Saturday, June 22, 2024

Interview: “Real trouble with Indian democracy rests not with minorities, but with tyrannical impulses of majority,” says historian Aishwary Kumar

Aishwary Kumar is a renowned Indian historian who writes on a wide spectrum of issues in modern political history, moral and political philosophy, constitutionalism and dissent, empire and anticolonialism, and the global trajectories of political nonviolence before and after neoliberalism. He is also known for advocating a philosophy of action across a range of revolutionary, anti-caste, and anti-war traditions.

In this interview, against the backdrop of the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, Aishwary Kumar talks to Maktoob about the crisis of democracy in India. The interview focuses on the rise of the Hindu right and the majoritarian appropriation of the Constitution and democratic processes, legitimising and crafting a popular indifference towards the atrocities committed against Muslims and other minorities. 

Q. What do you think is the future of Indian democracy, particularly in the context of a strong Hindu right-wing?

Aishwary Kumar: The future of Indian democracy, and this is what I call in the book, the risk of democracy. The risk of democracy that Ambedkar is preoccupied with is the very act of faith on which democracies are based. 

Democracy is first and foremost an act of faith. It is a belief that you and I have that, no matter how many things separate us, how many things create these divisions between you and me, when the time comes, we will decide for our common good together. We call it the principle of the majority decision. 

The act of faith involved in democracy is that the majority will decide for everyone. The framework of the common good. Ambedkar’s real concern about Indian democracy is that this faith cannot thrive and grow in a system of inequality rooted in caste. This notion of responsibility will never grow under caste, which means that caste will never allow democratic faith to flourish. In other words, it will never allow this faith between us to become democratic. 

Its direct consequence is that the Indian majority will never be a responsible democratic majority. It means that the Indian majority will always consider its liberty and confuse it. Above all, the Indian majority will always be drawn more towards tyranny than it will be drawn towards the equal sharing of our freedom. There is a name for this temptation to tyranny. The name is caste. Caste is nothing if not this innate desire to be tyrannical, unaccountable, domineering, hurtful, and abusive of the social and political power we all have.

Now, conventionally, Ambedkar is often understood to be a thinker of the minorities.  I find that to have been one of the grave mistakes of the Indian political tradition, not just the Indian political tradition, but the anti-colonial tradition at large. Because it is Ambedkar, who saw the real problem of Indian democracy for the first time. Ambedkar was very explicitly vocal about it. The real trouble with democracy, the real risk within democracy, rests not with the minority, it rests with the majority. 

We have many kinds of theories of minorities: what they need, what they fear, what they desire, how they can be kept quiet, and so on. All of that, Ambedkar argues, is a distraction. Because the real trouble that democracy today faces is not because of the vulnerabilities of the minorities. It is because of the unaccountable tyrannical impulses of the majority that hide in plain sight. When we ask questions about the neo-fascist consolidation in India and in the liberal democratic world at large, we are also indirectly arguing that we read Ambedkar again closely, because the real unsaid in modern political thought is not the minority, it is the majority. 

In the 1940s, Ambedkar had already started to develop a theory and a critique of majoritarian power. To understand the future of democracy is to return our thinking to where Ambedkar was in the 1940s, when he said that the risk of democracy is that the majority is tempted by an unaccountable, irresponsible use of its tyrannical power and its numerical preponderance. If we can begin from there again, I have no doubt that we can begin to mobilise against the invisible majoritarian temptation to deface everything, desecrate everything, dig up everything, ruin everything, and all this while it invests in infrastructure, through its strange dialectical destructiveness. 

If we can return to where Ambedkar was in the 1940s, I think Indian democracy will live and it will survive. But it will have to begin by asking what the majority is, what it is, and how anti-democratic it can become in plain sight.

Q. You present the idea of  “resurgent constitutionalism”. Scholars like Hilal Ahmed have coined the term “constitutional Hinduism” in the context of developments after 2014. The Hindutva ideologue Sunil Ambedkar in his book “The RSS: Roadmaps for the 21st Century” explains that the constitution can be used as an instrument to achieve right-wing goals. How does the constitution help constitute Hindutva in its current form? At this moment, how is radical democracy possible? 

AK: One of the great failures of trying to understand constitutionalism resides in the fact that we tend to believe that because the Constitution guarantees the rule of law, it is by its very nature democratic, or that there is something of an unbroken link, an unshakable or unbreakable link or relationship between constitutionalism and democracy. The developments of the last 30 years, since the demolition of the Babri Masjid here in India, falsify the idea of compliance that a democracy and a constitution are somehow the same thing. The idea is that somehow we can remain democratic simply by paying a formal homage to the Constitution and our fidelity to the Constitution. 

But as someone who was so painstakingly committed to India’s constitutional tradition, Ambedkar was very clear about this anomaly. Democracy and the Constitution can often be at loggerheads. They often work together only as far as our moral and political priority rests on the sovereignty and the freedom of the people. That is to say, the Constitution is simply a formal safeguard. In that sense, the idea that a constitution can be used to achieve right-wing goals is not a very difficult thing to gather or fathom. 

The greatest example of that is the United States Constitution. It is the modern world’s most important, if not the single most important beginner of the constitutional tradition in the modern world. Much of the legitimacy to slavery, in its first century, and eventually to all sorts of segregationist policies and politics in the United States have always drawn their legitimacy, let alone their execution and executive authority, from the American constitutionalist tradition. So to me, it’s not shocking at all, including, for example, America’s death penalty system, against which Ambedkar often wrote. The entire edifice of that constitutional tradition rested on a reactionary form of racism and a certain kind of nostalgia for slavery. 

Similarly, a certain kind of Islamophobic politics today governs American foreign policy, which is then given legitimacy by some of the constitutional statutes and the powers that the American constitution vests in the presidency. These are just two examples of why it is not exactly shocking that the Constitution can be used to achieve right-wing goals. 

I think our emphasis needs to shift in the way we understand what I call India’s neo-democratic condition. The question is not whether Hindutva is neo-fascist, rather it is whether India has become neo-democratic, a new kind of democracy, which has forged a new relationship between democracy and constitutionalism. I think that is the kind of understanding we need of fascism; its ability to use the constitution, not for right-wing or left-wing priorities, but to change the very place of a constitution in a democracy. What Ambedkar might have called “constitutional idolatry.”

Q. What’s your take on political violence? How do you view the incessant atrocities against minorities, especially Muslims in our country? 

AK: I think that this is the most sustained execution of political violence. It is so targeted and precise. It’s a war, as Ambedkar would say. It’s an “armed neutrality,” as Ambedkar says in the “Annihilation of Caste,” where he reminds India of how brutally armed it is. But because it couches this hostility in the language of Sanskara and caste etiquette, we are never courageous enough to acknowledge it. 

I think we need to return to that powerful expression today, because of the violence we see, of course, some liberals would want to tie all these acts of sustained, targeted violence to the realm of the ‘social.’ Others would try to rescue elements of an emancipatory project and act on it, some anti-caste projects in particular, from the remnants and the ruins of the same social. There is a resurgence, I would say, of work on the sociaL, but I remain extremely uncomfortable and sceptical of such an aggressive belief in the social. 

Ambedkar was right. What is social in a society where there is no room for the ‘fraternal,’ or where there is no politics of friendship? What room for democracy do those places on earth have? In the absence of that politics of friendship, we only get acts of targeted, neutralising, depoliticising violence.  

When we say, therefore, political violence, we say it is not only because this violence is allowed, legitimised, and targeted to achieve certain political ends. We call it political violence also because they have a very specific intent at their heart, which is to depoliticise the entire population. It is to change and mutate the Indian democratic electorate into a multitude of nebulous masses. 

India has the world’s single largest Muslim minority. Right now, that’s the minority, against which all the mechanisms of violence are neutralised.

Q. In India, the contemporary is being shaped by medieval events. For example, Ayodhya in north India. When you come to southern India, Tipu Sultan, and so on. So in India, socio-political is shaped or reshaped by medieval events or symbols. How do you observe this phenomenon as a historian? 

AK: I think that’s a great question.  We have to understand this as a double or a dual movement between history and the present. I think, on the one hand, all our present conflicts are waged on the terrain of our medieval history. In that sense, Hindutva is one of the rarest political neo-fascist movements on the planet, given how much of its obsession resides in the “Muslim medieval.”

Almost everywhere on the planet, where there is a conservative or neo-fascist or a right-wing movement that wants to return to a purer past, this past is discovered in classical antiquity. Only in India has the mediaeval become almost a signpost, a landscape for contemporary conflict. This is not to say that the Crusades are not an active part of the Western Islamophobic imagination. 

The global war on terror was a great example of how medievalism was conflated with Islamic barbarism and used to justify the use of force against civilian populations in the Middle East. There is a lot in common between Hindutva and the broader currents of global Islamophobia. But Hindutva is global in another important way, rather than making the present an arena for conflict over the past, it is now reshaping the present according to that imagined past. It is almost as if we are not living in our present. I want to say this one word of caution, there is a real danger that we will let our present be stolen if we continue to slide into this obsessive fascination with the medieval. We will just allow this theft to occur, our time to be stolen, or our time together on this earth to be stolen, if we continue to let them govern everything through the dictates of the mediaeval. 

Q. In India, the constitution is being used to punish Muslims, for instance, how the Citizenship Amendment was enacted. When you talk about “neo-democracy,” how do you look at this increasing punitive utility of the Constitution?

AK: I’ve always found the neo-democratic condition and the mutation of India’s political majority, or what I call India’s majoritarian condition, to be fundamentally intertwined. This is evident in the widespread indifference of the Indian electorate towards the CAA, the farmers’ protests, and the Shaheen Bagh protests. The apathy of the Indian electorate towards both the movements and the way the government handled it, and how armed vigilantes were led to run counter-protests, speak volumes about this crisis.

The neo-democratic condition, as I see it, is not the end of democracy. It is the consolidation of a majoritarian rule that has lost its soul. When the majority loses its soul, it starts to understand democracy not as a sharing of freedom, but as ruling by indifference. That is what I call the making of a politics of cruelty. Making cruelty political is at the core of the neo-democratic condition, which mutates the very structure of majoritarian power. 

When cruelty becomes a legitimate political device, it works not only through actively spilling the blood of minorities, or through their imprisonment or disappearance. It also actively neglects the entire population, with the help of what I call a new “jurisprudence of neglect,” drawing from Hannah Arendt. That is to say, a law that is grounded in the idea of active neglect of population, of targeted brutalism against populations, and all of it under the garb of a tranquil, armed neutrality, which yields nothing but indifference. 

Aishwary Kumar is the Shri Shantinath Endowed Chair in Ahimsa Studies and Associate Professor of History at Cal Poly Pomona. He directs the Ahimsa Center and The Democracy Institute at CPP, focusing on the global lineages of modern political thought and the moral and constitutional life of democracy. 

Sibahathulla Sakib
Sibahathulla Sakib
Sibahathulla Sakib currently studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.
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