The Protest Predicament

In the prevalent socio-economic conditions, protests have become part and parcel of our society. I still remember the day when Chandrashekhar Azad (Bhim army chief) walked up the stairs of Jama masjid, holding a copy of the Indian Constitution with Ambedkar’s portrait on its cover page. Today, no one can deny that Ambedkar has become the face of protests and movements in India. I feel that before portraying Ambedkar as the “poster-boy”, we need to delve deeper and raise certain unavoidable questions such as; was Babasaheb, an outright advocate of protests? Did he make a distinction between constitutional and unconstitutional methods of protest? Did he believe that the ‘end’ justifies the ‘means’? The need of the present hour is to understand Babasheb’s view on the protest culture.

India has been a cradle of multiple identities. We acquire multiple identities throughout our life, and we give preference to one aspect of our identity as per our requirements. We associate ourselves with our caste, gender, creed, sex, region, race, religion, and many more such identities that we consider an integral part of our being. Babasaheb argued that we do need to ensure that we are able to dissociate with a particular aspect of our identity for the greater good. He feared that some political parties in India were communal and preferred a specific section of people based upon their creed. On this front, our country’s situation has not changed much, as people continue to make their decisions based upon the narrow understanding of their identity rather than thinking about the larger good. “A rationalist mind is always sceptical.” We have to lay more emphasis upon our understanding of good and bad rather than falling prey to herd mentality. Ambedkar believed in rationality and hoped that people would place the need of the country over their petty affiliation towards a particular aspect of their identity. It fills my heart with grief when I state that in the present times, we have been so engrossed in our personal identity that we ignore what is best for our nation. The same is being reflected in the protest culture of India. Rather than presenting a united stance for positive actions, we tend to shape our understanding of good and bad along the lines of pre-existing prejudices and biases towards a particular community.

On 25th November 1949, Babasaheb gave the last speech in the constituent assembly. He expressed his uncertainty about whether India would be able to maintain her independence or will she lose it again. He argued that it is going to be an arduous task to maintain India’s independence. He feared that because of the long disuse of democracy in India, it might pave the path for dictatorship. It is quite possible for her to maintain its democratic form but give place to dictatorship. So now the question arises; what did Babasaheb propose in order to maintain democracy in India?

He stated, and I quote, “The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha.” An isolated reading of these lines presents only the partial truth. It’s true that Babasaheb was an outright advocate of constitutional methods, and he considered the unconstitutional methods the “Grammar of Anarchy.” There is a thin line of difference between constitutional and unconstitutional methods of expressing dissent. It’s true that dissent is the sine-qua-non for any democracy. It won’t be an exaggeration to state that ‘If democracy is the air we breathe in, then dissent is its oxygen.’ Protests are the virtue of democracy and probably the sole way of expressing dissent. Consequently, protests also become the sine-qua-non for democracy. Babasaheb never undermined the importance of protests. He led numerous protests for the cause of the Dalits, but he always adopted the constitutional measures and placed his faith in the power of negotiation and cooperation rather than initiating satyagrahas and civil disobedience movements. He considered these methods of protest futile as they did not lead to any long-term positive change.

The relationship between protests and violence is much more complex than the relation between protest and dissent. The legacy of India shows that we can protest without using violence. But, what happens when violence becomes absolutely necessary? Babasaheb argued that violence is the last resort and should only be used when justice permitted the use of force. “One must never surrender to evil powers. War may be there, but it should never be for selfish ends…” In his view, a distinction between the use of force as energy and the use of force as violence needs to be made. There can be ample justifications for violence only when all the constitutional methods have failed. Coercion should never become the permanent solution. It should always be a temporary measure. Ambedkar believed that force in itself could not be attributed as positive or negative. The nature of force depends upon us, whether we use force for creation or destruction.

He held the Constitution very dearly to his heart, and we need to understand the reason behind this. Indian Constitution is one of the most comprehensive constitutions in the entire world. It has tried to give voice to every section of the population. So, we need to show faith in the spirit of our Constitution and realise our goals by constitutional measures. Ambedkar believed that the ends could justify the means, but he also laid emphasis upon the need to consider those valuable ends that we lose while trying to achieve a particular end. Babasaheb placed utmost faith in our Constitution, yet he stated that “If I find the constitution being misused, I shall be the first to burn it.” He challenged the status quo existing in the society, but he always believed that change needs to be brought within the constitutional framework. In the present times, we need to reinvigorate our faith in the law and try to bring amendments while remaining within the boundaries set by the Constitution.

By Kumar Harsh

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