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How far right is India from Ambedkar’s vision?

How far right is India from Ambedkar’s vision?

Growing polarisation and inequality echo Babasaheb’s warnings on democracy without social justice

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Last Updated : 12 April 2024, 23:40 IST
Last Updated : 12 April 2024, 23:40 IST
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Many in the opposition have observed that the unprecedented rise of the right-wing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as an aggressive political force in electoral politics is a growing threat to Indian democracy. The BJP’s violent and communal mobilisation against the Muslims, the arrest of the opposition leaders, and its growing ideological control over public institutions, including the Election Commission and top bureaucracy, can be cited to support such a claim. Additionally, there is an overt neglect of the concerns of marginalised social groups, especially the Dalits, Adivasis, and Economically Backward Class (EBCs). The continued relegation of socially marginalised groups from economic development and the absence of radical social reforms to challenge caste-based discrimination demonstrate that democratic order has served the cultural and economic interests of the social elites and rich classes. 

During the Consituent Assembly debates, Dr B R Ambedkar often reminded the members about such dangerous possibilities in the future. He acknowledged that while the procedural characteristics of democracy (such as the participation of political parties in periodic elections) are important, the value of democracy shall be measured by its application to improve the participation of the worst-off social groups in public institutions, reduce social and economic inequalities, and aid marginalised social groups to elevate their political position, ensuring their emergence as the dominant political class in the democratic order. Probably on all these three accounts, the Indian democracy has shown its limits, and in the last decade, the possibilities to achieve the objectives of social justice have been further derailed.  

Ambedkar was a fierce critic of caste-ordained social inequalities and wished to annihilate the Brahmanical Hindu social order as it had legitimised the exclusion and exploitation of the Shudhras, women, and untouchables. He expected that the modern nation-state would emerge as the protector of vulnerable social groups and safeguard their human rights against the authoritative power of conventional social and class elites. Under Ambedkar’s supervision, the new Constitution offered ethical directives to end the immoral practices of untouchability and provided effective policy provisions for the integration of socially oppressed groups into the mainstream functionalities of the State’s institutions. However, even a cursory scrutiny of social life in the last 75 years would confirm that though the Dalits and Adivasis have built impressive political struggles, the domination and hegemony of the social elites over the structures of power have remained intact. 

The Dalits have utilised various channels to improve their social location and class mobility, achieving their own dynamic space within the mainstream middle-class category. On the flip side, however, a majority of Dalits are surviving in precarious class conditions, attached to filthy and degraded professions (such as manual scavenging), and face violence and discrimination by the dominant caste-class elites if they voice their displeasure against their deplorable social and economic position. The grand expectation of the nation builders that the future society would be fraternal, with an emphasis on the welfare and empowerment of the Dalits, Adivasis, and other marginalised groups, has never reached its expected end. Instead, with the rise of right-wing political ideology, there is a revival of social elites’ power and authority in the political and cultural realms. 

Second, the heightened possibility that the provisions of the reservation policy would invite a significant section of historically oppressed communities to become part of modern public institutions and eventually democratise the State’s power structure has also never materialised in a substantive manner. It is bluntly visible that no public institutions have shown sincere commitment to ensuring equitable representation of Dalits and Adivasis. For example, of the total number of faculty positions in the 45 central universities, the combined strength of the SC/ST and OBC faculties is not even 15%. It means that more than 80% of the positions are occupied by social elites. In 2023, out of 45 vice chancellors, only four belonged to the Dalit-Bahujan social strata. Similar statistics can be applied to examine other public institutions. 

Finally, on the front of electoral democracy, one can witness multiple splinters in Ambedkar’s political legacies. The Dalit political movements of today appear to be passive and incapable of mobilising the deprived and marginalised social groups for an effective political transformation. The Dalit political voice is a visible force in a few states, such as Maharashtra (with the ascendency of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi), Uttar Pradesh (the Bahujan Samaj Party in opposition), Bihar (the emergence of Chirag Paswan as the new Dalit leader), and Tamil Nadu (the impressive political presence of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi). However, the possibility that it will challenge the current Hindutva establishment independently and bring crucial change in electoral politics appears almost impossible today. Further, in many states with significant Dalit populations (Bengal, Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, etc.), the political assertion of the socially marginalised groups is negligible. Instead, it is often argued that the BJP has strengthened its position among marginalised social groups and mobilised them under the Hindutva banner. 

To fulfil Ambedkar’s dream for the success of Indian democracy, it is necessary that the worst-off social groups be substantively integrated into public life alongside an effective transformation of caste society into a fraternal association. Few steps, if any, are taken to achieve such ethical objectives. Further, the revolutionary possibilities of political transformation from the Dalit-Bahujan parties have also derailed, and there is little hope for their revival. The relegation of Ambedkar’s ideas in social, institutional, and political spheres only showcases that these realms are unfree from the hegemonic domination of the social elites and not ready to allow fair democratisation of these domains. The meaning of democracy in such a context will remain mainly procedural, detached from its transformative potential to engage with the worst-
off social groups and elevate them as the key agents of political and economic transformation. 

(The writer teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU)

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