Canceled: “Constitutional Morality” in India: Toward an Anthropology of Legal Form

Activity Type: 
Professor Leo Coleman
Monday, March 16, 2020 - 15:00
Event Status: 
As Scheduled
3106 WWPH

“Constitutional morality” has become a central term in Indian jurisprudence over the past decade, particularly in
cases involving LGBT rights, naming a distinctive set of constitutional values including tolerance of difference and
respect for pluralism and individual rights. The term was first used in this context by B.R. Ambedkar in 1948, in the
debates over the draft constitution, although he defined it differently: Ambedkar’s constitutional morality was
neither about tolerance nor individual freedoms, but instead about legal restraints on a “communal majority” and,
further, how law and democratic practice might transform an exclusive and dominant social grouping into a merely
political majority open to further division and recombination. There is some irony in the fact that the phrase has
been revived now, as long-standing constitutional conventions established precisely for the purpose of protecting
minority rights are being rescinded by a majoritarian party. Tacking between the past and the present meanings of
constitutional morality in India, and situating Ambedkar as an anthropological thinker as well as a political leader,
this talk identifies a set of anthropological questions which may be clarified by close study of Ambedkar’s legacy:
questions about when and how legal forms and doctrines can constitute groups and order relations between
them, and the means by which social minorities can claim participation in a democratic polity.
Leo Coleman is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Hunter College & the Graduate Center, City University of
New York, and the author of A Moral Technology: Electrification as Political Ritual in New Delhi (Cornell University
Press/Speaking Tiger Books, 2017). He writes broadly about technology, politics, and personhood in urban
experience, law and constitutionalism, and the history of anthropology. He is currently working on a comparative
historical anthropology of constitutional and legal form in Indian and Scottish nationalism, provisionally entitled
Liberal Devices: Groups, Persons, and Constitutional Infrastructure.

UCIS Unit: 
Asian Studies Center
Other Pitt Sponsors: 
Department of Anthropology
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