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.

Policy makers vs. Researchers

Gulzar Natarajan argues that development is mainly a faith based activity and that the kind of evidence generated in academia these days, only makes a marginal difference. His point is that many questions that researchers study are all obvious to the policy makers. They are not able to implement them because of the structural impediments.

Gulzar has a point but I heard the opposite too a lot from researchers, that policy makers are often not updated with latest developments in academic research because of their excessive focus on day-to-day activities etc. I personally have also encountered top bureaucrats in education department completely unaware of some of the influential studies in education. So, both are to at blame. One can explain this better with the cricket analogy.

Policy makers are like a "poor batsman" in the field, facing Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee, with a broken helmet, torn gloves, and under-fed. From their vantage point, it seems that they know all the "technique" (right things to do) but they are constrained by the aforementioned factors. All that they think they need is to be provided with these better conditions, and they will execute all the right techniques.

Researchers are like commentators sitting outside, partly oblivious to the batsman's condition. Their main job is to comment on the 'technique". From their vantage point, it looks like the batsman lacks technique, from the way they react to the balls.

Additionally, things move very slow in real life. So, it's like watching this batsman in slow motion, facing Yorkers. When watched in slow motion, even minute deviations that might not matter in the larger picture, seem pretty big (and become worth writing papers on).

The truth may be somewhere in between. The batsman may choose to believe that he knows all technique but the focus on getting around impediments like torn gloves etc. may have taken his mind off the technique, and hence might not have studied them in depth or be updated with latest developments.

Similarly, no matter how hard they try, it's difficult for commentators to completely appreciate the share of torn glove's factor in the lack of display of technique.

Interaction will help both - commentators will appreciate the real world factors, and policy makers will realize that they actually don't know as much technique as they think do. Their excessive focus on the day-to-day picture may have constrained their ability to look at the big picture and reflect. 

Even the best batsman in the world will gain from an external analyst, who dissects his moves closely, finds faults in patterns and suggests recommendations. The reason, why, as Atul Gawande says, even Olympic players have coaches. Needless to say, this is useful only if the batsman is in a position to implement, which many aren't due to the impediments like torn gloves and so on.

On college admissions in Tamil Nadu: +2 exams vs. Entrance exam

The NEET has raised a debate over the admission criteria of higher education colleges in Tamil Nadu. Generally,  the college admission is based on performance in an entrance test, with women and caste based quotas, as an affirmative action measure. Tamil Nadu did away with the entrance test in 2007. Since then, admissions to these colleges are based on performance on +2 marks. The cited rationale is that entrance tests disadvantage rural students.

People are citing three different arguments to base admissions on +2 marks and not NEET.

1. NEET, an entrance exam puts rural students at a disadvantage because they often don't have the resources to take coaching.

2. The "merit" based approach (NEET) is flawed because merit is a function of family background and not necessarily an individual's efforts. Hence, we should have an equitable entrance exam, for which everyone has access. The +2 board exams fit this criterion and NEET doesn't. This is an extension of the first argument.

3. TN's approach to higher education is to provide higher education exposure to the maximum number of students possible, what is called the "upper funnel approach". Hence, the pass percentage is high as compared to other states. NEET does away with this.

Though the above concerns are genuine, they still don't make a strong case for using +2 exams as the criterion instead of an entrance examination. The problems with the above arguments are as follows. Broadly there are two issues - the design of +2 exams, and the best way to correct "birth privileges".

Issues with the design of exam:

1. Eligibility vs. Ordering: Eligibility is getting minimum marks while admission to different colleges is based on ordering (rank) and not on minimum marks.

The "upper funnel approach" (TN's strategy to provide exposure to higher education) confuses between eligibility and ordering.

If providing higher exposure is the concern, TN can have "passing +2 exams" as the criteria, while allocating seats based on NEET. This won't harm the purpose of providing exposure to higher education. Thus, this can't be a reason to reject NEET.

2. Eligibility exam vs. Selection exam: A lot of this confusion is because of the lack of appreciation of the concepts of "qualification exams" vs. "selection exams".

In the theory of test design, there are two types of exams - qualification exams and selection exams. These exams are differentiated based on their capability to "differentiate the candidates".

For instance, if I ask a room full of graduates "What is 1+1?". Everyone will answer "2". So, I can't make a reasonable judgment about the ability of the candidates based on this question. This question (1+1) thus can't differentiate between people. It can, however, be an eligibility. If a person can't even answer 1+1, then one can reject that candidate. But, one can select because someone answered 1+1.

Thus, problems arise when we use "qualification exams" to "select" students. Qualification exams are supposed to test minimum criteria, they don't have "differentiation capability". They can't be used to make a reasonable estimation of the capability of the candidates.

This is exactly the case with +2 exams and NEET. +2 exams are qualification exams. Often, the questions in these exams are rote based, are repeated across years, and are prone to mark inflation. One of my friends points out that there are around 1000 seats in Anna University and around 600+ students get "100%" marks in +2 exams. It is a clear reflection of the differentiation capability of +2 exams. This is the equivalent of 1+1 question above. Entrance exams also have instances of people scoring same marks, but they are at later ranks, not in the top range.

Just to clarify, it doesn't mean that people getting 100% marks don't have capability. It just means that when a large number of people get those marks, you can't differentiate between people. As in the above example of 1+1, everyone can answer it, including Einstein and others. Answering the question doesn't mean that Einstein doesn't have the capability. It just means that Einsteins can't be differentiated by questioning 1+1. If it's used, we treat all as Einsteins, which is unfair.

+2 marks can hence be used to permit students to pursue the college education but they can't be used to order students, in other words, to select students to Anna University or to decide the branches within Anna University.

In short, +2 exams and entrance exams serve different purposes. One is for testing basic competencies, other is for selection. It's better to keep both separate.

3. Using +2 marks is more immoral than entrance exam: Access to resources is the problem with entrance examination and hence admissions based on these results is termed immoral. But, using +2 marks is more immoral because it is a lottery for all practical purposes.

As noted above, if there are only 1000 seats in Anna University and the first 600 people get same marks, the allocation is done based on "birth year" and a "random number allocated to the candidate". This is essentially a lottery. A person may miss a seat in a particular branch, merely because of getting a wrong lottery number.

If randomness of the place of birth is considered immoral, this random allocation is equally immoral. If anything, a hard working rural student might get treated equally with a non-hardworking urban candidate in this procedure. It levels everyone.

4. +2 exams seem equitable because of marks inflation and not due to equal access: One of the arguments is that using +2 marks is an equitable criterion because of the lower barriers to access to +2 colleges as compared to exam coaching centres. This isn't true.

+2 marks seem equitable only because the exams are of poor standard and marks are inflated. The moment we try to enhance the standards of these exams and test real understanding, the same problems with entrance exams kick in.

So, we shouldn't be misled by the mask of high marks scoring capability in +2 exams, for being an equitable exam.

5. +2 exams are important of rote learning: Year end exams influence the nature of teaching in class rooms. If the exams are based on questions that require rote learning, the learning in classroom is also geared towards that. If the exams ask questions involving a deep understanding of cconcepts classroom learning also strives to achieve that.

In India, +2 exams are as rote as an exam can get. The questions are usually from the exercises at the end of the chapter. Students are tested repeatedly on these same questions, so that they reproduce appropriately.

Using +2 exams for admission to engineering and medical entrance will increase the stakes and only promote rote learning.

On merit:

1. Differentiating efforts within the group and between groups: The arguments of "higher income" and "urban" advantages are genuine but such comparison "between groups" misses a point.

Many students with "urban" or "higher income" criteria write the exam. Not everyone qualifies. Attributing ranks to only these criteria fails to appreciate the "efforts factor" that differentiate between the qualifiers and non-qualifiers within the "urban", "higher income" groups.

A hard working "urban" student should thus be differentiated from another "urban" student that didn't put required efforts. Similarly, a "rural" student that didn't put required efforts should be differentiated from a hard working "rural" student with a similar background.

+2 exams don't do that because of their poor differentiating capability, as discussed above. With a high number of students scoring top marks, seat allocation parallels a lottery for all practical purposes. It does disservice to students, as it fails to differentiate students "within groups" (urban or rural) and places everyone on the same plane.

Remember that attempts to enhance the quality of +2 exams, thereby increasing their differentiating capability, will again lead to the same concerns cited regarding entrance exams (access to quality colleges or coaching).

2. We already correct for "place of birth": All the above arguments suggest that +2 marks aren't an appropriate criterion for ordering the candidates. But, the question of privilege of birth that determines performance in entrance exams still remains. It is true that accident of birth plays a significant role. There's no denying.

However, one must note that we already correct for such vagaries of birth in the form of caste-based and gender-based quotas in college admissions.

We can definitely have caste and gendered based quotas, and we should have, but we will only be fooling ourselves and students if we try to address the problem by inflating the marks.

Thus, overall, using +2 marks for ordering students is a very bad idea.

Finally, as Akilan points out, TN stopped collecting "rural/urban" data of students. He asks "Where is the government data on admission of rural students? Are we just whipping emotions using anecdotes that fit our narrative?"

Thanks to Akilan for educating me on this topic. I benefitted from discussions with him.

People spent 91% on food in Bihar cash transfer intervention

The possibility of spending money on alcohol etc. is one of the primary arguments against cash transfers. I had earlier blogged that these fears may be exaggerated. We have RCTs from several countries showing that this isn't the case - the poor don't spend money on alcohol if they are given cash.

This is counter intuitive to the experience of many who have visited Indian villages, where rampant alcoholism is a big problem. 

One of the reasons for the divergence from seeming reality is that spending choices depend on the labelling of money. If money is given to people, saying that it's meant for a particular purpose, they are more likely to spend only towards that activity. This is unlike salary, which comes with no strings attached, where we see the expenditure on alcohol. The other reason is that cash transferred into women's account are spent differently from those transferred to men's account.

But still, people used to ask evidence from India. We now have evidence from a conditional cash transfer intervention in Bihar regarding the amount spent on food. Remember that this intervention is in Bihar, where alcoholism is a big issue. So, this is tested in one of the areas more likely to see spending on alcohol.

Bihar started a conditional cash transfer intervention to address malnutrition in children. Each mother gets Rs.250/- per month till 2 years. She receives 2,000 bonus at the end of 2 years if the child is not under weight. She also has to adhere to certain conditions like regular visits to health centre etc.

Oxford Policy Management has evaluated this programme. They found that

1. 91% money is spent on food. Majority of the rest money is spent on health and related issues.
2. Cash given to beneficiaries was not spent on tobacco or alcohol.

This is yet another piece of evidence in the emerging literature that disputes the popularly held notions about spending patterns of the poor. There might be other reasons for choosing or not choosing cash transfers over other methods but we need to certainly place less emphasis on the concerns over spending on alcohol and tobacco.

PS: The intervention reduced "wasted children" by around 8%.