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Dr. Ambedkar and the Future of Indian Democracy

by Jean Drèze, 31 January 2012

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Excerpts from a paper published in Indian Journal of Human Rights, 2005.

The future of Indian democracy depends a great deal on a revival of Dr.
Ambedkar’s visionary conception of democracy. This vision also needs to be enlarged and updated in the light of recent experience.

Revolutionary Democracy

Dr. Ambedkar’s vision of democracy was closely related to his ideal of a “good society”. He did not leave room for any ambiguity regarding the nature of this ideal. On many occasions, he stated that he envisaged a good society as one based on “liberty, equality and fraternity”. 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 realisation of liberty, equality and fraternity. At the same time, democracy was also the means through which this ideal was to be attained.

Dr. Ambedkar’s notion of "democratic government" went back to the fundamental idea of "government of the people, by the people and for the people". But “democracy” meant much more to him than democratic government. It was a way of life: “Democracy is not merely a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen.”

Another crucial feature of Dr. Ambedkar’s conception of democracy is that it was geared to social transformation and human progress. Conservative notions of democracy, such as the idea that it is mainly a device to prevent bad people from seizing power, did not satisfy him. In one of the most inspiring definitions of the term, he defined democracy as "a form and a method of government whereby revolutionary changes in the economic and social life of the people are brought about without bloodshed." ...

Dr. Ambedkar’s passion for democracy was closely related to his commitment to rationality and the scientific outlook. At an obvious level, rationality is necessary for democratic government since public debate (an essential aspect of democratic practice) is impossible in the absence of a shared adherence to common sense, logical argument and critical enquiry. Rational thinking is even more relevant if we adopt Dr. Ambedkar’s broad view of democracy as a state of "liberty, equality and fraternity". Indeed, rationality is conducive if not indispensable to the realisation of these ideals. ...

There is also a close affinity between rationality and equality. For one thing, propaganda and manipulation are common tools of subjugation. The caste system, for instance, has been propped over the centuries by an elaborate edifice of unscientific dogmas. The scientific outlook is essential to liberate and protect oneself from ideological manipulation. For another, the scientific spirit has a strong anti-authoritarian dimension. Authority rests on the notion that one person’s view or wish counts more than another’s. In scientific argument, this is not the case.
What counts is the coherence of the argument and the quality of the evidence. In that sense, the scientific outlook is a protection against the arbitrary exercise of power.

There is a view that reason and science are "western" notions, alien to the people of India, who have their own "modes of knowledge". This view is bound to astonish anyone who has cared to read the Buddha’s teachings. Many centuries before Descartes, Buddha urged his followers to use their reason and not to believe anything without proof. In "Buddha or Karl Marx", one of his last speeches, Dr. Ambedkar includes the following in his summary of the essential teachings of the Buddha: "Everyone has a right to learn. Learning is as necessary for man to live as food is ... Nothing is infallible. Nothing is binding forever. Everything is subject to inquiry and examination."

This is not to deny that there are other modes of knowledge than rational argument and scientific discourse. That is the case not only in India but all over the world. For instance, no amount of rational argument can convey what a jasmine flower smells like. Direct experience is indispensable. Similarly, if you hold the hand of an Iraqi child who has been wounded by American bombs, you will learn something about the nature of this war that no amount of scientific information on "collateral damage" can convey. In The Buddha and His Dhamma, Dr. Ambedkar gives a fine account of the distinction between vidya (knowledge) and prajna (insight). In the step from vidya to prajna, non-scientific modes of learning often play an important role. But this does not detract from the overarching importance of rationality in individual enlightenment and social living.

One reason for bringing this up is that recent threats to Indian democracy often involve a concerted attack on rationality and the scientific spirit. I am thinking particularly of the Hindutva movement. As various scholars have noted, this movement can be interpreted as a sort of "revolt of the higher castes": an attempt to reassert the traditional authority of the upper castes, threatened as it is by the expansion of political democracy in independent India. This reassertion of Brahminical authority in the garb of "Hindu unity" involves a suppression of rational thinking and critical enquiry. That is the real significance of the seemingly "irrational" statements and actions we are witnessing day after day from political leaders of the saffron variety: the call for teaching astrology in universities, the substitution of myths for history, the search for Lord Ram’s "authentic" birthplace, the handover of research institutions to certified obscurantists, among other recent examples. I doubt that Mr. Murli Manohar Joshi really cares for the inclusion of astrology in the university curriculum, but what he has good reason to care for is the nurturing of a spirit of submission to Brahminical obscurantism. Resisting this and other attacks on rationality is an important requirement of the defence of democracy in India today.

One of the most interesting features of Dr. Ambedkar’s political philosophy is his stress on the ethical dimension of democracy, or what he called "morality". One aspect of this is the importance of "constitutional morality", that is, of abiding by the spirit of the constitution and not just its legal provisions. Going beyond this, Dr. Ambedkar felt that "morality", in the sense of social ethics, was indispensable for the realisation of liberty and equality. In the absence of morality, there were only two alternatives: anarchy or the police. ...

In fact, one of Dr. Ambedkar’s many criticisms of caste system was that it undermines social rationality and morality. In Annihilation of Caste, he thundered: "The effects of caste on the ethics of the Hindus is simply deplorable. Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. Caste has made public opinion impossible. A Hindu’s public is his caste… Virtue has become caste-ridden and morality has become caste-bound." He ultimately identified mortality with "fraternity" - "a sentiment which leads an individual to identify himself with the good of others".

Dr. Ambedkar’s attraction to Buddhism has to be seen in the light of his twin commitment to morality and reason. Not only did he regard Buddha’s "Dhamma" as compatible with (indeed committed to) reason, he also saw it as an expression of the ideal of "liberty, equality and fraternity". At one point he even stated that this ideal of his derived directly "from the teachings of my master, the Buddha". Towards the end of his life, he even seems to have nurtured the hope that the Dhamma would becmoe a universal code of social ethics. ... ...

In practical terms, the best course of action may be to revive the Directive Principles of the Constitution, and to reassert that these principles are "fundamental in the governance of the country" (Article 37). Indeed, in spite of much official hostility to these principles today, there are unprecedented opportunities for asserting the economic and social rights discussed in the constitution - the right to education, the right to information, the right to food, the right to work, and the right to equality, among others. Dr. Ambedkar’s advice to "educate, organise and agitate" is more relevant than ever.


FULL TEXT: Dr. Ambedkar and the Future of Indian Democracy
by Jean Dreze