“Quest for Equity: Reclaiming Social Justice, Revisiting Ambedkar” was the title of an international conference hosted by the government of Karnataka in 2017. The five-volume Quest for Justice, edited by Aakash Singh Rathore, presents 54 papers selected from the more than 350 that were read at the three-day event. Taking in biography, history, law, economics and contemporary politics in India and the world, the volumes have been organised under five themes: political justice, social justice, legal and economic justice, gender and racial justice, and, religious and cultural justice.
The following excerpt from Volume 1 — Political Justice — is taken from Prof Anand Teltumbde’s paper “Ambedkar and Democracy: Critical Reflections”.
A democracy which enslaves the working class … is no democracy but a mockery of democracy.
– BR Ambedkar1
It may be ironical to recall Ambedkar’s conception of democracy at a time when we are condemned to experience its total antithesis in the country that claims to be running on the Constitution architected by him. Before going into the details how the extant constitutional democracy came to be constituted in the name of Ambedkar, it may be worth explicating this irony first with reference to the very commonplace definition of democracy given by Abraham Lincoln, as a form of government that is of the people, by the people, and for the people. Democracy, by this definition places people at the centre; its raison d’être therefore becomes empowering people. Democracy must be receptive to the people’s views and respectful to their dissent. Does Indian democracy, flaunted as the largest democracy in the world by its rulers, qualify this familiar definition of democracy? In theory, the existence of the Constitution that professes itself in the name of the people as the ‘sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic’; the existence of operative structure of legislative institutions comprising Parliament, assemblies, and local bodies; regularly held elections to elect peoples’ representatives; and the professional bureaucracy and judicial pyramid comprising lower courts to the Supreme Court may not leave much scope for dispute. But beyond this façade, if one takes cognizance of the real content of this structure as it operates, one would not fi nd demos anywhere except during the ritual of elections. Right from the beginning, the manner in which this structure itself is designed enables the entrenched classes and castes to rule the country, monopolizing the mandate of people. Over the years, it has become a plutocracy and criminocracy, the rule of money bags and criminals!
With regard to the relation between Ambedkar and democracy, it may be said that his entire philosophy can be distilled into a single word, democracy. At various times, Ambedkar explicated his conception of democracy, every time with wider meaning than before, transcending all its familiar contours given in the books. His democracy was closely related to his ideal of a ‘good society’, based on ‘liberty, equality, and fraternity’. These three words comprised his fond phrase, which, as he claimed, itself had an entirely different meaning than it received from its progenitor, the French Revolution. In a speech on All-India Radio on 3 October 1954, he declared:
Positively, my social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Let no one, however, say that I have borrowed my philosophy from the French Revolution. I have not. My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my Master, the Buddha. In his philosophy, liberty and equality had a place…. He gave the highest place to fraternity as the only real safe-guard against the denial of liberty or equality or fraternity which was another name for brotherhood or humanity, which was again another name for religion. 2
His conception of liberty was ‘not merely the negative conception as absence of restraint’ or ‘confined to the mere recognition of the right of the people to vote’, it was very positive. It involved the idea of government by the people.3 Likewise, his conception of equality meant ‘abolition of privileges of every kind in law, in the civil service, in the Army, in taxation, in trade and in industry: in fact the abolition of all processes which lead to inequality’.4 He defined fraternity as ‘an all-pervading sense of human brotherhood, unifying all classes and all nations, with “peace on earth and good-will towards man” as its motto’.5
Democracy, as he saw it, was both the end and the means of this ideal. It was the end because he ultimately considered democracy as coterminous with the realization of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Democracy was also the means through which this ideal was to be attained. Lofty conception indeed but smacking of a chicken and egg problematic to translate it in to practice!
Ambedkar’s notion of ‘democratic government’ conformed to the previously cited dictum of Abraham Lincoln. For major part of it, he saw such a government coming in the form of parliamentary democracy. But he was acutely aware of its limitation. It may sound strange that he defended parliamentary democracy in the Constituent Assembly, but had opined, not many years before, that parliamentary democracy was not the government by the people. 6
Parliamentary Democracy is a form of Government which the function of the people has come to be to vote for their masters and leave them to rule. Such a scheme of Government, in the opinion of Labour, is a travesty of Government by the people. Labour wants Government which is Government by the people in name as well as in fact. Secondly, liberty as conceived by Labour includes the right to equal opportunity and the duty of the State to provide the fullest facilities for growth to every individual according to his needs. 7
But ‘democracy’ as such meant much more to him than a democratic government. ‘A democratic form of Government pre-supposes a democratic form of society. The formal framework of democracy is of no value and would indeed be a misfit if there was no social democracy. The politicals never realized that democracy was not a form of Government: it was essentially a form of society.’8 It was a way of life. He would say, borrowing the words of his favourite professor, John Dewey: ‘Democracy is not merely a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.’9 It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellow men.10 This expression reflected his aspiration to see a casteless society in India. It tends to value fraternity over the other two tenets in his value triad. While liberty as a value would not be objected to by anyone, there could be doubts about equality. Some would think that men are differentially endowed and hence equality is an artificial value. Ambedkar conceded that men were ‘undoubtedly unequal’ but he raised a pertinent question whether they should therefore be treated unequal. He sees that if they were treated unequally, those who were privileged with better endowment, personal as well as social, would keep winning but that would not mean the victory of the best. It means society will increasingly be saddled with sub-optimal choices and in course, will plummet to its dysfunctional low. This was, therefore, why he argued in favour of giving incentives to those who were unprivileged or underprivileged—so that they come on par with others.11 It is a powerful pragmatist argument for equality but is still rooted in paradigm of competition and lacks in moral basis as contained in Marxian dictum of ‘species being’. Humans are equal not from some instrumental logic but by virtue of being humans, by the measure of their self-worth. He problematized equality, particularly economic equality, again from a pragmatist viewpoint: while it was desirable, it might take a long time because socialist revolution that would ensure this equality would not happen as the proletariat was not ready for such a revolution:
Believing as I do in a socialist ideal, inevitably I believe in perfect equality in the treatment of various classes and groups. I think that Socialism offers the only true remedy for this as well as other problems…. Now it is obvious that the economic reform contemplated by the Socialists cannot come about unless there is a revolution resulting in the seizure of power. That seizure of power must be by a proletariat. The first question I ask is: Will the proletariat of India combine to bring about this revolution? What will move men to such an action?12
This argument stretches to a fault the Marxist dictum, ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness,13 and the claim that political revolutions have always been preceded by social and religious revolutions.14 He envisaged such a revolution so as to establish fraternity among people even before equality materialized. This formulation may beg for an answer to the question: What is the motive force to bring about such social and religious revolutions? History does not reflect a compartmental view of social life to discern such order of priority; at best, it depicts a dialect build up through which material and non-material aspects of life spiral up.
Another crucial feature of Ambedkar’s conception of democracy is that it is geared towards social transformation and human progress. He defined democracy as ‘[a] form and a method of Government whereby revolutionary changes in the social life are brought about without bloodshed. That is the real test. It is perhaps the severest test. But when you are judging the quality of the material you must put it to the severest test.’15 It was obviously a response to a communist challenge that promised such a change through revolution, which appeared to be necessarily associated with violence. He convinced himself that his democracy could achieve the same results: it is clear through his reference to economic democracy as the necessary prerequisite to political democracy. Socialism was just another name for economic democracy. In a speech he delivered in 1943 at the All India Trade Union Workers’ Study Camp held in Delhi, he conveyed his observation as to why parliamentary democracy collapsed in many European countries:
There is a great need of someone with sufficient courage to tell Indians: Beware of Parliamentary Democracy, it is not the best product, as it appeared to be…. The idea became sanctified and was upheld in the name of liberty. Parliamentary Democracy took no notice of economic inequalities and did not care to examine the result of freedom of contract on the parties to the contract, should they hap-pen to be unequal. It did not mind if the freedom of contract gave the strong the opportunity to defraud the weak. The result is that Parliamentary Democracy in standing out as protagonist of Liberty has continuously added to the economic wrongs of the poor, the downtrodden and the dis-inherited class. The second wrong ideology which has vitiated Parliamentary Democracy is the failure to realize that political democracy cannot succeed where there is no social and economic democracy. Some may question this proposition. To those who are disposed to question it, I will ask a counter question. Why Parliamentary Democracy collapsed so easily in Italy, Germany and Russia? Why did it not collapse so easily in England and the U.S.A.? To my mind there is only one answer—namely, there was a greater degree of economic and social democracy in the latter countries than it existed in the former. Social and economic democracy are the tissues and the fiber of a Political Democracy. The tougher the tissue and the fiber, the greater the strength of the body. Democracy is another name for equality. Parliamentary Democracy developed a passion for liberty. It never made even a nodding acquaintance with (10/108) equality. It failed to realise the significance of equality, and did not even endeavour to strike a balance between Liberty and Equality, with the result that liberty swallowed equality and has left a progeny of inequities.16
The importance of this longish citation couched with pragmatist logic should not be seen in its assessment of historical facts but in its inference how this contrivance of ‘political’ democracy actually works to perpetuate social and economic inequalities. We may empirically see its proof in the cases of England and USA, marked by Ambedkar as relatively better parliamentary democracies.
1. Ambedkar (2014: 217).
2. Ambedkar, quoted in Kadam (1997: 26).
3. Ambedkar (1991a: 37).
4. Ambedkar (1991a: 37).
5. Ambedkar (1991a: 37).
6. Ambedkar (1991a).
7. Ambedkar (1991a: 37).
8. Ambedkar (1979c: 222).
9. Dewey (2001: 91).
10. Ambedkar (1979a: 57).
11. Ambedkar (1979a: 58).
12. Ambedkar (1979a: 46).
13. Marx (1977).
14. Ambedkar (1979a: 43).
15. Ambedkar (1994: vii).
16. Ambedkar (1991c: 107, 108).