Democracy is not merely a form of Government. It is primarily a mode of associated living of con-
joint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellow men’ (p. l). This quote by Dr. BR Ambedkar is testimony to his ideals of equality and the conception of inclusion of people from all groups in society, with a special emphasis on the depressed classes and the minority groups. His articulation also reflects that notional democracy has to come clean of the procedural cobwebs to attain its substantive goals. The socio-political milieu in which Ambedkar was born pushed him and inspired his untiring journey for progressive endeavours, for emancipation of excluded masses, and the struggle against ostracization. Ambedkar had rightly observed that the prevalence of inequality and lack of liberty in Indian society were deeply rooted in the atrocious web of the caste system. His precision in foreseeing how the evils of the caste system stood against his idea of democracy was aptly reflected in one of his lectures:
. . . one special feature of the caste system lies in its being accompanied by what is called ‘Graded-inequality’. Castes are not equal in their status. They are standing one above another. They are jealous of one another. It is an ascending scale of hatred and descending scale of contempt. It destroys the willing and helpful co-existence. (p. 242)
The Hindu social order has continuously prevented the inclusion of members of the so-called lower social groups in political participation, decision making or law making processes, to privileges of attaining freedom and fraternity as equal beings. Indian polity was also tainted by communal pigments and its dreadful manifestations are apparent. Ambedkar was therefore, convinced that political democracy can bloom only in the presence of social and economic democracy. The very idea of social democracy involves the idea of social justice, and equality remained a vital element in Ambedkar’s notion of justice (p. xii). The question remains as to how one grapples with the challenge of actualizing equality in a society that is both hierarchical and brutal. Ambedkar had definitive solutions to such problems, which he prescribed as safeguards and affirmative action in the Indian Constitution.
The editors of the volume under review deserve special praise for discussing Ambedkar’s anxieties and concerns relating to minorities. This is significant because despite his unparalleled contributions to the cause of nation building, there have been consistent efforts to restrict his identity to the leader of the ex-untouchables alone. Ambedkar was well aware of the communal character of the Indian polity and was convinced that in India, the majority was a communal majority rather than a political majority. It is perhaps for this reason that he explained this paradox as follows, ‘…any claim for the sharing of power by minority is called communalism, while the monopolising of the whole power by the majority is called nationalism’ (p. xvii). But Ambedkar’s master stroke remained his ability to define minority based on social, economic and educational standing rather than demographic or religious considerations. In his view, Muslims did not get separate electorates because they were different from Hindus, but because the relations between the two communities were marked by social discrimination (p. xxxviii).
Ambedkar was not just concerned about the dangers of absolute majority alone, but also about minority groups within minorities. It is for this reason that he had suggested that high priority be given to those minorities who were educationally and economically backward (p. xxxix). Furthermore, in a memorandum documented in this text, ‘State and Minorities’, the importance of economic democracy has also been brought into the limelight. Ambedkar had argued that an alternative economic setup with socialistic undertones should be established wherein the state took charge of sectors like agriculture, health, insurance and education, and left other activities to the private sector. A part of his policy prescriptions were finally accommodated as Directive Principles of State Policy.
Ambedkar was consulted by the Southborough Committee for the constitutional reformation of electoral franchise. He contested the idea of popular government as the sole government for the people and encouraged the idea of ‘government by the people’. Making this political democracy inclusive seemed to be a Herculean task. Only Ambedkar, with his distinguished and extraordinary scholarship, could understand and appreciate the genius of illiterates and their role in democracy. His advocacy of adult franchise for all adults irrespective of caveats of educational qualifications was based on the democratic principles of high order and was expressed in unambiguous terms:
Those who insist on literacy as a test and insist upon making it a condition precedent to enfranchisement in my opinion, commit two mistakes. Their first mistake consists in their belief that an illiterate person is necessarily an unintelligent person. (…) their second mistake lies in supporting that literacy necessarily imports a higher level of intelligence or knowledge than what the illiterate possesses (p. xxxi).
Ambedkar was definitely frustrated about the constitutional government’s failure to democratize society. He faced constant opposition for his crusades against the ills of Hindu society, be it his unwilling compromise with Gandhi in the form of the Poona Pact, or his resignation from Nehru’s cabinet over the dropping of the Hindu Code Bill. He found that the root cause of his constant compromise was none other than the Hindu social framework. He was convinced that the principle of equality was inherently absent in Hindu society and chose Buddhism as the crucible of social democracy.
This book is a timely academic intervention in the contemporary Indian socio-political scenario which is in a dire need of a concept of inclusion of minority social groups, an idea popularly known as the ‘Ambedkarite ideology’, especially when society is facing new forms of caste atrocities and communal lynching encouraged by majoritarian nationalism, that stands in contrast to the civic nationalism as envisaged by the Indian Constitution. It gains further importance as there is an attempt to not only appropriate Ambedkar, but also of saffronizing both his image and ideas. The book further highlights how Ambedkar drew his intellectual inspiration from western thinkers like John Stuart Mill, Daniel O’Connel and John Dewey to establish his view point. The editors have unearthed an academic goldmine from the mundane collected works gathering dust on library shelves in order to create an anthology. Yet, the book could have more suitably been titled as Dr. Ambedkar on Democracy, rather than Dr. Ambedkar and Democracy, for they are primarily Ambedkar’s ideas.
Arvind Kumar teaches at Centre for the Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.