On 20 May 1951, Dr. Ambedkar addressed a conference on the occasion of Buddha Jayanti organised at Ambedkar Bhawan, Delhi. The Guest of Honour was the then Ambassador of France in India. Shankaranand Shastri is seen on the right in the photograph.

Democracy and Ambedkar

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]S the country goes to elections again, there are credible threats to its institutional structures that have been severely disrupted in the last five years. Voices from across the social sphere have cautioned that this might be the final democratic election that the country will witness. However, any profound analysis of the problems that prevail today, hints at a deeper lack of commitment to the ideals of democracy namely equality, liberty and justice. Over the years, systematically, socially powerful groups, through the state as an instrument, have eroded these concepts slowly to the point that today it threatens to consume one and all. Any linear historical narrative, thus, claiming the country to be a long-standing democracy does injustice to both the identity led movement and the ideals of democracy that Ambedkar had come to cherish. The Dalit movement in India must be construed as a movement to achieve democracy and its coveted ideals, rather than being a movement within a democratic space.

Uday Singh Mehta, in his text ‘Constitutionalism’, refers to the moment of India’s Independence as the moment of change; ‘bringing an end to an age and drawing a curtain to the past.’ Quoting Nehru, who had famously said, ‘the future beckons us’ as ‘we step out from the old to the new’, Mehta argues that the moment of independence was a moment of radical changes in the way the life of the nation and its newly anointed ‘citizens’ would come to be understood; a moment of negation of the past and distancing ourselves from it.

It was this moment and space that Ambedkar had come to capture. He saw in it, not only an opportunity to distance the nation from its colonial past, but also an opportunity to counter a greater malice, i.e. caste. If there is anything in Ambedkar that is of most relevance today, it is his notion of democracy, for democracy was the bedrock on which the project of annihilation of caste had to be fulfilled.


Ambedkar’s Notion of Democracy


Valerian Rodrigues in his text on Ambedkar[1] reflects on these very notions of Ambedkar. He argues that Ambedkar saw in democracy an opportunity to build a fraternity based on equality, which was a radical departure from the past. The legal rights that ensued to the lower castes were revolutionary, as for the first time untouchables and lower castes were vested with a privilege they could use for their own benefit. In ensuring the continuation of these rights and equality, the role of the state was of central importance.

Hobbes, who is considered to be one of the earliest proponents of the theory of ‘State’, regarded it as an instrument of ensuring continuity of human life, which was always at risk in a ‘state of nature’. Adding to this, Ambedkar assigned to State, an added responsibility of ensuring human dignity and social equality. State, as Rodrigues argues, was a ‘civilising agency and a resource to undermine dominance.’ In doing so, he redefined the notion of state from being all-powerful or catering to the needs of a few, to a state that would regulate and maintain the balance of social power, driven by ethical considerations at all times. However, any subsequent analysis of the Indian state since independence fails to uphold this standard and vision of state and democracy.



A democratic state would also provide an opportunity for a critical evaluation of texts considered sacred, and hitherto, out of public reach and discussion[2]. Thus, in a democratic state, there would be a renewed commitment to engage with these texts, critically in order to highlight the regressive content of some of these texts that reproduces unequal social relations. However, it is clear that the authority of these texts has remained largely unchallenged for reasons of maintaining unequal social relations.

While democracy, for Ambedkar, signalled significant transformations, he was well aware of the continuing bias and subjugation. It was his experience that led him to proclaim that no trust be placed in the upper caste, for they stood to lose their privilege. It was also his experience that led him to highlight the irony between the legal and social position of the Dalits and untouchables at the time of independence. Thus, experience drove Ambedkar to construct a detailed roadmap for a democracy. While he, in a way, placed an ethical duty on upper castes, he also argued for ways to ensure that the upper castes were obliged to align with the minorities, if the latter had to have a chance of being heard. He argued for separate electorates for untouchables which would ensure that their specific concerns were being taken care of. He also argued for adequate representation of minorities so as to make them viable enough to seek an alliance with the majority groups, ensuring that the concerns of minorities too were taken care of as they would be in a position to make or break an alliance. However, while the demand for separate electorates was set aside completely, the questions of minority representation too have not been given any serious, systematic thought.


Annihilation of the ‘Self’


While Ambedkar presented a detailed understanding of a democracy, his real greatness lay underneath that notion. As his own turn to religion reflects, democracy was a way through to achieving philosophical considerations of self-reflection and emancipation.

Politics always works through the construction of a binary, or a notion of the ‘other’. In representing themselves or their party, candidates always seek to distance themselves and stand out. They seek to encourage the voter to not vote for that other through which, they establish their own uniqueness. There can be no better example of this binary than in the present scenario where the BJP is pitching themselves against the entire opposition, and vice-versa. The opposition’s call for ‘minimum unity’ in the face of fascism too reflects this binary nature of  Indian politics currently. Thus, for politics to work, this presence of the other must necessarily be maintained.



However, Ambedkar conceived of politics whose central point of attention was the ‘self’. In arguing for a democratic polity, Ambedkar put an ethical duty on the upper caste for their self-annihilation, while at the same time, providing the Dalits and untouchables a mechanism for their own self-realisation.

As Shan Muhammad argues in his article, the suicide of Rohith Vemula and his refusal to blame anyone is reflective of his self-realisation and consequential negation of the self. In purely philosophical terms, death signifies the completion of an individual’s being. Ambedkar’s greatness, thus, lay in bringing together these otherwise conflicting considerations of self and politics.

Democracy, thus, in many ways is not an end in itself. An equal and just society would ultimately lead an individual towards self-realisation and self-regulation.

In the face of the institutional onslaught we face today, a renewed commitment to Ambedkar’s idea of democracy seems to be the only real way forward.



[1] ‘Ambedkar as a Political Philosopher’  Valerian Rodrigues, Economic and Political Weekly, April 15, 2007 Vol LII No 15, Pg 101

[2] ‘Ambedkar as a Political Philosopher’  Valerian Rodrigues, Economic and Political Weekly, April 15, 2007 Vol LII No 15, Pg 101

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