Resurrecting the radical Ambedkar


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[In 1946] The British had resiled from the commitments they had made in the matter of constitutional safeguards for the Scheduled Castes, and the Scheduled Castes had no knowing as to what the Constituent Assembly would do on that behalf. In this period of anxiety I had prepared a report on the condition of the Scheduled Castes for submission to the United Nations. But I did not submit it. I felt that it would be better to wait until the Constituent Assembly and the future Parliament was given a chance do deal with the matter. The provisions made in the Constitution for safeguarding the position of the Scheduled Castes were not to my satisfaction. However, I accepted them for what they were worth hoping that the Government will show some determination to make them effective.

– B.R. Ambedkar in his resignation letter on 10 October 1951


TODAY, when the Congress’ return to power at the Centre is being celebrated as a sign of vibrancy of Indian democracy, it would help to salvage and resurrect those ideas of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar which he was forced to jettison. His true legacy is not a parliamentary democracy legitimized by a tame, ‘approved’ Constitution. The democracy and the simplistic electoral system we live with today not only breed communal majorities that Ambedkar had warned against, they delude us into seeing great charm in a Sikh bureaucrat being anointed prime minister by a party that sanctioned the biggest public massacre of Sikhs in post-Partition India. Such an inherently flawed democracy forces us to feel triumphal over an occasional dalit President or a dalit Speaker for Lok Sabha; such a democracy forces a subaltern icon like Mayawati to subvert the governing logic of the first-past-the-post parliamentary system and wrest power in tandem with brahmins. But the mere survival of democracy in India, about which many enthusiasts crow, is not a sign of strength.

Responding to S. Radhakrishnan’s contention in his Hindu View of Life1 that ‘Hinduism has been able to maintain its supremacy’ for over four to five millennia, and that it is ‘no more necessary to dissect Hinduism than to open a tree to see whether the sap still runs,’ Ambedkar at his lacerating best in the classic address Annihilation of Caste (1936) says: ‘It is useless for a Hindu to take comfort in the fact that he and his people have survived. What he must consider is, what is the quality of their survival. If he does that, I am sure he will cease to take pride in the mere fact of survival... every right-minded Hindu who is not afraid to own up to the truth will feel ashamed.’2 What Ambedkar says of Hinduism is true of Hinduised democracy as it obtains in India. We cannot be proud of the democracy we live with just because it has survived 60-plus years. We cannot rest content with facetious celebrations of a ‘phipty-phipty democracy’ – that however flawed, we have a democracy.

To understand why Ambedkar was not content with his own interventions within the ‘nationalist frame’, to understand why Ambedkar even contemplated drawing the attention of the United Nations, and why he did not really have full faith in parliamentary democracy, we must engage with a radical Ambedkar who predates the draughtsman of the Constitution.

At the heart of Ambedkar’s approach to the question of democracy was the space available to minorities, especially dalits, to bargain for adequate protections. He believed that as ‘untouchables’ (avarnas, those without varna), as ‘lesser humans’, they did not enjoy the same value as ‘touchables’ (savarnas, those with varna). Hence, when a concept that is antithetical to the ideology of caste, such as democracy – premised on ‘one person one value’ and hence ‘one person one vote’ – is introduced, it needs to be modified to suit an Indian context composed of multiple minorities. In such a democracy, the value of a devalued dalit has to be raised with deliberation, through special provisions such as the double vote or adoption of the principle of reservation. Therefore, Ambedkar argued, as we shall soon see, that the minorities needed to be given a higher share of representation than their actual percentage in the population in order to obviate the tyranny of the majority.


In May 1946, when the Cabinet Mission Plan sought to broker a deal between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, the Ambedkar-led Scheduled Caste Federation was not really factored in. Till then, Ambedkar, who had served the Viceroy’s Executive Council as Labour Member (from July 1942 to June 1946), was given to believe that a tripartite agreement between Hindus (Congress), Muslims (Muslim League) and the Scheduled Castes (Scheduled Caste Federation) would be ensured before transfer of power. The crushing defeat of SCF candidates in the March 1946 provincial assembly elections had undermined Ambedkar’s bargaining power. This blow to the SCF was only to be anticipated since Ambedkar had been forced to sign away the gains of the Ramsay Macdonald Communal Award through the Poona Pact of September 1932, which ensured that the caste Hindus, who invariably outnumbered the dalits even in reserved constituencies, elected only pliable dalit candidates. In such a first-past-the-post system, Ambedkar too lost.


In July 1946, when members were elected by the provincial assemblies to join the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar again stood little chance – there were hardly any SCF members in the Bombay province to back him. The Congress in Bombay, headed by Prime Minister B.G. Kher and under instructions from Sardar Patel, ensured that Ambedkar was not elected. According to Dhananjay Keer, Ambedkar’s biographer, ‘The Congress elected its men. The majority of them were elected not because they knew much about constitution-making but because they had suffered imprisonment in the patriotic struggle.’3 Ambedkar did not figure among the 296 members elected to the Constituent Assembly by the provincial assemblies. The Congress, by then, had propped up Jagjivan Ram; and Ambedkar felt that dalits stood little chance of securing guarantees and rights in the new Constitution.


At this juncture, Jogendra Nath Mandal (1906-1956) – a dalit politician from Bengal, a member of the working committee of the SCF, and a staunch critic of the Congress – took it upon himself to ensure Ambedkar’s election to the Constituent Assembly from the Bengal province. Mandal was also a supporter of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the SCF in Bengal had allied with the Muslim League. After Partition, Mandal became a member and temporary Chairman of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, and went on to serve that country as its first minister of law and labour – that Pakistan’s first law minister, like Ambedkar, was also dalit is almost forgotten today. But owing to partition and the division of Bengal, Ambedkar once again was left out of the Constituent Assembly by June 1947. However, his performance since December 1946 had so impressed even his Congress critics that they did not wish to lose him. When M.R. Jayakar from Bombay resigned from the CA, the Congress behaved less pettily this time and ensured Ambedkar’s election in Jayakar’s place.

At a time when his election to the CA was in jeopardy, Ambedkar had prepared a memorandum in March 1947, which he published in May 1947 as States and Minorities: What are Their Rights and How to Secure them in the Constitution of Free India.4 Framed as the ‘Constitution of the United States of India’, States and Minorities shows Ambedkar at his radical, left-leaning best – a tendency he was to suppress in the Constituent Assembly, despite heading it, where other members of the drafting committee did not favour such a tenor.

For instance, the 1947 document says: ‘Key industries shall be owned and run by the State... insurance shall be a monopoly of the State and that the State shall compel every adult citizen to take out a life insurance policy commensurate with his wages as may be prescribed by the Legislature... agriculture shall be a State industry’ (396). Ambedkar also advocated the state acquiring all agricultural land, dividing it into farms of standard size, and letting out the farms for cultivation to residents of the village as tenants, to be cultivated collectively. Here was a hard-core socialist, though historians accord more respect for Nehru’s dalliance with socialism.


At the heart of States and Minorities – Ambedkar’s ideal constitution – was the passion to ensure justice for minorities. Ambedkar was never a believer in a parliamentary democracy based on first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, especially in societies that had a mixture of minorities. He did not believe that mere ‘proportionate representation of minorities’ in an elected body would ensure them justice. 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.’ The ‘one man one vote’ principle and FPTP would perhaps make sense when there was a level playing field premised on both social and economic equality among all the participants in such a system. Not in ‘Indian society’ which was ‘a gradation of castes forming an ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt – a system which gives no scope for the growth of that sentiment of equality and fraternity so essential for a democratic form of government,’5 as Ambedkar astutely observed in one of his interventions at the Round Table Conference in 1931.


This explains the rationale behind the unique double-vote he managed to win for dalits at the RTC, which culminated in the Communal Award of 16 August 1932, resulting in (a) separate electorates for dalits, which meant that dalits and only dalits would choose their representatives in a legislature; and (b) dalits being able to cast a second ballot to chose who among the caste Hindus was best suited to represent the interests of dalits in a legislative body. Such safeguards were necessary for dalits, argued Ambedkar, since they were a unique minority who were not only outnumbered everywhere by savarnas (caste Hindus), but were vulnerable to physical attacks by their tormentors. Ambedkar believed that a mere right to vote would do the dalits no good and they would be subject to the manipulations and machinations of caste Hindus. With the double vote, the savarnas and the rest of society would come to regard ‘untouchables’ as worthy of respect and dignity.

This gain was of course scuttled by Mohandas Gandhi who went on an infamous fast in Yerwada, Poona. His way of winning an argument – insisting that ‘untouchables’ were an integral part of Hindu society and they should not have separate electorates – was to say ‘I will kill myself starving if you don’t agree to what I say.’ Faced with such violent blackmailing, Ambedkar was forced to sign the Poona Pact in September 1932. As Bhagwan Das, a historian of the Ambedkarite movement says, ‘It gave the untouchables more seats, less rights and no power.’6


Ambedkar did not give up easily. He persisted with the idea of securing justice not only for dalits but for all minorities. He was primarily concerned ‘with the consequences of the caste system on politics’; he sought to anticipate ‘what effect it [caste] has upon elections which is the foundation of Representative Government reared on a system of single-member constituencies.’ Addressing a meeting of the All India Scheduled Castes Federation held in Bombay on 6 May 1945,7 he said: ‘In India, the majority is not a political majority. In India the majority is born; it is not made. That is the difference between a communal majority and a political majority’ (377).

On the same topic, in 1955, he said majorities are of two sorts: communal majority and political majority. ‘A political majority is changeable in its class composition. A political majority grows. A communal majority is born. The admission to a political majority is open. The door to a communal majority is closed. The politics of a political majority are free to all to make and unmake. The politics of a communal majority are made by its own members born in it.’8 In India, the play of caste and religion ensure that voting is always communal and ‘a majority community carries the seat by sheer communal majority.’ So Ambedkar wonders how a communal majority could run away with the title deeds given to a political majority to rule.


In his 1945 address to SCF, he offered a formula that would thwart the communal majority from claiming a political majority. In the Central Assembly, the Hindus, who form 54.68 per cent of the population should get 40 per cent representation; Muslims with 28.5 per cent should get 32 per cent; Scheduled Castes 14.3 per cent, 20 per cent; Indian Christians 1.16 per cent, 3 per cent; Sikhs 1.49 per cent, 4 per cent; and Anglo Indians 0.05 per cent should get 1 per cent. In Bombay, Hindus who form 76.42 of the population would get 40 per cent representation in the legislature; Muslims 9.98 per cent of the population would get 28 per cent; Scheduled Castes 9.64, 28 per cent; Indian Christians 1.75, 2 per cent, Anglo Indian 0.07, 1 per cent and Parsees 0.44, 1 per cent.9

In other words, minorities must get representation positively disproportionate to their ratio in population while for the majority community it is capped at 40 per cent. Lest this formula should be regarded as directed only at Hindus, Ambedkar cites the case of pre-partition Punjab where the Muslims, who outnumbered Sikhs and Hindus at 57.06 per cent of the population, would also get only 40 per cent representation in the legislature. Hindus at 22.17 would get 28 per cent; Sikhs at 13.22, 21 per cent; Scheduled Castes at 4.39, 9 per cent, and Indian Christians at 1.71, 2 per cent. A similar situation of Muslims being the majority community (56.5 per cent) obtained in pre-partition Bengal and their representation was capped at 40 per cent.

Undergirding this mechanism was the belief that ‘majority rule is untenable in theory and unjustifiable in practice. A majority community may be conceded a relative majority of representation but it can never claim an absolute majority’ (373). Under this elaborate proposal, weight-age taken from the majority was to be distributed among the minorities ‘in inverse proportion to their social standing, economic position and educational condition so that a minority which is large and which has a better social, educational and economic standing gets a lesser amount of weightage than a minority whose numbers are less and whose educational, economic and social position is inferior to that of the others’ (374).


If we look at Gujarat today, with a Muslim population of 9 per cent but only five Muslim legislators (2.7 per cent) in a house of 182 (only from constituencies where they are the majority community and where none but a Muslim can win in an FPTP system), Ambedkar’s worst fears have been borne out – a communal majority poses as political majority. In the 2009 Assembly election in Gujarat, the Congress fielded six Muslims, the BJP none. Parliamentary democracy as it stands today in India offers no relief to minorities; the minorities are ‘overwhelmed by the majority’; in Ambedakrite terms this rule of a communal majority cannot be termed democracy at all. Dalits and adivasis may enjoy ‘reserved seats’, in proportion to their ratio in the population, but the single-member constituencies and the FPTP method ensure that those elected are inevitably pliable candidates propped up by parties with majoritarian interests.

Ambedkar was also wary of a situation where ‘major minorities’ could gang up and supersede minorities who do not have sizeable numbers (and do not constitute a vote-bank); hence he advocated the distribution of seats in such a manner that a ‘combination of the major minorities should not give the combine such a majority as to make them impervious to the interests of the minorities.’ Besides, the distribution should be so made that ‘if all the minorities combine, they could, without depending on the majority, form the government of their own’ (374).


Despite not following Ambedkar’s formula, Indian parliamentary democracy has indeed thrown up coalition regimes (such as the United Front governments between 1996 and 1998 and the early Bahujan Samaj Party minority governments) where several ‘minorities’ seemed to come together to dislodge the majoritarian Congress or Bharatiya Janata Party. But then, these ‘minorities’ were in turn driven by consolidation of regional ‘caste majorities’ in various states (led largely by ‘backward castes’ in the form of a Janata Dal, Telugu Desam Party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or Asom Gana Parishad; and led by dalits in the case of the Bahujan Samaj Party).10

Ambedkar was generally disinclined towards the FPTP system wherein the communal majority could easily command a political majority. Ambedkar also favoured the single transferable vote (STV) system, where voters get to rank candidates in order of preference (also known as preferential and cumulative voting). With STV, one can rank as many or as few candidates. To get elected, candidates need to reach a quota of the votes. This also ensures proportional representation.

It is often believed that the complex and nuanced strategies suggested by Ambedkar for ensuring minority rights and for obviating majority domination, were echoed by his coevals in the non-brahmin movement in Madras presidency. However, it must be clarified that the opposite is true. Periyar E.V. Ramasamy was rightfully irked by the domination of the minority community of brahmins, who ideologically backed the caste system and dominated jobs in the colonial bureaucracy. However, he adopted a ‘commonsensical’ approach in projecting an ‘oppressed majority’ – of ‘backward’ caste non-brahmins comprising a (communal) majority – having to wrest power.

Periyar, in a signed editorial entitled ‘Minority Community’ published in the Dravidar Kazhagam mouthpiece Viduthalai (6 March 1962) begins: ‘Under any definition of nationality, in any nation, if people who are a minority in terms of population, in terms of religion or in terms of culture, control power and wield authority, it will be disastrous for the well-being and development of that nation.’ In this piece he strangely lumps together brahmins and Muslims as minority communities that enjoy undue privileges resulting in the ‘slavery of the sudras’. (Periyar frequently uses the term ‘slavery’ for sudras rather casually to include non-brahmin zamindars, rajas and other well-to-do castes.) Such a desire for ‘majority rule’, which can also result in a communal majority as exemplified by Dravidian parties, is antithetical to Ambedkar’s principles.


When Ambedkar did make it to the Constituent Assembly, and even headed it, he could not have his way on most issues dear to him. His impassioned belief in separate electorates for dalits; his unique and original proposals to solve the communal deadlock through multi-member constituencies and cumulative voting within the framework of parliamentary democracy and to pre-empt the religious partition of India; his zeal for a uniform civil code among Hindus; his enthusiasm for a programme that ensured social and economic equality (not just political equality in terms of universal adult franchise); his advocacy of nationalisation of land and its redistribution as cooperative, collective farms – all these had no place in a Constituent Assembly dominated by conservative, feudal Hindus and a pusillanimous Nehru.


Thus, in 1955, Ambedkar laments the jettisoning of the pre-Poona Pact arrangement of separate electorates and double vote for dalits: ‘Both these safeguards have been given up in the new Constitution. The lambs are shorn of the wool. They are feeling the intensity of the cold. Some tempering of the wool is necessary.’ Without restating the demand for separate electorates, and even giving up on reservation of seats, he says, ‘It would be enough to have plural member constituencies (of two or three) with cumulative voting in place of the system of single-member constituency embodied in the present Constitution.’11

To make democracy count, we must be brave enough to revisit some of the principles Ambedkar truly believed in; to make it count, we must ensure that the majority community (now only Hindus) never gets to have more than 40 per cent share in an elected body; to make democracy count we need to abjure the FPTP system and explore plural-member constituencies. In such an Ambedkarite utopia, a Narendra Modi can perhaps never win even a panchayat election, forget mastermind a pogrom.


* I owe some of the points here to discussions with Ravikumar.


1. This work, based on lectures Radhakrishnan delivered in 1926 at Manchester College, Oxford, in his capacity as King George V Professor of Philosophy, Calcutta University, was published in 1927 by Allen and Unwin.

2. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Vol. 1, Government of Maharashtra, Bombay, 1979, p. 66.

3. Dhananjay Keer, Dr Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Popular Prakashan, Bombay, (1954), 1971 edition, p. 382.

4. For the full text see Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Vol. 1, Government of Maharashtra, Bombay, 1979, pp. 381-449.

5. Indian Round Table Conference, 12th November, 1930-19th January 1931: Proceedings, Government of India, Central Publication Branch, Calcutta, 1931, p. 439.

6. Thus Spoke Ambedkar, Vol. 1, Bheem Patrika, Jallandar, 1963, 18.

7. This was later published as The Communal Deadlock and the Way to Solve It (1945). All quotations from this text are taken from Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Vol. 1, Government of Maharashtra, Bombay, 1979, 355-79; page numbers are indicated at the end of every quote.

8. Thoughts on Linguistic States in Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Vol. 1, Government of Maharashtra, Bombay, 1979, p. 169.

9. For the tabular break-ups Ambedkar offers for eleven provincial legislatures, see The Communal Deadlock, pp. 369-72.

10. I have dealt with the unique and defiant rise of the BSP in a different essay, ‘Despite Parliamentary Democracy’, Himal, August 2008.

11. Thoughts on Linguistic States, pp. 169-70.