ARGUABLY, Babasaheb Ambedkar is one of the few thinkers who continue to influence and shape people’s democratic aspirations such as freedom, equality, justice and dignity, all of which form the normative basis of modern India. It is quite interesting to note that there are more claimants than ever before to the legacy of Ambedkar. The competitive claims for the cultural and political ownership of Ambedkar, however, seem to be more rhetorical in nature than substantive in their thrust. In the context of the rituals of rhetoric, it becomes necessary to understand the more substantive nature of his legacy. As a part of this exercise, let me take on board certain concepts such as democracy and modernity that are crucial to understanding the relevance of Ambedkar’s legacy in contemporary India.
Before we actually deal with the conception of democracy and modernity in Ambedkar, it is necessary on our part to offer much-needed methodological clarification. One is theoretically aware about a certain kind of pragmatism that is associated with Ambedkar’s use of democracy and modernity. However, reducing Ambedkar’s thinking to pragmatism would amount to doing injustice to his transformative legacy, especially since the entire corpus of his writing is built around a set of normative principles. Hence, it would be grossly incorrect to read him only through the prism of pragmatisms. And yet we need to accept that Ambedkar does seem to use democracy and modernity in a pragmatic manner.
For Ambedkar, being pragmatic is not an arbitrary choice; in fact, it is conditioned by the cumulated disadvantages that he and the entire untouchable community suffered historically. The need to get the broken men (emphasis in original) out from the Bahishkrut Bharat (India of the ostracised) and include them into seamless (puruskrut) India without losing any further time and energy compelled Ambedkar to resort to the strategic use of these concepts. In order to achieve the objective of getting untouchables into the life of a nation, Ambedkar seemed to prioritise democracy over modernity. This sequence could also be defended on the ground that the horizontal or universal conception of equality that is internal to an egalitarian form of democracy would not entangle Dalits into questions such as “do Dalits need to first acquire merit in order to participate in democracy?” In fact, “nationalist elites” such as Bal Gangadhar (Lokamanya) Tilak did put merit on modernity as the compulsory condition for participation in democracy. Ambedkar, for the right reason, was apprehensive about prioritising modernity as a common criterion of participation. He rightly thought putting modernity before democracy would inordinately delay Dalit arrival to the democratic process. Hence, he summons not modernity but democracy on priority. To put it differently, he favours equality over merit.
However, in the post-Independence period, one finds Ambedkar changing the sequence, that is, putting modernity before democracy. In this essay, I seek to argue that Ambedkar does not raise a watertight binary opposition between democracy and modernity. On the contrary, he binds them together symbiotically so that such concepts grow together and not at the cost of each other. To put it differently, democracy as the sphere of equality converts opportunity into an asset or a merit. This particular essay, thus, seeks to address three important questions.
First, why does Ambedkar privilege democracy over modernity, particularly during the pre-Independence period? Secondly, why does he reverse this order in post-Independence India? Finally, does he find democracy and modernity inadequate in approximating to the reasonable aspirations of the underprivileged of India? If yes, then what are the grounds on which he finds limits in democracy as a governing principle of social and political relationships and in modernity as an organising framework of political institutions whose job it is to articulate the democratic principle?
Egalitarian democracy & constraining modernity There are at least two core reasons that can help us understand why Ambedkar privileges democracy over modernity or equality over merit. First, his strategic move to summon democracy on priority has to be understood in terms of the genuine absence of any radical Left alternative in the early 20th century or the improbability of a communist revolution becoming a realisable goal in the immediate future. Arguably, in a communist revolution, it is people’s democracy that forces dialogue on modernity. To put it differently, such a revolutionary change seeks to eliminate the necessity of modernity as a gatekeeping device to defer the participation of those who are not as yet technically ready for participation. Communism does not keep the common masses waiting at the gate of democratic institutions just because they lack modern techniques to handle the business of democracy. In the context of Ambedkar’s thinking, one, therefore, is tempted to ask members of the present-day Indian Left whether they follow this enabling sequence when they form the politburos of their respective parties?
Secondly, Ambedkar would invoke an egalitarian form of democracy on priority simply because he thought it would be extremely difficult for the downtrodden, deprived, discriminated and decimated masses to enter the decision-making institutions should they be put to the modernity test. Thus, sociological reasons which are historically available prompted him to mount a critique of the “nationalist elite” who, according to Ambedkar, sought to privilege modernity or the language of merit over egalitarian democracy or the language of equality. In this regard, he points to the politics of modernity as a gatekeeping device as deployed by Lokamanya Tilak, who said: “If the lower castes manage to go to the legislature, what would they do in such places?” It is in this exclusionary sense that modernity becomes an ideology through which the socially dominant and politically privileged elite seeks to limit the gains of democracy to them.
However, it is interesting to note that in contemporary times, the “Mandalised” governing class at the level of the Central legislature seems to have obliquely followed Ambedkar and not Tilak. This allegiance to Ambedkar’s legacy is evident in the 73rd/74th Amendments to the Constitution. These twin amendments do not seem to insist on modernity as the precondition for women’s participation in democratic processes. If we followed Ambedkar’s principled pragmatism then, we would find the decision of certain State governments, such as the government of Rajasthan which is believed to have made certain education qualifications a precondition for political participation, highly objectionable. One finds in such decisions the intention to follow Tilak rather than Ambedkar.
Finally, in Ambedkar’s understanding, the principle of equality which is embodied in democracy is necessary because it enthuses the downtrodden about the need for the political activism that is necessary to interrogate the local configuration of power that entails Brahmanism and capitalism. Ambedkar considers Brahmanism and capitalism the two leeches that suck the blood of the common masses at the local level. To put it differently, Ambedkar suggests that nationalist attempts to prioritise modernity over democracy have a function to avoid interrogating both Brahmanism and capitalism. After creating a secure space for democracy or equality in the Constitution, thus making it at least formally safe for Dalits, Ambedkar then goes on to defend democracy though taking modernity seriously. As we shall see in the next section, Ambedkar treats egalitarian democracy as an enabling principle and makes it imperative on the part of the beneficiaries of such a principle to take modernity seriously. Ambedkar adds this caveat only to assign a certain degree of robustness to democracy itself.
Modernity precedes democracy
Ambedkar does not draw satisfaction from the democratic equality that makes its guest appearance only in a formal sense. In fact, he is committed to making democracy and the principle of equality more meritorious through the gains that serve as a benchmark, thus expanding equality into an attractive public good. Ambedkar believes that equality could be made meritorious only through continuous evaluation of institutions that assign concrete meaning to abstract principles of democracy. Evaluative practices are modern because they are aimed at making institutions stand tall with the help of merit. It is in this sense that Ambedkar overcomes the binary between democracy and modernity. Let us see in the following section how Ambedkar achieves this.
Ambedkar puts an additional premium on modernity with the sole intention of assigning merit to democratic institutions. In this regard, let me give just one example that will affirm that Ambedkar actually succeeded in overcoming the binary between democracy and modernity. He started educational institutions in Mumbai and Aurangabad in Maharashtra and recruited teachers on the basis of merit whenever they were available. Thus, he ended up recruiting teachers both from the upper castes and from his own caste. Ambedkar has become relevant especially in the context in which the modern educational institutions he established in Mumbai and Aurangabad are reported to have declined in terms of their merit. For those Dalits who are responsible for such a decline, it is a double loss. It is loss in modernity and also loss in democracy. The case of non-Dalits is different from that of Dalits. For Dalits, it is a comprehensive loss, but for non-Dalits, what is lost in modernity is gained in tradition—a single loss.
The upper-caste loss in modernity and subsequent gain through tradition tend to deny the principle of equality the advantage of merit. To put it differently, the failure in modernity creates resentment that in effect denies equality the advantage of merit as value addition. Let us look at this predicament of the Indian twice-born by citing Ambedkar’s own experience, which can be very well explained in terms of equality in search of merit.
Equality in search
Equality, on its way to becoming a concrete reality, creates many unreasonable adversaries. Claims to equality need to be acknowledged by its adversaries. In the Indian context, adversaries do not seem to offer recognition to claims of equality unless the latter acquires added value through the production of merit.
In this regard, Ambedkar himself has offered a couple of instances from his own experience relating to the opponents of the Hindu Code Bill (HCB) of which he was the main architect. It is argued that some scholars of the Vedas who claimed to themselves hermeneutic authority saw his efforts to draft the HCB as a kind of epistemological transgression. Such epistemic voices, which were quite vocal in 1951, opposed Ambedkar, not on the grounds of modernity (that he was not intellectually competent to interpret the Vedas) but on the grounds that he was an untouchable who had no right to either interpret the Vedas or listen to them. However, this trend seeks to disregard Ambedkar’s modernist calibre to intellectually fashion out an emancipatory agenda for women through the act of drafting the HCB. Misrecognition of Ambedkar’s claim to merit by the scholars concerned suggests that what is lost in modernity is a gain for tradition. To put it differently, such opponents of the HCB discounted Ambedkar’s claim with the intention of just retaining their social power not in the sphere of modernity; they invoked hermeneutic and epistemological rights that were made ritually available by tradition. In Ambedkar’s legacy, the HCB is a great step towards social reform; to bypass it is to make a farce of the Constitution and to build a palace on a dungheap. However, what we need to take into account is the fact that the judiciary does follow Ambedkar rather than the other lot while dealing with the feminist question of legal entitlement. This was evident in a recent judgment of the Supreme Court that accepted women’s right to a share in the property of the family. As Ambedkar’s drafting of the HCB suggests, the ideological content of the state must be anti-patriarchal. He wanted to rule out from the structure of the state the possibility of sedimented Brahmanism. Without this radically egalitarian core of ideology of the state, he argued, democracy in India would only be a top dressing on Indian soil.
The HCB is one instance that shows us equality is in search of merit. Ambedkar’s frustrating experience involving his failure to realise equality with the added value of merit continues to tragically resonate with modern-day Dalits, who fail to grow in the eyes of the Indian twice-born, howsoever meritorious they may be.
The unwillingness on the part of the other to appreciate Ambedkar’s efforts to combine equality with merit is also evident in his experience with a most modern personality, Jawaharlal Nehru. Ambedkar’s experience with the modernist claim of both Nehru and the Congress party led him to lament that he was not able to gain recognition for his calibre that sought to combine equality with merit. The Congress party no doubt solicited his support but this, on Ambedkar’s admission, was only the rhetorical accommodation into the opportunity structures that he considered peripheral. The most authentic biographer of Ambedkar, Changdeo B. Khairmode, has expressed Nehru’s lack of commitment to modernity. He says: “The Central government led by Pandit Nehru did not offer him opportunities that had more potential to convert them into an asset. He was capable and confident of handling not just law but other important portfolios such as finance, home and foreign.” It is in this context that Ambedkar observes that emotive criteria such as trust, friendship and capacity to please the party bosses do not add merit to the principle of equality. It is in this regard that one has to acknowledge the relevance of Ambedkar. The general picture one gets is that most parties seem to follow not the modernity or merit criterion but criteria that are parochially emotive and hence not modern.
Ambedkar’s egalitarian legacy would make a normative demand on those political parties which fail to take modernity seriously. Parties that fail to cultivate among its cadre a favourable disposition towards modernity as a criterion to brighten the future of democratic principle, therefore, need to be morally motivated to mobilise resources wherever such resources are available. Parties can show such cognitive generosity only on conditions that are genuinely liberal in their political practice. Taking such a moral lead requires putting aside narrow party ideological interests. After all, orienting oneself as Ambedkar did in favour of normative values such as equality, dignity and justice ultimately contributes to the well-being of both institutions and the nation.
Ambedkar’s legacy offers us the choice of an egalitarian state ideology and not the parochial ideology of some political parties. It is the ideology of the state, and not narrow, regressive party ideology, that should govern society and the nation. In fact, in his conception, party and its ideology and state ideology need to immerse in each other. Parties attempting to stamp out the egalitarian core will definitely undermine the radical legacy of Ambedkar.
For Ambedkar, democracy with the horizontal form of equality is the final vocabulary with egalitarianism as the interim ideal. Of course, for him, neo-Buddhism is the ultimate ideal.
(I thank Gurpreet Mahajan for helping to clarify the point relating to the theoretical relationship between equality and merit.)
Gopal Guru is a professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He has authored two books with Oxford University Press: Humiliation: Claims and Context and The Cracked Mirror: An Indian Debate on Experience and Theory.
Notes and References
1. (1990): Writing and Speeches of Babasaheb Ambedkar , Vol. 7, Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, Mumbai, p. 209.
2. Khairmode, C.B.: “Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar” (Marathi), Vol. 7, Mumbai: Maharashtra Sahitya Ani Sanskruti Mandal , p. 34.
3. This has been the common observation of Dalit scholars concerned not only of Aurangabad but in the whole of Maharashtra.
4. Khairmode, C.B. (1989): “Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar” (Marathi), Vol. 10, Mumbai: Maharashtra Sahitya Ani Sanskruti Mandal , p. 69.
5. Ibid, p. 108.