Constitution Day 2015: The BJP does not understand democracy, secularism or Ambedkar

Hindu first.
Hindu first.
Image: AP Photo/ Rajesh Kumar Singh
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Constitution Day, in parliament, should, at the very least, have been a day to reflect soberly on the failure of the state to fulfill its obligations to defend the constitutional rights and liberties of vast sections of India’s society—the Dalits, the minorities, the Adivasis, women, oppressed nationalities, and dissenting voices and citizens in general.

It should especially have been an occasion to reflect on the recent instances of parliamentarians and persons in constitutional posts, such as governors, openly mocking at the core values of the constitution.

Instead, Constitution Day 2015 will be remembered as yet another day when the government put on display its discomfort with the letter and spirit of the constitution.

Some may have harboured the notion that the government might make some soothing and vague noises about upholding the constitutional values of secularism and democracy, which could at least obliquely be interpreted as a snub for the recent spate remarks by ministers, chief ministers, and governors declaring that those who do eat beef or speak of intolerance should have no place in the country and should “go to Pakistan”, and implying that Hindus have a deeper and more organic claim to India than Muslims.

But the government did not even do this.

Instead, the government took the occasion to confirm the apprehensions of many—that it was seeking to tinker with the constitution’s mandates. In parliament yesterday (Nov. 26), India’s home minister Rajnath Singh said that “secularism is the most misused word”, and that “we are facing problems in ensuring social harmony because of the misuse of these expressions.”

Singh has repeated what the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have long maintained, that “secularism” should not be interpreted as the state’s obligation to protect the rights and freedoms of the minority and the neutrality of the state towards all religions.

The home minister is instead implying that adopting a “Hindus first” interpretation of secularism will “maintain social harmony.”

This statements dangerously echoes recent statements by several others suggesting that if only Muslims would give up beef, if only interfaith love and marriages could be ended, if only Dalits and Muslims and women would accept social “Laxman Rekhas,” it would be easy for “social harmony” to be maintained.

Singh suggested in parliament that secularism in India should mean panth nirpeksh (neutral towards all sects), but, instead the Western meaning (dharm nirpeksh or neutral towards all religions) had been imposed on the Indian state.

This is an old RSS chestnut, by which they mean that “dharma” is Hinduism/sanatana dharma, which is equivalent to Indianness, and Islam and other faiths are basically “sects.” This concept is made clear in this report on a former RSS chief’s exposition. He makes the same distinction allegation that “dharm nirpeksh” is a Western distortion of the Indian concept of “panth nirpeksh,” to conclude that “Hindutva and Indianness mean one and the same thing; Hindu dharma is Manav dharma.” Indian state and society, they therefore claim, must embrace “Hindutva” as its “dharma”, while remaining equidistant from or neutral towards other faiths.

Yesterday, Singh and the treasury benches implied that later Congress governments had inserted Western concepts of “secularism” into the original constitution prepared by Ambedkar.

But way back on Nov. 30, 1949, days after the constitution was first adopted by the Constituent Assembly, the RSS had branded the constitution as a jumble of Western imports and had lamented that the Manusmriti had not been used as the basis of the constitution. The Nov. 30 edition of The Organiser wrote, “In our constitution there is no mention of the unique constitutional development in ancient Bharat. Manu’s Laws were written long before Lycurgus of Sparta or Solon of Persia.  To this day, his laws as enunciated in the Manusmriti excite the admiration of the world and elicit spontaneous obedience and conformity. But to our constitutional pundits that means nothing.”

This was the same Manusmriti that Ambedkar had deemed fit to burn in protest, since it was a charter of the subordination, dehumanisation and humiliation of Dalits, oppressed castes and women. It should be noted that Narendra Modi, writing a hagiography of RSS chief Golwalkar in 2008, had shockingly referred to Ambedkar as “the modern Manu.”

The RSS, the BJP and the Narendra Modi-led government simply cannot reconcile themselves to the Indian Constitution, intended by Ambedkar as a total rejection of the casteist values espoused by Manu.

Ambedkar had made a distinction between constitutional morality and societal morality, and had stressed that “constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated.”

The RSS and BJP, on the other hand, try desperately to claim that societal morality of the dominant community (towards inter-caste and interfaith marriages, towards beef, towards women’s social and sexual freedom, towards homosexuality and so on) must be accepted as “Indian culture” by the whole of India—and any assertion of constitutional morality is a provocation that justifies violence and breaking “social harmony.”

Preposterously, Singh referred to Ram as “the greatest democrat since he had asked his wife Sita to take the ‘agni pariksha’ (entering fire to prove her chastity) because a man from the lower strata had raised an issue concerning her.”

This single sentence perhaps sums up all that is wrong with the BJP’s understanding of democracy. We could remind Singh that the same Ramayana also has the story of how Rama killed Shambook, a shudra, for performing asceticism and penance which was prohibited to shudras. We could also remind him that the folks songs of the rural women in India universally condemn Ram for forcing Sita to undergo the fire-test for chastity and for exiling her. These songs use harsh words—one Bengali women’s folk song even refers to Ram as a sinner (papishthi) and a ruthlessly cruel man (pashanda) for exiling his pregnant wife.

Women’s folk songs in Maithili (the story holds Sita to be from Mithila) tell their father to find them any husband from anywhere, but never again one like the cruel Ram. Because of the depth of feeling behind women’s public condemnation of this chapter of the Ram story, many narrations of the Ramayana including the Ramanand Sagar rendering on Doordarshan, were forced to come up with some sort of rationalisation or retelling, in order to make the cruel crime more palatable.

The fact that the home minister is not only comfortable with the idea of a husband demanding his wife undergo a chastity test, but actually sees this as evidence of democratic values, is truly worrying. It shows that the Modi government, replete with feudal societal morality, is lacking in the constitutional morality that Ambedkar had stressed. Finally, what was saddest was the home minister’s attempt to harness Ambedkar to the hate-wagon of the BJP and the RSS. He did so by tacitly endorsing the ugly and bigoted attacks on actor Aamir Khan who had expressed his wife’s fear and apprehension at bringing up a child in the climate of growing bigotry in the country. Singh said that Ambedkar in spite of facing humiliation, never left India. That is true.

But what Singh and the BJP can never acknowledge is that Ambedkar quit Hinduism, and abhorred the notion of a Hindu India. He quit Hinduism calling it a “veritable chamber of horrors,” most especially towards Dalits. Explicitly rejecting the agenda of a Hindu Rashtra, Ambedkar wrote in his essays, “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt be the greatest calamity for this country. It is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. It is incompatible with democracy. It must be stopped at any cost.”

In 1951, on the eve of independent India’s first general election, the manifesto of Ambedkar’s Scheduled Castes Federation ruled out “alliance with any reactionary party such as Hindu Mahasabha and Jan Sangh as communal parties.” (cited in Ambedkar and the BJP, A G Noorani, Frontline, February 21, 2014).

Following the recent demise of Vishva Hindu Parishad leader Ashok Singhal, Modi called him “an inspiration for generations.” In July this year, Singhal had called the election of the Modi-led Government in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections as the beginning of a “Hindu revolution” in the country, thanks to which “India would be a ‘Hindu Nation’ by 2020” and would bring about a “Hindu world” by 2030.

Modi and his government cannot simultaneously swear by Singhal and his Hindu Rashtra slogans on the one hand, and Ambedkar and the Indian Constitution on the other. Its ministers cannot keep advising detractors and beef-eaters to “go to Pakistan” while paying lip service to Ambedkar and the constitution. It cannot allow the RSS to impose the laws of Manu in society (massacring Dalits and Muslims, banning inter-caste and interfaith marriages, killing those who kill cows, etc) while citing the Indian Constitution when questioned abroad on growing bigotry.

There is a saying ‘munh me raam bagal me chhuri’ (Ram on one’s lips, a dagger hidden under one’s arm). For the BJP and RSS, it is ‘munh me Ambedkar, bagal me Manu’; ‘munh me Gandhi, bagal me Godse aur Golwalkar’; or ‘munh me samvidhan, bagal me Manusmriti.

This won’t do.

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