These are no ordinary times to revisit Dr B. R. Ambedkar’s legacy. We have before us an India where, in the words of Prof Achin Vanaik, “the centre of gravity has shifted perhaps decisively to the right, in three crucial spheres : economy, secularism and democracy”.
It is an India where the political dispensation at the centre is busy furthering the majoritarian worldview of Hindutva supremacism coupled with the neoliberal agenda. Under the glib talk of development a concerted attack has been unleashed on, what Dr. Ambedkar defined as, minorities of various kinds and other deprived sections.
And it would not be incorrect to state that future of Indian democracy depends to a great deal upon the revival of Dr. Ambedkar’s visionary conception of democracy. His vision definitely needs to be enlarged and updated in the light of the recent experience.
But before taking up this aspect it would be opportune to know from Ambedkar himself how he looked at the idea of democracy. Perhaps his speech on the ‘Voice of America’ radio ( delivered on May 20, 1956), which he gave few months before his death , could best summarise his ideas around the concept.
The first point which he makes tells us that ‘Democracy is quite different from a Republic as well as from Parliamentary Government.’ According to him
‘The roots of democracy lie not in the form of Government, Parliamentary or otherwise. A democracy is more than a form of Government. It is primarily a mode of associated living. The roots of Democracy are to be searched in the social relationship, in the terms of associated life between the people who form a society.’
Next he comes to define the word ‘society’ itself. For him a society is conceived ‘as one by its very nature’ and ‘The qualities which accompany this unity are praiseworthy community of purpose and desire for welfare, loyalty to public ends and mutuality of sympathy and co-operation.’
Interrogating Indian society further, he questions whether ‘these ideals are found in Indian society?’ And elaborating on the Indian society which is nothing but ‘an innumerable collection of castes which are exclusive in their life and have no common experience to share and have no bond of sympathy’ he concludes that
‘The existence of the Caste System is a standing denial of the existence of those ideals of society and therefore of democracy.’
He further goes on to discusses how ‘Indian Society is so imbedded in the Caste System that everything is organized on the basis of caste’ and shares examples from daily life of individuals revolving around the twin concepts of purity and pollution and moves to social-political arena and wryly concludes that ‘there is no room for the downtrodden and the outcastes in politics, in industry, in commerce, and in education’.
Ambedkar elaborates other special features of the caste system which ‘have their evil effects and which militate against democracy.’ and he focusses on what is called ‘Graded Inequality’ where ‘Castes is not equal in their status’ but rather ‘are standing one above another’ and form ‘an ascending scale of hatred and descending scale of contempt’ which has the most pernicious consequences as ‘it destroys willing and helpful co-operation.’
Then discussing the difference between caste and class, he takes up the second evil effect in the caste system accompanied by inequality which is ‘complete isolation’ which manifests itself in the difference between stimulus and response between two castes which is only ‘one-sided’ and which ‘educates some into masters, educate others into slaves’ and this separation thus ‘prevents social endosmosis’.
Later taking up the manner in which one caste is bound to one occupation which ‘cuts at the very roots of democracy’ he tells us how this arrangement which denies ‘ anopen a way to use all the capacities of the individual’ leads to stratification which is ‘is stunting of the growth of the individual and deliberate stunting is a deliberate denial of democracy’.
In the concluding part of his speech he discusses obstacles in the way to end caste system and he points out the ‘system of graded inequality which is the soul of the Caste System’ and also how ‘Indian Society is disabled by unity in action by not being able to know what is its common good’ where ‘the mind of the Indians is distracted and misled by false valuations and false perspectives’ and ends his speech by emphasising that mere education cannot destroy caste system rather education to those ‘who want to keep up the Caste System is not to improve the prospect of Democracy in India but to put our Democracy in India in greater jeopardy’.
One can also further add that as opposed to the Conservative notions which promotes it as an idea which is an instrument to stop bad people from seizing power Ambedkar’s conception is geared to social transformation and human progress and he defines it as “a form and a method of government whereby revolutionary changes in the economic and social life of the people are brought about without bloodshed.”
Elucidating the conditions to make it possible it can be inferred that
“(1) there should not be glaring inequalities in society, that is, privilege for one class; (2) the existence of an opposition; (3) equality in law and administration; (4) observance of constitutional morality; (5) no tyranny of the majority; (6) moral order of society: and (7) public conscience”.
In his speech to the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949 he also expressed three cautions and believed that paying heed to them was critical to ensure our democratic institutions did not get subverted :
(i) constitutional methods
(ii) not to lay liberties at the feet of a great man
(iii) make a political democracy a social democracy.”
Acknowledging that India happens to be a multi-denominational society where the common denominator could be secularism which is understood as one of the pillars on which the superstructure of our democracy rests and is a unifying force of our associated life, he emphasised :
“The conception of a secular state is derived from the liberal democratic tradition of the West. No institution which is maintained wholly out of state funds shall be used for the purpose of religious instruction irrespective of the question whether the religious instruction is given by the state or by any other body.”
In a debate in Parliament, he also underlined:
“It (secular state) does not mean that we shall not take into consideration the religious sentiments of the people. All that a secular state means that this Parliament shall not be competent to impose any particular religion upon the rest of the people. That is the only limitation that the Constitution recognises.”
Taking into consideration the possibility that a minority can become victim of the tyranny of the majority, he suggested enough safeguards for their protection :
“The State should guarantee to its citizens the liberty of conscience and the free exercise of his religion including the right to profess, to preach and to convert within limits compatible with public order and morality.”
Prof Jean Dreze brings forth an important point in an article wherein he underlines how ‘Ambedkar’s passion for democracy was closely related to his commitment to rationality and the scientific outlook.’ In this connection he quotes one of Ambedkar’s last speeches “Buddha or Karl Marx”, wherein summarising the essential teachings of Buddha he elaborates :
“Everyone has a right to learn. Learning is as necessary for man to live as food is … Nothing is infallible. Nothing is binding forever. Everything is subject to inquiry and examination.”
According to him it was important to bring this up looking at the ‘recent threats to Indian democracy (which) often involve a concerted attack on rationality and the scientific spirit.’
Late President K R Narayanan, had in a tribute to Dr. Ambedkar rightly said how during his three decade long political career he put forward ‘variety of political and social ideas that fertilised Indian thinking’.
Is not it time that his true legatees take the mantle forward?