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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 50-51, December 3, December 10 2022 [Double issue]

India as Mother of Democracy : A Critical Assessment | SN Sahu

Friday 2 December 2022, by S N Sahu


It is a travesty of truth to call India a mother of democracy. If that is so then it is also mother of caste hierarchy, discrimination and domination. Caste system described by Dr. Ambedkar as “representing ascending order of reverence and descending order of contempt” was there in ancient times and still continues to subvert the idea of equality, liberty and fraternity so central to democracy. Many other inegalitarian aspects

internal to Indian society were centered around sub castes, gotra and most of all the inhuman forms of exclusion determined by the scourge of untouchability which created outcastes. Tragically the practice of untouchability is persisting in spite of the fact that it is abolished by the Constitution. All these created what Ambedkar poignantly called “graded social inequality” subverting any notion of democracy. Even numerous social stratas so central to other faiths and persistence of patriarchy for centuries generated many forms of structured inequality discriminating people on the basis of their religious identity, suppressing women and excluding them from vital sectors of collective life. All such factors negate the claim that India is a mother of democracy.

The note prepared by the Indian Council of Historical Research on “India as mother of democracy” erroneously says that Hindu mind remained central to democracy and democratic values and the resilient caste system helped to preserve the age old tradition to keep democratic spirit alive.

Recall what Ambedkar wrote in his book "Pakistan and Partition of India". "No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account it is incompatible with democracy.”

Hindu Social System Undemocratic

Elsewhere in his book “Riddles in Hinduism” he very searchingly asked the question “Why did Democracy not grow in India?” In answering that question he wrote, “The Hindu Religion does not teach fraternity. Instead it teaches division of society into classes or varnas and the maintenance of separate class consciousness. In such a system where is the room for Democracy?”

Elaborating further he very sharply stated, “The Hindu social system is undemocratic not by accident. It is designed to be undemocratic. Its division of society into varnas and castes, and of castes and outcastes are not theories but are decrees. They are all barricades raised against democracy.”

Brahmism and Theoretical Foundation of Democracy

However, it would be fair to say that Ambedkar in the aforementioned “Riddles in Hinduism’’ referred to the idea of Brahmaism which is different from Vedant and Brahminism . While Brahminism. among others. upheld chaturvarna (four fold Varnas) Brahmism represented the idea that all persons are part of Brahma and so all are equal enjoying the same liberty, which is what democracy means. Ambedkar even went to the extent of claiming that had western students of democracy known that there was the idea of Brahmaism then they would not have confined themselves to trace democracy to Plato or Christianity alone and stated that “India too must be admitted to have a contribution towards a theoretical foundation for Democracy.” At the same time he qualified his remarks by saying that “To support democracy because we are all children of God is a very weak foundation for Democracy to rest on. That is why democracy is so shaky wherever it made to rest on such a foundation.”

He further added that Brahmaism had no social effect as it only remained in the realm of philosophy and was never employed for reconstructing undemocratic Hindu society. Therefore, he argued that in spite of the prevalence of such a philosophy advocating the idea that all are parts of Brahma and so equal, simultaneously there existed high levels of inequality between the Brahmin and the Shudra, between man and woman, between casteman and outcaste. He therefore stated, “The result is that we have on the one hand the most democratic principle of Brahmaism and on the other hand a society infested with castes, sub-outcastes, primitive tribes and criminal tribes.”

One also becomes painfully aware that if all are part of Brahma then how did Manusmriti trace the Brahmins’ origin to Brahma’s head, Kshatriyas’ to His chest, Vaishyas’ to stomach and the Shudras’ to the feet? Ambedkar burnt Manusmriti, among others, for giving such absurd explanation about the origin of human beings and ascribing caste status to them based on rigid hierarchy which determined their importance in descending order. Under such a scheme Brahmins occupied the top position in the hierarchy and other castes were assigned lowers positions. With such a system existing from ancient times how can one ever describe India as a mother of democracy?

Ambedkar pointed out the contradiction between the lived in reality of society defined by caste inequality and prevalence of a philosophy of equality which has nothing to do with the sufferings caused to people because of caste status. . That is why Ambedkar’s aforementioned observation that “To support democracy because we are all children of God is a very weak foundation for Democracy to rest on” needs to be flagged. The lesson it offers is that for explaining the origin and sustenance of democracy there is a necessity not to anchor it in any religion or God. The lived in reality should be factored to explain it.

Ambedkar was categorical in asserting that democracy could not originate in India in spite of high prevalence of philosophy that all represented the Brahma, because its society was caste ridden.

Gandhi and the Idea of Establishment of Democracy

It would be instructive to juxtapose the aforementioned statement of Ambedkar with one statement of Mahatma Gandhi concerning the establishment of democracy in India.

During the Kheda Satyagraha launched by farmers under the leadership of Vallabhbhai Patel in 1917 for suspension of land revenue, Gandhi famously stated that the larger objective of that Satyagraha was to establish democracy in India and restore people’s democratic rights. Had India been the mother of democracy Gandhi would not have said in 1917 that the larger objective of the Kheda Satyagraha was to establish democracy in India.

The claim that India is the mother of democracy is incompatible with the very categorical assertions of both Gandhi and Ambedkar.

Rejection of Hindu Raj

Both of them rejected the idea of Hindu Raj. Ambedkar in his book “Pakistan or Partition of India” forcefully stated that Hindu Raj would be a calamity and it must be resisted at any cost. Gandhi in late 1930s had said that instead of Hindu Raj there would be people’s Raj in India.

The false notion that India is a mother of democracy is a subtle strategy to herald Hindu Raj which our leadership during freedom struggle rejected lock, stock and barrel. Even Sardar Patel had said that through the Constitution, India envisioned secular democracy as the defining aspect of our country. He also described the idea of Hindu Rashtra as a mad one. What is being done by the leadership ruling India now is to subvert that vision of India so labouriously nurtured during freedom struggle and enshrined in the Constitution. Defence of the Constitution is defence of democracy.

(Author: S N Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty to President of India K R Narayanan)

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