“Democracy in India is only a top dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.” Arundhati Roy? Wrong. It’s Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar, the Dalit leader who wrote India’s republican constitution 60 years ago.
Going by Ambedkar’s expressed fears, the Indian republic is like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Slave’s Dream. It was created by a people that were subjugated by colonialism and its republican ideals were shaped by a human rights pioneer who rose from the lowest layers of the country’s caste heap, a form of slavery in some ways more degrading than apartheid.
India celebrates its Republic Day each year with an hour-long display of military hardware, which of late has included dummies of nuclear-tipped missiles. The accompanying convoy of floats showcasing the country’s cultural variety (and humour) with everything ranging from ayurvedic massages to tribal dances, to harvest festivals is a more realistic sample of the country’s anarchy and depth than imported military arsenal, which guzzles depleted resources, annoys neighbours and contributes to keeping millions of Indians in penury and poor health.
Ambedkar’s fear of an inhospitable soil that deters rather than nurtures democracy if left to itself has been vindicated by the country’s sharp tilt to the right since 1990. His most entrenched detractors belong to the Hindu right, but the exigencies of the country’s caste arithmetic, which shores up the parliamentary system, compels them to woo his followers, if not his legacy.
That’s why it remained unclear on Tuesday, as to which was a bigger affront to India’s democracy — the inability of the state for the first time in 19 years to hoist the Indian flag in the alienated precincts of Srinagar’s Lal Chowk or a vaudeville staged by the chief minister of Gujarat who carried a giant replica of the Indian constitution on elephant back to display his sudden fondness for the rule of law.
“This is a historic moment for Gujarat, as the procession of the constitution is being taken out for the first time in Indian history,” Chief Minister Narendra Modi proclaimed not without dollops of irony. There was no remorse in his tone over the worst anti-Muslim pogrom his state witnessed, and for which he is being investigated.
Ambedkar had perhaps anticipated Modi’s antics, whose administration reinforces an Indian variant of apartheid, in which Muslims and Dalits have been driven to live in hidebound ghettoes. Let’s hear what Ambedkar had to say about a Republic Day he had helped create.
“On 26th January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics, we will have equality and in social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one-man one-value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of democracy which this Constituent Assembly has so laboriously built up.”
“There is no nation of Indians in the real sense of the world. It is yet to be created. In believing we are a nation, we are cherishing a great delusion. How can people divided into thousands of castes be a nation? The sooner we realise that we are not yet a nation, in a social and psychological sense of the world, the better for us.”
“… My definition of democracy is — a form and a method of government whereby revolutionary changes in the social life are brought about without bloodshed. That is the real test. It is perhaps the severest test. But when you are judging the quality of the material you must put it to the severest test. Democracy is not merely a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards our fellow men…”
“A democratic form of government presupposes a democratic form of a society. The formal framework of democracy is of no value and would indeed be a misfit if there was no social democracy. It may not be necessary for a democratic society to be marked by unity, by community of purpose, by loyalty to public ends and by mutuality of sympathy.”
“But it does unmistakably involve two things. The first is an attitude of mind, and attitude of respect and equality towards their fellows. The second is a social organisation free from rigid social barriers. Democracy is incompatible and inconsistent with isolation and exclusiveness resulting in the distinction between the privileged and the unprivileged.”
“What we must do is not to content ourselves with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there is at the base of it a social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles of liberty, equality and fraternity are not to be treated as separate items. They form a union in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy. Liberty cannot be divorced from equality, nor can liberty and equality be divorced from fraternity.”
“… On 26th January, 1950, India will be an independent country. What would happen to her independence? Will she maintain or will she lose it again? This is the first thought that comes to my mind. It is not that India was never an independent country. The point is that she once lost the independence she had. Will she lose it a second time? It is this thought which makes me most anxious for the future. What perturbs me greatly is the fact that not only has India once before lost her independence, but she lost it by treachery of some of her own people.”
“Will history repeat itself? It is this thought which fills me with anxiety. … Will Indians place the country above their creed or creed above their country? I do not know. But this much is certain that if the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost forever. This eventuality we all must resolutely guard against. We must be determined to defend our independence with the last drop of our blood.”
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.