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Ambedkar For Our Times!

By Subhash Gatade

06 December, 2015

( Till 1992, 6 th December was remembered as ‘Parinirvan Divas’ of Dr Ambedkar, legendary son of the oppressed who had clearly recognised the true meaning of Hindutva and warned his followers about the dangers of Hindu Rashtra ; post 1992, 6 th December has an added meaning and it relates to the demolition of Babri Mosque undertaken by these very forces.

Apart from the fact that this event led to the biggest communal conflagaration at the national level post-independence, whose repercussions are still being felt and whose perpetrators are still roaming free, we should not forget that it was the first biggest attack on the principles of secularism and democracy, which has been a core value of the Constitution drafted under the Chairmanship of Dr Ambedkar.

What follows here is an edited version of the presentation made at Dept of Social Work, Delhi University, during their programme centred around 1 st Ambedkar Memorial Lecture)

“If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account it is incompatible with democracy. Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost.”

– Ambedkar, Pakistan or Partition of India, p. 358

‘Indians today are governed by two ideologies. Their political ideal set in the preamble of the constitution affirms a life of liberty, equality and fraternity whereas their social ideal embedded in their religion denies it to them’

– Ambedkar

This is the 1 st Ambedkar memorial lecture which is being organised, as the invite tells us, saluting ‘ the contribution of the great visionary leader who not only fought for political revolution but also argued for social revolution’. Let me add that you have made this beginning at an opportune moment in our country’s history when we are witnessing a concerted attempt from the powers that be to water down Ambedkar’s legacy, project him as someone who rather sanctioned the illiberal times we live in today, communicate to the masses that he was friends with leading bigots of his time and finally appropriate his name to peddle an agenda which essentially hinges around political and social reaction.

Wishing you the best for beginning this conversation among students who yearn to become vehicle for social change tomorrow, I would like to share some of my ideas around the theme.

Yes, we definitely need to understand Ambedkar’s role as a Chairman of the drafting committee of independent India’s constitution and the skilful manner in which he ‘piloted the draft’ in the constitutent assembly but also how during his more than three decade long political career he put forward ‘variety of political and social ideas that fertilised Indian thinking’ ( as per late President K R Narayanan ) which contributed to the rulers of the newly independent nation’s decision to adopt the parliamentary form of democracy. Perhaps more important for the ensuing discussion would be his differentiation between what he called ‘political democracy’ – which he defined as ‘one man one vote’ and ‘social democracy’ – which according to him was -one man with one value – and his caution that political democracy built on the divisions, asymmetries, inequalities and exclusions of traditional Indian society would be like ‘a palace built on cow dung’.

We also need to take a look at the unfolding scenario in the country and also see for oneself whether there is a growing dissonance or resonance between what and how Dr Ambedkar envisaged democracy and the actual situation on the ground and how should we see our role in confronting the challenges which lie before it.

As we are remembering the great collosus that he was, not for a moment can we forget the mammoth task undertaken by ‘founding fathers’ – which included leading stalwarts of the independence movement – of the nascent republic who introduced right to vote to every adult citizen, a right for which many countries of the West had to struggle for decades together, in an ambience which was rather overshadwed by the bloody partition riots when the country itself was in a state of abject mass poverty and mass illiteracy.


Before I move forward towards the crux of my argument I want to take a short detour and understand whether the image of Ambedkar – which most of us carry – which has been taught to us through textbooks and popularised by the ever expanding media matches with his actual contributions as a great leader, scholar and renaissance thinker, all put together.

It would be interesting if all of us who are gathered here try to imagine what sort of image(s) emerge before our eyes if somebody mentions his name. I can mention a few :’ Dalit leader’, Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution’,’ fought for the rights of Scheduled Castes’, ‘embraced Buddhism with lakhs of followers’ Barring exception imagery around Ambedkar does not transcend these limits in most of the cases.

The imagery does not include the historic Mahad Satyagrah which was organised under his leadership way back in 1927 – what we call in Marathi as ‘when water caught fire’ – at the Chawdar Talab (lake) nor does’ it include the burning of Manusmriti in its second phase, which was compared to French revolution by Ambedkar in his speech. It also does not include details of the first political party formed under his leadership called Independent Labour Party, role of many non-dalits or even upper castes in the movement led by him or the historic march to Bombay assembly against the ‘Khot pratha’ where communists had participated in equal strength. His historic speech to the railway workers in Manmad wherein he asked them to fight the twin enemies of ‘Brahmninism’ and ‘Capitalism’ (late thirties) or his struggle for Hindu Code Bill, which ultimately became cause of his resignation from Nehru cabinet, all these details of his stormy life, never get mention in the imagery. One can add many other important interventions under his leadership which definitely does not ‘suit’ his image of a ‘dalit messiah’.

Is not it really surprising that most of us know so little of him, which is definitely not the case with other great leaders who emerged during the anti-colonial movement ?

This selective amnesia about Ambedkar is largely due to the way in which the ruling classes then – dominated by the upper caste elite – tried to belittle his image in a very surreptitious manner. Undoubtedly people or formations involved in the work of broader social transformation, which also included organisations claiming to be his legatees, cannot escape blame for the critical silences around his image, who either remained oblivious to the designs of the Varna elite or were not conscious/careful enough to comprehend their gameplan.

Any student of politics of the oppressed would vouch that it is rather a bane of most of the leaders of the exploited and oppressed who can no more be ignored by the dominant forces. In fact, we have been witness to a similar process which unfolded itself in USA itself where a very sanitised image of Martin Luther King, has been made popular. Instead of MLK who opposed Vietnam War, looked at capitalism as source of all evils, who equally struggled for workers rights, we have before us an image of King which seems more amenable to the ruling classes there.

And as we celebrate Ambedkar’s life and intend to discuss his ideas on democracy and their relevance today, we should bear in mind that this task still beckons us where we will have to fight with all our strength at our command against ‘reduction’ of his image and what a scholar describes as a deliberate process of ‘mythologising the man and marginalising his meaning’


Now coming to his ideas on Democracy a few things can be definitely added to the ongoing discussion it can be said that future of Indian democracy depends to a great deal upon revival of Ambedkar’s visionary conception of democracy which 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 (20 th May 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 ‘[T]he 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.’

Then he further 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 ‘[t]here is no room for the downtrodden and the outcastes in politics, in industry, in commerce, and in education.’

Further he discusses other special features of the caste system which ‘[h]ave 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 ‘[a]re standing one above another’ and form ‘an ascending scale of hatred and descending scale of contempt’ which has the most pernicious consequences as ‘[i]t 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 how this arrangement which denies to ‘open 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 ‘[w]ho 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.” (See : Shyam Chand, Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 51, DR AMBEDKAR ON DEMOCRACY)

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.”

Looking at the fact 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 ( (econdse.org/wp…/09/JD-Ambedkar-and-future-of-democracy2005.pdf) brings forth an important point in his 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 his 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 ‘[r]ecent threats to Indian democracy (which) often involve a concerted attack on rationality and the scientific spirit.’

Perhaps one can go on elaborating further on the nuances of Ambedkar’s understanding of democracy but that is not the only aim of this writeup. As promised in the begining we also need to take a look at the unfolding situation.


What is a sine qua non of democracy?

It is the understanding that minority voices will be allowed to flourish and they will not be bulldozed.

At the apparent level majoritarianism – rule by majority – sounds very similar to democracy but it essentially stands democracy on its head. For real democracy to thrive, it is essential that ideas and principles of secularism are at its core. The idea that there will be a clear separation between state and religion and there won’t be any discrimination on the basis of religion has to be its guiding principle.

Majoritarianism thus clearly defeats democracy in idea as well as practice.

While democracy’s metamorphosis into majoritarianism is a real danger, under rule of capital – especially its present phase of neoliberalism – another lurking danger is its evolution into what can be called as plutocracy – government by the rich.

Recently two interesting books have come out discussing 21 st century capitalism. The one by Thomas Picketty ‘Capitalism in the 21 st Century ‘ – which demonstrates convincingly that the twentieth century exhibited a secular tendency toward continuous and widening inequality – has been received well here also. It discusses increasingly disproportionate concentration of income at the top, and the widening inequality that goes along with it, is integral to the system and a consequence of “the central contradiction of capitalism,” (Capital, 571).Piketty’s core theoretical concept is expressed in the formula ‘r>g’, where ‘r’ represents the return on capital/INVESTMENT, and ‘g’ the rate of growth of the economy.

Much like Piketty’s contribution, a major study of democracy in America has also received almost as much attention in the west. It confirms our suspicions that oligarchy has replaced democracy. The authors found that

“policies supported by economic elites and business interest groups were far more likely to become law than those they opposed…. [T]he preferences of the middle class made essentially no difference to a bill’s fate”.

The study “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”.by Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) – which entirely undermine the notion that America is a democracy – and carries wider significance has not received attention here..(http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/05/02/apolitical-economy-democracy-and-dynasty/)

. “Majority rule” accounts, construed numerically or by any “median voter” criterion, are found to be a “nearly total failure.” Controlling for the preferences of economic elites and business-oriented interest groups, the preferences of the average citizen have a “near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

The preferences of economic elites have “far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do.” This does not mean that ordinary citizens never get what they want by way of policy. Sometimes they do, but only when their preferences are the same as those of the economic elite…

“[M]ajorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts… [I]f policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”


According to the authors their results are ‘troubling news for advocates of “populistic” democracy.’ “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose…even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”

In such an unfolding situation, where we are faced with this dangers of democracy metamorphosing into majoritarianism and democracy becoming oligarchy with the highly undemocratic, violent Indian society – which glorifies violence against the oppressed and legitimises, sanctifies inequality in very many ways acting as a backdrop question arises what needs to be done ?

Jean Dreze, in the same article suggests a course of action which merits attention

“[t]he best course of action may be to revive the Directive Principles of the Constitution, and to reassert that these principles are “fundamental in the governance of the country” (Article 37).

Indeed, in spite of much official hostility to these principles today, there are unprecedented opportunities for asserting the economic and social rights discussed in the constitution – the right to education, the right to information, the right to food, the right to work, and the right to equality, among others. Dr. Ambedkar’s advice to “educate, organise and agitate” is more relevant than ever.”

Subhash Gatade is the author of Pahad Se Uncha Aadmi (2010) Godse's Children: Hindutva Terror in India,(2011) and The Saffron Condition: The Politics of Repression and Exclusion in Neoliberal India(2011). He is also the Convener of New Socialist Initiative (NSI) Email : subhash.gatade@gmail.com



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