exist only if one follows the way of the Buddha.”

(to be continued)

Translated into Swedish by Eric Karlsson and available here:


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

(in multiple parts)

Part I of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”


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.

Ambedkar was a serious student of history and politics and one might reasonably suppose that the best way to apprehend his views on Indian Muslims is to wade through his voluminous writings. There is something to be said about such an approach, but the conceptual framework must stem, in the first instance, from two anterior considerations.  First, though it is not fashionable to speak of him in this vein, he was a man of intense religiosity. He is associated with his (to Hindus) infamous pronouncement that he had been born a Hindu but was not going to die as one. Though of course the fact of his conversion to Buddhism, to which I shall advert later, is well known his remark has often been interpreted as a sign of his disavowal of religion altogether.  Indeed, there have been many attempts to sequester him into the camp of Marxism, and there was much in Marx’s worldview that he admired.  However, his concern for the oppressed and his championing of the idea of equality do not suffice to turn him into a Marxist. What is rather more striking is Ambedkar’s lifelong quest for spiritual fulfillment, though here again this scarcely comports with the public view of him as the most trenchant critic of the institution of caste and as the chief architect of the Indian Constitution. His statues in which the country is awash commonly depict him as a lawgiver, as the Moses of modern India, not as a figure of serenity or religious contemplation.


2500th Buddha Jayanti celebrations at Ambedkar Bhavan, New Delhi. From left are Mr. Shankranand Shashtri, Dr. Ambedkar (here, rather unusually, without spectacles), Mrs. Savita Ambedkar and Buddhist monks. Source:  Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.

Secondly, Ambedkar was not content to only abandon Hinduism, but found it necessary to embrace another religion. He found it impossible to think of a life of fulfillment, either for himself or his people, outside religion:  as he declared before his followers at a speech on 18 March 1956, “Without religion, our struggle will not survive.”  Later that year in October, just two months before his passing in December, he led some half a million Dalits on a mass conversion to Buddhism, or rather a neo-Buddhism which he termed Navayana, “The New Way”.  Scholars have been very much interested in how Ambedkar’s Buddhism differs from the more conventional understandings of Buddhism, but for the present purposes the more salient question are these:  Why did he convert at all?  And, when he did so, why did he not convert to Christianity, Sikhism, and even more so Islam?  What might have led him, considering the country’s circumstances, to embrace a religion that had but few followers in India and could not have offered the comfort or security of numbers?

The postcolonial scholar may object to representations of Ambedkar as someone who thought that life in India was wholly inconceivable without religion as a species of Orientalism, but Ambedkar was unequivocally clear about how religion had shaped him and the place it was destined to occupy in the liberation of Dalits.  “Character is more important than education”, he was to tell a gathering of Depressed Class youth at a Conference of Untouchable Railway Workers in February 1938, but what he adds thereafter is what is most instructive:  “It pains me to see youths growing indifferent to religion.  Religion is not an opium as it is held by some.  What good things I have in me or whatever have been the benefits of my education to society, I owe them to the religious feelings in me.  I want religion but I do not want hypocrisy in the name of religion.”

In passing, at least, it is impossible to escape the observation that, word to word, Ambedkar’s injunction to the young could have come from the mouth of Gandhi.  We know as well who is being targeted with these words:  “Religion is not an opium as it is held by some.”  There is a very considerable strand of work on Ambedkar that, uncomfortable as it is with his attachment to religion, laboriously struggles to locate his religiosity within the matrix of liberalism.  What is hereby obscured, to take one illustration, is the extent to which Ambedkar committed himself to the accoutrements of institutionalized religion.  He undertook a visit to Sri Lanka in 1950 with the express purpose of witnessing a Buddhist ceremonial:  as he explained at a public gathering, “Ceremonial is an important part of religion.  Whatever rationalists might say, ceremonial is a very essential thing in religion.” If the Buddha slayed ritual, and the rituals of the Vedas were odious to him, Ambedkar nonetheless saw the place of ritual in creating a community of sojourners even, I might say, a sense of citizenship that far exceeds liberalism’s staid if not platitudinous understanding of citizenship.  He crafted a set of rituals that would constitute the diksha ceremony for those seeking to enter the portals of Navayana.


First World Fellowship of Buddhists Conference, Sri Lanka, 1950, at which Dr. Ambedkar was present.  Photo Credit:  Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.

Ambedkar’s sense of what constitutes “religion” and what place it has in the struggle to achieve equality similarly did not permit him to place bhakti on the same footing as he might have placed Islam, Buddhism, or Christianity. This point cannot be underscored enough since the turn to bhakti has often been seen as the default move for those disenchanted by Brahminical Hinduism or otherwise left deeply disturbed by dogmas of upper caste norms and behavior.  Ambedkar may well have accepted some elements of the interpretive framework that has long dominated the common understanding of bhakti, such as the indifference of the great bhaktas to notions of respectability, their rejection of the idea that Brahmins were the repository of wisdom, and their disavowal of the authority of the Vedas, but he was far less certain of the emancipatory place that had been assigned to bhakti.  Ambedkar’s biographers have noted that his father was a member of the Kabir Panthis and Ambedkar’s own outlook is said to be imbued with the spirit of Kabir, who was equally dismissive of pandits and maulvis, Hindus and Muslims. The scathing missives that Kabir directed at believers startle with their candidness and frontal assault:

Qazi, what book are you lecturing on?

Yak yak yak, day and night . . .

If God wanted circumcision,

why didn’t you come out cut?

If circumcision makes you a Muslim,

what do you call your women? . . .

If putting on the thread makes you Brahmin,

what does the wife put on?

That Shudra’s touching your food, pandit

How can you eat it?

Hindu, Muslim—where did they come from?

Who started this road?

Look in your heart, send scouts:

where is heaven? [from the Bijak]


If all this quite likely went straight to Ambedkar’s heart, and his attitude towards Kabir bordered on reverence, he still could not see bhakti, not even the path laid out by Kabir, as offering a home to himself or to Dalits. What weighed on his mind was far more than the rejection of ceremonies and rituals in bhakti sects.  Caste had a way of insinuating itself into every institution and the tiniest pores of Indian society and Ambedkar did not see bhakti cults as immune from the poisonous contamination of caste.  Moreover, in view of the rather uncritical framework with which he viewed industrial and Enlightenment modernity, it is safe to say that he shared some of the critical perspective of late 19th century Indian nationalism with regards to the unsuitability of bhakti for a nation striving to become free and modern.  The novelist and intellectual Bankimcandra Chatterjee, no friend of Muslims, was quite certain that the excessive devotionalism of Hindus had enfeebled them and made them vulnerable to foreign domination.  Thus, in his Krsnacaritra, a treatise on Krishna, Bankim forcefully advanced the view that the salvation of Hindu India lay in jettisoning the Krishna who frolicked on the green with the gopis and danced with them under the dazzling light of a full moon and instead embracing the Krishna of the Mahabharata who had showed himself adept at modern statecraft and was full of political cunning.  Though Ambedkar would have had little use for ruminations on awakening the Hindu from his stupor, there can be no doubt that he viewed bhakti as incompatible with his idea of a religion that was modern, rational, and scientific in outlook.

See also Parts II, III, IV, and V.

Translated into Swedish by Eric Karlsson and available here:



The Fear of Dissent:  India’s New Colonial Masters


Protest in Assam against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, passed into law as Citizenship Amendment Act on 12 December 2019.  Source: Zee News.

There is almost nothing as fearful as a lawless state.  India is on the brink of being such a state, as the actions taken by the government to squash dissent against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) so clearly demonstrate.  It is not “lawless” in the sense of being a political despotism, “empty of law” as India’s former colonial rulers characterized the supposed state of the country before they took the reins in hand.  India is on the verge of being “lawless” in the more unsettling and insidious sense of falling into a system of political authoritarianism where law itself is deployed to subvert both the spirit of law and the rule of law.

Protests against the CAA first commenced in Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura among segments of the general population even before the law had come into force on December 12, and have in the last several days been spearheaded by students at universities across the country.  Many in the country have been shocked by the scenes of violence, captured in this age and day in scores of videos, that have turned universities into battlegrounds.


Demonstration at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.  (Photo Credits: @fotosbyshadab)

At least five people were killed in police firings in Assam.  The police deployed tear gas and lathi-charged students at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Jamia Millia Islamia, both institutions with a storied past.  Though not all the CCTV coverage has been analyzed, and there are conflicting accounts of what happened, this much is unequivocally clear:  hundreds of police barged into Jamia’s campus, wielding their lathis indiscriminately and seriously wounding dozens of students. They assaulted female and male students studying in the library.  The idea of learning, as opposed to mere job training, is so far from the minds of most of the anti-intellectuals who now occupy the positions of leadership in the BJP that it would be no exaggeration to suggest that universities are themselves something like alien territory for the present government.  The police acted, at Jamia and AMU, much as an invading army does. Perhaps the police and the politicians whose bidding they do were also venting their frustration at Muslims for exhibiting an interest in learning. Why else would a library be attacked, if not to convey a message to Muslim students that books are not meant for them?


No need for a caption:  the image is from the National Capital Region (NCR).

Jamia Millia was, it is important to note, founded in 1920 by faculty and students who defected from AMU.  Distressed at their university’s rather pro-British leanings, they decided to heed Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation and the intellectual awakening of India.  Sarojini Naidu was to say of the Indian nationalist Muslims who created the university that they built it up “stone by stone and sacrifice by sacrifice”, but the autocrats who now run the country cannot be expected to know all this.  They don’t read books, and would rather see libraries vandalized and universities become factories for producing a docile labour force.  It is evidently enough for the Home Minister and his underlings to know that AMU and Jamia are predominantly Muslim universities, which immediately makes the students and faculty at these universities suspect and a fifth column acting on behalf of Pakistan.


Scenes from the violence and police attack at Jamia Millia Islamia. A video of two young female students shielding a reporter from assault by the cops went viral:  See

The present Indian government is of the view that all Indian Muslims are anti-national, though not all anti-national people are Muslims: intellectuals, Naxalites, political dissenters, critics of the state, and especially Nehruvian-style secularists are all anti-nationals, too.  The Prime Minister talks of brotherhood but shares kinship only with hard-core Hindu nationalists.  His bear hug is intended only for foreign leaders, not for most fellow Indians and certainly not for those who do not meet his criteria of the true nationalist Indian subject.  He has mastered the art of clichés:  just how hollow “sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas” sounds is apparent to everyone but the author of this slogan, especially now that he has, after the commencement of his second term as Prime Minister, bared his fangs.

Whether it is the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, or, to take an illustration, the junior Railway Minister, who has said that the only fitting reply of the government to demonstrators found destroying railway property is to “shoot them at sight”, the response of those presently in power to dissenting opinions is utterly predictable and follows a set pattern.  The particularities of a demonstration directed at the state matter little, since there is already in place a vocabulary for dealing with such contingencies, though, as dissent grows and the authoritarian state hardens, the knives are sharpened and the vocabulary fattened.

One element of this vocabulary of the suppression of dissent is to condemn the “fear psychosis” allegedly being created by anti-social elements, rumor mongers, and the “opposition”.  But the key elementary step is that protestors must at once be branded as “anti-social”:  this has been a feature of the Indian political landscape for decades, indeed dates back even to the colonial period, and the BJP gets no credit for inventing the term.  However, with the spectacular rise to power of the BJP with the electoral victory of 2014, the term “anti-national” was added and quickly came into vogue, becoming the favorite of the internet trolls who constitute a large unpaid cyber military force for the BJP.  Lately, “anti-national” has been embellished with the notion of the “urban naxal”, the supposed city-bred intellectual who sympathizes with Pakistanis, terrorists, and Maoists and is cut off from “real Indians”, but cleverly poses as a social worker, human rights activist, or liberal intellectual.  Now that the protests have spread to other universities and beyond, the Prime Minister not surprisingly had to fall back on this vocabulary, and at his Jharkhand rally held “urban naxals” responsible for the violence.

There can be no doubt, of course, that “the opposition” has something to gain from the current protests. No one has said that the Congress or the other parties which belong to that ragtag group called the “opposition” are models of anything remotely resembling innocence.  Similarly, one must condemn the violence and the destruction of public property. But none of this should obscure some fundamental issues that have come to the fore in the present demonstrations.  First, though many of the protestors have wholly legitimate differences with the government over the Citizenship Amendment Act, the issue now goes beyond the CAA and also has to do with the very right to voice dissenting opinions.  The demonstrations, taken as a whole, have been largely peaceful; the police resort to violence has been wholly disproportionate.

Secondly, it is absurd to suggest that the protests have all been instigated by “the opposition” or “outsiders”.  This supposes that ordinary people who are troubled by unjust laws, rank discrimination, police brutality, brute state force, or other exhibitions of inequality or the relegation of some people to second-class citizenship or worse are incapable of acting on their volition.  The absolutely deplorable idea of attributing all dissent to “outsiders” or “instigators” is the gravest insult to people’s own autonomy and sense of justice, and it suggests the deep-seated fear of dissent among the country’s present set of rulers.

Thirdly, in everything that has been done by the present government, Indians are being reminded that the country has a new set of colonial masters.  Once upon a time, a highly placed functionary of the state condemned the protests organized by people against an unjust act as “puerile demonstrations”, indicative of “how easily the ignorant and credulous people, not one in a thousand of whom knows anything of the measure, can be misled.”  The agitators, he warned, “have a day of reckoning in store for them.” These words could easily have been spoken by our Prime Minister; certainly the substance of them is found in nearly all his pronouncements upon dissenters.  But the words belong to the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, who days later, one hundred years ago, would approve of the massacre committed by General Dyer at the Jallianwala Bagh.  Political dissenters in India must be forewarned of the “day of reckoning [that] is in store for them” under the present political dispensation.

[First published under the same title at, here.]

[Translated into Hindi as नागरिकता संशोधन कानून के विरोध में उठती आवाज और पुलिसिया कार्रवाई, available by clicking here.]


The Citizenship Question: Unsettling Facts and the Ethos of Hospitality

Governments lie all the time.  It is not only authoritarian, despotic, and totalitarian states that lie, but democracies, or what are alleged to be as such, do so too.  Contrary to the cherished view of some liberals, who like to represent the Trump administration as having uniquely departed from the moral standards of previous administrations, especially the Obama administration, which many are now inclined to view nostalgically as some kind of gold standard of moral probity, the entire fabric of American governance has for generations been based on a tissue of falsehoods. Obama lied through his teeth—about the use of drones, the war in Afghanistan, his regime of deportations.  We will be told, of course, that “context” matters—that the deportations, for example, were largely of hardened criminals, though one would need a vivid imagination to construe the majority of the two million as falling in this category. Admittedly, in the department of post-truth, Obama is not a patch on Trump, who, it goes without saying, almost always lies—as do most of his henchmen, honchos, and hired guns.  Lies, too, take various forms:  a lie is not only a patent falsehood, or a statement made with the intention to deceive, but it may also be a promise made with the knowledge that it cannot be kept.

The present Indian government is, needless to say, no exception. Most of its promises, especially those not made specifically with a Hindu constituency in mind, lie in shambles.  The economy is in tatters: unemployment figures are at a record high, and true to its form the government sought to have the figures withheld before the election.  The Prime Minister has declared India “open defecation free”, though there isn’t a shred of evidence to support this claim. Detailed reports, some produced by the government’s own agencies, contradict Modi’s grandiose declaration. But let us leave all that aside, since the Lok Sabha passed by a vote of 311-80 the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill [hereafter CAB], as has the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of the Indian Parliament).  The government initiative was spearheaded by the Home Minister; indeed, so confident was the government, and evidently so inconsequential the matter, that the Prime Minister’s presence was not even deemed necessary. After all, the party had enough to do to sweep the polls in Jharkhand behind Modi’s campaigning.


As the Prime Minister was declaring India “Open-Defecation Free”, two Dalit kids were beaten to death for defeacating in the open.  Cartoon by Sajith Kumar.                    Source:  Deccan Herald.

Amit Shah’s robust defence of the CAB poses some difficult problems which suggest that, even when a government or its principal functionaries do not lie, they may be on the wrong side of both history and justice.  There may be promises in his remarks that may not be kept—such as the assurance to Indian Muslims that the Bill is not directed at them, and is not even remotely designed to render them “stateless”—but no one knows this for a fact.  Authoritarian states may and do create distress for minorities, but they have sometimes been known to safeguard the rights of minorities, so long as such minorities do not create political unrest. These days, even autocratic rulers must show at least the outward signs of fidelity to norms of pluralism and diversity.

Screen Shot 2019-12-11 at 12.46.11 PM

To understand what is truly at stake in the debate over the CAB, which amends the Citizenship Act of 1955 and was first introduced unsuccessfully in 2016, it will suffice to scrutinize its principal and certainly most controversial provision.  It offers “any person belonging to [the] Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan” who entered India before 31 December 2014 not merely relief from deportation but citizenship of India through registration or naturalization.  The critics of this provision have pointed out that the deliberate exclusion of Muslims who entered from these countries is yet another stab at Muslims and an attempt to stoke fear and insecurity among Muslims, just as it is another milestone in the long-desired plan to transform India into a Hindu nation.  In more legal terms, the CAB is violative of the spirit and letter of the Constitution’s promise of equality as laid out in Article 14.

In a debate that lasted for nearly eight hours until the stroke of midnight, Amit Shah defended himself vigorously against the opposition.  We may disregard, for the purposes of my argument, his repeated jabs at both Nehru and the Congress and his absurdly poor grasp of history.  For contemporary Hindu nationalists, whose most inspirational figures such as M. S. Golwalkar were unabashed admirers of Nazis and whose own contribution to the struggle for freedom amounts to precisely zero, to accuse the Congress of betrayal of the nation is just breathtaking audacity. Shah’s contempt for Nehru is palpable, and it is not coincidental that the vote was taken at midnight—for it was at the stroke of midnight that Nehru delivered his speech pronouncing India a free country.  Amit Shah and the BJP have long been promising Hindus the “freedom” that was withheld to them by the country’s Muslim rulers, the British, and finally deracinated secularists in Nehru’s mold.  But the Home Minister’s observations, which are calculated to produce discomfort among secularists and liberals, are nevertheless worthy of consideration.

Screen Shot 2019-12-11 at 12.56.18 PM

From M. S. Golwalkar, We or Our Nationhood Defined (1939).

First, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan are predominantly Muslim countries. The logic that informs the CAB is that it is minorities that are in need of protection, not a majority—especially not a preponderant majority.  The CAB does not, for example, furnish the promise of citizenship to a Hindu who may have come from Hindu-majority Mauritius or, more significantly, neighbouring Nepal before 2014.  Once one is committed to the language of “minorities” and “majorities”, one is also committed to the corollary proposition: if anyone is in need of protection, it would be someone from a minority.  Secondly, Shah takes it as demonstrably true that minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh are indubitably in need of protection.  It may be argued that he is on reasonably sound ground here.  The treatment of minorities in these countries has been deplorable, even as the population of Hindus in 1951 in what was West Pakistan has remained stable in Pakistan at 1.6% since then. But, overall, the share of minorities in Pakistan’s population declined from around 23% in the late 1940s to around 3.5% at present.  Non-Muslim minorities in ethnically diverse Afghanistan are practically non-existent, and the once thriving Hindu and Sikh communities have suffered precipitous decline in the preceding four decades. One may ascribe the near evisceration of these non-Muslim communities to the civil war which commenced 40 years ago, but it would be disingenuous to pretend that the ascendancy of the Mujahideen and Islamic resurgence had nothing to do with the disappearance of non-Muslims from Afghanistan.

One might go on in this vein, but one might also pose sticky questions. How would the government, by way of one illustration, handle the claim of Ahmadiyyas, who view themselves as Muslims but have not merely been declared as heretics in both Pakistan and Bangladesh but have been subject to virulent persecution?  The Bill has nothing to say on this matter, and, as critics aver, it is also silent on the matter of migrants and refugees from Sri Lanka.  Shah did, however, have something to say on the matter of refugees from Sri Lanka, pointing out that the accord signed in 1964 allowed, among other provisions, for the repatriation of 525,000 Tamils to India.  His third line of defence, therefore, appears to be that “whenever there has been an intervention on citizenship, it has been specific to a problem. This time, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan refugees are getting it.”  Fourthly, refuting the notion that the Bill is designed to produce a “Hindu Rashtra”, Shah noted that the percentage of Hindus in India has declined since 1951, the first census in post-independent India, from 84% to 79%.  Conversely, the share of Muslims in India’s population has increased from 9.8% to 14.23%.  It is no surprise that social media sites are awash with Hindu nationalist buzz around the “decline of the Hindus”.

Such facts as Amit Shah produced, or which may be mustered on his behalf, do not appear to furnish evidence that the project of creating a “Hindu Rashtra” is at hand.  But neither do such metrics tell the whole story. The secularists would be well with their right to remind everyone of the old adage which says that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  But there is another tacit argument that informs the Home Minister’s observations and that has now become a critical element in the Hindu narrative of identity, prosperity, and growth.  The Muslim has scores of countries—all Muslim-majority states, whether in West Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and even Europe—that he can claim as his own, but does the Hindu really have even one country?  What else can the Hindu call his or her home other than India?  (Nepal, no doubt, but the Hindu is inclined to see Nepal, which transitioned in recent years from a constitutional monarchy to federalism, as part of the Indic world rather than as a nation.) Not every nationalist Hindu may proceed to the question that logically follows, but an increasing number, taking their cue from the ideologues that have informed the Sangh Parivar, do:  Does it not therefore fall upon the Hindu to decide with whom he wants to share his home, and under what conditions?  Indian Muslims would be entirely right in pouncing upon the last consideration as a charter for their oppression, as a pronouncement of their eternal foreignness.

Secularists and Muslims have chosen to respond to all this in the twin languages of constitutionalism and pluralism.  Those are potent languages but, at least at this moment in the nation’s history, they appear to have little traction. To be sure, there are pressing questions made possible by the invocation of pluralism, secularism, and constitutionalism.  Does CAB, for instance, impose a religious test for citizenship?  Though the government claims that there is nothing in the bill that adversely affects Indian Muslims, what of those Indian Muslims who may not have papers to demonstrate they belong to the soil of the country as much as Hindus, Sikhs, or Jains?  And what of those Muslims who fled from Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Bangladesh to India and have made their home in India for decades?  The argument that will be advanced by the government and its supporters is that all nations, even those that claim to be democracies, retain the privilege of allowing some outsiders and excluding others.  Though countries such as Sweden and Denmark are often touted as examples of progressive democracies, they exercise near draconian control on whom they permit within their borders and they have normalized anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments.

We may have to take recourse to a different language and find more productive ways of entering into these debates besides furnishing, as the Indian government does, statistics and a rather pathetic understanding of history.  One might remind Hindus that the measures being undertaken by the present government will succeed in making India look very much like Pakistan, but irony is not the strong suit of the government.  In India, at least, we could speak of the rich histories of hospitality.  The Hindu has been made as much by sanatan dharma as by the presence, sometimes the pounding presence, of countless others in his midst.  It took everyone else to make the Hindu into what he or she is today.  The nationalist Hindus who oddly complain that they have had no country to call their own and that the present government is now fulfilling a long-held dream scarcely realize that whatever singularity India has had will utterly vanish if the country persists in the present course of action.  Their Hinduism will begin to look very much like Islam and Christianity.

Citizenship may have been very far from the mind of Rabindranath Tagore, but the rest of the world had no difficulty in dubbing him a “citizen of the world”.  Tagore had the distinct idea that a culture that is no longer aware of its own dharma is practically lost in the world.  He was once traveling in his native Bengal and, at a place some 150 kilometres from Calcutta, his car overheated; every ten kilometres he had to stop and ask for water so that he could cool down the engine. The entire area was suffering from a severe drought; time after time, through fifteen villages, Tagore had quite the same experience. Though the villagers had little water to spare, and almost none to drink, their sense of hospitality made it impossible for them to refuse him water. It was their dharma, Tagore told his audience in China and then some years later at Oxford when he delivered the Hibbert Lectures on the “The Religion of Man”, that moved them to such generosity: it is the same dharma that made them reject the idea that they could, as a consequence, claim any merit or reward. What others were likely to mistake as the acts of simpletons arose from a “simplicity [that] is the product of centuries of culture” and is “difficult of imitation”; as Tagore further argues, “to be absolutely simple in one’s hospitality to one’s enemy, or to a stranger, requires generations of training.”

Who will explain this to the Home Minister and the Prime Minister, whose narcissism has led them into thinking that they are required by the nation to save Hinduism from its enemies?