How fraternity in India is different from the idea enshrined in the Constitution

Fraternity does not mean anything if it glosses over social inequalities and then invokes social solidarity. Such a solidarity comes riding on the hate against an imaginary other, and tends to maintain social status quo

September 13, 2023 08:30 am | Updated 11:10 pm IST

For representative purposes.

For representative purposes. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The idea of fraternity, as philosopher Angel Puyol argues in his 2019 book Political Fraternity- Democracy beyond Freedom & Democracy, should be mainly understood in the domain of the political. That is to say that the concept involves the emancipation and empowerment of the people despite its variegated history, since the time of Plato; and though neglected, it remains a significant tenet of liberal political philosophy along with the idea of liberty and equality. India’s independence struggle, and the subsequent emergence of constitutional democracy saw the necessity of liberty, equality and fraternity for a complex Indian society at the precipice of becoming an independent republic. In this context, Ambedkar’s stress on the inseparability of the three ideas and the underlining of fraternity cannot be emphasised enough. The framers of the Indian Constitution knew the significance of fraternity in a society, divided on the basis of various hierarchical social inequalities.

Ironically though, fraternity also happens to be the constitutional value that has received the maximum neglect both in the world of ideas and in the political field of action. However, the notion of fraternity has its own journey within India’s sociology, regardless of its huge political purchase otherwise. While fraternity remains one of the chief goals of India’s parliamentary democracy, and is actually the foundational political objective of its constitutional democracy, the current nature of India’s fraternity is different from the political fraternity espoused in its Constitution.

Origins of the concept

The idea of fraternity has been an elusive concept since ancient times. In Plato’s Lysis, the philosopher invokes the word philia (love) for the strong desire to pursue wisdom. That is, love and friendship with others becomes more meaningful through the sharing of knowledge. The emphasis is on ‘share’ which gives us an early idea on the discourse of fraternity in ancient Greece. In Aristotle, we see the emergence of the polis — the logical location of a man who remains, first and foremost, a political being, and hence is part of the polis and not of the wild. Justice and friendship among citizens came to be the most enduring features of the polis. This here, is the birth of the idea of political fraternity.

In the middle ages, fraternity flourished mostly through religion, within the churning of Christian society in Europe. The concept of fraternity then eventually found its entry into politics with the French revolution of 1789 in the triptych of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’. From the civic-politico friendship of ancient Greece, to medieval Christian society, and then to its revolutionary dimension, fraternity has always found a place in the ever-evolving world of action.

Friendship among equals

In community ties, as M. C. Williams in The Idea of Fraternity in America (1973) explains, one sees an integral value system which is the foundation of the idea of fraternity. And it’s not surprising that, in the western world, that is how the idea of fraternity grew. The privileging of the idea of community and the moral values associated with it, over the individual, gradually gave way to religious morality and its associated ‘way of life’. This elementary dimension of fraternity is missing when we assess fraternal ties in India. For, in order to have fraternal bonding between individuals, they must have a shared past. And that shared past has to be an amicable one, and cannot be drawn from ideological differences rooted in the vast social inequalities among different communities. Since ideological motivations hamper political fraternity between individuals, one has to have a secular conception of fraternity, and subsequently of its politics. Decidedly, the shared history of India is marred by the caste system, and it militates against the principle of equality as well as the idea of liberty. The traditional roots of organising civic life in India is predominantly communal; but the Constitution privileges the individual — ensconced in the liberty, equality, and fraternity troika — leading to everyday conflict with community. Therefore, the only conception of fraternity feasible for India must be rooted in politics — the only realm where caste privilege can be challenged. The idea needs to be curated and carved, and instilled through political conditioning and not from the stand point of any moral considerations. One of the main ideas behind the introduction of a slew of affirmative actions — of which the reservation system has survived — was to build a certain equality between extremely different social groups in terms of their access to social and economic goods.

On the formulation of liberty, equality and fraternity co-existing as mutually indispensable preconditions to citizenship rights, besides Ambedkar of course, we also see John Rawls stressing on the same principle in his Theory of Justice (1971), wherein his ‘difference principle’ works towards maintaining a certain equality in order to realise political fraternity. The idea was and still is to create a level playing field between varying social groups, locked in structural hierarchies, to begin to understand what it takes to really actualise fraternal relations. This can only be possible with the underlying acceptability of the idea of equality. In the absence of this crucial understanding, what you have is fraternal ties for sure, but within caste groups, and not across them. In other words, what we have is caste consciousness of unity, which remains aloof to members of other caste groups, and is often hateful to members of so-called lower caste groups in particular. India essentially then has fraternity within its caste communities, where forging political unity remains a forlorn goal.

The limits to fraternity

Certain preconditions are necessary in order to achieve the kind of political fraternity inculcated by the Constitution of India. At the very first, fraternity does not mean anything if it glosses over social inequalities and then invokes social solidarity. Such a solidarity comes riding on the hate against an imaginary other, and tends to maintain social status quo which bolsters the already privileged at the cost of the continued subjugation of the underprivileged. Secondly, the call of such a fraternity is increasingly replaced with the rhetoric of belligerent nationalism which castigates a home grown religious minority as its arch enemy. Religious minorities have faced such social and political opprobrium countless times in this country. And finally, any sorts of fundamentalism jettisons the possibility of fraternity — a fanatic can be anything but fraternal in the true sense.

To conclude, in India, caste and the idea of political fraternity, given its social milieu, cannot coexist. One has to give way for the other to emerge. And to figure out which one survives and which goes, is the task of the politics of the future.

Moggallan Bharti, teaches at Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University Delhi.

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