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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 51

Dr Ambedkar on Democracy

Tuesday 11 December 2007, by Shyam Chand

All over India the 51st death anniversary of Dr B.R. Ambedkar is being observed on December 6, 2007. He was a genius par excellence—an economist a sociologist, a political scientist, a great historian, a legal luminary, a great constitutionalist and above all a great champion of the downtrodden.

Abraham Lincoln says: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.” Various philosophers, political scientists and writers have given numerous definitions of democracy. A relentless champion of human rights and staunch believer in democracy, Dr Ambedkar says: “Democracy is not a form of government, but a form of social organisation.”

Dr Ambedkar believed that in democracy revolutionary changes in the economic and social life of the people are brought about without bloodshed. The conditions for that are as follows: “(1) there should not be glaring inequalities in society, that is, privilege for one class; (2) the existence of an opposition; (3) equality in law and administration; (4) observance of constitutional morality; (5) no tyranny of the majority; (6) moral order of society: and (7) public conscience.”

Addressing the Constituent Assembly, he suggested certain devices essential to maintain democracy: “(i) constitutional methods: (ii) not to lay liberties at the feet of a great man: (iii) make a political democracy a social democracy.”

Dr Ambedkar firmly believed that political democracy cannot succeed without social and economic democracy. In his talk given on the Voice of America he argued that: “Democracy could not be equated with either republic or parliamentary form of government. The roots of democracy lay not in the form of government, parliamentary or otherwise. A democracy is a model of associated living. The roots of democracy are to be searched in social relationship, in terms of the associated life between the people who form the society.”

He was against coercive centralised institu-tional authority that Hobbesian Philosophy maintains. Associated life is consensual expression of shared experience, aspirations and values. If a small section of the society is allowed to manipulate the cultured symbols of the society that process becomes undemocratic and destructive.

For him political democracy is not an end in itself, but the most powerful means to achieve the social and economic ideals in society. State socialism within the framework of parliamentary democracy can defeat dictatorship. Fundamental rights without economic security are of no use to the have-nots. “Social and economic democracy are tissue and the fibre of a political democracy.”

In a multi-denominational society like India, the common denominator is secularism which is one of the pillars on which the superstructure of our democracy rests. It is a unifying force of our associated life. He says: “The conception of a secular state is derived from the liberal democratic tradition of the West. No institution which is maintained wholly out of state funds shall be used for the purpose of religious instruction irrespective of the question whether the religious instruction is given by the state or by any other body.” Participating in a debate in Parliament, he further emphasised: “It (secular state) does not mean that we shall not take into consideration the religious sentiments of the people. All that a secular state means that this Parliament shall not be competent to impose any particular religion upon the rest of the people. That is the only limitation that the Constitution recognises.”

Social unity can be achieved by coercive methods. For true democracy to flower and flourish, social union is must. For that he suggested safeguards for the minority. In democracy, minority does not become the victim of the tyranny of the majority. He suggested certain safeguards for the protection of the minority. “The State should guarantee to its citizens the liberty of conscience and the free exercise of his religion including the right to profess, to preach and to convert within limits compatible with public order and morality.”

A crusader against social and economic injustice and a great champion of human rights with a firm belief in democracy, he exhorted his audience at the All India Depressed Classes Conference: “It seems to me that there lies on us a very important duty to see that democracy does not vanish from the earth as the governing principle of human relationship. If we believe in it, we must both be true and loyal to it. We must not only be staunch in our faith in democracy, but we must resolve to see that whatever we do not help the enemies of democracy to uproot the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.” For that he exhorted the Dalits to defend and support democracy and secularism to safeguard their rights, life and liberty.

Dr Ambedkar laid much emphasis on the term moral and said: “The Declaration of Independence does not assert that all men are equal; it proclaims that they are created equal.” He further argued: “For the successful working of democracy there must not be glaring inequalities in the society. There must not be an oppressed class. There must not be a suppressed class.” In case of inequalities “State intervention is a must”. Right to treatment as an equal must precede the right to equal treatment as a state policy. Equality of opportunity is a misleading term. There should be opportunity for equality.

He emphasised on the need for liberty of movement, liberty of speech and liberty of action and political liberty to choose his government for securing “unalienable rights such as life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Political liberty is really a deduction from the principle of human personality and equality.” Liberty and equality exist together. One without the other is absurd. Commenting on failure of democracy in some countries, he said: “Parliamentary democracy developed a passion for liberty. It failed to realise the significance of equality and did not even endeavour to strike a balance between liberty and equality, with the result that liberty swallowed equality and has made democracy a name and a farce.”

He was against violence. A firm believer in the Buddhist doctrine of non-violence he asked his followers to ’agitate’ for their rights in a peaceful manner. Violence undermines the spirit of democracy. He would have been the first to denounce Naxalism.

Dr Ambedkar, like Tagore, was against the caste system. Tagore says : “Inhuman treatment meted out to the untouchables by Brahmins is lynching, facism, Ku Klux Klanism and the like.” (Rabindranath Tagore by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson) both urged Gandhiji to work for abolition of the caste system without which democracy, after independence, would not flower and flourish. When Gandhiji declared “I would like to assure my Dalit friends…. That they may hold my life as a hostage for its due fulfillment”, Tagore was with Gandhiji. Tagore was also with Gandhiji when he signed ’Poona Pact’ with Dr Ambedkar.

At the time of adoption of the Constitution, Dr Ambedkar warned: “On 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequalities. In politics we will be recognising the principles of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one vote. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of our political democracy.”

The author is a former Minister of Haryana.