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

During the 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 called it against the `spirit of the Constitution'.

These arguments still don't answer the question - why shouldn't fast unto death be allowed, when it is nonviolent? Ambedkar says that these shouldn't be allowed in Constitutional government, but why not? If it is not to be allowed, why wasn't it included in the Constitution?

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 when Ambedkar opposed fast unto death, the actual reason is Gandhi and his experience of being on the other end of the 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". It is against the "authoritative claims to popular sovereignty" aspect of 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.

This may seem true for most cases but not all cases. The fundamental problem is that by considering the existence of shades of truth in all cases, it skews the balance towards those, who have the power to "create shades", even when there are none.

As Foucault famously argued in his "discursive power" thesis, discourses shape individuals, thus having the "power". From this, it follows that those who can shape discourses have the power. The state which has access not only to generate discourse but also huge control over the channels that disseminate the discourse (media) has disproportionate power. In such context, even when the truth is clear, the state can create discourses, creating "shades of truth", thereby disputing the truth.

The disproportionate power to shape discourse aside, one may argue that false discourses can be countered. But it needs need time, as in the case of academia, where differences are resolved over a long period of period. At the peak of movements, one doesn't have that luxury. All that the Leviathan has to do is to create doubts just for the time being. It doesn't matter even if they are debunked later.

By saying that Satyagraha should recognise the shades of truth and hence not pursue the protest, it is skewing the balance in favour the state, that deliberately creates shades of truth, thereby subjecting the subalterns to injustice, even when justice on their side.

Same is the case with the argument of "no authoritative claim to popular sovereignty". All that one has to say is that no one has an authoritative claim to popular sovereignty and hence stop it.

In a context, where inaction and status-quo is a victory of the state and defeat for the subaltern (common citizen), using plurality as a reason to delegitimize always favours the mighty Leviathan. All that the mighty Leviathan (state) has to do is to delegitimize the subaltern's demands and authority by creating an appearance of plurality, even when there isn't one. Since truth is a function of discourses, the Leviathan has disproportionate power to shape the truth, as compared to the subaltern. 

For instance, consider the Janlokpal movement. The issue wasn't that government denies 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 over sovereignty, which as you can see is an unsettled debate, which in the end favours the status quo and thus the government. Third, questions were raised over the form of protest. Just think of this - the same political parties which regularly organise bandhs obstructing people, create destruction of property, have 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 as they proclaimed, and not to do with the differences over the Lokpal, note what happened 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. There's no reason to not allow fast-unto death, as a form of protest.

In a context, when the apathy towards citizens' concerns is a norm (case in point: TN farmers protesting in Delhi), citizens have very few avenues to make governments listen and some times hold accountable in-between elections. Anyways, governments don't pay attention unless the fast unto death gathers large support, which is rare. 

By denying even this opportunity to citizens, we are snatching the crutch from a limping person. In the name of abstract arguments, we are crippling even the genuine demands of Narmada protestors who didn't receive rehabilitation, group of girls who are fasting for a school building and so on.

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