We Indians have a way of belittling our icons. We turn Gandhi into a naive saint, a harmless preacher of non-violence, Bhagat Singh into a hot-headed rebellious nationalist, and Charan Singh into a caste leader. We have done something similar to Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar’s intellectual legacy. Reclaimed from decades of neglect, his thinking has now been reduced to his reflections on the caste system. It is time we recovered some other, deeper, dimensions of his thought and secured a due place for him in the canons of intellectual history. His reflections on democracy qualify him as the first candidate for such a recovery.
Babasaheb Ambedkar was the first Indian, and arguably the only Indian in the 20th century, who offered a theory of radical democracy, a theory that can guide us in the 21st century. This needs to be remembered, because the celebration of his intellectual and political legacy tends to focus almost exclusively on his critique of caste-based injustice. This needs to be reminded today, when India’s democracy is being dismantled by those who preside over his birthday celebrations.
Ambedkar was not the first Indian thinker to reflect on democracy. But he was the first one to offer original answers to the three basic questions that a theory of democracy must address. One, a theory must set out a norm, an ideal of what democracy should be like. Two, it must evaluate the current state of democracy in the light of its ideal and offer a critique. Three, it must spell out a path to a democratic ideal, from where we stand to where we should aim to be. Ambedkar’s answers were original because these were not drawn from some abstraction. His reflections were firmly located in the Indian context.
Dr Ambedkar’s answers were strikingly different from the two ways of thinking about democracy that dominated his times. On the one hand were ‘liberals’ like Jawaharlal Nehru who expected the Western fairytale of democracy to be replayed in India, albeit with a time lag. For them, Western democracies were the model towards which India had begun its journey by enacting a Constitution and holding free and fair elections. On the other hands were the critics, mostly from the Left, who thought that the democratic experiment in India was a sham, nothing but a rule of the capitalist class cloaked in procedures of democracy. Gandhi, too, shared this disdain for Westminster-style democracy. Dr Ambedkar offered a theory of cautious and conditional optimism, an optimism drawn from the abstract promise of democracy and a caution rooted in the Indian context.
Substantive ideal of democracy
Ambedkar offered a substantive definition of democracy, radically different from the procedural definition that dominated the 20th-century theories of democracy. He was not unmindful of the procedural aspects of democracy, but for him, all these democratic mechanisms like elections and parliament were there for a purpose: “to bring about welfare of the people”. He went on to offer a definition of democracy for our times that would set him apart from the dominant theorists of democracy. For him, democracy was “a form and a method of government whereby revolutionary changes in the economic and social life of the people are brought about without bloodshed”. [Conditions Precedent for the Successful Working of Democracy, 1952]
Departing from Western democratic imagination that foregrounds liberty, Ambedkar put equality and fraternity at the heart of democracy. “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 terms of associated life between the people who form a society.” [Prospects of Democracy in India, 1956] For this ideal, he turned to the Buddhist tradition. He insisted that Buddhist Sanghas were the models for parliamentary democracy.
Critique of existing democracy
In the light of this ideal, Ambedkar offered a thoroughgoing critique of the existing societies that claimed to be democratic. Though his critique was general, his focus was, understandably, on Indian society. The “associated living” that democracy presupposes simply did not exist in India. Caste system has divided the Indian society into many parallel, self-contained communities that did not allow for the conversation and negotiation necessary for a healthy democracy. Thus Ambedkar’s critique of the caste system was not merely that it was unjust and oppressive for the “depressed classes”, but also that it fractured national unity and made democracy impossible.
Ambedkar turned this critique into a general theory of preconditions for a successful democracy. He reminded us, “democracy is not a plant that grows everywhere”. He would often cite the case of Italy and Germany where absence of social and economic democracy led to the failure of nascent political democracy. For him, the first and foremost condition for democracy was that there should be no glaring inequalities, that every citizen should enjoy equal treatment in everyday administration and governance. This needs to be backed up by popular acceptance of constitutional morality, widespread public conscience and the upholding of moral order in society. Finally, Ambedkar reminded us that there is no democracy without the existence of and respect for opposition, that tyranny of majority is antithetical to democracy.
Path to democratic future
Ambedkar had an unusual approach to making the transition from the present to the desired future. Unlike the social revolutionaries of his time, he did not advocate a violent or even non-violent overthrow of the existing democratic order. In fact, at one point he argued against continuation of satyagraha or civil disobedience in independent India. This might look disappointingly conservative for a radical theorist of democracy. But a closer look would show a more nuanced radicalism at work.
In India, Ambedkar was the first serious student of social consequences of political institutions. He understood that every institutional design has a built-in drag, that it has consequences irrespective of the intent of those who designed it. Whether it was the choice of the parliamentary system over the presidential, or the role and powers of an elected panchayat in a village, or the formation of linguistic states or the partition of the country, Ambedkar brought a razor-sharp understanding of how each of these decisions would affect the most marginalised sections of society. The institutional design he proposed in States and Minorities showed a nuanced approach to using the political form of democracy for social transformation. Needless to say, none of his apparent moderation took away his resolute commitment to nothing short of annihilation of the caste order.
We don’t need to stretch our imagination far to anticipate what Ambedkar might have said about the continuation of inequalities, including caste inequalities, and on the rise of majoritarian democracy in today’s India. What does require careful reflection and imagination is turning these fragments of original thinking into a coherent theory of radical democracy for the 21st century. That is a task for those who take Babasaheb’s intellectual legacy seriously, beyond birthday celebrations.
Yogendra Yadav is the National President of Swaraj India. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)
This article is part of the Dalit History Month 2021 series. Read all the articles here.