Contextualising Ambedkar’s idea of a moral democracy

How the father of the Constitution rejected oppressive and traditional systems of caste to reconstruct the concept of democracy through Buddhist principles

Updated - December 20, 2022 09:12 pm IST

Published - December 20, 2022 10:30 am IST

A man offers prayers near a statue of Bhim Rao Ambedkar on his death anniversary in Mumbai on December 6, 2022

A man offers prayers near a statue of Bhim Rao Ambedkar on his death anniversary in Mumbai on December 6, 2022 | Photo Credit: AP

Telang, S., & Kudupale, M., ‘Situating Democracy in Ambedkar’s Moral Discourse’, Contemporary Voice of Dalit, 0(0), December 13, 2022

There have been many studies on Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s conceptualisation of democracy, predominantly explained through the lens of social, political and economic philosophies. Sangharsh Telang and Mayur Kudupale’s article, ‘Situating Democracy in Ambedkar’s Moral Discourse’ looks at how Ambedkar situates morality in his discourse of democracy. It also explores the moral foundation that paved the way for Ambedkar’s discourse on democracy.

The essence of democracy

The authors begin by explaining how in the process of understanding Ambedkar’s works, many have failed to explore the multitudes of Ambedkar’s idea of democracy, and through a one-dimensional study of his work, situated him within a dichotomous framework of social democracy versus liberal or political democracy. But Ambedkar’s last work, The Buddha and His Dhamma, sheds light on how he understood democracy as a concept that affected every aspect of human life; it was essentially a way of life. Buddha, Kabir and Mahatma Phule’s philosophies played an important role in Ambedkar’s own engagement with democracy. While the pillars of democracy are equality, liberty and fraternity, it needs to be looked at through a moral lens as well. And while it is well known that Ambedkar’s moral principles were rooted in Buddhist philosophies, he was also critical of extreme individualism that was a possible outcome of Buddhism, as such characteristics failed to engage in activism that challenged social order. Thus, he believed that there needed to be a balance between individualism and fraternity for a harmonious society.

Furthermore, Ambedkar gave utmost importance to practicality. For him, concepts and theories needed to be tested as they were supposed to be practised in society. He used rationality and critical reasoning to analyse any subject matter, because he believed that a subject must first pass the test of rationality, failing which, it must be rejected, altered or modified.

Ambedkar used the lens of morality in investigating the caste system, the Hindu social system, the nature of religion and Indian history. It was difficult to place Ambedkar’s framework of democracy within these rigid religious structures and socio-political systems, especially since he brought the most marginalised communities into the fold of democracy. Thus, Ambedkar attempts to construct a new structure based on the principles of Buddhism.

Types of morality

Ambedkar divides morality into social morality and constitutional morality. He explains that social morality was built through interaction and such interaction was based on the mutual recognition of human beings. Yet, under the rigid systems of caste and religion, such interaction was not possible as one did not accept another person as a respectable human being due to their religion or caste background. Social morality was based on equality among human beings and a recognition of respect. Constitutional morality for Ambedkar was a prerequisite to maintaining a system of democracy in a country. He believed that only through a negation of hereditary rule, laws that represented all people, with people’s representatives and a State which has the confidence of the people, can democracy be maintained. One single person or political party could not represent the needs or will of all the people.

Ambedkar realised that the caste system did not go hand in hand with such an understanding of moral democracy. This was because the traditional caste structure was of a hierarchical rule, with no mutual respect among individuals, and complete subjugation of one group by another.

Reading Indian society

Ambedkar’s concept of moral democracy must also be studied through the lenses of particularism (a political theory where one group promote its own interests without regard to the interests of larger groups) and universality (a theory that some ideas have universal application or applicability). His analysis of Indian society explains that the caste system is a negative particularistic value in the Hindu religion. The upper castes according to Ambedkar, universalise the negative particularity (their dominance over the other groups) and particularise the negative universal morality (wherein the caste system and the subsequent alienation of certain groups is justified). This negative social relation is essentially ‘undemocratic’. It is to fight such separation that Ambedkar attempted to bring the democratic processes of Buddhism into the discourse of modern democracy. According to him, Buddhist Sanghas were spaces where debates, discussions and dissent were encouraged. Moreover, the practice of ‘voting’, which they called ‘Salapatraka Grahakas, began in Sanghas, laying down moral grounds or principles of social freedom and public reason.

Interestingly, according to Ambedkar, the roots of democracy lie within the realm of religion, without which associated living was not possible. Thus, instead of removing aspects of religion completely, he attempts to reconstruct a new version of democracy that accepts the democratic aspects of religions like Buddhism. Finally, Ambedkar realises that in order to conceptualise democracy as a way of life, it was important to distinguish principles and rules in society. He explained that while religion must be restricted to principles, as intellectual methods of judging things, it was rules, or the habitual ways of doing things that must be subscribed to operationalise democracy.

In the The Buddha and His Dhamma, Ambedkar elaborates how the concepts of Dhamma, which includes Prajna or thinking and understanding, Sila or good action and finally Karuna or kindness, emerge as a ‘morally transformative’ concept that dismantles regressive social relations. An integration of such rules helps in transforming the traditional approach to democracy in order to create a new form of democracy based on the concepts of morality. Thus, Ambedkar’s conceptualisation of moral democracy rejects the traditional caste-based religion that hinders social interaction and universalises negative particularistic values, replacing them with positive particularistic values and moral orders that bind human beings together.

The article is a testament to how Ambedkar envisioned democracy — a moral project, where there was a harmonious amalgamation of the concepts of equality, liberty and fraternity. He wanted to construct a morally rational system of democracy though he was aware that a mere reconstruction of a system could not change society as it was the change in mutual relationships and respect and a sense of responsibility that could lead to a change in society.

Yet he hoped that such a project would help in removing social differentiation created by the caste system, without which it was difficult to maintain democracy.

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