Ambedkar & the Dilemma of Social Democracy

Social democracy occupies centre stage in the philosophy of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. It constitutes the core of his struggle against the historic social malady of graded inequality in India. This is what distinguished Dr. Ambedkar from the rest of the mainstream Indian freedom thinkers and fighters who were struggling primarily for the liberation of the country (political freedom) from the yoke of British Empire.

Dr. Ambedkar expanded the meaning of political freedom by incorporating in its fold the less talked about issue of freedom from internal colonialism – caste based social exclusion. He assigned special importance to the principles of social democracy by championing the cause of the socially excluded sections of the Indian society. He wanted to strengthen the emerging sphere of political democracy in India by substantiating it with the institutionalisation of the less talked about phenomenon of social democracy. Dr. Ambedkar defines social democracy as:

a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles … are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity. They form a union of trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy (Three Historical Addresses 1999:53). 

Frozen in the centuries old stratified structure of the Hindu social order, the principles of equality and fraternity are yet to find a clear expression and a significant space in the political democracy of independent India. Social life in India is still governed by the principle of birth-based graded inequality that tends to elevate some (upper castes) and degrades many (lower castes). Even after more than sixty four years of India’s independence and wide spread anti-untouchability laws, the so-called outcastes continue to be subjected to repulsion and all sorts of humiliations. They have continuously been deprived of education, human rights, social status, and equal opportunities in the field of art, culture, science and technology.[1]
It is repulsion rather than fraternity that underlined the social structure of the Indian society. Repulsion promotes social exclusion. Repulsion is one of the three main agencies (the other two are hierarchy and hereditary occupation) of caste that determine the exclusionary boundaries of Indian social structures (Bougle 1971). In the views of Dr. Ambedkar

In fact, it makes isolation of one caste from another a virtue. There is isolation in the class system. But it does not make isolation virtue nor does it prohibit social intercourse. The class system, it is true produces groups, but they are not akin to caste groups. The groups in the class system are only non-social while the castes in the caste systems are in their relations definitely and positively anti-social. 

The caste based principle of repulsion, thus, generated mutual antagonism within the society that ultimately squeezed the required space for the deepening of social democracy in the country. The roots of democracy are to be searched in the fabric of social relationship/associated living (Chand 2005). Since caste thrives on mutual repulsion and complete rejection of fraternity, it goes against the norms of associated living that affects the machinery of the state by making public opinion impossible (Mungekar 2006:1). It introduces separation in the society, and generates jealousy and antipathy among the socially segregated inmates of the society. On the completion of the Draft Constitution (25 November 1949), Dr. Ambedkar sounded a grave warning in his famous address in the Constituent assembly:

On the 26th 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 inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle 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 value. 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 or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so labouriously built up (Three Historical Addresses 1999:53-54).  

It seems that the Indian state has accorded some heed to the prophetic warning of Dr. Ambedkar. Independent India opted for a mixed economy model of development and introduced the system of reservation for the downtrodden in government jobs, education institutions and legislature. Legal provisions for reducing the enormous gap between the rich/upper and the poor/lower castes have been incorporated in the law book of the land. The preamble of the constitution clearly spells out the objectives of securing “to all its citizens JUSTICE, social, economic and political” as well as “EQUALITY of status and of opportunity”.
The social Democratic vision as nurtured during the freedom struggle as well as drafting of the constitution under the stewardship of Dr. Ambedkar got further reflected in the Resolution of the Government of India for the creation of the Planning Commission [2] in March 1950. The Resolution clearly defined the scope of the work of the Planning Commission in the following terms:

The Constitution of India has guaranteed certain Fundamental Rights to the citizens of India and enunciated certain Directive Principles of State Policy, in particular, that the State shall strive to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice, social, economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of the national life, and shall direct its policy towards securing, among other things – 

  • that the citizens, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means of livelihood;
  • that the ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as best to subserve the common good; and
  • that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment (The First Five Year Plan: 1)     

Thus an all-inclusive vision of development and an egalitarian social order underlined the basic spirit of the constitution as well as the ambitious Five Year Planning projects of the Planning Commission of India. To translate the ideals of the founding fathers, a number of special provisions are incorporated in the constitution and the Resolution for the creation of the Planning Commission. State affirmative action is the most prominent among them. It aimed at overcoming historic caste-based social exclusion and oppression. Along with reservations in education, employment and legislature, rural development programme, public distribution system, public health programmes, cooperatives, the Right to Education Act, mid-day meals programme, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Food Security Act, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, and the Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana are a few more significant state initiatives taken over the last six decades since independence to help emerge social democracy in India. Yet another important measure towards the formation of social democracy has been a series of attempts, under the Directive Principles of state policy, to democratize and decentralize governance and the devolution of authority from the centre to the grass-roots (panchayati raj institutions). Thus the constitution of India, as aptly argued by Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, is “a unique social charter – the boldest statement ever of social democracy” (Singh 2010:1). Whether these varied measures have been able to facilitate the growth of social democracy in India or not, is a matter of contention (Desai 2010:10). Nevertheless, the incorporation of such measures in the constitution is a vindication enough that the founding fathers of Independent India wanted to deepen the roots of liberal democracy while placing it on firm foundation of social democracy. However, the adoption of the neo-liberal market-economy model by India in 1991 dilutes the social welfare concerns of the Indian state. It is in this context that the institution of social democracy has come under dark clouds of the free market economy model in the country.
Neo-liberal market-economy is primarily based on delicensing, removal of import quotas, cutting down tariff levels, liberalisation of the inflow of foreign capital, capital goods, imported inputs, capital markets, industrial liberalisation, removal of MRTP constraints, opening of yet newer areas hitherto reserved for the public sector, tax concessions, voluntary retirement scheme, hidden closing of non-viable units, widespread use of contracted/casual  labour, sub-contacting work to the small scale sector, taming labour etc (McCartney 2009: 212-13; Kohli 2006: 1361 & 1363). [3] Before Indian economy could actually open its gates to the surging tides of world market-economy, the study of economic liberalisation had already deepened its roots in the domain of social sciences in the country. However, in terms of content and scope, neoliberalism is yet to enter mainstream political sociology  with vast body of pertinent literature remains confined to the discipline of economics (cf. Bardhan 2007: 397; Nayyar 2007:361-2). It rarely focuses on the intricate but often neglected relationship between caste and economy as well as contradictions between the emerging structures of neo-liberal market-economy and the incipient institutions of social democracy (see also Basu 2010: xvi; Thorat and Newman 2010:7). In other words, economic liberalisation, caste, social democracy and intersections among them constitute the core challenges that India face today.
Among the core challenges that contemporary India face, the issue of economic liberalisation seems to be the latest, while caste certainly remains the oldest. Caste, at the same time, also enjoys the dubious distinction of being the most perennial and complex phenomenon. As an exclusionary social phenomenon, it has eclipsed the Indian (read Hindu) society for ages and continues to affect its economy and polity even today so much so that it proves to be a stumbling block in the way of substantive democratisation from within. During the long spell of Muslim rule and the subsequent British Raj, the scourge of caste has expanded beyond imagination (Barrier 1968). In the postcolonial India, it assumed a new potent identity against its traditional hierarchised stance (Still 2009). The constitution-based state affirmative action has further aided the institutionalisation of caste as identity. [4]
Social democracy figures somewhere in between these two above mentioned challenges. It, however, remains peripheral to the critical thinking of the builders of modern India. Although a sharp division between the moderates and the extremists within the Indian freedom struggle brought into focus social of the colonial India, the political, however, took precedence over the social in independent India. Ultimately, the form of democracy that India has come to acquire is a parliamentary democracy that in fact was implanted on Indian soil during the British rule. It did not evolve from within under natural conditions. Thus, despite the widespread belief about its ancient roots, it is considered to be of recent origin. [5]  But once it was transplanted, efforts were being made for its survival. [6]  It is in this context that social democracy becomes prerequisite for the survival of the parliamentary democracy in India. 
The story of the emergence of social democracy in India is different from that of Europe. Unlike Europe and Latin America, Social democracy in India did not emerge as a response to rabid capitalism and economic depression. Instead, it started taking shape in colonial India, as aptly argued by Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, “ to liberate ourselves from centuries of misrule, from the scourge of poverty, ignorance and disease, from tyranny and bigotry, from caste prejudice and communal divisions’’ (Singh 2010:1). Social democracy in India, thus, emerged as a response to deep rooted caste-based social disabilities as against the fiscal crisis of 1929 and the upheaval generated by the World War II in Europe. The central focus of social democracy in Europe was on economic equality (Desai 2010:9). Whereas, in India the main focus of social democracy has been on deepening democracy while empowering the downtrodden to come forward to democratically struggle for their long denied human rights as enshrined in the constitution. In other words, it is the ‘social’ as against the ‘economic’ that provided impetus to the rise of social democracy in India. It is in this regard that the role of state affirmative action becomes noteworthy, which aims at distributive justice that helps downtrodden to make equal contribution towards strengthening the base of liberal democracy. It intends to empower them in such a way that they reap the fruits of hard earned freedom, at par with the privileged twice born. In other words, state affirmative action aims at rescuing the Indian society from the clutches of centuries old institution of caste and the all-pervasive social exclusion and discrimination embedded in it (Jacob 2009). It is in this context that the neo-liberal market-economy and the institution of social democracy come face to face in a mutually antagonistic posture with serious implication for the sustainability of the growing sapling of liberal democracy in India.
My key argument here is that social democracy in India is different from its counterpart in Europe. In India, it aims at building an indigenous base for the restoration of an egalitarian social order that in turn facilitate in internalisation of democratic values of equality, freedom and fraternity as incorporated in the constitution. It underscores the need of demolition of discriminatory social structures. Since democracy thrives on numbers in a closely contested sphere of electoral politics, the burden of tradition becomes too difficult to be avoided. Given the typical communal character of the electoral constituencies in India, caste has come to acquire a leading role in the arithmetic of electoral number game; thus blocking the ongoing process of deepening democracy in the country. There is a general impression that instead of blunting the fangs of caste, the institution of liberal democracy has further sharpened them (for communalisation of electoral process see: Juergensmeyer 1988: 22-32). How to overcome caste and similar other socially stagnating forces, is really an uphill task for the policy makers in India? It is in this context that social democracy aims at deepening the roots of liberal democracy in India – established on the pattern of British parliamentary setup – while facilitating ethnically divergent and socially fragmented vast majority of rural poor to become active participant in the political process at the grass-roots. In fact, the inherent contradiction between the indigenous institution of caste and the transplanted institution of democracy are what acted as stumbling blocks in the way of deepening the roots of democracy in India. This contradiction subsequently assumed the form of a tug-of-war between tradition and modernity (Gurumurthy 2009).
My another key argument is that the entry of neo-liberal market-economy in India in 1990s has further compounded the ongoing tug-of-war between tradition and modernity to the disadvantage of the latter by entrenching, albeit indirectly, the oppressive caste structures in the country (discussed in details below). In the tug-of-war between tradition and modernity, the institution of social democracy stands with modernity and openly confronts the forces of neo-liberal market-economy which quite interestingly seem to toe the line of the primordial and ascriptive institution of caste. Free market discriminates against the poor. Majority of the India Poor belong to lower castes. Thus, the free markets discriminate against the Dalits. Taking side with the lower caste victims of the ‘economics of market’, which are mercilessly excluded from the business domain, social democracy compensates them in ensuring a respectable space in the ‘politics of democracy’. [7] In other words, social democracy aims at overcoming the primordial and ascriptive hurdles in the way of arduous but steady march of liberal democracy in India.

Social democracy is thus aims at building an indigenous base for the restoration of an egalitarian social order and internalisation of democratic values of equality, freedom and fraternity. It aims at imbibing the spirit of constitutionalism among its people. It underscores annihilation of caste and caste-based social exclusion. There is a general impression that given the presence of caste in the social structure in the country and the typical communal character of its electoral constituencies, the former has been able acquire a leading role in the arithmetic of electoral number game in post-colonial India, thus blocking the way of social democracy.

It is in this context that the induction of neo-liberal economic reforms in India further complicates the existing contradictions between caste and democracy. Neo-liberal economic reforms were adopted to bridle the ever-increasing menace of fiscal crisis and to help India get rid of its chronic poverty. The problem of chronic poverty in India, however, seems to be not merely an economic issue. It has equally been rooted rather more deeply in the asymmetrical social structures of its Brahminical social order, which finds its natural ally in the fast expanding operations of new-liberal market economy in the country. It is against this backdrop that the project of economic liberalisation seems to block the way of nascent institution of social democracy in India.

Neo-liberal Economy v/s Social Democracy

The neo-liberal market-economy model runs in the opposite direction of the well-conceived social democracy model of Dr. Ambedkar. The profit driven paradigm of free market economy accords no importance whatsoever to the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. The only value that it considered worth of honouring is the value of unrestrained and free flow of capital without least interference by the institution of the state. This new paradigm of neo-liberal market economy did not confront at all with the pre-modern institution of caste in India. On the contrary, caste and market nurture close relationship within the paradigm of neo-liberal market-economy. They reinforce each other. Market thrives on capital and profit. Since capital has traditionally been accumulated by the upper castes who have been able to establish their monopoly over the economy of the country, the free market economy, based as it is on the unrestrained flow of capital, tends to promote the interests of the upper castes rather more confidently. It welcomes them with enormous opportunities and hefty profits. But at the same time, it ignores the ex-untouchables who lack the requisite capital.

In the traditional Hindu social system, the ex-untouchables were kept at distance from the capital through the mechanism of purity-pollution principle. They were not allowed to own land, possess precious metals and keep certain kind of animal. Whereas in the present system of the free market economy, they were forced to be fence sitter precisely because they did not possess the desired amount of capital or capacity, which are passports to enter into business in the market economy. Earlier, the ex-untouchables were denied all sort of access to capital in the name of sacred scriptures. Now, they were kept at a distance because free market economy does not entertain them because they do not show capital. It is in this context that the dialectics of inverse relationship between democracy and untouchability and the complimentarity between market and caste assumes an added importance for the understanding of the impact of globalisation on the life of the Dalits in India in general and the structures of social democracy in the country in particular. 

Continued to: "Caste, Democracy and Market: The Boiling Cauldron"

1. Untouchability splits people into distinct and seamless geographical settings. It blocks the channels of effective communication among different castes especially between the upper and the lower castes by erecting permanent barriers of social exclusion. It is a nefarious system/mechanism of ghettoising a large number people into the periphery of a mainstream social realm. Despite its practice being declared a criminal offence in the Constitution of independent India, first under the Protection of Civil Rights [Anti-Untouchability] Act of 1955 and later on under the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989, it continues to exist even today in the form of separate Scheduled Castes settlements in the country, especially in the rural sector where most people still live (Rajagopal 2007). The spatial segregation of the ex-untouchables has become a formidable hurdle in the realisation of social democracy in India. Untouchability, by its very nature, negates the very possibility of the rise of an egalitarian social order. It inculcates a sense of complete alienation among those who have been condemned to live separately as ‘outcastes’ away from the mainland habitations of the upper castes.
2. For a detailed account of developmental planning and the setting up of the planning commission see: Kudaisya 2009:939-78.
3. For list of reforms see: Frankel 2005; Jenkins 1999: 16-28; and Kumar 2000.
4. In the constitution of Independent India caste has been accorded a distinct place in the form of state affirmative action. The lower castes, legally referred to as Scheduled Castes (SCs) in the constitution of independent India, are provided reservation in the fields of education, Government/Public Sector jobs and the legislature in order to help them in overcome their chronic social exclusion. The phenomenon of the reservation of SCs, however, has brought ‘caste’ into the centre stage of the electoral politics in independent democratic India.
5. For a discussion on the ancient roots of democracy in India see: Jayaswal 1978 fifth ed, [1924].
6. Ashutosh Varshney identified three basic conditions for the survival of democracy in the West: “universal suffrage came to most Western democracies only after the Industrial Revolution, which meant that the poor got the right to vote only after those societies had become relatively rich; a welfare state attended to the needs of low-income segments of the population; and the educated and the wealthy have tended to vote more than the poor” (Varshney 2007:93). He argued cogently that none of these three conditions exist in India. Universal adult suffrage was introduced in India long before the advent of the industrial economy.  As far as welfare state is concerned, India was not a match to that of the West. And thirdly, poor citizen tend to vote more in India than the rich (Varshney 2007: 93-94).
7. For ‘economics of market’ and politics of democracy’ phrases, I am indebted to Deepak Nayyar (Nayyar 2007:362—69).



More by :  Prof. Ronki Ram

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