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Dr. Ambedkar, Neo-liberal Market-Economy and Social Democracy in India (Part II)

Dr. Ambedkar, Neo-liberal Market-Economy and Social Democracy in India (Part II)

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Ronki Ram

Continued from here.

[This paper was originally published in Human Rights Global Focus, Vol. 5, Nos. 3&4, July-December 2010, pp 12-38 (late issue)]

Moreover, atrocities against Dalits (social boycott, kidnapping, murder, abduction, bonded labour, intimidation, rape, honour killings and residential segregation) have also increased many folds during the economic reforms measures. Tapan Basu in his engaging review of Anand Teltumbde’s latest book on Khairlanji: A Strange and Bitter Crop writes, “[t]he paradox of Indian modernity is that it instigates Dalits to fight for social justice, even as more and more social injustices are heaped upon them everyday” (Hindu, December 7, 2008). It is this heightened amount of Dalit atrocities wrapped in a double foil of chronic poverty and emerging Dalit assertion that has in fact come to challenge the much hyped neo-liberal market-economy model and the promise that it flags for the deepening of democracy in India. There has been about a three-fold rise in cases of crime against Dalits such as murders, grievous hurt, rape, social boycott etc during the last decade and half (Puniyani 2002). Late Suraj Bhan, the then Chairman of the National SC and ST Commission, while speaking in a seminar on Reservation In Privatisation organised by the Ambedkar Trust (Jalandhar), commented that more than 45,000 cases of atrocities against Dalits and downtrodden have been registered in India during the past one year alone. However, if the numbers of those cases, which were either suppressed or went unnoticed, are included, the total figure could easily go up to one hundred thousand (The Tribune September 5, 2005). During 2003-05 the number of such atrocities against Dalits was 69,216 (Mungekar 2006).

Talhan, Meham, Dulina, Gohana, Saalwan, Chakwada, Khairlanji, Khandamal and Mirchpur are some of the recent instances of atrocities against Dalits in India. Atrocities against Dalits thus continue to exist even today, despite constitutional safeguards, and various legislative measures. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in its report on the Prevention of Atrocities on Scheduled Castes released in 2002 pointed out that there was “virtually no monitoring of the implementation of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act at any level” (Narrain 2006). This clearly shows how vulnerable Dalits are in the wake of globalisation. In the opinion of Christine Moliner, a French anthropologist who visited the 4th World Social Forum (WSF) in Mumbai in January 2004, “[t]he Indian state has in recent years often proved itself unable or unwilling to protect Dalit; indeed, state representatives – police especially – are frequently accused of active participation in anti-Dalit violence” (Moliner 2004: 2; see also Mungekar 2006:2). How can the Indian state save the socially excluded if its own security agencies remain immersed in the pre-modern institution of caste?

Sharpening the Contradictions

Dalits constitute a significant proportion of the total population of India. How can India surge upward if it fails to care for the interest of the total 16.23 per cent Scheduled Castes population (Census of India 2001), which can promptly swell further if clubbed with the population of different categories of Backward and Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Tribes? No doubt the Indian constitution contains many provisions, thanks to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, but how much the Indian state has actually done for the uplift of those on the socio-political margins is open to debate. To quote Dr Ambedkar:

…that political power in this country has too long been the monopoly of a few and the many are not only beasts of burden, but also beasts of prey. This monopoly has not merely deprived them of their chance of betterment, it has sapped them of what may be called the significance of life. These downtrodden classes are tired of being governed, they are impatient to govern themselves. This urge for selfrealization in the down-trodden classes must not be allowed to develop into a class of struggle or class war. It would lead to a division of the house. That would indeed be a day of disaster (Three Historical Addresses 1999: 55).

Even after 60 years when Dr Ambedkar echoed these words, majority of the Scheduled Castes are still landless. No systematic efforts have been made for the implementation of land reforms. A large majority of Dalit population remains landless. Even the provisions of minimum wages were never adhered to (Chopra 2008b: 2).

Globalisation has further sharpened the already existing contradictions between political equality on the one hand and social and economic inequality on the other. It has deprived Dalits of whatever little they have in the name of so-called fast development under the model of free market-economy. There exists no space for them at all in the glamorous showrooms of neo-liberal market-economy –-Special Economic Zones (SEZs). These fabulous zones are yet to be tamed to accommodate the ever-increasing vast multitudes of downtrodden section of the society who could no longer be denied any more of their due share in the varied structures of power.

Downtrodden, in fact, are tired of being ‘governed’ for centuries, and are impatient to take control of their own destinies. However, whatever little space was available to them to dream the possibility of their betterment seems to have been grabbed by the forces of neo-liberal market-economy in the name of quick development. Their patience and ‘urge for self-realization’ can no longer be tested. Articulating the urge of the downtrodden for self-realization during his famous address on the completion of the Draft Constitution on 25 November 1949, Dr. Ambedkar cautioned that:

… the sooner room is made for the realization of their aspiration, the better for the few, the better for the country, the better for the maintenance of its independence and better for the continuance of its democratic structure. This can be done by the establishment of equality and fraternity in all spheres of life … (Three Historical Addresses 1999:55).

Similar views were expressed after 50 years by K. R. Narayanan, the President of India, in his address to the nation on January 25, 2000: “Beware of the fury of the patient and long suffering people” (as quoted in Puri 2006: 7). In a similar vein, Pratibha Patil, President of India, in her Republic Day-eve address reiterated that the disadvantaged:

too should find a place to enjoy the sunshine of the country’s growth and development… Our efforts and our commitment, while pursuing the goal of high growth rates, should be to ensure that all people of our country benefit from it. Our pledge will remain unfulfilled until, as Gandhi had said, ‘we have wiped every tear in every eye’ ” (as cited in Iyer 2008).

The benefits of globalisation are yet to reach these ‘patient and long suffering people’ who never shirk from toiling labour. But the free market-economy driven forces advocate the concerns of the rich and resourceful only. This widens the gap between the rich and the poor. The widening gap coupled with the rolling back of the state has lead to further resentment and alienation among the downtrodden, thus jeopardising the democratic set up in the country. It is in this overarching context of social democracy that the responsibility and the task of safeguarding the developmental character of the Indian state, especially with regard to the empowerment of Dalits, become very crucial.

The benefits of globalisation are yet to reach these ‘patient and long suffering people’ who never shirk from hard work and toiling labour. But the free market economy driven forces advocate the concerns of the rich and resourceful only. This widens the gap between the rich and the poor. The widening gap coupled with the rolling back of the state lead to further resentment and alienation among the downtrodden that in turn put pressure on the practice of democracy in the country (Singh 2006). Baba Sahib Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was very well aware, much in advance, about the serious implications of the lopsided development for the growth of social democracy in a caste ridden country like India. He therefore underlined the inclusion of the downtrodden into the governmental set-up of the country. For that he emphasised that the safe route goes via total annihilation of caste and in that the role of the state is of utmost importance. If globalisation implies pushing the state out, then the future of the project of social democracy seems to be very bleak. It is in this context that the responsibility and the task of safeguarding the developmental character of the Indian state becomes very crucial more so for the empowerment of Dalits in particular and strengthening the forces of social democracy in India in general.

Though a lot has already been said about the desired human and humane face of globalisation based on global governance, such claims sound rather hollow for the marginalised sections of the society. The free market-economy has not only failed to liberate them, it has rather further pinned them down. Downtrodden are not welcomed in the sphere of market as equal partners of profit. In other words, the market too practices ‘untouchability’, albeit in a different form. They feel alienated in the very world that promises to empower them. Howsoever strong and robust the free market-economy might appear to be, in long run it will not survive until and unless the question of the marginalised sections is addressed sincerely. In fact, the question of equitable distribution of resources is closely related with the issue of the immediate and amicable redressal of the causes of marginalization and exclusion of the Dalits from the mainstream. The marginalized are to be provided not only with low price wheat, rice and pulses as has been popularly done in some Indian states. What is equally essential is to empower them, to enhance their buying capacity in the real sense of the term by dismantling the structures of economic and social dominations. As warned by George Tong-Boon Yeo, Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister, at the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) Partnership Summit in Bangalore:

If we are not concerned of the stresses of globalisation, ideological counter-currents will emerge. Globalisation is not a bed of roses. There is a need to be watchful, always, (The Hindu, March 19, 2007).

In other words, a balance needs to be created between the forces of market and the principles of social justice. It is in this context that Baba Sahib Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s warning, as referred to in the beginning of the paper, assumed critical importance. The globalisation process has been compelling India to bind up as early as possible its most sought after projects of social and economic justice aiming at empowering the Dalits. In other words, before social democracy could take firm roots in India, the state started rolling back from its commitment to facilitate the process of emancipation and empowerment of the downtrodden classes.

Dalits are now no longer confined within the rural settings and patron-client relationship. Some of them have been able to move into mainstream sectors of nonpolluting professions and a few of them ventured abroad. Now the relatively better off Dalits come forward to articulate the interests of their brethren and to some extant they have been successful in providing them with an alternative leadership. Dalits who have once tasted the fruit of political equality can no longer be denied further any more their long overdue social and economic rights. Nothing short of structural transformation including the free market based system of economic domination on the one hand and the traditional Varna system of four-fold occupational division based on graded social hierarchy on the other could provide them their long denied basic human rights. In fact, in India the problem of Dalits is not just linked to the economic forces emanating from the spheres of the free market economy. It has equally been made complex by the all pervasive caste ridden social order. It seems that market and caste have joined hands to pose a most serious challenge to the nascent institution of social democracy in India.

There is a general impression that some of the Dalits have been able to strengthen their economic position through sheer hard work and enterprise. Although the constitutional affirmative action played an important role in the uplift of the Dalits in general, their individual efforts to wriggle out of the abyss of social exclusion through the mechanism of localised social struggles armed with Dalit-Bahujan ideology, along with their ventures abroad, has turned out to be of crucial importance. Some of them have established their own small-scale servicing units such as carpentry, barber, blacksmith shops etc thus saying good bye to their low rank hereditary occupations (for details see: Ram 2010; Ram 2004a: 5-7). In addition, they have also been politicized to a large extent by the socio-political activities of the various regional Dalit movements and the consequent emergence of distinct ‘Dalit counterpublic’ in the form of an alternative religious sphere, popularly known as Dalit deras (Ram 2008; Ram 2009a; Ram 2009b). Their improved economic status has not only liberated them from the subordination of the upper castes but also encourage them to aspire for a commensurate social status. The upsurge of a consciousness among Dalits to aspire for dignity and social justice seem to bring them in direct confrontation with the new forces unleashed by the free market-economy. Since free market-economy is premised on the withdrawal of state from the economic-welfare domain, it leads, consequently, to the demise of the institution of social democracy based as it was on the social welfare pillars of the state.

Economic liberalisation regimes in India can no longer ignore the stark realities of unequal and discriminatory patterns of its social life and chronic poverty. Any attempt to work out the economy in isolation of the hard-core social realities would have serious and far-reaching implication not only for Indian polity and society but also for its economy in the long run. It is in this context that the project of economic liberalisation needs to be understood, in consonance with the complex ‘social’ and ‘political’ of the Indian economy. To get rid of centuries-old caste-based social discriminations, exclusion and chronic poverty of millions of downtrodden in India, the ambitious project of economic liberalisation, perhaps, needs to be clubbed together with another equally ambitious project aiming at total transformation of the entire gamut of Hindu social order; thoroughly cleaning its long accumulated muck of hereditary occupation and repulsion. Can economic liberalisation alone help generate new avenues for rapid economic growth and equal opportunities (‘growth with redistribution’ or ‘capitalism with a human face’) for all in a society like India marked by rampant social hierarchies and inequalities? This is an urgent and critical issue that needs serious attention. That is what Dr. Ambedkar strongly pleaded for in his capacity as a Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution for Independent India and also as an organic leader of millions of downtrodden. Can economic liberalisation alone help generate new avenues for rapid economic growth and equal opportunities (‘growth with redistribution’ or ‘capitalism with a human face’) for all in a society like India doted with rampant social hierarchies and inequalities? This is an urgent and uphill task that needs serious attention. And it is in this context that social democratic vision of Dr Ambedkar assumes critical importance. Failure to engage with this vision is likely to result in further perpetuation of chronic poverty and inequalities leading to social unrest and political violence, with the downtrodden and the marginalized becoming the worst victims.

 This paper is a slightly revised draft of what I read at national seminar on Invoking Ambedkar – Contributions, Receptions, Legacies, organised by Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata (March 11-12, 2011). I am grateful to Amiya K. Bagchi, Sukhadeo Thorat, Nandu Ram, Rowena Robinson and Debi Chatterjiee for critical inputs.

Please read Part I of this paper here.



[1] The term ‘Dalit’ is used in this paper, as a social category that incorporates the Scheduled Castes (SCs), the Scheduled Tribes (STs), and the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) – constitutional categories referring to socially and/as well as economically excluded sections of the Indian society. However, in the current political discourse, the term Dalit is mainly confined to the SCs only. To be more precise, it covers only those SCs who are classified as Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists but excludes Muslim and Christian Dalits. They were subjected to forced and customary undignified labour, precisely because of their low birth. Thus, Dalit is the “politically correct” nomenclature for the ex-untouchables who traditionally have been placed at the lowest rung of the Hindu caste hierarchy and were contemptuously called by different names like Shudras, Atishudras, Achhuts, Antyajas, Chandalas, Pariahs, Dheds, Panchamas, Avarnas, Namashudras, Adi-Dravida, Ad Dharmis, Mazhabis, Depressed Classes, Harijans, and Scheduled Castes. They were forced to live on the segregated peripheries of the mainstream rural settings. In the Urban sectors they are confined to shanty colonies in slums. According to the 2001 census, 22.59 percent of the total urban population in India was living in slums. A large number of them happened to be Dalits.

[2] 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.

[3] For a detailed account of developmental planning and the setting up of the planning commission see:

Kudaisya 2009:939-78.

[4] For list of reforms see: Frankel 2005; Jenkins 1999: 16-28; and Kumar 2000.

[5] 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.

[6] For a discussion on the ancient roots of democracy in India see: Jayaswal 1978 fifth ed, [1924].

[7] 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).

[8] For ‘economics of market’ and politics of democracy’ phrases, I am indebted to Deepak Nayyar (Nayyar 2007:362—69).

[9] In the Hindu social order, rights were not granted on the basis of an individual’s personal worth. They are, in fact, granted or denied on the basis of one’s social status in the Hindu caste hierarchy (Thorat 2002). For those who had been pushed to the bottom of the hierarchy, it hardly matter whether they enjoy any human rights or not (Ramaswamy 2001).

[10] It is in this context that Dr. Ambedkar spoke forcefully in the London Roundtable conferences against the British rule in India.



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Ronki Ram

ICCR Chair Professor of Contemporary India Studies,

Leiden University Institute for Area Studies & IIAS,

Leiden University, The Netherlands.

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