How to cultivate democracy in a soil that is essentially undemocratic: The Ambedkar way

Democracy is not a form of government but essentially a form of society. It is incompatible and contradictory with isolation and exclusivity, leading to a distinction between the privileged and the underprivileged. For Ambedkar, a democratic society is a prerequisite for a democratic form of government. He expressed this concern in many speeches about democracy as a form of government.

Babasaheb’s commitment to democracy and constitutional morality is the first thing that strikes the mind as we commemorate Ambedkar Jayanti. Democracy was a ‘way of life’ for him, not just a political tool to gain power and rule the masses. He strived for the destruction of the caste system and the creation of an egalitarian society.

Ambedkar theorised substantive democracy, wherein a ‘social and economic democracy’ would breathe life into political democracy. His quest for a meaningful democratic society led him to explore the concept of ‘constitutional morality’.

Ambedkar’s oft-quoted reference to constitutional morality is from his speech in the Constituent Assembly on November 4, 1948, when he was responding to criticism of the draft Constitution.

Quoting George Grote from his work History of Greece at length, Ambedkar said: “By constitutional morality, Grote meant   a paramount reverence for the forms of the Constitution, enforcing obedience to authority and acting under and within these forms, yet combined with the habit of open speech, of action subject only to definite legal control, and unrestrained censure of those very authorities as to all their public acts combined, too with a perfect confidence in the bosom of every citizen amidst the bitterness of party contest that the forms of the Constitution will not be less sacred in the eyes of his opponents than his own.”

Also read: Dr Ambedkar’s rich legacy: The Leaflet’s attempt to cull out form and substance

In the same speech, he emphasised: “…[C]onstitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic.”

Planting the seed of democracy in an essentially undemocratic soil

One of the criticisms of the draft Constitution was that there were too many administrative details in the Constitution. Although Ambedkar agreed that constitutional law is not the right place to regulate administrative details and could be left to the future legislature, but he stressed that in a society that lacks constitutional morality and democratic values, it is necessary to lay down administrative details for the functioning of the Constitution.

He reiterated that it is possible to prevent the very functioning of the Constitution by changing the form of administration and making it incompatible with its spirit. Only in a society where people are imbibed with constitutional morality can one take the risk of leaving the details of administration to future legislators. For Ambedkar, the Constitution was an organic document that thrived on the foundation of constitutional morality.

In a speech at the Pune District Law Library in 1952, Ambedkar described adherence to ‘constitutional morality’ as one of the prerequisites for the successful functioning of democracy. According to him, the Constitution contained only the skeleton whose flesh was found in constitutional morality. He equated constitutional morality with constitutional conventions in England.

Ambedkar also mentioned that something else was necessary for a democracy’s success: “there must be no tyranny of the majority over the minority.” The minority must always feel secure that it will not be hurt or double-crossed although the majority is running the government.

According to Ambedkar, the Constitution contained only the skeleton whose flesh was found in constitutional morality. He equated constitutional morality with constitutional conventions in England.

The first reference to constitutional morality in Ambedkar’s writings can be found in his book What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables, published in 1945. The book elucidates his criticism of the Congress Party and M.K. Gandhi on untouchability.

The book highlights the basic plea for a separate electorate for the untouchables supported by public statements, voting records and numerous incidents showing the isolation and ill-treatment to support the contention that their political separation from Hindus in the electoral system is necessary to realise the political rights of the untouchables.

Inadequacy of Western notions of democracy

According to Ambedkar, “Mr Gandhi’s attitude is that let Swaraj perish if the cost of it is political freedom of the Untouchables.”

Furthermore, in chapter IX, “A Plea to the Foreigner”, Ambedkar discusses the outlook of foreigners in evaluating the freedom struggle. He notes that almost every foreigner interested in Indian political affairs often sides with the Congress party.

Babasaheb argues that foreigners mistakenly equate the nation’s freedom with that of the people’s— the two are not the same. Words like ‘society’, ‘nation’ and ‘country’ are amorphous concepts, if not ambiguous. Foreigners are indifferent to a fundamental question: whose freedom is the Congress fighting for?

He argues that the reason for this indifference is found in the misconceptions of self-government and democracy that prevail in the West. He criticises the Western idea of democracy. According to Western writers on politics, all that is necessary for the realisation of self-government is the presence of what Grote calls constitutional morality in people. They believe that if these habits of constitutional morality are present in a population, self-government can be a reality and nothing more needs to be considered.

The second necessity for the realisation of democracy, i.e., government by the people, of the people and for the people, is the introduction of universal adult suffrage.

Also read: On the Trajectory Shown by Ambedkar

According to Ambedkar:

I have no hesitation in saying that both these notions are fallacious and grossly misleading. If democracy and self-government have failed everywhere, it is largely due to these wrong notions. Habits of constitutional morality may be essential for the maintenance of a constitutional form of government. But the maintenance of a constitutional form of government is not the same thing as self-government by the people.

“Similarly, it may be granted that adult suffrage can produce a government of the people in the logical sense of the phrase, i.e., in contrast to the government of a king. But it cannot by itself be said to bring about a democratic government in the sense of government by the people and for the people.”

According to Ambedkar, the views of Western writers on democracy and self-government are wrong for several reasons. First and most importantly, Western writers ignore that in every country, a ruling class has grown through historical circumstances and is destined to rule. They are voluntarily elected as rulers by the servile classes because they regard the members of the ruling classes as their natural leaders. Adult suffrage and constitutional morality are no obstacles to attaining power and authority.

Constitutional morality and the ‘self’ in ‘self-government’

Democracy, for Ambedkar, was more than just a form of government. In a heterogeneous and hierarchical society, there must be a categorical definition of who is the ‘self’ in self-government. Thus, for him, in 1945, constitutional morality was not enough for democracy’s success.

The ruling class, which for historical reasons is a natural leader of the submissive classes, creates a hegemonic structure in which the ruled justify the dominance of the ruler.

Thus, Ambedkar used the argument of constitutional morality on three important occasions in his exploration of the concept of democracy.

Constitutional morality is insufficient for self-government but can only be essential to a constitutional form. As long as the ruling class does not lose its supremacy, there can be no true self-government.

In the Constituent Assembly in 1948, he justified the inclusion of administrative details in the Constitution on the ground that democracy in India is a “top dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic”. Since Indians lacked constitutional morality, the drafters of the Constitution felt it necessary to lay down the administrative details for its smooth functioning.

In his 1952 speech, he equated constitutional morality with constitutional conventions in England. He also illustrated the example of George Washington, who refused to become President for the third time.

Also read: Ambedkar and the Writing of History

In the book What the Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables, he argued in 1945 that a government based on adult franchise alone would not guarantee self-government. Constitutional morality is insufficient for self-government but can only be essential to a constitutional form. As long as the ruling class does not lose its supremacy, there can be no genuine self-government.

Analysing Ambedkar’s notion of ‘constitutional morality’, one might conclude that he regarded it as a prerequisite for a democratic society. It may not be in the written form, but it is society’s constitutional morality that enables the Constitution’s smooth functioning. It is the unwritten code of the Constitution. Only the observance of constitutional morality by all makes the Constitution meaningful.

The book states categorically that it is not enough to give everyone the right to vote and elect a government. The power relations between classes must be addressed.

On March 15, 1943, Ambedkar delivered a speech in the Deccan Sabha Poona emphasising that a democratic form of government requires a democratic form of society. The formal framework of democracy has no value and would indeed be misconstrued without social democracy.

Democracy is not a form of government but essentially a form of society. It is incompatible and contradictory with isolation and exclusivity, leading to a distinction between the privileged and the underprivileged. Thus, for Ambedkar, a democratic society is a prerequisite for a democratic form of government. He expressed this concern in many speeches about democracy as a form of government.

In his last address to the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949, he expressed concern about the functioning of Indian democracy. Although he did not mention constitutional morality, he referred to it indirectly.

In a constitutional democracy, we must adhere only to constitutional methods to achieve social and economic ends. Individuals must not lay their liberties at the feet of others— this is what constitutional morality is all about. Democracy cannot only be a form but must exist in substance.

It is society’s constitutional morality that enables the Constitution’s smooth functioning. It is the unwritten code of the Constitution. Only the observance of constitutional morality by all makes the Constitution meaningful.

Political democracy is meaningless if there is no social democracy. For Ambedkar, social democracy comprised liberty, equality and fraternity. A parliamentary democracy based on adult suffrage will only create political equality— one man, one vote. The objective should be of one man, one value.

Democracy is often defined as ‘government by the people, for the people and of the people’. It is also defined as ‘government by discussion’. However, these definitions are inadequate in an unequal society. Democracy, according to Ambedkar, should lead to social and economic changes in people’s lives without bloodshed.

He considered democracy as a revolutionary instrument to change the social order. For him, democracy was not just a rule of the majority but a way of life in which minorities should have a sense of security— a guarantee that no one would hit them below the belt.

Hindu fundamentalism and Ambedkar redux

Today, Hindutva, a nationalist and right-wing ideology that seeks to impose the supremacy of Hindu culture and religion in India, is officially propagated by persons in constitutional positions. The foot soldiers of Hindutva have used its ideology to justify violence against Dalits and religious minorities, seen as outside Hinduism and a threat to India’s Hindu identity. For example, cow protection has been used as a pretext for attacking Dalits and Muslims, often involved in the leather trade.

The rise of Hindu fundamentalism in recent years has contributed to the rise of violence against Dalits and Muslims. This has led to a culture of impunity where perpetrators of violence feel emboldened to carry out attacks without fear of punishment.

The invocation of Ambedkar’s constitutional morality is essential in assessing the functioning of political democracy. The Constitution was designed to meet the needs of modern society. Seventy-five years ago, there was anxiety about the survival of democracy. Today, the question is not whether democracy will survive in India but what kind of democracy it will be.

When minorities— religious, ethnic, caste or ideological— are treated as enemies, democracy becomes a mere electoral game. The success or failure of democracies depends on how the majority treats minorities. Does the minority community have any protection mechanism against the majority? Majority rule is not a democracy. When people are arrested for exercising their right to freedom of expression, the Opposition is branded as traitors, minorities are repeatedly asked to prove their nationality, people who question the political ideology of the ruling class are imprisoned under draconian anti-terror laws, who can claim that there is any meaningful democracy in India?

Ambedkar believed that an ideal society is based on liberty, equality and fraternity. If the law and politics do not guarantee them, we will inevitably create an unequal hierarchical society. Therefore, it is more sensible to transform electoral democracy into constitutional democracy based on the Constitution’s values. Ambedkar’s notion of constitutional morality is the touchstone against which the actors’ actions must be measured for the smooth functioning of democracy in India.

The Leaflet