Imagining the politics of fraternity

As the Rahul Gandhi-led Bharat Jodo Yatra, which is passing through Haryana now, is scheduled to make its way towards Srinagar in another 10 days or so in the punishing north Indian winter, it is fair to ask what it has achieved. From the outset, it was made clear that although the yatra was a political undertaking, it did not have an electoral motive. However, the yatra has succeeded in the important task of imagining and inaugurating a political counterculture grounded on the principle of fraternity or Bandhutva. Here, it is important to underline that in the eyes of our nation’s founders, fraternity was not merely a value to aspire to, but a foundational principle to be upheld by all the political forces; hence, it was included in the Preamble as well as in the fundamental duties of our Constitution.

The emergence of the principle of fraternity

Since the emergence of the modern nation state, the values of liberty, equality and fraternity have been the touchstone of all democratic projects across the world. However, these values have been articulated and interpreted differently within specific historical and political contexts. Interestingly, although the values of liberty and equality have been given abundant philosophical and political attention, fraternity remains undertheorised and seldom invoked.

Traditionally there were two ideas of fraternity. The first emerged from the Judeo-Christian world view which envisaged a brotherhood among men owing to the belief that all men were ‘children of God’. The second more radical and secular idea of fraternity was born out of the crucible of the French Revolution. Here, fraternity denoted a sense of solidarity and brotherhood among those who were opposed to the tyrannical monarchical order. This idea became the basis of modern citizenship.

The Indian context

In the Indian context, Bandhutva emerged during the process of anti-colonial struggle and the concomitant process of nation-building. The most ardent champion of Bandhutva was Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. He was deeply disturbed by the absence of ‘public conscience’ or empathy among the Hindus for their fellow human beings who were subjected to the degrading practice of untouchability. He rightly argued that the absence of fraternity, owing to caste consciousness within Hindu society, was the primary reason for the colonisation of India and the chief impediment in nation-building.

In The Buddha and his Dhamma, he argued that any society which sanctioned the supremacy of one group over the other is bound to have perpetual conflict. The only way to resolve this conflict is to make fraternity universally effective. For Ambedkar, fraternity was the fundamental enabling condition for the realisation of liberty and equality, which would otherwise merely be ‘coats of paint’.

Therefore, he warned the Constituent Assembly that India could be held together not merely by laws but by a feeling of brotherhood among the people. If the political class failed to popularise the values of equality and fraternity among the people, India’s freedom would be imperilled once more. In fact, so important was Bandhutva to safeguard the moral order of the nation — and humanity at large — that he anchored it within the Navayana Buddhist tradition before embracing it; thereby, elevating it from the realm of the secular to the sacred.

Satyagraha for Bandhutva against Hindutva

We are living in an age of extreme inequality. Across the world, the principle of fraternity is threatened by the political culture spawned by extreme social and economic polarisation with one enabling the other. As a result, we see xenophobia and racial tensions rear their ugly head. In India, the Narendra Modi regime is the primary vehicle of such a politics of polarisation and Hindutva is its principal source of ideological legitimation.

It is not as if caste or communal violence was absent earlier; however, what has changed is the political patronage extended to the perpetrators of such violence by this regime. The cases of Bilkis Bano, Afrazul, Kathua, Hathras and Unnao or the use of violent hate speech are painful reminders of such a politics. On the economic front, the top 1% have cornered more than 40% of the wealth in 2021; while the poor and middle classes struggle with inflation. Such a politics threatens to tear apart our social fabric.

In such a context, Mr. Gandhi is safeguarding the principle of fraternity by reintroducing the language of ahimsa (non-violence), nirbhayta (fearlessness), samata (equality) and samvaad (dialogue) in the political discourse and reinforcing our common humanity. This is nothing new, as these were the very principles which guided our nation during our freedom struggle. While there have been many important mass campaigns to uphold and expand liberty and equality since Independence, this is the biggest mass campaign to defend and entrench fraternity in Independent India. This is a duty considered sacred by Ambedkar.

The Bharat Jodo Yatra has succeeded in the important task of imagining and inaugurating a political counterculture grounded on the principle of fraternity