Why did parliamentary democracy collapse so easily in Italy, Germany and Russia? Why did it not collapse so easily in England and the U.S.A? To my mind, there is only one answer. It is that there was a greater degree of economic and social democracy in the latter countries than existed in the former. Social and economic democracy are the tissues and fiber of a political democracy. The tougher the tissue and the fiber, the greater the strength of the body. ~ Dr. B.R Ambedkar1
This year, 6th December 2017 marked the 61st Death Anniversary of Dr. B.R Ambedkar and a few days back (probably on 7th of December 2017) a video was released by BBC. The video is an interview of Ambedkar where he answered questions about the fate of parliamentary democracy in India. Many of us are aware that on several occasions he has wrestled with the idea of democracy in general and parliamentary democracy in particular. He firmly believed that “Parliamentary System of Government is much more than Government by discussion” and its successful working depends on two important aspects 1) Opposition 2) Free and fair elections. A “functional opposition” is important for a “free political life” without which democracy cannot sustain and “free and fair elections” ensure a peaceful transfer of power from “one section of the community to the other”.
Indian politics, as we know is an aggregate of three things–caste, creed and class, the 3cs-over which the framework of parliamentary democracy is superimposed. The two aspects are highly sensitive towards the permutation-combination of these 3c’s. Among these, caste-based inequality has a major share in keeping India socially and economically backward. These social and economic inequalities are a hindrance in successful working of democracy and in this regard, Ambedkar says that: “There must not be an oppressed class. There must not be a suppressed class. There must not be a class which has got all the privileges and a class which has got all the burdens to carry. Such a thing, such a division, such an organization of a society has within itself the germs of a bloody revolution, perhaps it would be impossible for the democracy to cure them”.
A great deal has also been said about “ANNIHILATION OF CASTE” and many are eager to dismantle this social structure and to do so, the popular solution that has caught hold of everyone’s imagination is the promotion of inter-caste marriages. Ambedkar knew that “Castes cannot be abolished by inter-caste dinners or stray instances of inter-caste marriages”. “The caste is a state of mind”. “It is a disease of the mind”. For Ambedkar, the annihilation of caste meant implementing “a reform which not only touches the religious principle but is diametrically opposed to those principles and invites people to depart from, to discard their authority and to act contrary to those principles” which means conversion. He was aware that asking people “to go contrary to their fundamental religious notions” is a task “well nigh-impossible”. Thus the only possibility which he could see is of annihilation of “castes and the untouchability from among the untouchables” and that for the untouchables, “change of religion is the only antidote”.
The problem of caste in India, till date, remains a fundamental challenge to the Indian democracy. For a country like India democracy can be boon if practiced in a right spirit or it can become a tool in the hands of the majority to tyrannize the minority. The only way to tackle such a situation is to devise mechanisms that can prevent democracy from getting misused by the majority for their personal interest. Thus Ambedkar in his 1953 interview argued in favor of alteration of the social structure in a manner that is suitable for parliamentary democracy in India.
This leads us to some fundamental questions which the Bahujans must consider 1) Whether elections alone can solve our problem? 2) Is politics the only key to acquire power? 3) What does it mean to alter the social structure? With all these reasons and questions, the BBC interview of Dr. Ambedkar becomes important and should make us think on what went wrong in the past and are there any ways and means to solve the paradox that exists in Indian democracy.
To make his views available in written form it was necessary to transcribe his interview. I have tried my best to maintain the fidelity of the conversation leaving those portions blank which are inaudible. I also acknowledge that there can be errors which are a result of mishearing of the pronunciations. Curious readers can point out such errors and should suggest necessary corrections, they can also think of filling up the inaudible spaces in the transcript.
Transcript of the Interview
Interviewer: Dr. Ambedkar, Do you think democracy is going to work in India?
Dr Ambedkar: Except in a formal sense if you want.
Interviewer: What do you mean exactly?
Dr Ambedkar: The reality, I mean paraphernalia of democracy-full period elections, Prime ministers and so on and so on.
Interviewer: Why? But elections are very important.
Dr Ambedkar: No, (a small pause) elections are important provided they produce really good men.
Interviewer: But I feel they are important because they allow us to change the government, but it is better to change peaceably [end portion is inaudible].
Dr Ambedkar: Who has, yes, but who has got the idea, you see, that voting means change of government. Nobody has, people have no consciousness of our electoral system, what you see is of a sort which never allows a man to choose a candidate. Note for instance, the Congress went and said (a small pause) what? (a small pause) vote for bullock.
Dr Ambedkar: Isn’t it?
Dr Ambedkar: Well, the man never cared who represented the bullock, was a donkey represented by the bullock, you see, or a very educated man who represented the bullock. He simply voted for the bullock.
Interviewer: Well, I was just coming to “Many Party Systems”, but what you mean by “in a formal sense” you mean that in a fundamental sense?
Dr Ambedkar: And democracy will not work for the simple reason, we have got a social structure which is totally incompatible with parliamentary democracy.
Interviewer: You mean it’s based on inequality?
Dr Ambedkar: Yes, it is based on inequality, you see.
Interviewer: And that always you can get rid of the caste system, you don’t think so?
Dr Ambedkar: I don’t think so, the social structure has got to be altered. I am quite prepared to say while it will take some time for the social structure to be altered if you want to do it in a peaceful way, you see.
Dr Ambedkar: But then somebody must be making the effort to change the social system.
Interviewer: [Beginning portion is inaudible] Prime minister has always made a lot of speeches against caste system.
Dr Ambedkar: I don’t think (so) please see the English speech, as you know, you see, when Carlyle was presented with a set of volumes by Spencer.
Dr Ambedkar: You see, he said “Oh! this English speaking ass in Christendoma“.
Interviewer: (Laughs) Well.
Dr Ambedkar: Is the same, sort of. I am sick of speeches, we like to have action.
Interviewer: Why? What action do you want?
Dr Ambedkar: Some program you see, some machinery by which the thing could be altered.
Interviewer: [Beginning portion is inaudible] What alternative do you see?
Dr Ambedkar: The alternative as I think is some kind of Communism.
Interviewer: And why do you think that will help the country more, would it raise the standard of living anymore?
Dr Ambedkar: Yes, it does.
Dr Ambedkar: Undoubtedly, I mean who really cares for this election, business people want food, people want their material needs to be satisfied. In America, yes, I agree you see the democracy works and I don’t think there ever would be Communism in America. I have just come from that country. I was invited to take a degree. Just because each American earns so much.
Interviewer: But I think you can begin to [middle portion is inaudible] here too.
Dr Ambedkar: Where? How can you begin? As I said, we have no land you see, our rainfall is so short, our forest has been denuded, you see. What can we do? Unless you tackle these problems.
Interviewer: Do you think …
Dr Ambedkar: [Dr Ambedkar interrupts] I don’t think the present government would be able to tackle these problems [end portion is inaudible].
Interviewer: While Communists would wipe out.
Dr Ambedkar: Ha [stresses on it with a sarcastic tone] let me see [probably says this].
Interviewer: And more people [end portion is inaudible].
Dr Ambedkar: That doesn’t matter to my mind.
Interviewer: You mean [middle portion is inaudible] is equal to that of.
Dr Ambedkar: Yes, it is a good way to have. We have to do that sort of thing you know.
Interviewer: But in this country..
Dr Ambedkar: [Dr Ambedkar interrupts] Yeah, we always do, I mean in war you kill people don’t you? And you are not sorry because you killed so many people.
Interviewer: We are sorry …
Dr Ambedkar: [He interrupts and continues] because you find it necessary to do so in order to safeguard your interest.
Interviewer: [Beginning portion is inaudible] this system is likely to….
Dr Ambedkar: Collapse.
Dr Ambedkar: Yes, I think yes.
Interviewer: How soon?
Dr Ambedkar: Pretty soon [end portion is inaudible].
Dr Ambedkar: [Beginning portion is inaudible] I judge by my people, you see and who are the lowest rung of the strata, you know. If the foundation of a building begins to collapse it is first the lowest strata that collapses.
Interviewer: Do you hint “My own people” to untouchables?
Dr Ambedkar: [Inaudible portion]( he may have said “Verily”, I am not sure on this).
Interviewer: Are the Communists working?
Dr Ambedkar: No, they are not working because they are faking me and I haven’t [last portion is inaudible].
a. In Carlyle’s opinion Spencer was the “most immeasurable ass in Christendom”4.
1. Dr.B.R Ambedkar, “What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables”, BAWS, Vol-9, 2014, Dr. Ambedkar Foundation (Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, Govt. of India).
2. “Dr. B. R Ambedkar and his egalitarian revolution”, BAWS, Vol-17 (Part-3), 2003, Higher Education Department, Govt. of Maharashtra.
3. Dr.B.R Ambedkar, “Annihilation Of Caste with A Reply To Mahatma Gandhi”, BAWS, Special issue on the occasion of Diamond Jubilee(1936-2012) of the book, 2013, Higher Education Department, Govt. of Maharashtra.
4. John McCormick, “Catastrophe and Imagination: English and American Writings from 1870 to 1950”, Routledge, 2017