A case against Ambedkar’s ‘Grammar of Anarchy’ speech regarding ‘Fast-unto-death’ as a form of protest

During "India Against Corruption" movement, many questioned the 'constitutionality' of 'fast unto death' as a form of protest. People used Dr Ambedkar's 'Grammar of Anarchy' speech as the justification. In this speech, Ambedkar says that protests of the form of 'fast unto death' were of times when there was no constitutional government, and now that India has constitutional government, people shouldn't resort to such forms of protest. Many also termed it as against the `spirit of the Constitution'.

Ambedkar's arguments merely say that fast unto death isn't acceptable in democracy but don't say the reasoning behind it. Why shouldn't fast unto death be allowed, when it is nonviolent? If it is not to be allowed, why didn't the Constitution put specific restrictions on it?

Merely quoting Ambedkar's speech is thus an incomplete argument against fast unto death. We should examine, why Ambedkar said what he said, to make a sense of his statement.

One possible reason could be that Ambedkar's opposition for fast unto death as a form of protest arises from his deep disagreements with Gandhi's politics. Gandhi used fast unto death several times as a weapon both against British and once against the separate electorates too. Ambedkar had to relinquish his demands and compromise due to Gandhi's fast. Ambedkar's opposition to such form of protest can be seen in some of his statements, even before independence.

From this, we may infer that the actual reason for Ambedkar's opposition is Gandhi and Ambedkar's experience of being on the other end of the Gandhian protest. Incompatibility with Constitution is only used as a mask when he made these remarks in Constituent Assembly.

As one can see, there's a lot of subjectivity in the above interpretation and hence a larger scope of disagreement. Surely, no one knows the inner workings of Ambedkar's mind. So, we can't possibly tell. But, this can be one of the promising reasons.

The other way to understand Ambedkar is not to link the dots historically as we did above, but examine Ambedkar's arguments by situating them in his broader philosophy of Constitution.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta (PBM) summarises Ambedkar's approach as that of Grote's 'constitutional morality that emphasises "self-restraint, respect for plurality, deference to processes, scepticism about authoritative claims to popular sovereignty". 

PBM says that Ambedkar criticised Satyagraha because it is against the principle of constitutional morality in two ways:

1. Fast unto death presumes monopoly of truth that doesn't acknowledge other's point of view. It is thus against the "respect for plurality" aspect of constitutional morality.

2. Fast unto death's "agents see themselves as personifying the good of the whole". Demands through Satyagraha posit "authoritative claims to popular sovereignty", which is against constitutional morality.

We note that both the arguments of "respect for the plurality of viewpoints or shades of truth" and "no authoritative claim for popular sovereignty" embody an underlying principle of anti-absolutism - there's no one truth and there's no one place for sovereignty. There are four problems with this argument.

1. Disregard for genuine cases: The concepts of "no single truth" and "no single centre for popular sovereignty" may seem true in many cases but by saying that everything is a shade of grey in all circumstances delegitimises genuine claims in some cases.

2. Favours those who can create shades of grey: The condition of "respect for the plurality of truth" favours those who can turn even an evident truth into a facade of shades of grey. The mighty state with its influence over the media can easily create narratives to delegitimise protestors' problems and demands.

3. Favours the beneficiaries of the status quo: In a context, where inaction and persistence of status-quo is a victory of the state and a defeat for the common citizen, any narrative that creates hurdles for protestors helps the sustenance of status quo, for which the state is the beneficiary. All that the mighty state has to do is to delegitimize the citizens' demands and authority by creating an appearance of plurality, even when there isn't one.

4. If there should be scepticism towards authoritative claims to popular sovereignty, why should it be only towards protestors, why shouldn't it be towards the government too? It is not the people that are holding the government to ransom, it is the governments that hold people to ransom on daily basis, in the name of sovereignty. When people protest against the brutality of such authoritative sovereignty of governments, the blame is instead placed on the people,  terming their protests an illegitimate assertion of sovereignty. If this is not an act of distorting the truth, creating shades of grey, what is!

The discourse against fast unto death during the Janlokpal movement is a classic example that demonstrates the above phenomenon. The issue here wasn't that government and political parties denied the need for Lokpal. Many committees in the past have recommended it. Governments also instituted an institution on its name, but the issue was its independence and working. Governments have deliberately created weak institutions to protect themselves.

When the protest emerged, what did they do? First, they created a discourse questioning the necessity of the institution, even when they had already created an institution (though a weak one). If there was no need, why did it create an institution? Second, they questioned claims of protestors over sovereignty, which as you can see is an unsettled debate, which in the end favours the status quo and thus the government.

Just think of this - the same political parties which regularly organise bandhs obstructing people, create destruction of property, had suddenly new found love for the constitutionality of the form of protests? It is clearly an argument made just to delegitimize the demanding groups.

If you are still unconvinced that governments’ arguments were due to genuine concern towards principles of constitutional morality as they proclaimed, and not to do with the differences over the Lokpal, note what happened to Lokpal after the protests subsided. There's no progress.

In summary, Ambedkar's argument of incompatibility of satyagraha in constitutional governments isn't a reliable one as it isn't applicable to all cases and disproportionately favours the beneficiaries of status quo and those with the power to distort the truth, which is the state in most cases. Therefore, there's no reason to not allow fast-unto-death, as a form of protest.

In a context, where the apathy of the state towards citizens' concerns is a norm, citizens have very few avenues to make governments listen to them and hold it accountable in-between elections. It's not the case that governments are stalled every day due to fast unto deaths. These instances are rare because governments don't pay attention unless the fast unto death gathers large support, which is not a common occurrence. By denying even this opportunity to the aggrieved and oppressed citizens based on abstract arguments not rooted in reality, we are crippling even the genuine protests like that of Narmada protestors who didn't receive rehabilitation, group of girls who are fasting for a school building and so on.

It is easy to target common citizens and hold them to higher standards of accountability and morality. It would be good if the energy spent on delegitimising the protests of the helpless citizens is instead spent towards holding the governments and political parties accountable.

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