When Protests Become Intolerant

Dr. N. Sukumar

Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic.
~ Baba Saheb Ambedkar1.

The past few weeks have witnessed a plethora of views, statements, interviews and blogs wherein everyone is striving to prove their liberal credentials and protect their academic sanctity. The pedigreed academic community has suddenly woken up to realise that the world has changed. No longer will their patronising words and utterances be accepted as gospel truth. The establishment has hit back with the enormous social and cultural capital at their command.

The day after Nandy's comment at the JLF, a student observed that what he has said is correct for these communities are notorious for their dishonesty. Another student at a premier university in the national capital wanted to work on Dalit students' suicides in educational institutions. This student was discouraged by the faculty to do so, as it is not an important issue worthy of research. While attending an interview for lectureship, a student was asked informally once the interview was over about his research areas. He replied that he worked on the novel, 'Joothan'. A 'friendly' teacher suggested to him that, "Being an OBC why you want to work on Dalit issues? With this topic, you are putting your employment into jeopardy?"

drona ekalavya


Hence, the research agenda is set by the academia and only certain topics are considered worthy of research in their elite universe. As part of my academic duties at Delhi University, I devised a course on "Human Dignity" for M. Phil students. To my utter surprise, a professor threw a tantrum about the course. This prompted me to reflect as to whether my teaching abilities are being questioned, because after all, I am a quota appointee. At a subterranean level, they might also be threatened that gradually their hold over pedagogy is being challenged. It is possible for a student to graduate without being aware of stalwarts like Jotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Periyar or Narayana Guru. Oh Ambedkar! The guy who gave us the constitution and also reservations which has polluted our country and its institutions. These people are not kosher. It is possible to multiply such experiences. How can we forget that certain sections of the Indian public have enjoyed and continue to enjoy social and cultural capital for centuries as they possess a 'pure' and unsullied cultural past? Are they not responsible for censoring our thoughts and writings?

Any person from the margins, without the benefit of a family farm, has to negotiate his/her way through the maze of this treacherous caste ridden society. Let's face it folks.........who gets invited to TV studios? A) You need to speak the Queen's language without any trace of your vernacular accent. B) You also require certain glamour. God forbid- that if you are murdered or raped as an SC/ST/OBC, which is an ever present reality for our "lesser citizens" in some hamlet in Bharat. No candlelit protests at India Gate and no crowds at Jantar Mantar. No one will bother to organize signature campaigns or form solidarity fronts on their behalf.

The marriage between modernity and traditional Brahmanism resulted in new forms of violence/atrocities on the marginalized groups. Although the Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989 by defining atrocity and the forms of atrocities lodged several legal measures to prevent these, the success and failure of certain anticipatory measures would depend on the changes in complex socio-historical-ideological roots of violence and atrocities. The nature of modern-Brahmanism and its extension into the body-politic2 is the basic reason behind all kinds of atrocities and this has further got entrenched into structural-functional domain of politics and governance. In the normative sense, public sphere is supposedly egalitarian, where differences are negotiated within the precincts of liberal and humanistic ideologies.

The very essence of universal 'public sphere' of Habermas was never realized in the empirical context of India as (a) it is not accessible to all, (b) ascribed identities are not bracketed but play a significant role in inter-personal exchange, (c) majority of the population are illiterate and devoid of property (d) conflicts of interest and identity does not recognize common issues, (e) groups are excluded on ascriptive statuses to participate in rational-critical debate, (f) there is no 'common language' for communication, (g) the public dimension to constitutional rights on the autonomy of the individuals are not accomplished, (h) the logic of power is never absent from public domain of deliberation, and (i) the 'public' and 'political' was confined among the modern, educated elites and dominant classes in India3. Partha Chatterjee argues that civil society refers to 'those institutions of associational life originating in Western societies that are based on equality, autonomy, freedom of entry and exit, contract, deliberative procedures of decision making, recognised rights and duties of members and such other principles'4 What is of concern is that in a caste based society, freedom is contingent with death, (ironically, caste envelopes even the death rituals, so technically, there is no freedom from caste) there is only entry and no exit, only duties and no rights.

Such an egalitarian civil society is an utopia for the marginalized groups. The idea of citizenship in India is foregrounded not on the basis of legal-rational norms but on privileged ascriptive status. This is amply clear when articles in the English media castigate the protesters as "illiterate goons", "Mr. Intolerant", "culture rogues", "narrow minded vicious people", "anti democratic forces", "enemies of the open society", etc. Does one assume that the protestors lack agency of their own and are simply driven by emotions, acting at the behest of their political masters? The people who protest are only capable of the "language of abuse" while the liberals' posses an independent mind and proclaim it with sophistication.

For long, the Indian Republic has been hijacked by the so-called saviours of society. They set the terms of discourse and expected everyone else to fall in line. Whenever any protest occurs, they attempt to promote the hagiography of their ilk and seek respite from the state. Suddenly, they espouse the language of freedom and rights by invoking the constitution. Their collective amnesia helps to cushion their existence. Very conveniently, they forget that for majority of Indians, (as described above), the language of rights is conspicuous by its absence.

In this context, it is essential to revisit Upendra Baxi's formulation of citizenship criteria. Any negotiation regarding citizenship needs a vantage point from which two unequal groups can claim their rights. For SC/ST/OBC, no such vantage point exists since they are 'non-persons'. They survive under an overwhelming culture of silence without any institution recognizing their rights. Tragically, any attempt to break this culture of silence and assert their 'personhood' is met with brutality in multiple forms.



[1] Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol. VII, p. 38

[2] G. Aloysius, Brahmanical Inscribed in Body Politic, Critical Quest, New Delhi, 2010, p.20

 [3] Sarbeswar Sahoo, http://sahoo.files.wordpress.com/2007/11/civil-society-and-subaltern-counterpublics-in-india.pdf, Accessed on 25th May 2011 at 10am, p-6.

[4] Partha Chatterjee, 'Beyond the Nation', Social Text 16(56), 1998, p.48


Please also read recent articles on the same issue:

Ashis Nandy's comment: A Need to Think and Re-think!: by Jyotsna Siddharth

The Emperor Has No Clothes: by Dr. N. Sukumar

"Is Ashis Nandy a sacred cow?" by Dalit Camera: Through Un-Touchable Eyes

"I am not for Ashis Nandy's arrest, I want to expose him" by Dalit Camera: Through Un-Touchable Eyes

 Nandy's militia of liberals: by Parakh Chouhan



Dr. N. Sukumar teaches Political Science at Delhi University. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar.

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