New Social Movements, Postmodernism, Gandhism and Ambedkarism
- They claim to represent the “people” – the downtrodden Indian masses, without, however, subjecting this claim to the test of democratic elections.
- They are against globalization, which, it is claimed, is bad for the “people”, though apparently not for the anti-globalizers themselves, who nurture elaborate multinational networks of activists and supporters.
- They claim to be fighting for oppressed groups such as Dalits and Adivasis. However, the movement does not actually include any Dalits or Adivasis among its leaders or ideologues.
- They oppose the state as well as large corporations and large funding agencies such as the World Bank. They also oppose large-scale projects. These are seen as fundamentally exploitative of the “people”.
- They claim to be fighting for the protection of the environment, which, in their view means minimizing any kind of substantial new technological intervention in nature. Thus, they denounce nuclear power plants even though these produce far less greenhouse gases than thermal power plants. Similarly, they denounce genetically modified crops even though these have the potential to reduce the need for irrigation and the need for chemical pesticides.
- They criticize the mainstream industrialized, corporate West, though many of the movements’ leaders themselves maintain strong ties with the West.
- They reject Enlightenment ideas of the universalism of science and reason as Western hegemonic impositions. Rather, they claim to be in favor of diverse local or indigenous traditional knowledge and belief systems and ways of organizing society.
- They reject universal indices of measuring development and progress such as GDP, life expectancy, child mortality, literacy rate, etc. Rather, they argue in favor of subjective and local yardsticks, such as “happiness”, “preserving the link between people and the Earth/river/forest/God”, “preserving the wholeness of the community”, etc.
Ideological Basis of the New Social Movements
Sometime in the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment ushered in new ways of thinking in Europe and America. Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and Voltaire sought to discard irrationality, superstition, and inherited dogmas with reason, science and rationality, and believed that systematic thinking should be applied to all spheres of human activity. Since then, many important intellectuals – Karl Marx for instance – have accepted the basic values of the Enlightenment. These values represent “modernity” and form the basis of the rationalist scientific-technological outlook and the each-citizen-is-equal principles that lie at the foundation of the Western democracies. Enlightenment ideas entered the Indian consciousness around the latter half of the 19th century. The Constitution of India, adopted in 1950, lies very much in the Enlightenment tradition.
In the last few decades, a new movement known as postmodernism has become fashionable in intellectual circles, which denounces Enlightenment’s claim to universality. Postmodernists – like Ashis Nandy, one of its leading ideologues – hold that acceptance of Enlightenment ideas by Indians and other non-Westerners represents a “colonization of the mind”. They reject the idea that the spread of rationality and scientific temper are emancipatory, and instead argue for the preservation of “local knowledge systems” embedded in “traditional cosmologies”, religions, and traditional practices of agriculture, medicine, etc.
As far as India is concerned, these postmodern ideas are not new – they were espoused a century ago by Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi, the father of the nation, can be viewed from many different angles – there is Gandhi the nationalist; there is Gandhi the politician; there is Gandhi the prophet of non-violence; and then, there is the Gandhi of Hind Swaraj, the repudiator of modernity and Enlightenment values. It is this last anti-modern Gandhi that postmodernists embrace.
Gandhi’s rejection of modernity and Enlightenment values comes out most forcefully in Hind Swaraj, a short book he wrote in 1909. In his essay Postmodern Gandhi, Lloyd Rudolph characterizes Hind Swaraj as the “opening salvo of the postmodern era”. Here are a few quotes from Hind Swaraj that demonstrate Gandhi’s complete antipathy towards a modern rationalistic scientific-technological world view.
[on Western civilization] Let us first consider what state of things is described by the word “civilization”. ... Formerly, in Europe, people ploughed their lands mainly by manual labor. Now, one man can plough a vast tract by means of steam engines and can thus amass great wealth. This is called a sign of civilization. Formerly, only a few men wrote valuable books. Now, anybody writes and prints anything he likes and poisons people’s minds. ... This civilization takes note neither of morality nor of religion. ... This civilization is irreligion, and it has taken such a hold on the people in Europe who are in it appear to be half mad. ... Women, who should be the queens of households, wander in the streets or they slave away in factories. ... This civilization is such that one has only to be patient and it will be self-destroyed. According to the teaching of Mahommed this would be considered a Satanic Civilization. Hinduism calls it the Black Age.As Lloyd Rudolph has shown in Postmodern Gandhi, Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj world view was never widely accepted either by Congress or by the Constituent Assembly of India. In 1945 Nehru wrote to Gandhi, “it is many years since I read Hind Swaraj ... but even when I read it twenty years ago it seemed to me completely unreal”. He further reminded Gandhi, “... the Congress has never considered that picture (portrayed in Hind Swaraj) much less adopted it”. In those days it was the nationalist, non-violent, humanist Gandhi who was admired and respected by Nehru and others – not the Gandhi of Hind Swaraj. However, things have changed in recent decades. According to Rudolph, “Gandhi’s image and reputation in India began to recuperate in the 1980s when a postmodern Gandhi began to take shape. Books by Ashis Nandy and other postmodernist scholars contributed to the turn-around. The critical and box office success of Richard Attenborough’s 1983 film Gandhi ... fed back to India. .... A newly-remembered Gandhi began to inspire and legitimize a burgeoning civil society of social and political movements and not-for-profit, non-governmental and voluntary organizations”.
[on the railways] The railways, too, have spread the bubonic plague. ... They are the carriers of plague germs. Formerly we had natural segregation. ... Railways accentuate the evil nature of man. Bad men fulfill their evil designs with greater rapidity. The holy places of India have become unholy. Formerly, people went to these places with very great difficulty. Generally, therefore, only the real devotees visited such places. Nowadays rogues visit them in order to practice their roguery.
[on doctors] Doctors have almost unhinged us. Sometimes I think that quacks are better than highly qualified doctors…. The business of a doctor is to … rid the body of diseases that may afflict it. How do these diseases arise? Surely by our negligence or indulgence. I overeat, I have indigestion. I go to a doctor, he gives me medicine, I am cured. I overeat again, I take his pills again. Had I not taken the pills in the first instance, I would have suffered the punishments deserved by me and I would not have overeaten again. The doctor intervened and helped me to indulge myself. My body thereby certainly felt more at ease; but my mind became weakened. A continuance of a course of medicine must, therefore, result in loss of control over the mind. ... and the result is that we have become deprived of self-control.
[on education] If we consider our civilization to be the highest, I have regretfully to say that much of the effort [for compulsory education] ... is of no use. …. To teach boys reading, writing and arithmetic is called primary education. A peasant earns his bread honestly. He has ordinary knowledge of the world. He knows fairly well how he should behave towards his parents, his wife, his children and his fellow villagers. He understands and observes the rules of morality. But he cannot write his own name. What do you propose to do by giving him knowledge of letters? Will you add an inch to his happiness? Do you wish to make him discontented with his cottage or his lot?
According to postmodernist guru, Ashis Nandy, the Gandhi of Hind Swaraj had “decolonized his mind”, had freed himself from the “intimate enemy”, and spoke from “outside the imperium”. Here is a quote from Nandy approvingly describing the connection between the Gandhi of Hind Swaraj and the new social movements:
The third Gandhi is the Gandhi of the ragamuffins, eccentrics and the unpredictable. This Gandhi is more hostile to Coca-Cola than to Scotch whisky and considers the local versions of Coca-Cola more dangerous than imported ones. This is because his objection to highly mechanized fast foods is structural and, therefore, he considers it more dangerous if, on nationalist grounds, long-lasting, deep-rooted Indian structures are created to produce superfluous items of mass consumption within the Indian economy. ... This Gandhi – vintage Hind Swaraj – is also bit of a nag and a spoil-sport. He loves to be a maverick and an oddity in our public life. ... It is this Gandhi who has guided the notorious agitation of Medha Patkar against the Narmada dam, Claude Alvares against Operation Flood, and Vandana Shiva against the Green Revolution. ... this Gandhi and his young friends are a real nuisance to the Indian State. … They are a menace to the common sense that passes as sanity but can be actually called …the psychopathology of everyday public life. (link)Gail Omvedt, one of the most astute participants in this debate, has this to say:
The great values of the Enlightenment and the French revolution are today under attack … not only in India from advocates of pseudo-swadeshi who would see them as merely “Western” but also world-wide, from postmodernists and eco-romanticists who think “progress” is impossible and from Leftists who have taken “liberalism” and “liberty” as bad words. … Eco-romanticism, taking its justification from Mahatma Gandhi, tends to see history as heading into a downspin. … [They argue] that the French Revolution is finished; its ideals cannot be extended to Dalits, women or other sections of the marginalized in the world, and we must turn away from this vain effort to achieve “growth” to acceptance of a society based on limited needs, subsistence production, and stasis. (link)
An Alternative World-View
Other social movements that have come up in India claiming to represent the downtrodden have a very different ideology.
Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, who belonged to the low Mali caste, was the leader of the anti-Brahmin movement in Maharashtra from around the 1840s to 1880s. Phule was greatly influenced by the works of Thomas Paine – one of stalwarts of the Enlightenment. Phule was so taken in by the Enlightenment philosophy of the American Founding Fathers, and with the American slavery abolition movement, that he dedicated one of his books to “the good people of the United States” (link). Today, Mahatma Phule is revered figure in low caste movements all over India.
Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker
E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, reverently called Periyar, was the founder and leader of the anti-Brahmin movement in Tamil Nadu from the 1920s to the 1960s. His movement was known as the Self Respect Movement and he founded the social organization Dravidar Kazhagam. He fought against upper caste domination. Periyar’s ideology was quite the opposite of Hind Swaraj. Periyar was a rationalist and an atheist, and he ridiculed Hindu rituals and superstitions. In contrast to Gandhi’s conspicuous vegetarianism, Periyar made it a point to eat large quantities of meat, including beef. Today, Periyar’s ideas still form an important part of Tamil social consciousness, and offshoots of his Dravidar Kazhagam dominate the political scene in the state.
Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar
Bhimrao Ramji ‘Babasaheb’Ambedkar was one of the greatest leaders that India has ever produced. Ambedkar and his ideas provide inspiration, dignity, and a practical way forward for millions of the most oppressed people in India.
Ambedkar was born in 1891 in an untouchable Mahar family in the Army cantonment of Mhow. British Rule had given his family the chance to break out of their traditional caste occupation. His father served in the Indian Army. Coming from an Army background, young Bhim got a rare opportunity to acquire a modern education. He was one of the first untouchables to go through college. Then, he earned a scholarship for higher studies in the United States. He eventually earned Doctorate degrees from Columbia University in the U.S. and from the London Schools of Economics in England, and was admitted to the London Bar as a barrister.
Ambedkar spent three years (1913 – 1916) at Columbia University in New York City – three years that played a crucial role in his intellectual development. He later recounted that it was at Columbia that he experienced social equality for the first time in his life, and that “the best friends I have had in my life were some of my classmates at Columbia and my great professors, John Dewey, James Shotwell, Edwin Seligman, and James Harvey Robinson” (link). Especially influential was John Dewey, of whom Ambedkar reportedly remarked, “I owe my whole intellectual life to Prof. John Dewey” (link). Dewey’s ideas were very much in the Enlightenment tradition. Ambedkar, like Dewey, held that reason and scientific temper had the potential – for all people everywhere – to challenge unexamined tradition and prejudices by cultivating a collective, democratic “will to inquire, to examine, to discriminate, to draw conclusions only on the basis of evidence after taking pains to gather all available evidence” [Nanda].
In Dr. Ambedkar’s view, an Enlightenment world view, emphasizing reason and a scientific-technological outlook was fundamentally emancipatory in nature, since it provided a means to challenge oppressive traditions and religious dogma. This was diametrically opposed to Gandhi’s Hind Samaj world view. A comparison below of how the two understood the meaning of ‘civilization’ highlights the stark contrast between them.
[Gandhi in Hind Swaraj] Civilization is that mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty. Performance of duty and observance of morality are convertible terms. To observe morality is to attain mastery over our mind and our passions. So doing, we know ourselves. The Gujarati equivalent for civilization means “good conduct”. If this definition be correct, then India … has nothing to learn from anybody else… We notice that the mind is a restless bird; the more it gets the more it wants, and still remains unsatisfied. The more we indulge our passions the more unbridled they become. Our ancestors therefore set a limit to our indulgences. They saw that happiness was largely a mental condition. A man is not necessarily happy because he is rich or unhappy because he is poor. .... Millions will always remain poor. Observing all this, our ancestors dissuaded us from luxuries and pleasures. We have managed with the same kind of plough as existed thousands of years ago. We have retained the same kind of cottages that we had in former times and our indigenous education remains the same as before. We have had no system of life-corroding competition. Each followed his own occupation or trade and charged a regulation wage. (link)While Gandhi did fight against untouchability, he defended the varnashrama dharma (the system of four varnas or castes and four ashramas or stages of life), insisting that untouchability was only an unfortunate corruption of an otherwise sound system (towards the end of his life, Gandhi did make a few statements against the caste system itself). Gandhi’s approach towards untouchables was patronizing. As V.S. Naipaul put it, they were “Harijans, children of God, people for whom good things might be done, objects of sentiment and a passing piety”. Ambedkar, on the other hand, called for outright annihilation of the entire caste system, and called upon Dalits to stand up for their rights as human beings. Ambedkar also rejected the Gandhian vision of an idyllic Ram Rajya made up of peaceful and contended village communities. He declared, “The love of the intellectual Indians for the village community is of course infinite if not pathetic. ... What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness, and communalism?” [Jaffrelot]
[Ambedkar] In Gandhism, the common man has no hope. It treats man as an animal and no more. It is true that man shares the constitution and functions of animals, nutritive, reproductive, etc. But these are not distinctively human functions. The distinctively human function is reason, the purpose of which is to enable man to observe, meditate, cogitate, study and discover the beauties of the Universe and enrich his life. … The conclusion that follows is that … the ultimate goal of man’s existence is not reached unless and until he has fully cultivated his mind. … How then can a life of culture be made possible? It is not possible unless there is sufficient leisure. ... The problem of all problems which human society has to face is how to provide leisure to every individual. … Leisure means the lessening of the toil and effort necessary for satisfying the physical wants of life. … Leisure is quite impossible unless some means are found whereby the toil required for producing goods necessary to satisfy human needs is lessened. What can lessen such toil? Only when machines take the place of man. ... Machinery and modern civilization are thus indispensable for emancipating man from leading the life of a brute, and for providing him with leisure and making a life of culture possible. … A democratic society must assure a life of leisure and culture to each one of its citizens. … The slogan of a democratic society must be machinery, and more machinery, civilization and more civilization. Under Gandhism the common man must keep on toiling ceaselessly for a pittance and remain a brute. In short, Gandhism with its call of back to nature, means back to nakedness, back to squalor, back to poverty and back to ignorance for the vast mass of the people. (link)
In 1936, Ambedkar had declared, “Unfortunately for me I was born a Hindu untouchable. It was beyond my power to prevent that, but I declare that it is within my power to refuse to live under ignoble and humiliating conditions. I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu” [Jaffrelot]. In 1956, he led a mass conversion of Dalits into Buddhism. Ambedkar, however, did not just ask Dalits to convert to one of the existing schools of Buddhism (Mahayana, Hinayana, etc.), rather he launched a new school of Buddhism, which some have labeled ‘Navayana’ – literally the ‘new vehicle’. Ambedkar set forth his Navayana Buddhism in the book The Buddha and His Dhamma (link), in which he laid great stress on encouraging a rational scientific-technological world view, as these following quotes demonstrate.
It is important to note that Dr. Ambedkar did not disdain all tradition. Rather, he chose to selectively promote those traditions that provide support for rationalism and scientific temper. He said, “my social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: liberty, equality and fraternity. Let no one however say that I have borrowed my philosophy from the French Revolution. I have not. My philosophy has its roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my master, the Buddha.” The day before his conversion, Ambedkar underlined his connection to Indian tradition, “Buddhism is part and parcel of Bharatiya culture. I have taken care that my conversion will not harm the tradition of the culture and history of this land.” [Jaffrelot]
Belief in the supernatural is not Dhamma. [The Buddha’s] first object was to lead man to the path of rationalism. … Buddhism is nothing if not rationalism. That is why worship of the supernatural is not Dhamma. [The Buddha and His Dhamma, Book 3 Part 4]
Belief in Ishwara (God) is not essentially part of Dhamma. [Book 3 Part 4]
Belief in the infallibility of books of is not Dhamma. [Book 3 Part 4]
Dhamma to be Saddhamma must promote equality between man and man. [Book 3 Part 5]
Now what is Dhamma? and why is Dhamma necessary? According to the Buddha, Dhamma consists of Prajna and Karuna. What is Prajna? And why Prajna? Prajna is understanding. The Buddha made Prajna one of the two corner-stones of His Dhamma because he did not wish to leave any room for superstition. What is Karuna? And why Karuna? Karuna is love. Because without it, Society can neither live nor grow; that is why the Buddha made it the second corner-stone of His Dhamma. [Book 4 Part 1]
If there is anything which could be said with confidence it is: He was nothing if not rational, if not logical. Anything therefore which is rational and logical, other things being equal, may be taken to be the word of the Buddha. [Book 4 Part 2]
Some More Observations on the New Social Movements
Today, Dalits display a great deal of enthusiasm for Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and his ideas. Ambedkar statues and portraits – usually depicting him in a Western suit and tie – are proudly displayed wherever Dalits live. Following in Ambedkar’s footsteps, Dalits generally do not seem to share the postmodernists’ aversion towards modernity and the West. Consider, for example, the Dalit Goddess called ‘English’, inpired by the Statue of Liberty, unveiled recently by Ambedkarite Dalit columnist Chandrabhan Prasad (see a portrait of Goddess English here and Prasad’s interview here). In view of this, it seems to me that civil society groups, NGOs, etc., who claim to be championing the cause of the downtrodden, should at least take a serious look at Ambedkar’s ideas emphasizing rationality and modernity, rather than blindly follow Gandhian traditionalism and postmodernism. Civil society groups have the potential to play a very positive role in India. Unfortunately, I fear that this potential might largely remain unrealized due to the current tendency of many of these groups to reject modernity and a scientific-technological world view.
Another very serious problem with the postmodernist ideology is that it provides ideological support not only to the new social movements but also to the corrosive and intolerant extremist Hindutva and pseudo-Swadeshi movements. As Meera Nanda has shown, the extreme Hindutva ideology (equating astrology with science, for instance) is a close ideological cousin of postmodernism and Gandhian traditionalism (link). I have not elaborated on this here, but this is a topic worthy of a whole new discussion.
Having said all this, I do have some points of agreement with the new social movements.
On the Environment
One concern raised by the new social movements that I agree with is the need to protect the environment. However I do not agree with them that the solution lies in abandoning the entire concept of development, and moving towards a Gandhian-inspired traditional society with limited needs and subsistence production, populated by contented and unambitious people. My concept of development is completely different. To me, the fundamental idea of development means unlocking human potential. This process of unlocking human potential does involve some use of natural resources, but over-exploitation of natural recourses is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for development. It should be possible, through human ingenuity and technological advancement, to have development without over-exploitation of natural resources.
Another concern raised by the new social movements is the very high degree of inequality in Indian society. I do agree with them that this is a very serious problem. However, I do not agree that the solution lies in being anti-modern, anti-industrialization, anti-economic-growth, anti-Westernization, etc. If there there’s anything worse than the inequality that exists in the modern industrialized part of India, it is the inequality that exists in traditional caste-ridden feudal India. For instance, it is estimated that there are more than 10 million bonded labourers (slaves) in India today (link). In other words, at least one out of every 100 Indians is a slave. However, one finds that slavery, perhaps the worst imaginable form of inequality, is most rampant in India in those occupations and communities that are almost totally untouched by modernity or industrialization or Westernization. True, India’s fast growing information technology sector benefits only a small section of the highly educated, upper-caste, upper-class population of India. Clearly, economic growth must be made much more inclusive. One thing that I think should be done is to introduce some sort of meaningful affirmative action program (maybe reservations, maybe some alternative) in the private corporate sector – the most dynamic part of the Indian economy. I also feel it is important is to encourage the manufacturing sector, which has the potential to provide decent-paying jobs to large numbers of less highly educated people. For this, the government must invest in physical infrastructure – power plants, roads, ports, etc. Every effort must also be made to increase agricultural productivity through technology such as genetically modified seeds, etc. For the long term, the government must invest heavily in universal quality primary education and in basic health care.
Here’s Some Further Reading Available on the Internet
Articles, Essays, Books
1. Hind Swaraj by M.K. Gandhi
2. The Buddha and His Dhamma by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar
3. Dams and Bombs by Gail Omvedt
4. Liberty, Equality, Community by Gail Omvedt
5. Marx and Globalization by Gail Omvedt
6. Postmodernism, Hindu Nationalism and ‘Vedic Science’ by Meera Nanda
7. The Darling of the Dispossessed by Ramachandra Guha
1. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and His People (link)
2. Another very useful Ambedkar web site (link)
3. Prof. Frances Pritchett’s Ambedkar web site at Columbia University (link)
Jaffrelot, Christophe 2005. Dr. Ambedkar and Untouchability. Columbia University Press, New York.
Nanda, Meera 2003. Prophets Facing Backward. Rutgers University Press, New Jersey.