BJP's 'Mother of Democracy' Push Rejects India's Cultural & Political Plurality

Last year, Modi said that democracy is not a product of colonial rule or Western thought.

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BJP's 'Mother of Democracy' Push Rejects India's Cultural & Political Plurality

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The University Grants Commission (UGC), in a recent letter to vice-chancellors and principals of colleges and universities, pushed for the idea of lectures on the theme, “India: The Mother of Democracy,” on the occasion of Constitution Day. It also prescribed a few activities for institutions based on this theme.

Subsequently, Union Minister for Education, Dharmendra Pradhan, launched a book titled “India: The Mother of Democracy,” prepared and published by the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR).

In his speech on 26 November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also referred to India as the 'mother of democracy.'

“The phrase ‘We the People’ in the Constitution’s preamble represents a commitment, pledge, and belief that has helped India become the mother of democracy,” the PM said, citing examples of the existence of a democratic ethos from Hindu texts and history.


But why is this significant?

It isn’t the first time the PM has made such a reference. For the past three years or more, he has repeatedly spoken about India as the ‘mother of democracy’ in his public speeches – more recently, during his Independence Day speech at the Red Fort.

Last year, during his visit to the Bihar Legislative Assembly – a first by any Indian PM – Modi also said that democracy was not a product of colonial rule or western thought.

‘Mother of Democracy’ & the ‘Hindu Story’

Incidentally, the book released by the education minister explores over 15 sub-themes:

  • Examples of Loktantrik-parampara in literature

  • Rig Veda and roots of Bharatiya loktantrik-parampara

  • Sabha and Samiti: Exploring Indian democratic traditions

  • Dharma-Sutras and Loktantra Upanishads and Parishads

  • Exploring Dharma as loktantrik-parampara;

  • Kautilya's Arthashastra and Bharatiya loktantra 

  • Gana-Janpadas and Janatantra during ancient period

  • Lichchhavi Gana-Rajya and loktantra

  • Bhakti and democratic traditions

  • local institutions/khaps 

Even a cursory reading of the 'mother of democracy' concept note presents a singular and rigid vision of India, where the lines between a secular state and the Hindu majoritarian psyche of the ruling party are blurred.

So, when we find terms like 'Hindu society' and 'Hindu mindset' dominate the introduction, it should not come to us as a surprise. Rather, this is how the RSS is pushing its own version of constitutional Hindutva.

There are a few mentions of Ambedkar, diversity, and inclusiveness here and there, but in reality, it is a total rejection of India's cultural and political plurality. It is completely in sync with Hindutva literature that the RSS ideologues like MS Golwalkar have repeatedly mentioned in their writings.

There is enough literature available on how Golwalkar and the RSS thought about the “lack of Bhartiyata” or Indianness (Hinduness to be specific) in the Draft Constitution that the Sangh Parivar now wants to link to the Constitution.

The following excerpts from the RSS mouthpiece Organizer's editorial on 30 November, 1949, four days after the Draft Constitution was adopted, explains this in detail:

“The worst about the new Constitution of Bharat is that there is nothing Bhartiya about it…There is no trace of ancient Bhartiya constitutional laws, institutions, nomenclatures, and phraseology in it…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 old grievance of the RSS has been addressed by the ICHR. The concept note of the book talks about India's story, or rather the “Hindu story”, of how India survived 2,000 years of invasions by “alien” invaders and cultures – a reference to Islam and Christianity.

Interestingly, this rigid dichotomy is broken by an example mentioned in the concept note. There is a section that talks about the “Existence of Ganrajya in Kalinga During Ashoka's Invasion,” that independent democratic institutions existed in the Kalinga kingdom before Ashoka's invasion.

We must note that it's not the so-called alien cultures or invaders who destroyed Kalinga, but it was Ashoka who brought down the “Kalinga” democracy and massacred its culture.


Appropriation of Ambedkar's Vision

If the concept of ancient “Kingly democracies” or autonomous village democracies is not ridiculous enough, then you have to consider how Hindutva historiographers have linked Ambedkar's modern constitutional vision to Hindutva imagery of ancient India.

However, as much as the BJP may try to appropriate Ambedkar to push a singular Hindu supremacist vision of India, Ambedkar's own public writings, particularly Riddles in Hinduism, are way too critical of what the various subsections of the 'mother of democracy' concept note glorifies.

This is something that the more traditionalist Hindu right or the infamous alt-right Trads often use as an example to critique the RSS' appropriation of “anti-Hindu'' historical figures. 

For instance, today, the ICHR is exploring democratic values in khap panchayats, but Ambedkar had little regard for these undemocratic panchayats.

He had reacted angrily when the Bombay Legislative Council debated for the increase of powers of the panch through the Village Panchayats Bill.

Ambedkar argued that a caste-bound population, infected by ancient prejudices, flouts equality of status, and is dominated by notions of gradation in life, is unfit to have powers to control people's lives.

He believed that it was unjust to expect the people to hand over their lives, liberty, and property to these panchas.

Ambedkar's analysis is still relevant today. Every now and then, we read some news of arbitrary vigilante justice or caste favouritism from such panchayats. Just last week, an alleged child rapist was offered amnesty from arrest after he did five sit-ups in front of the panchayat.

UGC’s Letter – Rights vs Duty

Meanwhile, the UGC’s letter sent to VCs prescribed the following activities for institutions.

  • Reading out the Preamble to the Constitution during the morning assembly

  • Reading out the Fundamental Duties in the Constitution during the morning assembly

  • One lecture in every educational institution on the importance of Fundamental Duties

  • Pasting of Fundamental Duties on the notice board of the institution

Ambedkar's view of fundamental rights is exactly the opposite of Modi's kartavya path regime that seeks to make citizens walk a narrow path to an exclusionary cultural and civilizational destination very distant from Ambedkar's vision of social justice.

It seems from this constant attempt to foreshadow rights with duties that the Modi government wants model citizens who follow their duties but never talk about rights.

This hyper-focus on duties with no mention of rights can also be attributed to Modi's vision of a ‘new India.’

Take a look at the excerpts below from Modi's speech in January:

“Friends...We (also) have to admit that in the 75 years after Independence, a disease has affected our society, our nation and all of us. It is that we turned away from our duties and did not give them primacy. In the last 75 years, we only kept talking about rights, fighting for rights and wasting our time.”

Every time, the regime is questioned on its track record of rights, it answers back with the whataboutery on duties. 

At a time when there's a growing hostility between different religious communities, a growing rich-poor divide, when the rights of the citizen are sapped in a second with the arm of the relentless bulldozer of the state, this conversation around Indic roots of democracy and the advice to citizens to focus on their duties betrays the spirit of our constitution.

He had famously said,

“If I was asked to name any particular article in this Constitution as the most important – an article without which this Constitution would be a nullity – I could not refer to any other article except this one (Article 32). It is the very soul of the Constitution and the very heart of it.”

Thus, this entire push given to the 'mother of democracy' project is in stark contrast to a multicultural and multilingual vision of our founding fathers, particularly Ambedkar, the architect of our constitution.

The current Hindutva regime would not like to be publicly reminded of Ambedkar's critical views on the scriptures that it now wants us to accept as the new source of our constitutional morality.

For others, the copy of Ambedkar's Riddles in Hinduism is still publicly available on various government websites.

(Alishan Jafri is a journalist based in New Delhi. He is associated with The Wire's Heartland Hatewatch project. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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