Radical brotherhood

Fraternity and the republic

By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 28.01.16

The death of Rohith Vemula raises the question of fraternity in the life of this republic in the starkest possible way. India borrowed France's republican motto - liberty, equality and fraternity - and incorporated it into its Constitution. Liberty, rooted in individual rights, and equality, defined as equal access to these rights, are ideas that have become part of everyday democratic discourse, but fraternity remains a vague good intention. What can brotherhood mean in political terms? How can it be expressed in policy or legislation? And how is the value of community to be reconciled with the rights-bearing individual citizen, central to modern democracy?

In a society as hierarchical as India's, fraternity, understood as fellowship, barely exists. Louis Dumont's central insight in Homo Hierarchicus is that the caste system celebrates hierarchy, it considers it a social good. While all societies are unequal, brahminical Hinduism celebrates inequality. Even the notional equality of all believers that characterizes faiths like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism has no place within orthodox Hinduism. A society that supplies canonical sanction for inferiority and discrimination will struggle with the idea of a common humanity, the necessary precondition for fraternity.

The colonial State's willingness to patronize a brahminical understanding of Indian society led to a consolidation of caste inequality. Both Nicholas Dirks and Susan Bayly write about the unprecedented way in which the ostracism of Dalits was systematized under the aegis of the Raj.

So, when India became independent the constituent assembly was confronted with the task of institutionalizing political brotherhood in an ideologically unfraternal society. The founders, led by B.R. Ambedkar, recognized that universal adult franchise and a charter of fundamental rights weren't enough because the social disenfranchisement of Dalits and tribals would exclude them from any share of political office, government jobs or educational opportunity. To bring them to the table, to guarantee them representation, the constituent assembly made reservations for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes mandatory.

It's important that we identify the goal of reservations and name it accurately. The goal is not equality. No one, certainly not Ambedkar, imagined that reservations would emancipate Dalits in the mass. The argument that reservations represent a pernicious tokenism that creates a 'creamy layer' while leaving the rest marooned in their deprivation, misreads, deliberately or innocently, the point of reservations. Reservations are meant to create a Dalit vanguard that represents an excluded community at the high table of privilege.

In an unequal society divided not just horizontally by class but vertically by identity, one of fraternity's many meanings is the fellowship of elites. It is the reason that Muslims scan the civil services lists to see how many of their own have made it. It is why the lopsidedly upper-caste ownership of India's mass media and the uniformly savarna origins of its editors and anchors matter. It is why the social composition of India's army, its police, its judiciary and its corporate class should concern us. The absence or radical under-representation of large communities in these institutions should worry us because they indicate a lack of fraternity that can't be waved away by the magic wand of merit or the soothing invocation of a more inclusive but impossibly remote future. Fraternity can't wait upon an eternally deferred equality; our founding fathers understood that when they wrote reservations into republican institutions.

Fraternity had a chequered career in France in the 19th century. It was sometimes appropriated by Christians, socialists and traditionalists alike, to imply that the republican virtues were rooted in Christian brotherhood. The sangh parivar's insistence that the political culture of the republic be marinaded in the juices of Hindu community, is a variant of this conservative construction of fraternity. The concerted attempt by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to co-opt Dalits and assimilate them into their vision of a Hindu Rashtra is a form of paternalism, dressed up as brotherhood.

Rohith believed in fraternity of a radical kind, the brotherhood of the marginalized. He expressed his solidarity with Muslims whom he saw as a beleaguered minority. He helped screen the documentary film on the communal violence in Muzaffarnagar and he demonstrated against the hanging of Yakub Memon. He and his Dalit friends chose to invoke a brotherhood that threatened and challenged the sangh parivar's narrow, majoritarian nationalism. Little wonder that every organization of the parivar - from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad on campus to the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre - was mobilized against him.

Rohith Vemula's death was the result of an absolute dissolution of fraternity and community. The university, which is meant to be an autonomous community of the intellectually engaged, allowed itself to be used for political vendetta. Instead of being a temporary haven from the savage hierarchies of the real world, it replicated them by suspending Rohith and his friends, unhousing them and cutting off their stipends. Having come this far (he was a doctoral student) he was abruptly shown his prescribed place in the world by a vice-chancellor who chose to do the bidding of a hectoring State.

There was a time when the State (even the colonial State) didn't send policemen into a university campus till the vice-chancellor asked for them because the university's students were considered his wards. Some years ago, the university at which I teach, Jamia Millia Islamia, was sharply criticized for extending legal aid to students arrested for being complicit in the Batla House encounter. It was accused of overreaching, for showing solidarity with students tainted by terrorism. As the father of university-going children, I know which attitude I'd prefer if they got into trouble on a residential campus. I would rather have a vice-chancellor who acted as if he were in loco parentis even if he exceeded that brief, to one who behaved like an over-zealous public prosecutor and hounded his student to death.

Rohith Vemula died a Dalit, abandoned by the other solidarities that ought to have rescued him: the camaraderie of studenthood, the fraternity of campus life, the shared, subversive delight of being young in a middle-aged world. His fate reflects the rejection of fraternity in our institutions, in their hostility to reservations, their barely concealed contempt for students on a quota. His death asks us a question: is the republic a secularized version of the caste system or is it its fraternal antithesis? In 1793, the beleaguered French republic's motto was revised to read " Unité, Indivisibilité de la République; Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité ou la mort' [Unity, indivisibility of the Republic; liberty, equality, brotherhood or death]". Tried beyond endurance, Rohith Vemula chose death. A republic worth its name should be haunted by that choice.