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Liberal Democracy and Kymlicka’s Conception of Minority Rights: Towards a Perspective of Dalit Rights

Liberal Democracy and Kymlicka’s Conception of Minority Rights: Towards a Perspective of Dalit Rights

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Dr. P. Kesava Kumar


The recognition of minority rights is an issue for debate in recent times. It has implication for a theory of liberal democracy. Especially, the communitarian critique of liberalism has come in strong defense of community against individualism. Will Kymlicka proposes minority rights in the multicultural context of the west by internalizing the wisdom of liberal and communitarian debate. He argues for cultural rights of minorities on its own merit within the liberal framework. Western nations, like India, live with pluralism and have an established tradition of recognizing the autonomy of individual as well as community. Ambedkar offers a different kind of framework for minority rights. He views dalit rights as minority rights in a hindu majoritarian society. He defends the minority rights within the framework of liberal democracy based on disadvantage, oppression and injustice experienced by dalits in the hindu social order. He mediates both liberalism and communitarianism. His conception of minority rights goes beyond western liberalism and offers one kind of liberal and democratic multiculturalism evolved from Indian experience.


Today the issue of minority rights is a debating point for many nation-states. It often throws challenges to liberal democratic governments. On one hand communitarian thinkers are critical about liberal theory for its emphasis on individualism. In the wake of identity politics, demands for rights of specific social group/community have not only got currency but have its moral legitimacy on different grounds. Especially the rights of recognition for ethnic, cultural, social, linguistic, religious minorities located in a nation state require a different kind of political and philosophical articulation against the existing political practices and theories. The liberal theory is one such grand political theory based on the principles of individualism, egalitarianism and universalism, has been adopted by the nation states of the world in one form or other. Individualism and individual rights are often viewed as the defining characteristic of liberalism. The liberalism has often been criticized for being excessively individualistic and for not recognizing group rights. The liberal theory is under attack from different fronts such as communitarians, Marxists, feminists and post modernists on different grounds. The autonomy and freedom/rights of the individual have taken a new turn in the context of demands for collective rights. Especially, the struggles of new social movements and claims of ethnic groups, immigrant groups, indigenous and aboriginal groups both in the West and Postcolonial nations have compelled them to reformulate the existing principles of governance.

In recent times, Will Kymlicka, the Canadian philosopher addresses minority rights as group specific rights in multicultural societies in the backdrop of liberal and communitarian debates. He made an attempt to accommodate criticisms against liberal democratic theory by developing a liberal conception of multiculturalism. Kymlicka argues for the cultural specific rights of the minorities rather the rights given or allowed by the liberal state in general. He viewed that it is important to strengthen and to provide protection for the societal culture of the minority groups. The liberal theory has a different context and meaning in India. The postcolonial nation state has addressed the problem of social and religious minorities in its own way against the wish of Hindu majoritarianism. Ambedkar, the Indian philosopher argued for the rights of social minorities by reformulating the liberal theory in his own way to suit the Indian context. This paper is an attempt to revisit Ambedkar’s conception of rights of social minorities (dalits) in the light of Kymlicka’s conception of minority rights in western liberal multiculturalism.

Kymlicka’s Conception of Minority Rights

Will Kymlicka is a contemporary Canadian philosopher known for his contribution to the theoretical understanding of minority rights in contemporary times. In political theory, his works are largely identified with the liberal tradition and had a systematic attempt to defend and expand the liberal view of rights, and the individual and society. His work Liberalism, Community, and Culture deals about issues of citizenship and multiculturalism for the federal government by responding to communitarians regarding cultural membership. (Kymlicka 1985). He argues against the popular conception of liberalism as commonly interpreted. The common conception of liberalism is that it gives no independent weight to our cultural membership, and hence demands equal rights of citizenship, regardless of the consequences for the existence of minority cultures. Against this view, he reinterprets the liberal tradition, to show that a respect for minority rights is indeed compatible with liberal equality: Post-war liberal clichés need to be rethought, for they misrepresent the issue, and the liberal tradition itself (Kymlicka 1985:152). His arguments are further elaborated in Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights which theoretically deals with the nexus between individual and society/culture and implied meanings of  freedom, liberty and good life by discussing the issues related to aboriginal peoples, Quebec, immigrant groups, and multiculturalism. The debate is centered on the adequacy of the liberal model to deal with group rights (Kymlicka 1995). This has its importance in the context of racial, cultural and ethnic conflicts and social movements focusing on identity and rights. In Multicultural Citizenship, Kymlicka staunchly adheres to his long-standing claim that cultural membership must be brought within the locus of liberal justice. He had refashioned the liberal democratic theory in his own way. Will Kymlicka’s Multicultural Odysseys is an impressive evaluation of the effort to deploy liberal multiculturalism as a model for addressing ethnic and racial hierarchies in Western democracies, post-communist states and post-colonial states (Kymlicka 2007). He proposes liberal multiculturalism in the context of fear of spread of ethnic violence after collapse of communism and postcolonial democracies. He hoped for the possibility of a viable liberal-democratic form of multiculturalism by approaching norms and minority rights such as publicizing best practices, devising minimum legal, liberal norms and formulating case specific solutions.

Will Kymlicka argues for minority rights within the tradition of liberalism. In general, liberalism looks on the individual as autonomous and able to act. The liberal theory emphasizes individual freedom. As a political philosophy, liberalism has often been seen as primarily concerned with the relationship between the individual and the state, and with limiting state intrusions on the liberties of citizens. That is, the liberal model is often considered to be concerned exclusively with individual rights. All rights adhere to the individual, and liberalism has often been criticized for being excessively individualistic. Individualism and individual rights are often viewed as the defining characteristic of liberalism, so that there are minimal or no group rights that are part of collectivities. Against this opinion, Kymlicka argues that liberalism also contains a broader account of the relationship between the individual and society – and, in particular, of the individual’s membership in a community and a culture (Kymlicka 1985:1). He argues that group rights are part of liberal thought. Group rights can be viewed as admissible within liberalism and even necessary for freedom and equality. For Kymlicka these are not temporary rights, but are rights that should be recognized on a permanent basis, because these are inherent rights of the national minority. He explained how minority rights relate to the broad political values such as freedom, equality, democracy and citizenship and broader normative frameworks such as liberalism, communitarianism and republicanism. Kymlicka’s idea of cultural embeddedness of the individual creates theoretical space for cultural rights, thereby making liberalism hospitable to the moral imperatives of cultural pluralism.

In dealing with minority rights, Kymlicka distinguishes two types of ethno-cultural groups: National minorities in multination states and Ethnic groups in polyethnic states. National minorities arise from the voluntary or involuntary incorporation of an entire nation, whereas ethnic minorities arise from individual and familial immigration from different nations. Kymlicka argues that immigrant groups are generally ethnic groups, and can be accorded what he calls polyethnic rights in a polyethnic state. National minorities are groups that have in common some or all of history, community, territory, language, or culture. Each of these is sometimes referred to as a nation, people, or culture. Each of these may have become a minority involuntarily through conquest, colonization, or expansion, or it could have voluntarily agreed to enter a federation with one or more other nations, peoples, or cultures. Kymlicka defines national minorities in terms of culture, and argues that if these minorities wish to retain their cultures, they should be recognized as distinct. The group rights that may be associated with national minorities are self-government rights or special representation rights. For Kymlicka these are not temporary rights, but are rights that should be recognized on a permanent basis, because these are inherent rights of the national minority. Although Kymlicka argues that national minorities and ethnic groups both make legitimate claims for minority rights, his most interesting line of argument relates to national minorities. The central justification proceeds in two stages. First, he argues that individual autonomy “is dependent on the presence of a societal culture, defined by language and history, and that most people have a very strong bond to their own culture.” The second stage of the argument holds that liberal justice “is not only consistent with, but even requires, a concern with cultural membership.” Minority rights can thus be justified not just by a claim but as the rights of these groups. As it is forcefully argued by Kymlicka: [I]t is … unjust to individuals to say that those who belong to dominant groups can enjoy the attendant advantages and satisfactions, whereas those who belong to non dominant and minority groups must either abandon their culture or accept second-class status. It is not enough for political theorists to contemplate simply the individual and society, or relationships between man and the state. It is time for them to contemplate mankind in its great variety.” Insofar as they ensure that the (collective) good of cultural membership is equally protected for the members of cultural minorities and majorities alike. Without such rights, minority members do not have “the same opportunity to live and work in their own culture as members of the majority” (Kymlicka 1995).

Kymlicka argues for minority rights based on his assumption of societal cultures. In Liberalism, Community and Culture, the importance of cultural membership was ascribed to a “cultural community” or “cultural structure.” In Multicultural Citizenship, the focus changes to “societal cultures.” The particular culture that it discusses is societal culture, the history, traditions, and conventions that go along with the society, and the set of social practices and institutions that are associated with the societal culture. For Kymlicka, a societal culture is “a culture which provides its members with meaningful ways of life across the full range of human activities, including social, educational, religious, recreational, and economic life, encompassing both public and private spheres.” Like nations, societal cultures are typically territorially based and grounded on a common language. Societal cultures thus provide “the everyday vocabulary of social life” which, in the modern world, means they “must be institutionally embodied—in schools, media, economy, government, etc.” In essence, then, the societal culture is one that can, in a modern sense, be lived within not in the sense that it is wholly independent, but because it provides a full range of options for a fulfilling human life (Kymlicka1995).

Kymlicka put forward his idea of minority rights by relating to the specific nature of societal culture. Culture of origin provides a basic resource for people, and integration into a new culture is difficult for people. In these circumstances, it may be important to strengthen the culture and provide protections for various minority groups. But note that this leads in quite different directions for national minorities than for immigrant ethnic groups. The latter generally wish to integrate, the protections may not need be permanent, and are often fairly limited. For national minorities, the argument may lead in the direction of strengthening their societal culture, as a permanent feature, with extensive self-government rights. Kymlicka does not argue for self-government rights for ethnic groups. According to Kymlicka, ethnic groups also have a legitimate claim to minority rights. More specifically, they have a claim to “polyethnic rights,” which ensure that they are incorporated into the dominant culture on fair terms, enabling ethnic groups and religious minorities “to express their cultural particularity and pride.” Not only should common rights of citizenship be more strictly enforced to eliminate all forms of discrimination and prejudice, but some group-specific rights should also be justified. Further Kymlicka defends group rights as a move towards equality. The equality argument considers that some minority rights actually increase equality, and that true equality requires different treatment for different groups. To protect these rights of culturally disadvantaged groups, state could not be culturally neutral.

Indian liberal democracy: Negotiating the Individual as well as Group Rights

As Rajeev Bhargava rightly pointed out that for all talk of pluralism and multiculturalism in western political theory, a mention of how these issues arise or are tackled in places such as India is barely mentioned. Worse, political philosophers still show little curiosity about the experience of non-western societies. Further he argues that Indian experience of plurality and affirmative action has a long history and is even older than many western countries. The debates around group rights, self-determination, differentiated citizenship, gendered equality, secularism and constitutionalism are considerably enriched bythe Indian experience (Bhargava 2010:58). However, Kymlicka’s concerns for minority rights in the multicultural set up of western societies indirectly facilitate the need to recognize rights of oppressed social groups in India. Will Kymlicka’s conception of minority rights have different context and different meanings across nations. In European nations, with the struggles of indigenous groups, immigrants, ethnic and other religious groups the debate of minority rights got its importance. There are efforts from the nation states to accommodate these groups in multicultural set up. In Indian context, the conception of minority rights had different meanings. The pluralistic nature of society and its specific historical conditions provide new meaning to the minority as explained in the case of western societies. Indian state is not typically liberal as most of the western states. As Manoranjan Mohanty explains, the rights in Indian constitution are neither individualist in nature in the strict sense of classical liberal theory nor collective in an idealistic sense (Mohanty 2001: 1-13). In the same line Thomas Pantham considers Indian constitutional framework can be appropriately referred to as communitarian-liberal democracy; it is liberal in the sense that in some respects it takes the individual to be prior to the community, and it is communitarian in that in some respects it takes the community to be prior to the individual (Pantham 1995:171). Gurpreet Mahajan explains how the Indian state considers both the rights of the individual and a group. By focusing on the cultural policies of the state and devising ways by which cultural communities receive equal consideration in the public realm, the Indian constitution deviated from the liberal framework. While it accepted and endorsed the twin ideals of autonomy and non-discrimination, it acted on the assumption that equal treatment to all religious and cultural communities could not be ensured by providing equal political rights or civil liberties to individuals. Consequently the Indian constitution devised a two fold policy. On the one hand it tried to ensure that no community is out rightly excluded or systematically disadvantaged in the public arena, and on the other, it provided autonomy to each religious community to pursue its own way of life (Mahajan 1998: 4). She argues that if individual rights by themselves provide little protection against forces of cultural homogenization, then accommodating diversity through special consideration for vulnerable groups also neglects the primary concerns of individuals as citizens. It is only when both sets of concerns are suitably addressed that democracy is deepened and multicultural polities are nurtured and made more sustainable (Mahajan 2006: 122).

In contemporary times, Will Kymlicka’s conception of minority rights renewed the debate of individual versus group rights and argues for reformulation of political theory in the context of multiculturalism. India had its own historical tradition in accommodating the rights of individuals and community. In post independent India, its constitution too ensures the rights of individuals and communities in a broad liberal democratic framework. But the demands for special provisions/rights of oppressed communities, religious and ethnic minorities often came up for debate with the assertion of these communities. The majoritarian and privileged communities are forcefully negating the claims of these groups in the name of equality or uniformity as informed by liberalism. The complexity of Indian situation in this regard was not theorized properly. Will Kymlicka’s claim of minority rights within the liberal context in the west may facilitate to revisit the Indian situation through the political philosophy of Ambedkar. Ambedkar provides the framework for minority rights prior to the initiation of Will Kymlicka. Ambedkar has not only pointed out the weak foundation of liberalism of the West but also recognized the specificity of the Indian context in adopting the liberal wisdom. The way he negotiated individual versus group rights and political theories of liberalism, Marxism, communitarianism enriches our approaches to political theory. His notion of individual, community and religion is strikingly different from that of others in ensuring reason, justice and ultimately a moral community. Ambedkar’s conception of rights for scheduled casted and scheduled tribes (Dalit rights) as minority rights provides a different kind of framework to understand individual/group rights debated by liberalism and communitarianism. He treats dalits as a minority in majoritarian hindu society. Dalit rights are viewed as group specific rights for dignity, self-respect and development in all fields of life for realization of fuller human beings. He further maintains that state has to play a interventionist role to protect the rights of dalits rather than being neutral.

Ambedkar: Dalit Rights as Minority Rights

Ambedkar argues for dalit rights in the context where dalits have no rights other than submitting to the majority hindus. He puts a first condition to place depressed classes under a majority rule in self-governing India : The depressed classes must be made free citizens entitled to all the rights of citizenship in common with other citizens of the state (Rodrigues 2002:369). He articulated dalit rights in the name of rights for untouchables, depressed classes, scheduled castes and tribes in a given historical context. There is no doubt that Ambedkar was inspired by the ideals of equality, freedom and democracy prompted by liberalism. He finds the resources for these ideals in Indian tradition. Equality and freedom are treated as core values of liberalism. Ambedkar supplies content to the equality. In the west, the idea of equality is addressed in a limited sense and mostly confined to political equality and is silent about economic equality. He extended the idea of equality to social and economic realms. He argues for equality in the context of a caste ridden society which is based on graded inequality. He argues for the equality of untouchable communities in terms of dignity and self-respect. In principle he argues for one man, one value and equality before law in a hierarchical society. At the same time he demands for special considerations for certain groups based on disadvantages, disability, subordination, oppression and injustice. As Valerian Rodrigues observed Ambedkar was the first major theoretician in India who argued that consideration for the disadvantaged should be the constitutive basis of the state. He developed a complex set of criteria to determine the disadvantage and attempted to specify its various gradations. Untouchability was one such socially engendered disadvantage in case of dalits. He further argues for a need for a system of safeguards for the disadvantaged in general and untouchables in particular (Rodrigues 2002:36). Ambedkar observed that the rights guaranteed by the state is not enough to protect the rights of dalits but also requires social and moral conscience to protect laws. Ambedkar holds a position that which is permitted by society to be exercised can alone be called a right. The right which is guaranteed by law but opposed by society is of no use at all. The untouchables are in more need of social liberty than that which is guaranteed by law (Pritchett 1988).

In addressing the rights of dalits, Ambedkar poses dalits as a minority social community. Ambedkar in States and Minorities (1947) explains the rights of minorities and argued for the mechanism for these rights to be secured in the constitution of free India. Ambedkar’s conception of minority goes in the line of Kymlicka, to a certain extent. He differentiates minorities into two categories, religious minorities and social minorities. He treats Dalits as a social minority and provides a broader framework for dalit rights. He addressed dalit rights within the framework of liberal philosophical tradition, but differs from the way it is introduced in the western liberal tradition.

In States and Minorities he argues for dalit rights by considering them as cultural minorities against a hindu majority. He was of the view that minorities – Muslims, Dalits, Anglo-Indians or Sikhs in the Indian context – ought to have greater representation in a legislative body than their actual share in the population if the minority were not to be ‘crushed and overwhelmed by the communal majority.’ He considers dalits too as a minority at par with other minorities such as religious minorities, Muslims, and Sikhs. This has to be read in the context where the Muslims, Sikhs are recognized and represented by the state as a minority but failed to take note of dalits as a distinct social group from hindus. Even Gandhi strongly views dalits as a part of Hinduism and argues against any attempt to consider dalits as a specific community. In his theoretical framework, Ambedkar not only projects dalits as a minority but also demands the state to ensure special rights for dalits. He proposed that Scheduled Castes (dalits) have to get benefit of fundamental rights of citizens, all the benefit of the provisions for the protection of minorities and in addition, special safeguards.

Ambedkar defines and differentiates fundamental rights, minority rights and safeguards for the scheduled castes. He counters the various views on whether to consider scheduled castes as minorities or not. Ambedkar argued that scheduled castes are a minority in a hindu majoritarian society. And at the same time he differentiates them from other religious minorities and demands special safeguards for the scheduled castes. Ambedkar believed that rights are real if they are accompanied by remedies. It is no use giving rights if the aggrieved person has no legal remedy to which he can resort when his rights are invaded. Consequently when the constitution guarantees rights it also becomes necessary to make provisions to prevent the legislature and the executive from overriding them (Ambedkar 1989:406). Ambedkar had the opinion that fundamental rights have no meaning unless until state protects the weak, and the marginalized. In the hindu social order, dalits are often discriminated in everyday life experiences, both in private and in public. Ambedkar argues that discrimination is another menace which must be guarded against if the fundamental rights are to be real rights. In a country like India where it is possible for discrimination to be practiced on a vast scale and in a relentless manner fundamental rights can have no meaning. The remedy follows the lines adopted in the bill which was recently introduced in the congress of USA, the aim of which is to prevent discrimination being practiced against the blacks (Ambedkar 1989:408).

Effective representation for minorities depends upon its being large enough to give the minority the sense of not being entirely overwhelmed by the majority (Ambedkar 1989: 420). For effective representation he proposes separate electorates for the scheduled castes. Against this demand it is argued by the critics that the scheduled castes are not minorities and are Hindus. And separate electorates will perpetuate untouchability and anti-national feelings. Ambedkar replies that to say the scheduled castes are not a minority is to misunderstand the meaning of the word ‘minority’. Separation in religion is not the only test of a minority. Nor is it a good and efficient test. Social discrimination constitutes the real test for determining whether a social group is or is not a majority. Even Gandhi thought it logical and practical to adopt this. On the question of scheduled castes being hindus, he counters, to make religious affiliation the determining factor for constitutional safeguards is to overlook the fact that the religious affiliation may be accompanied by an intense degree of social separation and discrimination. In this connection he argued that muslims are given separate electorates not because they are different from hindus in point of religion. Precisely, it is because musalmans are marked by social discrimination (Ambedkar 1989:422). He further argued that it is baseless to say that separate electorates for untouchables will perpetuate separation between them and hindus. Ambedkar argues that to insist separate electorates create anti-national spirit is contrary to experience. Nationalism and anti-nationalism have nothing to do with the electoral system. They are the result of extra-electoral forces.

Ambedkar points out the advantages and privileges enjoyed by the majority  community of the nation against its minorities. The majority’s opinions are considered as normal, secular and legitimate whereas opinions of minorities are viewed as negative, illegitimate, anti-national, narrow, communal and religious. By observing this Ambedkar argues for rights of minorities. As he says no country which has the problem of communal majority and communal minority is without some kind of an arrangement whereby they agree to share political powers. He provides South Africa and Canada as examples. Unfortunately for minorities in India, Indian nationalism has 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 monopolizing of power by the majority is called nationalism. Guided by such political philosophy the majority is not prepared to allow the minorities to share political power. Under these circumstances there is no way left but to have the rights of the scheduled castes embodied in the constitution (Ambedkar 1989:427-428).

Ambedkar concludes that whether scheduled castes are a minority or not has become a matter of controversy. However, the scheduled castes are in a worst position as compared to any other minority in India. As such they required and deserve much more protection than any other minority does. The least one can do is to treat them as minority (Ambedkar 1989: 428).

Ambedkar foresees the connection between rights, social order and economic structure. The purpose is to protect the liberty of the individual from invasion by other individuals which is the object of enacting fundamental rights. The connection between individual liberty and the shape and form of the economic structure of society may not be apparent to every one. Nonetheless the connection between the two is real. There is no economic independence for the untouchables so long as they live in a ghetto as a dependent part of the hindu village. Ambedkar further points out that the majoritarian hindu religion as a code of life gives hindus many privileges and heaps upon the untouchables many indignities which are incompatible with the dignity and sanctity of human life (Ambedkar1989: 426). Ambedkar’s conception of minority rights is very much connected with equality that goes against the unjust social order and oppression ascribed in the name of religion. In other words, his emphasis on recognition of difference or arguing for special provisions for dalits in legislature, education and opportunities is very much internalized in the spirit of liberalism but adapted in the specific context of the Indian nation.

Liberal Democracy, Dalit Rights and Moral Theory

On the issue of recognizing minority rights the liberal theory is facing challenges in contemporary times. The individual autonomy and obligations are incompatible to each other in the liberal framework. There are several attempts to resolve these tensions in contemporary political theory. This surfaces as the liberal and communitarian debate and individual versus group rights. Moral theory played a critical role in evaluating the merit of each claim. In the West, Kymlicka made an attempt to accommodate the group rights such as minority rights within liberalism. It is confined to cultural rights. In non-western nations such as India, the recognition of group based or community rights has its established tradition in a pluralistic society. Ambedkar provides deeper meaning for minority rights as a move towards equality and social justice in a liberal democracy.

In maintaining that his is a liberal theory of minority rights, Kymlicka is unambiguous in his commitment to “moral individualism”—the belief that what matters most from the moral point of view is the individual person (Mc Donald 1997:306). However, it should be emphasized that Kymlicka does not accept “ontological individualism,” a version of individualism often associated with liberalism. Ontological individualists insist that human beings exhaust our understanding of social reality. At one level, moral individualism is little more than the acceptance of the view that our evaluative judgments are ultimately based upon what contributes to the quality of human life. As such, this position is not a complete moral theory in itself, but is “a necessary condition for the acceptability of moral theories.” Thus, perhaps what makes Kymlicka’s defence of minority rights distinctively liberal is that they are endorsed only “in so far as they are consistent with respect for the freedom or autonomy of individuals.” Chandran Kukathas considers Kymlicka’s theory seems both to grant cultural minorities too much recognition and to give them too little. It gives them too much insofar as liberal equality does not appear to sanction special rights, and it gives them too little insofar as regarding choice or autonomy as the fundamental liberal commitment disregards the interests of cultural communities which do not value the individual’s freedom to choose. If so, then it cannot mount a serious liberal challenge to the individualist view (Kukathas 1992:105-139).

On the other hand, Ambedkar’s conception of democracy and the rights of minorities or dalits are different from the West. Ambedkar observed the failure of parliamentary democracy associated with liberalism in the West. He considers that the reason for discontent is due to the realization that it has failed to assure to the masses the right to liberty, property or the pursuit of happiness. The causes for this failure may be found either in wrong ideology or wrong organization or in both. He points out that parliamentary democracy in standing out as a protagonist of liberty has continuously added to economic wrongs of the poor, downtrodden and disinherited class. The wrong ideology which has vitiated parliamentary democracy is the failure to realize that political democracy cannot succeed where there is no social and economic democracy (Roudrigues 2002:62). As Ambedkar argues, social and economic democracy are the tissues and fibre of a political democracy. The tougher the tissue and fiber, the greater the strength of the body. He further argues that parliamentary democracy developed a passion for liberty. It never made even a nodding acquaintance with equality. It failed to realize the significance of equality and did not even strike a balance between liberty and equality, with the result that liberty swallowed equality and has made democracy a name and farce. Ambedkar accused the western writers that they are superficial and not provided a realistic view of democracy. Ambedkar proposed a written constitution for effective democracy. The habits of constitutional morality may be essential for the maintenance of a constitutional form of government. He puts more emphasis on moral society and its custom than the written legal law in governing people. He heavily invested in social morality for effective functioning of democratic form of government. The framework for Dalit rights has to be viewed in this moral framework and progressive liberalism. Ambedkar is critical about cultural practices which are oppressive, exploitative and inherently violent by using critical reason. He is critical about hindu community which is not recognizing the individual worth and capabilities. At the same time he proposes a moral community based on the principles of equality, liberty and fraternity. He believes that individuals make sense of their identity in a moral community and proposes reflexive individualism. Individual autonomy and identity are compatible in the normative political framework of Ambedkar.


This is to conclude that Ambedkar’s conception of minority rights shares with Kymlicka that minority groups have their own rights and it is the duty of the state to protect the rights rather than being neutral. Kymlicka explores minority rights within the western liberal tradition. In arguing for minority rights, he puts more emphasis on cultural rights of minorities. Ambedkar revised liberalism in the Indian context. In other words, he mediates both liberal and communitarian traditions. He recognizes the individual merit which is negated by the hindu social order and the need to protect the rights of the oppressed groups from the majoritarian hegemony. His conception of dalit rights has evolved from utter helplessness, humiliation, discrimination and exploitation of oppressed community by the dominant caste hindu community. Unlike Kymlicka’s minority rights which are more inclined for cultural rights, Ambedkar’s conceptions of cultural rights of minority/dalits are very much linked with social and economic equality along with political equality. He substantiates the value of equality and freedom. His conception of minority rights goes beyond western liberalism and offers one kind of liberal and democratic multiculturalism evolved from Indian experience. This may provide fresh insight to revisit the liberal and communitarian debate with reference to individual and group rights.


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Kukathas, Chandran (1992): “Are There Any Cultural Rights?”, Political Theory, Vol. 20, No. 1 February, pp. 105-139.

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Pritchett, Frances W (Ed.) 1988: “What Path to Salvation?” Speech delivered by Dr. Ambedkar to the Bombay Presidency Mahar Conference, 31st May 1936, Bombay. (Tr. from Marathi by Vasant Moon) accessed on 7.01.2012.


 Dr. P. Kesava Kumar is Asst. Professor (SS), Dept. of Philosophy, Pondicherry University, Puducherry-605014.

Email: pkesav-at-gmail-dot-com


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