Towards Hindu Raj

Ambedkar and Challenge of Majoritarianism

Subhash Gatade

India's slow ushering into a majoritarian democracy is a matter of concern for every such individual who still believes in pluralism, democracy, equality and a clear separation of religion and politics. The way people are being hounded for raising dissenting opinions, for eating food of their choice or entering into relationships of their own liking or celebrating festivals according to their own faith is unprecedented. The situation has reached such extremes that one can even be publicly lynched for belonging to one of the minority religions or for engaging in an activity which is considered to be 'suspicious' by the majority community.

No doubt there is no direct harm to the basic structure of the Constitution, its formal structure remains intact, de jure India does remain a democracy as well as a republic, but de facto democracy has slowly metamorphosed into majoritarian-ism and the sine qua non of a republic—that its citizens are supreme—is being watered down fast. It does not need underlining that this process has received tremendous boost with the ascent of Hindutva supremacist forces at the centrestage of Indian politics.

The brazen manner in which a Union cabinet minister—who has taken oath to abide by the Constitution—declared in public that they have come to power to 'çhange the constitution' and the manner in which ruling party members preferred to remain silent about it can be seen as a sign of the crisis facing Indian society. Perhaps less said the better about the man who calls Constitution 'the most sacred book' and who loves to project himself as a disciple of Dr Ambedkar.

The making of the Constitution itself was marked by pressures and counterpressures—from believers of radical change to the status quoists—and what came out can at best be called a compromise document between various contending forces and ideas. Dr Ambedkar's separation between the beginning of political democracy in India with the advent of the one-man-one-vote regime, and the long hiatus he saw before the ushering in of social democracy—the regime of one-man-one-value—while dedicating the Constitution to the nation was in fact a reminder of the fact that the struggle was still not over.

Without doubt he was the chief architect of the Constitution, and it was his interventions—of course with due support from Nehru and others—that led to the inclusion of important pro-people or pro-dispriviledged provisions into it, but one should not be under any illusion that 'his vision' ultimately triumphed and was inscribed in the Constitution.

Ambedkar in fact was very aware of the limitations of such a constitutional exercise in a backward society :
'Indians today are governed by two ideologies. Their political ideal set in the preamble of the Constitution affirms a life of liberty, equality and fraternity, whereas their social ideal embedded in their religion denies it to them'.

His 'vision' about a future India can be discerned from his less discussed monograph, States and Minorities : What are Their Rights and How to Secure them in the Constitution of Free India which was basically a memorandum on the safeguards for the Scheduled Castes that was submitted to the Constituent Assembly on behalf of the All India Scheduled Castes Federation that he led. This monograph does not limit itself to 'safeguards' but also talks of the danger of majoritarianism, incompatibility of Hinduism with any change, and also proposes a model of economic development that he himself described as 'state socialism'.

It is a monograph that would be quite enlightening for many concerned people. In it, he envisaged that the 'state shall not recognise any religion as state religion' and 'guarantee to every citizen liberty of conscience'. Simultaneously, on the aspect of protection against economic exploitation, he not only declared that 'key industries shall be owned and run by the state', but also that non-key but basic industries shall also 'be owned by the state and run by the state'. He was of the opinion that 'agriculture shall be state industry',  where 'the state shall divide the land acquired into farms of standard size'; the 'farm shall be cultivated as a collective farm accordance with rules and directions issued by the government'; and the 'tenants shall share among themselves in the manner prescribed the produce of the farm left after the payment of charges properly leviable on the farm'.

He further explains this clause in the following words:
'The main purpose behind the clause is to put an obligation on the state to plan the economic life of the people on lines which would lead to highest point of productivity without closing every avenue to private enterprise, and also provide for the equitable distribution of wealth. The plan set out in the clause proposes state ownership in agriculture with a collectivised method of cultivation and a modified form of State Socialism in the field of industry. ...State Socialism is essential for the rapid industrialisation of India. Private enterprise cannot do it and if it did it would produce those inequalities of wealth which private capitalism has produced in Europe and which should be a warning to Indians. Consolidation of Holdings and Tenancy legislation are worse than useless'.

Interestingly, he does not propose that the idea of State Socialism should be left to legislatures and instead wants it to be implemented by Constitutional law :
'The plan has two special features. One is that it proposes State Socialism in important fields of economic life. The second special feature of the plan is that it does not leave the establishment of State Socialism to the will of the Legislature. It establishes State Socialism by the Law of the Constitution and thus makes it unalterable by any act of the Legislature and the Executive'.

In the same monograph he clearly differentiates between 'Untouchables' and 'Hindus'.

Gone were the days when he felt that Hinduism would reform itself from within. More than a decade had passed since his famous declaration at the Yeola conference that 'I was born as a Hindu but I will not die as a Hindu'.

He is unequivocal about the 'Hindu population which is hostile to them (Untouchables)' and emphasises that it is 'not ashamed of committing any inequity or atrocity against them'. He is also not hopeful about their situation under Swaraj :
'What can Swaraj mean to the Untouchables ? It can only mean one thing, namely, that while today it is only the administration that is in the hands of the Hindus, under Swaraj the Legislature and Executive will also be in the hands of the Hindus, it goes without saying that such a Swaraj would aggravate the sufferings of the Untouchables. For, in addition to an hostile administration, there will be an indifferent Legislature and a callous Executive. The result will be that the administration unbridled in venom and in harshness, uncontrolled by the Legislature and the Executive, may pursue its policy of inequity towards the Untouchables without any curb. To put it differently, under Swaraj the Untouchables will have no way of escape from the destiny of degradation which Hindus and Hinduism have fixed for them'.

He was very much aware about the dangers of majoritarianism implicit in the way Indian nationalism had developed which according to him had 'developed a new doctrine which may be called the Divine Right of the Majority to rule the minorities according to the wishes of the majority. Any claim for the sharing of power by the minority is called communalism while the monopolising of the whole power by the majority is called Nationalism'.

And so, to protect the rights of the minorities (remember that he does not restrict himself here to religious minorities but also includes the 'scheduled castes' in his definition) he proposes a form of Executive which could serve following purposes:
(i)   To prevent the majority from forming a Government without giving any opportunity to the minorities to have a say in the matter.
(ii)  To prevent the majority from having exclusive control over administration and thereby make the tyranny of the minority by the majority possible.
(iii) To prevent the inclusion by the Majority Party in the Executive representatives of the minorities who have no confidence of the minorities.
(iv) To provide a stable Executive necessary for good and efficient administration.

In fact, his fears vis-a-vis the majoritarian impulses were evident in the political manifesto of the Scheduled Castes Federation itself—the political organisation that was set up by him in 1942 which rejected the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha as 'reactionary' organisations:
'The Scheduled Castes Federation will not have any alliance with any reactionary party such as the Hindu Mahasabha or the RSS'.

History is witness to the fact that RSS and Hindu Mahasabha opposed its making and suggested in their organs that instead of a new Constitution, the newly independent nation should adopt Manusmriti. A laughable suggestion today, but the fact is it was then seriously raised by its proponents.

In his monograph 'Pakistan or Partition of India' he reiterates his fears vis-a-vis the possible majoritarian turn at the hands of those who vouched for 'Hindu Raj' :
'If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will no doubt be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account it is incompatible with democracy. Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost'.

Much on the lines of lack of debate / discussion around States and Minorities, another important intervention of Ambedkar during that period has also received little attention. It was related to the struggle for Hindu Code Bill and happened to be the first attempt in independent India to reform Hindu personal laws to give greater rights to Hindu women. Through this, his attempt was to put a stamp on monogamy, also ensure separation rights for women and also grant them rights in property. It was a key reason for Ambedkar's resignation from Nehru's Cabinet because he felt that despite lot of attempts not much headway was being made in granting these rights.

How the Hindutva right and the conservative sections within the Congress coupled with the saffron-robed swamis and sadhus joined hands to oppose the enactment of Hindu Code Bill is well-known history. In fact, this motley combination of reactionary and status quoist forces did not limit themselves to issuing statements. They also opposed the bill on the streets and led large scale mobilisation at pan India level against the bill. There were occasions when they even tried to storm Dr Ambedkar's residence in Delhi.

Their main argument against Ambedkar was that the bill was an attack on 'Hindu Religion and Culture'. The enormous resistance to this bill becomes clear from this excerpt from Ramchandra Guha's book:
'The anti-Hindu code bill committee held hundreds of meetings throughout India, where sundry swamis denounced the proposed legislation. The participants in this movement presented themselves as religious warriors (dharmaveer) fighting a religious war (dharmayudh). The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh threw its weight behind the agitation. On the 11th of December, 1949, the RSS organised a public meeting at the Ramlila grounds in Delhi, where speaker after speaker condemned the bill. One called it 'an atom bomb on Hindu society'. ...The next day a group of RSS workers marched on the assembly buildings, shouting 'Down with Hindu code bill' ...The protesters burnt effigies of the prime minister and Dr Ambedkar, and then vandalised the car of Sheikh Abdullah'.

Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, founder of BJP's predecessor, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, declared that the Bill would 'shatter the magnificent structure of Hindu culture'.

In his intervention in support of Ambedkar and the Hindu Code Bill during the debate in Parliament on this bill, Acharya Kriplani stated:
'Much has been said about Hindu religion being in danger. I am afraid I cannot see the point. Hindu religion is not in danger when Hindus are thieves, rogues, fornicators, black-marketeers or takers of bribes! Hindu religion is not endangered by these people but Hindu religion is endangered by people who want to reform a particular law! Maybe they are over-zealous but it is better to be over-zealous in things idealistic than be corrupt in material things'.

In fact, like Mahatma Phule—whom he called the 'Greatest Shudra' and considered him his teacher along with Buddha and Kabir—the concern for women's emancipation always existed in the movement led by Ambedkar.
How did he envisage the idea of democracy?

Perhaps his speech on the 'Voice of America' radio (20 May 1956) which he gave few months before his death could best summarise his ideas around this concept.

The first point which he makes is that 'Democracy is quite different from a Republic as well as from Parliamentary Government'. According to him:
'The roots of democracy lie not in the form of government, Parliamentary or otherwise. A democracy is more than a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living. The roots of democracy are to be searched in the social relationship, in the terms of associated life between the people who form a society'.

He then goes on to explain the meaning of the word 'society'.  He says:
'When we speak of 'Society,' we conceive of it as one by its very nature. The qualities which accompany this unity are praiseworthy community of purpose and desire for welfare, loyalty to public ends and mutuality of sympathy and co-operation'.

He goes on to say that 'Indian society is so embedded in the caste system that everything is organised on the basis of caste'. He shares examples of how the daily life of individuals revolves around the twin concepts of purity and pollution, then discusses how caste is prevalent in the social-political arena too, and wryly concludes that 'there is no room for the downtrodden and the outcastes in politics, in industry, in commerce and in education.'

Deliberating about the difference between caste and class, he takes up the second evil effect in the caste system which is 'complete isolation' which is not there in the class system. This manifests itself in the fact that 'the stimulus and response between two castes is only one-sided. The higher caste acts in one recognised way and the lower caste must respond in one established way.' Such influences 'educate some into masters, educate others into slaves. ...It results into a separation of society, into a privileged and a subject class. Such a separation prevents social endosmosis.'

As opposed to the conservative notions about democracy that consider it to be an instrument to stop bad people from seizing power, Ambedkar considered democracy to be related to social transformation and human progress. 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".

In an insightful article, Prof Jean Dreze argues that 'Ambedkar's passion for democracy was closely related to his commitment to rationality and the scientific outlook.' Jean Dreze elaborates the connnection. 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. And, scientific spirit is inherently anti-authoritarian, as a person then does not believe in authority, but in coherence of the argument and quality of the evidence. Dreze goes on to argue that Ambedkar shared this belief. This is evident from one of Ambedkar's last speeches, 'Buddha or Karl Marx', wherein he summarises the essential teachings of Buddha as follows:
'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'.

Jean Dreze says that it is important to bring forth this relationship between democracy and rationalism / scientific outlook because of the 'recent threats to Indian democracy (which) often involve a concerted attack on rationality and the scientific spirit'.

An important development in the last decade of Ambedkar's life was his decision to embrace Buddhism with lakhs of followers. Apart from his deep fascination for Buddhism from younger days, his conversion to Buddhism had also to do with his contention that the 'untouchables' were in fact former Buddhists. He elaborates it in his book ‘The Untouchables : A Thesis on the Origin of Untouchability’ (1948). Thus it could also be said to be a return to 'their' original religion than a conversion. Interestingly one finds deep commonality between Dr Ambedkar and Jyothee Thass, the great Tamil-Buddhist Scholar, who also maintained that 'Untouchables' were early Buddhists.

His 'conversion' to Buddhism was also renouncement of Hinduism which according to him had 'proved detrimental to progress and prosperity of my predecessors and which has regarded human beings as unequal and despicable'.

Vol. 50, No.32, Feb 11 - 17, 2018