In this paper I have talked about the etymology of the word democracy within the Indian context. Then I have discussed the idea of democracy in India with special reference to Dr. Ambedkar’s conception of democracy, the sources of his philosophy of democracy that he used like the Navayana Buddhism which promotes liberty, equality and fraternity and the other concepts. I have also talked about how Ambedkar has used this framework to deal with social evils such as caste system, untouchability, discrimination and exclusion, and ensured these values in Indian constitution so that Indian democracy sustains for a longer period. I have also given some insights on the current situation of democracy in India with some personal reflections and I have concluded this paper by saying that still we have a long way to go to achieve social democracy and spiritual democracy as envisioned by Ambedkar.
Key words: Democracy, Dr. Ambedkar, Navayana Buddhism, Caste
Democracy as a form of government emerged against the other forms of governments such as aristocracy and monarchy. In India, democracy as a form of government started to dig its roots during the colonial period when Britishers introduced the parliamentary form of government. It was on 26 January 1949 that India became a sovereign democratic country. According to professor Bodhi (2022), the idea of democracy is very old in India; democracy was present in India during the time of Buddha, that is 2500 years back. This idea of democracy was based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. These are the most egalitarian values that each democratic country aspires to inculcate. For the same principles Dr. Ambedkar argued that the frame of reference from which he had derived these principal values is the Buddhist philosophy and not the French revolution. According to Raut (2022, pp,263), democracy for Ambedkar is not just a form of government run by the people but it is a state of mind, a fraternal attitude, loving kindness being expressed in moral action. Dr. Ambedkar considered democracy as an important force for the development of mankind. Therefore, democracy as envisioned by Dr. Ambedkar can be seen through the democratic values like equality, liberty, and fraternity.
Indian society has seen ups and downs throughout history and the result is that it is divided based on caste and religion. It is also said that Indian history is nothing but the mortal conflict between Brahmanism and Buddhism. Caste system which is one of the features of Hindu religion has divided Indian society into different castes; each one of it has a special status given by the Shastras. This caste system is based on the idea of hierarchy in which some castes are at higher level and many are at lower level and according to this status (higher or lower) there are privileges and handicaps respectively. This caste system has sanction from the Shastras of the Brahmin religion. This prompted the establishment of graded inequality in which Dalits were thrown at the receiving end. This caste system which was once peculiar to Hindu religion and India (as a geographic entity) now can be found within all the religions in India and other western countries as well. The features like hierarchy and discrimination also have traveled along with caste. According to Darokar (2022), untouchability came into existence with the construction of the caste system. The problem of untouchability was between the Savarnas and the Untouchables who were separate elements of Indian society. The notion of untouchability is linked to the notion of touchability which gave rise to the notions of purity and pollution which are again discriminatory in their nature.
Therefore problems like untouchability, discrimination based on castes are still burning issues in Indian democracy. Taking recent examples from Rajasthan’s Jalore district (The Scroll, 2022), a 9 year Dalit boy was beaten to death by his upper caste teacher just because he drank water from an earthen pot meant for the upper caste teachers. Another example of caste violence, discrimination and untouchability is from the Bali district of the same state where a Dalit man was murdered on 18 March 2022 just because he kept his moustache stylish and made direct eye contact with the men from upper castes who killed him later. These are just two reported examples from just one state. There are many such incidents from different states in India where reported and unreported atrocities take place against Dalits. When the caste system marginalized and dehumanized Dalits in every possible way, how can democracy in a society that is sick with the disease of caste, create an egalitarian society and establish social democracy?
Indian Democracy at Present
In recent times there is a polarization of people on the lines of religion. The ones who resist majoritarian politics are being termed as anti-national. But any mobilization towards the extremist stances like the extreme left or extreme right is dangerous for the existence of democracy (Raut, 2022). The mobilization on the lines of religion is damaging the secular fabric of the constitution.
As per the study conducted by Prof. Ramaiah (2013) in two districts of Tamil Nadu it was found that there is no social democracy in Indian villages as they are divided based on castes. There is caste discrimination between higher and lower castes, even within OBCs and Scheduled Castes. This means that we still have not achieved the social democracy that Dr. Ambedkar had envisioned. There is an urgent need for the reconstruction of Indian society based on the egalitarian values set forth by Dr. Ambedkar.
According to Darokar (2022) and Silva (2020), in the current context and for the future as well, the vision set forth by Ambedkar will be the major cornerstone to be achieved for which we will have to reflect on concepts like liberty, equality and fraternity in order to avoid any kind of extremism and to establish social democracy. But before that, we have to also understand and reflect on the other major concepts which Babasaheb talked about, like ‘cultivation of human mind should be the ultimate aim of human existence’ and ‘being our own light’. I think those values are the prerequisite for social democracy, because these concepts have a major crux which are carrying forward substance within them which are important for the growth of individuals and communities at large but still these concepts are the most neglected.
Frame of Reference
Indian democracy from the perspective of Dr. Ambedkar comes from the Navayana Buddhist framework. This Navayana Buddhism perspective belongs to the Shramanic school of thought and Dr. Ambedkar is one of the most crucial contributors to this school of thought. He had worked relentlessly throughout his life for the emancipation of Dalits and the Untouchables. He is the one who brought about mass conversion of Untouchable Hindus to Buddhism. He saw Buddhism as a rational and egalitarian philosophy which could revive the suppressed identity of the Untouchables.
In an interview to BBC, Dr. Ambedkar said that, “Democracy in India will not work unless and until political and economic democracy turned into social democracy,” because the current social structure is unequal and where there is inequality, democracy will not work. When he used the term social democracy he meant a democracy based on the values of equality, liberty and fraternity. According to Darokar (2022), Raut (2022), Silva (2020), Dr. Ambedkar derived the values of democracy as said above from the Navayana Buddhist philosophy and not the French Revolution. According to Raut (2022), Dr. Ambedkar went ahead of social democracy and aspired for spiritual democracy, democracy based on love/metta. This spiritual democracy aspired for by Ambedkar has its roots in Buddhist philosophy. Darokar (2022) has argued that Dr. Ambedkar had seen true democratic India in what he calls Prabuddha Bharat rooted in the trinity of liberty, equality and fraternity. Prabuddha Bharat imagines India without a caste system and goes beyond that to give a proper framework for the future course of democracy. The Caste system creates inequality and where there is inequality it is considered a failure of democracy. Therefore, Dr. Ambedkar wants annihilation of the caste system. For the same purpose he wanted Dalits, Tribals and OBCs to get educated to become able to work toward the annihilation of the caste system. That’s why Babasaheb Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar gave the famous slogan for people in India, “Educate, agitate, organize.”
The idea of democracy that is based on principles of Navayana Buddhism is emancipatory not just for Dalits or those who are marginalized and exploited but also for a peaceful and balanced society at large. These principles are an open challenge to the dominant discourse. At the same time, this democratic framework is the next vision for society that is available after the annihilation of the caste system. Hence it is not like we are aspiring for something that is illusionary.
This Navayana framework is embedded in the lifestyle of Dalits of Maharashtra but the dominant discourse has its influence on those practising it. Dalits are the ones who are taking forward the idea of democratic India as envisioned by Dr. Ambedkar and hence the idea of Navayana Buddhism. Because they believe that the philosophy that has revived their historically suppressed identity could also give them a peaceful and balanced society.
The philosophy of democracy is inherent to India. It has its roots in the ancient Indian philosophy of Buddha and was revived by Dr. Ambedkar as Navayana Buddhism. In this article, I have tried to explain the complexities embedded in the democratic framework in India. I also have tried to analyze the links between democracy and the prevailing socio-political scenarios in the Indian context like the caste system, untouchability, discrimination and the present debate on religious extremism and nationalism. I have reflected on some of the concepts within the philosophy of Navayana Buddhism like liberty, equality and fraternity. The importance of concepts emerging from the same framework–like ‘cultivation of mind’ or ‘freedom of mind’ and ‘be your own light’–growing in the age of polarization and religious extremism.
- Bodhi, S.R, Bansode, A(2022). The Ambedkarite World View Post 1956: Some reflections on its Theoretical Content, Social Action, 72(3), pp 229-242.
- Darokar, S.K. (2022). Prabudha Bharat: Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Vision for a Democratic India.Social Action: A Quarterly Review of Social Trends, 72(3), 269-282.
- Raut, S. I. (2022) Intersection between Nation and spiritual democracy: A Philosophical Inquiry from an Ambedkarite Perspective, Social Action: A Quarterly Review of Social Trends, 72(3), 256-269.
- Ramaiah. A(2013). Social Democracy in India: The Experiences of Dalits in Southern tamil Nadu, Archived from Academia.edu, Archived on 23/11/2022, https://www.academia.edu/6146280/SOCIAL_DEMOCRACY_IN_INDIAN_VILLAGES_Experiences_of_Dalits_in_southern_Tamil_villages
- Silva, K. T. (2020). Secular State and the ‘Religious Left’: Navayana Buddhism and Dr Ambedkar’s Vision for the Future of Democracy in South Asia. Journal of Social Inclusion Studies, 6(2), 152–163. https://doi.org/10.1177/2394481121995955
- The Scrol.(2022)Rajasthan: Dalit boy dies after upper caste teacher beats him for drinking water from his pot, The scroll, Archived on 19/11/2022, https://scroll.in/latest/1030438/rajasthan-dalit-boy-dies-after-upper-caste-teacher-allegedly-beats-him-for-drinking-his-water
- OPIndia. (2022) Rajasthan:dalit man Jitendrapal Meghwal killed for his stylish moustache, OPIndia, Archived on 19/11/2022
Sidhodhan Umare is a Student of MA Social Work in Dalit and Tribal Studies and Action in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai