One of the challenges that contemporary activism faces is the dismissal of “human rights” as “Western”, without any roots in Indian culture. To some extent, activists themselves have ceded ground when it comes to culture and religion, even as they seek to defend humanist values, justice and rights using the language of the Constitution.

As historian Ramachandra Guha notes in an article in the EPW, this arises from the fall of the “bilingual intellectual” like Ambedkar, who “knew his Tukaram, but also his John Stuart Mill”, and the rise of the English-speaking intellectual with roots in Antonio Gramsci and Karl Marx but not in the Mahabharata or the vachanas of Basavanna. This loss of “intellectuals who are properly linguidextrous” has meant that the conceptual vocabulary of protest, originating from the monolingual activist and academic, is often impoverished.

It is important that activists are able to employ cultural metaphors that arise from, and speak to, the experience of the common person. To put it simply, the reference to Nero when one means an authoritarian ruler may not be grasped as easily as the metaphor of Kamsa. To give another example, the lassitude of a politician who refuses to respond to your concerns may be better invoked through Kumbhakarna rather than Rip Van Winkle.

Further, it should be noted that writing in English and in journals has a limited reach. As Guha notes in another article, “dexterity in multiple languages” is “a tool” for “reaching out to more people, and expanding the ambit of the debate, and consequently increasing the number of participants in the debate”.

Ambedkar, for instance, never relied solely on texts with Western provenance, making a sustained effort, especially in the later part of his life, to return to texts and traditions with Indian lineage and producing such work as his celebrated re-interpretation of Buddhism in Buddha and His Dhamma. His extensive engagement with religion and his conversion to Buddhism may have come from an understanding of the limitations of the constitutional argument’s form, and the necessity for also thinking of dissent within the “idiom of religion”, as historian Romila Thapar writes in Voices of Dissent.

It could be said that this was the spirit in which Ambedkar moved away from attributing the idea of fraternity to the French Revolution, as he did during the Mahad Satyagraha in 1927, to stating that fraternity was not alien to India as it was nothing other than the Buddhist principle of maitreyi.

However, it is not only a question of greater “reach” through finding appropriate cultural metaphors but also, more importantly, about recovering a cultural memory of dissent. As Thapar demonstrates, dissent is an Indian tradition, with texts such as the Mahabharata encoding dissenting viewpoints within. Her larger argument is that there is a “narrowness” to the “contemporary definition of Indian culture” as it “excludes...assenting and dissenting dimensions that are inevitable in the creation of any expansive culture”.

Apart from the scope for creative interpretations of mainstream traditions and texts, there are also entire traditions in India that arose as a form of dissent. Perhaps the most powerful of these was the emergence of the Bhakti tradition in south India, which was based on a critique of Brahminical Hinduism’s acceptance of hierarchy and inequality.

It was a truly subaltern revolt, with the “religious rebels” including “boatmen, washermen, watermen, tanners, cobblers, tailors, barbers, shepherds, labourers, basket weavers, fishermen, toddy sellers and peasants”, notes author Mukunda Rao in Sky-clad. The Bhakti tradition also critiqued notions of gender and sexuality, and nobody embodied this critique better than the well-known poet Akka Mahadevi, who walked naked, “breast to breast” with the cosmos.

The challenge to Brahminism was not only in terms of radical thoughts and ideas but also how these transmuted into radical action. Basavanna’s life is an exemplar of revolutionary provocation, such as when he blessed a wedding between a Brahmin girl and a boy from the cobbler caste, both of whom were his followers.

The explosive potential of this wedding is described in Karnad’s play Taledanda quite simply: “...this is not a wedding, it is a revolution”. Basavanna, in Karnad’s retelling, goes on to say that “the orthodox will see the mingling of castes as a blow at the very roots of varnashrama dharma. Bigotry has not faced such a challenge in two thousand years.”

This wedding across lines of caste has since formed the basis of several contemporary Kannada plays, such as Sankranti by P Lankesh and Mahachaitra by HS Shivaprakash. We must now draw upon this tradition – from Basavanna’s revolutionary act in the twelfth century to contemporary attempts to remember and recreate his life – to critique, for instance, the anti-love laws of Yogi Adityanath’s governance in Uttar Pradesh.

In August 2020, during the inauguration pooja for the Ram temple in Ayodhya – to be constructed over the ruins of the Babri masjid – Prime Minister Modi was quoted as saying that finally a grand temple would be built for “our Ram Lalla who had to live under a tent for years”.

For those who vested their faith in the Constitution, the day was one of sadness, loss, hurt and betrayal. The language of the Constitution on secularism and justice can capture this shock. However, there is another critique available of the prime minister’s words, rooted in the spiritual traditions of India.

The rich
Will make temples for Shiva
What shall I,
A poor man, do?
My legs are pillars,
The body the shrine,
The head a cupola of god
Listen oh lord of the meeting rivers,
Things standing shall fall
But the moving ever shall stay

Basavanna’s critique was of the “priestly dictatorship over spiritual matters and, more importantly, against the institutionalisation of god(’s) grace and the sacred’, writes Rao. This remarkable verse, according to the eminent translator AK Ramanujan, “dramatises several of the themes and oppositions characteristic of the protest movement called Virashaivism”.

The movement was a “social upheaval by and for the poor, the low caste and the outcaste against the rich and the privileged; it was the rising of the unlettered against the literate pundit, flesh and blood against stone”.

Basavanna’s vachana evokes a tradition that views the true relationship between god and human as being intimate and personal, and worship as being an offering of the self. He would have been shocked at the spiritual poverty of a world view which, like the “rich”, takes pride in building a “magnificent temple”.

There is an Indian culture that has radical and dissenting strands, and is often at odds with what is taken to be “Indian” culture. Any activism for the future should be able to draw from these dissenting strands to shape a broader humanistic vision of freedom and justice.

India’s Undeclared Emergency: Constitution and the Politics of Resistance

Excerpted with permission from India’s Undeclared Emergency: Constitution and the Politics of Resistance, Arvind Narrain, Context.