The importance of remembering Dr BR Ambedkar and his enduring legacy with the depth and integrity that they stood for is critical at this moment in time, because of the increasing misappropriation and misrepresentation of his constitutional and political ideals to, ironically, suit the agenda of the Hindu Right. Further, within these discussions of Ambedkar’s vision for free India, it seemed to me appropriate to allow Ambedkar’s own thinking (and own words) to take precedence in our discussions, which regrettably are often subsumed by unduly elaborate analysis conducted of them.
This is for two reasons. Firstly, because Ambedkar’s writing, in fact, requires absolutely no clarification; it is succinct, clear, powerful and enduring. And secondly, because when we take a moment to listen to his own voice and appreciate his foresight, we disallow its misappropriation. Therefore, in this essay, I simply hope to bring forth Ambedkar’s views on democracy and how they evolved over the course of his life with the help of some of his important texts – Evidence before the Southborough Committee (1919); Annihilation of Caste (1936); Pakistan or Partition of India (1940); Buddha and His Dhamma (1957). This discussion remains relevant in this terrifying moment for the nation, given the hostile social and political climate where discussions of democratic principles, debate and dialogue, and the aspirations upon which they were built, stand grievously threatened.
Conversations with democracy
Dr BR Ambedkar had a life-long negotiation with the mechanisms of democracy. Beginning with his submission to the Southborough Committee in 1919 to his position as Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Indian constitution, and his consequent term as the first Union Law Minister of independent India (1947-1951), Ambedkar maintained a persistent and powerful conversation with the ideals of democracy. While his commitment to constitutionalism remained steadfast, it is fascinating to understand how and why Ambedkar shifted position and re-negotiated categories of representation and implementation during the course of his work in India(1919 – 1956).
Within the discussions of democracy, Ambedkar had three major concerns regarding representation and implementation – the remedies of which evolved over time and were impacted by changing national and international contexts. The concerns were – firstly, how does representative democracy function (successfully) in a society that is fundamentally unequal? Secondly, how can implementation and adherence by the Hindu majority be ensured? And finally, how does law function in a democracy where the lawmakers themselves are socially conditioned?
The relevance of these questions persist in the modern nation, where the question of representation remains a highly contentious issue, both in that there is simply not enough representation of minority groups in positions of power and decision-making, as well simultaneously, the terror of having historically and socially dominant groups continue to speak on behalf of those they reign over. Of course, this being, Ambedkar admitted that democracy, while with its many limitations, was the best form of government to overcome untouchability. Perhaps what may best explain this complexity of thought as well as reflect his enviable foresight is a line from his most radical work Annihilation of Caste (1936): “Equality may be a fiction, but nonetheless, one must accept it as a governing principle”.
Ambedkar’s engagement with democracy may best be examined chronologically. In Evidence before the Southborough Committee (1919) he negotiated with the issue of representation; in Annihilation of Caste (1936) he argued that social democracy must necessarily precede (the success of) political democracy; and in Pakistan or Partition of India (1940) he discussed methods and challenges of implementation and adherence by the Hindu majority in the emerging independent nation/s. Finally, his embracing of Buddhism conducted through the mass conversion in October 1956 as well as in Buddha and His Dhamma (1957) may be seen as a turn away from constitutional mechanisms and yet indeed, towards democracy, a civic religion and a shared morality – one that was yet,not separate from his social and political goals towards equality and dignity for the many diverse peoples of the free nation.
Self-representation, a radical assertion
In Evidence before the Southborough Committee (1919), Ambedkar addressed the issue of the mechanisms of representative democracy and made the powerful assertion that even today thunders loud in the national conscience: Dalits must represent Dalits. To contextualise the time period, this radical assertion came not only at the close of the First World War, but indeed at a time, when Britain and India had not quite begun the decolonisation process and most Indians did not even have the right to vote – making Ambedkar’s assertion for the self-determination of the most disadvantaged caste/class, socially, economically, and historically, an even more spectacular one. The argument that Ambedkar made is that caste Hindus, intellectually dominant as they may be (the literacy rates of lower castes were tragically low, as he shows in Castes in India, 1916) never have and never will represented Dalit interests. As the skilled lawyer he was, Ambedkar built this case to argue that Dalits interests are antagonistic to caste Hindu interests and therefore the need for Dalits themselves to represent Dalits.
It is here that Ambedkar argued for the need for “social endosmosis” and “associated living” (influenced by his Columbia professor John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, 1916) and the importance of the free exchange of ideas amongst different social groups in a democracy. It is to this end that Ambedkar designed a series of mechanisms to overcome the challenges of representation in a society that was intrinsically unequal — separate electorates for Dalits, non-territorial electorates and reservations (in educational institutions, civil services as well as legislature).
The text Annihilation of Caste (1936) was written as a speech for the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal conference that was to be held in Lahore in 1936 for an audience who in his own words comprised “the best of Hindus”, and his speech sought to dismantle the sacredness of Hinduism in their eyes. While the speech remained undelivered precisely because the aforementioned reason frightened the organisers of the conference, Ambedkar launched in this text his most powerful critique of Hinduism. He did this by re-defining the very ideals of equality and morality as itself a critique of Hinduism and further, daring to imagine a nation based on the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, for all of us.
Furthermore, what is most radical about this text is that not only does it enable a powerful Dalit assertion of dignity, reason and rationality, but also placed democracy outside of the realm of the political state. Ambedkar’s argument here was that social reform was a precondition for the success of a democracy, and by doing so, dared to then imagine a new morality and community in a nation. Influenced by John Dewey (“by the people, for the people”), Ambedkar emphasised the need to not only have a government that allowed individual preference of government, but indeed, one that enabled the individual to participate in the very processes of government. Therefore, the powerful argument that Ambedkar puts forth to counter majority rule is to create a government structure that was in itself, in its everyday functioning, counter-majoritarian.
Democratic protection of minorities
Ambedkar wrote Pakistan or Partition of India (1940) at a time when the British had begun the process of the transfer of power from the Crown to the Indian elites and so, he prophetically wrote: “In India, the majority is born, it is not made”. He persisted with his critique of Brahman hegemony over representation and it is here that Ambedkar discussed more closely the protection of minority interests. In this text, he negotiated with two minorities within the Indian nation: Muslims and Dalits — and argued that different kinds of minorities required different kinds of protection.
In the case of Muslims he argued that reserved seats could help protect Muslim interests, whereas in the case of Dalits, in order to prevent underrepresentation of different lower caste groups, he advocated simpler voting requirements for members of these groups — thereby allowing Dalits a special recognition, owing to their disadvantaged status, within the larger framework of a representative democracy. This, to him, in many ways, itself represented the verydemocratic ideals necessary to promote social and political equality.
Towards a civic religion of equality
Ambedkar’s transition to social democracy through his final embracing of Buddhism may in part be because of his frustration with the hostility (and more tangibly, the stalling of Bills) in the Indian Parliament towards the reform measures he attempted to introduce as Law Minister (1947-1951) of the newly independent nation, and partly because of his disillusionment with the fate of constitutionalism in Europe, the global political developments that saw the horrific rise of fascism in parts of the world, and the complete breakdown of democratic and Enlightenment principles that he held so close to his heart. It may be argued that these events, as well the fact that colonial resources were no longer available to him, followed by his disengagement with the Nehru government, caused Ambedkar’s return to the ideals of social democracy as necessary for equality and shared sovereignty — seeing his dramatic, though not unexpected, shift to the realm of the religious in 1956: conversion to Buddhism.
Till the very end of his life, Ambedkar remained dissatisfied with the nation’s treatment of her minorities. And yet, his contribution to how that treatment of minorities and disadvantaged peoples should be cannot be overstated. His turn to Buddhism owing to his belief in its fundamentally democratic values in terms of functioning and structure/selection of bhikhus stood in sharp contrast to his assertion in Annihilation of Caste that “Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. It (Hinduism) is incompatible with democracy”. Ambedkar’s dreams of a civic religion remained in line with his life-long project of social and political democracy in India, and was entirely in character with the man who used to the best of his ability, the resources and methods at hand.
It is therefore ironic that the culmination of Ambedkar’s life and career saw a turn away from the very constitutional methods he worked so persistently to achieve. Even so, as much as Ambedkar struggled with establishing a legal framework to protect marginalised groups, he left a lasting legacy in the form of an imagination for equality for the millions who followed his path and continue to negotiate within the system, against the system. Perhaps it is this incalculable contribution to the world’s largest democracy, the daring to imagine that we are all equal, that is Dr BR Ambedkar’s most enduring legacy.