On November 30, 1949, four days after the draft of the Constitution was finalised, the RSS’s Organiser wrote, “The worst about the new Constitution of Bharat is that there is nothing Bharatiya about it… Manu’s laws… excite the admiration of the world and elicit spontaneous obedience and conformity. But to our constitutional pundits that means nothing”. It would seem that decades later, the dreams of the RSS to turn India into a theocratic state ruled by the laws of Manu or those laid down by the Vedas are alive and kicking, as revealed by none other than Home Minister Rajnath Singh, the opening speaker on behalf of the government in the discussion on the Constitution on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar.
He was there to pay tribute to Ambedkar, but his words ended up paying tribute not to the Constitution or its founders, but to what his parent organisation wished for India. How else can you explain his atrocious attack on the very concept of secularism? It was not just a debating point on the “misuse of the word secularism”. He charged that this very misuse has led to “difficulties in the maintenance of social harmony”. So here is a new justification: Dadri occurred, other incidents of violence related to manufactured rumours of cow slaughter occurred, provocative statements by ruling party leaders threatening to send “beef-eaters” to Pakistan were made, all because of the misuse of the word secularism. This is not the “fringe” speaking, this comes from the very top. A home minister who is mandated to take seriously every attempt to destroy constitutional rights instead uses the floor of Parliament to blame the very concept of secularism for the attacks on social harmony. The RSS does not believe in a secular India, and the echoes could be heard in the home minister’s speech.
His understanding of democracy also has its roots in the Manusmriti, not the Constitution. For him, democracy was inherent in ancient India. He asked “could there be any greater democrat than Bhagwan Ram?” He explained: “A person on the last rung of the social ladder raised a question and Ram made Sita, more beloved than his life, go through the agnipariksha”. The home minister believes in replacing history with mythology but even within this framework, he is saying that the notion of “dharma”, as laid down by the scriptures, is real democracy. For Rajnath Singh, Sita’s travails were immaterial. The scriptures lay down that a woman is subordinate, an appendage of the male and, therefore, if she is treated as though she is not human, then that is the highest democracy, because it helps the ruler uphold “dharma”.
In a country where women who are victims of sexual violence are blamed for the crime, where women are still burnt to death for dowry, where abortion of female foetuses has led to horrifyingly low sex ratios, when the home minister chooses to glorify an analogy that only shows the tradition of violating a woman’s very being when she is a survivor of violence, it does not inspire confidence in his ability to im-plement his mandate on preventing violence against women.
There is nothing democratic in the analogy cited by the home minister. It elevates so-called public sentiment above the law and above humanity, and it is the sentiment of the dominant social forces that usually prevails. Unlike the approach of leaders like Rajnath Singh, social reform movements such as those led by Ram Mohan Roy, Phule, Periyar, Ayyankali, Narayan Guru, Ambedkar and in the work of communists like EMS Namboodripad or P.Sundarrayya and many others, have challenged dominant public sentiment representing ruling classes and castes, and overthrown and defeated many of those oppressive ideas and practices. Rajnath Singh chose to use an analogy in which the ideas of the dominant elite were voiced by a person “at the bottom of the social ladder”, reviled by the very system he sought to defend. A system that demeaned him as much as it demeaned women — in the case of women, by demanding proof of chastity as a condition for social acceptance, and in his case, by demanding that he know the rules that forever kept him at the bottom of the ladder.
There was another analogy from the Ramayana where a person at the bottom of the social ladder challenged the system, but Rajnath Singh did not dare use it. This is the killing of Shambuka because he, a Shudra, had dared to perform the rituals of penance reserved only for the twice born, resulting in misfortune to the land and the death of the young son of a Brahmin. It was only when Ram hunted out this Shudra destroyer of “dharma” and chopped off his head that the Brahmin’s son was brought back to life. Are these also the actions of a democrat?
The home minister trivialised the caste hierarchies and savage untouchability that exist in many parts of India when he said that the Swachh Bharat campaign was a symbol of the fight against untouchability, since even the prime minister and president had held a broom, the symbol of a menial job, in their hands. If holding a jhadu for a photo-op is the symbol of the fight against untouchability, those pundits in temples who sweep the floors before the idol are proof that India is free from untouchability, even though they prevent Dalits from approaching the sanctum sanctorum for fear of pollution. Or, why not give General V.K. Singh a jhadu to prove that he has no caste bias, even though it was so clearly evident that he did when he used derogatory language against Dalits after two Dalit children were burnt to death?
The home minister’s speech mocked the ideals that Ambedkar stood for, his fight for gender justice and against the caste system, for which he renounced the Hindu religion and became a Buddhist. It dashed the expectations of millions of Dalits and tribals that the occasion would lead to a clear policy direction on many long-pending demands.
But yes, it can be said that the home minister’s “mann ki baat” reduced to nought any government attempt to lay claim to Ambedkar’s legacy. The ruling regime is as far from what Ambedkar stood for as the Manusmriti is from our Constitution. His speech is certainly an alert, if one was needed, that the battle for a secular, democratic, equal India is well and truly on.