India hitherto has been a vibrant democracy, but a grave threat of extremism and tyranny of majoritarianism has put the democratic ethos of the country under dungeon. It is imperative to know what Dr B.R. Ambedkar, our founding father and his philosophy reflects on democracy.
Before understanding Ambedkar’s philosophy, it is quite crucial to understand who inspired Ambedkar. Ambedkar’s mentor, John Dewey, a professor and political philosopher at Columbia University was the postulate of his entire political philosophy and views on democracy. He said, “I owe my whole intellectual life to Prof John Dewey.” ‘Dewey’s Pragmatism’ and emphasis on state, education and empiricism, is what Ambedkar inherited.
Ambedkar defines democracy in a very lucid and optimistic way. He says, “Democracy is a form and a method of government whereby revolutionary changes in the economic and social life of the people are brought about without bloodshed.” (1)
In ‘Dewey’s Pragmatism’, the state acquires utmost importance for radical change, where social relations and changes are brought by the state. In Ambedkar’s whole life, reforms through the state become a primary ideology. Often during British rule, he would initiate political representation in the government, joining Viceroy’s Executive council, attending the second Round table conference in England and asserting for separate electorates. Scheduled Castes, for the first time, got representation in the state, making it viable for their liberation and struggle.
Voting rights and electing representative is inalienable in democracy. In 1919, Ambedkar while giving evidence before the Southborough Committee, observes that “the right of representation and the right to hold office under the state are the most important rights that make up citizenship.”(2)
Pre-independence, only 15% of the Indians had voting rights. But Constituent Assembly adopting ‘Universal Adult Franchise’, the revolutionary moment for free India, an apostle for working democracy. ‘Right to vote’ to everyone was just not a political right to the Indians but was also a kind of social right, where they could now have the choice to elect their popular representation. Social privilege and echelons of society were no more the parameters of the representation in the society.
As democracy sinks in India, making larger spaces for private players to gain effective command, social change is conspicuously static. Ambedkar equates democracy with the lives of the people. Ambedkar says, “Democracy is a mode 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.” (3)
To Ambedkar, democracy was essentially a form of society. It involves unmistakably two things. The first is an attitude of mind, an attitude of respect and equality towards one’s fellowman. The second is a social organization free from rigid social barriers. Democracy is incomplete and inconsistent with isolation and exclusiveness, resulting in the distinction between the privileged and unprivileged- privileges for a few and disabilities for the vast majority. (4)
For Ambedkar, an active state for annihilating caste and class hierarchies should be the priority. Social democracy, what he cherishes and political democracy are intertwined. It is an equal society that constitutes a healthy democracy. He says, “There must not be an oppressed and suppressed class……………. Such a thing, such a division, such an organization of society has within itself the germs of a bloody revolution and perhaps it would be impossible for the democracy to cure them.” (5)
Dr Ambedkar had immense faith in democracy that would restore the dignity of the deprived sections of the society. Albeit, the representation of the deprived one’s was crucial, the systematic working of the rule of law was also what Ambedkar was looking for. The society that he vowed for was democratic socialism, with positive affirmation and free of inequalities, unlike dictatorial communist regimes and dystopian fascism.
He believed that political democracy wouldn’t succeed without social democracy and the road to achieving it is constitutional morality. At last, every state operates not by the principles, but by the person who leverages those principles. As Ambedkar says, “Indeed, if I may say so if things go wrong under the new Constitution, the reason will not be that we had a bad Constitution. What we will have to say is that Man was vile. Sir, I move.” (6)