Can we revive forms of dissent rooted in culture and religion?
One of the challenges facing contemporary activism is the rejection of ‘human rights’ as ‘Western’, with no roots in Indian culture. To some extent, activists themselves have given ground in culture and religion, even as they seek to uphold humanist values, justice and rights using the language of the Constitution.
As historian Ramachandra Guha notes in an EPW article, this stems from the fall of the “bilingual intellectual” like Ambedkar, who “knew his Tukaram, but also his John Stuart Mill”, and the rise of the English-speaking intellectual with roots in Antonio Gramsci and Karl Marx but not in the Mahabharata or the vachanas of Basavanna. This loss of “properly linguidextrous intellectuals” has meant that the conceptual vocabulary of protest, stemming from the activist and the monolingual academic, has often become impoverished.
It is important for activists to be able to use cultural metaphors that flow from and speak to the ordinary person’s experience. To put it simply, the reference to Nero when we hear an authoritarian ruler may not be grasped as easily as the metaphor of Kamsa. To give another example, the weariness of a politician who refuses to address your concerns may be better invoked by Kumbhakarna rather than Rip Van Winkle.
Also, it should be noted that writing in English and in journals has a limited scope. As Guha notes in another article, “multi-language dexterity” is “a tool” to “reach more people and broaden the scope of the debate, and therefore increase the number of participants in the debate”.
Ambedkar, for example, never relied solely on texts of Western origin, making a sustained effort, especially in the latter part of his life, to return to texts and traditions of Indian origin and producing works such as his famous reinterpretation of Buddhism as Buddha and his Dhamma. His intensive engagement with religion and his conversion to Buddhism may have come from an understanding of the limitations of the form of constitutional argument and the need to also think of dissent within the “idiom of religion”, as written historian Romila Thapar in Voice of Dissent.
One could say that it was in this spirit that Ambedkar moved away from attributing the idea of brotherhood to the French Revolution, as he had done during the Mahad Satyagraha in 1927, to affirm that brotherhood does not was no stranger to India as she was nothing but the Buddhist principle of maitreyi.
However, it is not only about greater “reach” by finding appropriate cultural metaphors, but also, more importantly, about recovering a cultural memory of dissent. As Thapar demonstrates, dissent is an Indian tradition, with texts such as the Mahabharata encoding dissenting views. His larger argument is that there is a “narrowness” to the “contemporary definition of Indian culture” as it “excludes…the dimensions of assent and dissent which are inevitable in the creation of any expansive culture” .
Apart from the possibility of creative interpretations of traditions and traditional texts, there are also entire traditions in India that have emerged as a form of dissent. Perhaps the most powerful of these was the emergence of the Bhakti tradition in South India, which was based on a critique of Brahmanical Hinduism’s acceptance of hierarchy and inequality. .
It was a veritable subaltern revolt, with the “rebel religious” comprising “boatmen, laundresses, boatmen, tanners, shoemakers, tailors, barbers, shepherds, laborers, basket weavers, fishermen, toddy vendors and peasants”, notes the author Mukunda Rao in Dressed in sky. The Bhakti tradition has also been critical of notions of gender and sexuality, and no one has embodied this critique better than the famous poet Akka Mahadevi, who walked naked, “chest to chest” with the cosmos.
The challenge to Brahmanism was not only in terms of radical thoughts and ideas, but also how these were transformed into radical action. Basavanna’s life is an example of revolutionary provocation, such as when he blessed a marriage between a Brahmin girl and a boy from the cobbler caste, both his followers.
The explosive potential of this marriage is depicted in Karnad’s play Taledanda quite simply: “…it’s not a marriage, it’s a revolution”. Basavanna, in Karnad’s account, goes on to say that “the Orthodox will see caste mixing as a blow to the very roots of varnashrama dharma. Bigotry has not faced such a challenge in two thousand years.
This marriage across caste has since formed the basis of several contemporary Kannada plays, such as Sankranti by P Lankesh and Mahachaitra by HS Shivaprakash. We must now tap into this tradition – from the revolutionary act of Basavanna in the twelfth century to contemporary attempts to remember and recreate his life – to critique, for example, the anti-love laws of Yogi Adityanath’s governance in the Uttar Pradesh.
In August 2020, during the inauguration pooja of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya – which will be built on the ruins of the Babri Mosque – Prime Minister Modi reportedly said that a great temple would eventually be built for “our Ram Lalla who was to live “. under a tent for years.
For those who invested their faith in the Constitution, the day was marked by sadness, loss, pain and betrayal. The language of the Constitution on secularism and justice can capture this shock. However, there is another criticism of the Prime Minister’s words, rooted in India’s spiritual traditions.
Will make temples for Shiva
What I must do,
A poor man, isn’t he?
My legs are pillars,
The body the sanctuary,
The head a cupola of god
Hear, oh lord of the rivers of encounter,
Standing things will fall
But the movement will always remain
Basavanna’s criticism focused on “priestly dictatorship over spiritual matters and, more importantly, against the institutionalization of God’s grace and the sacred,” Rao writes. This remarkable verse, according to the eminent translator AK Ramanujan, “dramatizes many of the themes and oppositions characteristic of the protest movement called virashaivism”.
The movement was a “social upheaval by and for the poor, low castes and outcasts against the rich and privileged; it was the uprising of the illiterate against the literate pundits, flesh and blood against stone”.
Basavanna’s vacana evokes a tradition that sees the true relationship between God and man as intimate and personal, and worship as self-offering. He would have been shocked at the spiritual poverty of a worldview which, like the “rich”, prides itself on building a “magnificent temple”.
There is an Indian culture which has radical and dissenting strands, and which is often at odds with what is considered “Indian” culture. Any activism for the future should be able to tap into these dissident currents to shape a broader humanist vision of freedom and justice.
Excerpted with permission from India’s Undeclared State of Emergency: Constitution and Politics of ResistanceArvind Narrain, Context.