Why protests are not constitutional methods

The right to protest peacefully is not in doubt. The wisdom is.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that The Acorn has been a relentless advocate of constitutional methods in conducting our public affairs. We never tire of citing Ambedkar’s Grammar of Anarchy speech (whose anniversary, incidentally, we celebrated yesterday). Ambedkar said:

“we must…hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us. [More here]”

One of the most frequent reactions to criticism of protests and advocacy of constitutional means is “Do you mean to say protests are unconstitutional?” The question has been raised frequently enough so it is important to answer it.

Ambedkar calls these actions “unconstitutional methods“. He does not say that they are unconstitutional. There is a difference. No serious person will deny that Indians have a constitutional right to protest. Article 19(1) explicitly guarantees as fundamental rights the freedoms of speech, expression and peaceful assembly. The constitutionality of peaceful protests is therefore unquestionable.

The question, though, is not whether we have a right to protest or not. The mere exercise of liberty is neither an indication as to its wisdom nor to its efficacy. The question is therefore, about the wisdom and the efficacy of particular actions and their consistency with constitutional morality. This is the crux of Ambedkar’s argument.

For instance, praying to the Almighty is a constitutional act. Sleeping over it is a constitutional act. Protesting peacefully is a constitutional act. Civil disobedience is a special case of peaceful protest, for where it involves disobeying laws of the land, it is an illegal and unconstitutional act. None of these are constitutional methods.

What are constitutional methods? The full answer deserves a book-length treatment. In short, constitutional methods involve engaging the executive, legislature and the judiciary. Through representations to government officials, through persuading and working with legislators, through voting and through actions in court.

These methods are regularly used, do work and in fact deliver the most substantive changes. But there is a curious asymmetry in terms of their standing in the public discourse. While protests and ‘unconstitutional methods’ are romanticised and have a reflexive public appeal, their actual achievements fade in comparison to those achieved by constitutional methods. As Rohit Pradhan asked in an article in Pragati, what are the achievements of Jayaprakash Narayan’s “total revolution” of the mid-1970s? Violence fares even worse. No insurgency has succeeded. We await rigorous empirical evidence but it does appear that change through politics, parliament, legislatures and courts has a much better record on delivering lasting change.

However there is less glorification of these methods and diminishing awareness of what they are and how they can be exercised. This last must be addressed. (At Takshashila, we are attempting this. We have an ongoing policy research project on constitutional methods for civic action and are introducing a course on constitutionalism in our GCPP programme)