Plurality without pluralism


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IF we grant that pluralism, secularism and toleration are values that we would like to see realized in Indian society and politics, it seems reasonable to want to know when exactly it was that these values were first posited as desirable characteristics in the collective life of Indians. Like most elements in India’s modern political repertoire, these too do not go back much further than the first half of the 20th century, the time when that very modernity was under construction. Even in this period, leading up to and soon after independence, it’s not clear that there was broad agreement about the desirability of these values, or a wide acceptance of them as the conditions that would enable several very diverse populations to coexist within the rubric of a common citizenship.

Some nationalist-era thinkers and leaders like Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru were more inclined towards such values; others favoured narrower conceptions of state, society and citizenry, wanting to define India for and limit India to this or that caste, religious community, or regional identity. On paper at least, the pluralists won out, though they – and their heirs and descendants – have continued to have a hard time defending the nation from capture by exclusivists of various stripes. Democracy might have ensured plurality, as an empirical fact, but pluralism, as an ideology, has had a much harder time prevailing in free India.

Indian pluralism looks a lot more robust from a Tagorean-Nehruvian standpoint than it does from an Ambedkarite vantage. Ambedkar himself vacillated between wanting to integrate the depressed classes into the Hindu fold and the national mainstream, and carving out a separate space for the Untouchables – as an electoral college, as a minority with specific rights to compensatory discrimination, and eventually as a distinct religious group, the Neo-Buddhists. His changing position was not the result of a lack of clarity in his own thinking about the forms of inequality endemic to India; it was largely a series of pragmatic responses to the ways in which dominant Congress nationalism and later the nation state, despite Nehru’s premiership, remained recalcitrant to Ambedkar’s or anyone’s conception of a truly pluralist, inclusive and egalitarian dispensation. If over time he hardened his position on the unassimilable difference of the Dalits, whether conceived on the basis of absolute numbers, historical injustice, or religious identity, it was because that difference was never actually disregarded by the caste Hindu leadership of the Congress. In fact, paradoxically, it had to be underlined (by them) in order for their practices and assertions of toleration to make sense.

Elsewhere in my work I have described the tank and temple satyagrahas undertaken by or supported by Ambedkar in the early phase of his political career as ‘debilitating’. The reason they were debilitating – for Ambedkar and his followers – was that they had to be conducted in the face of dogged resistance by upper castes. When the point was conceded, it was with reluctance and a certain lack of grace on the part of caste Hindus controlling the waterbody or temple premises in question. Oftentimes the point was not conceded, and the intervention of the British authorities had to be sought. On one occasion, a tank was ‘purified’ after a group of Untouchables led by Ambedkar drank from it (1927, Chowdar tank in Mahad); in another instance, temple entry was not granted for years on end, and eventually Ambedkar abandoned the campaign altogether and turned his energies elsewhere (1930-35, Kalaram Temple in Nasik). A court case filed to secure minimal civic rights for Untouchables dragged on for years, with no pressure from public opinion to grant legitimacy to the demand for equality (Vaidya vs Ambedkar, Bombay High Court, March 1937).


In Mahad on December 25, 1927, Ambedkar famously burnt the Manusmriti, the ancient Sanskrit dharmasastra text – one of many – that pronounces the normative nature of fourfold varna hierarchy, outcasts the Untouchables, and lists disabilities and punishments for sudra (fourth caste) and antyaja (outcaste) subjects who might transgress the extremely narrow social space allowed to them. Burning a book, even one that validated caste inequality, must have caused a fair degree of consternation to a man like Ambedkar, who loved books and spent all his money collecting them. More frustrating must have been the fact that most Hindus never actually treated the Manusmriti as a holy text with any particular religious significance: except for a very small class of brahmins trained in highly technical matters of ritual status, it played a negligible part in the everyday religiosity of ordinary Hindus. Even to burn it meant giving it more importance than it either had or deserved.

Ambedkar was setting fire to ‘dead wood from the past’ – the irony being that the Manusmriti was indeed ‘dead wood’ – lifeless, anachronistic, redundant. To gloss the act of immolation, a public spectacle witnessed by about five thousand Untouchables, and establish its historic dimensions, he had to invoke a comparison with the fall of the Bastille in revolutionary Paris, inflating the laws of Manu to the same stature as the ‘spirit of the Ancien Régime in France’ (embodied in the Bastille).


Such bitter experiences in dealing with widespread and entrenched caste prejudices, governmental unwillingness to interfere in the ‘religious’ affairs of internally fractured communities, and social attitudes that just could not be shocked, shamed or cajoled into changing, cannot but have been debilitating – i.e., weakening and demoralizing – to Ambedkar in his project to bring about the annihilation of caste.1 In Yeola (near Nasik) in October 1935 he made it clear that rather than waste his time trying to reform Hindus – a pointless exercise that Mahatma Gandhi insisted on undertaking to the very last – he would get the depressed classes to leave Hinduism and embrace some other religion.

Today, electoral campaigning, democratic politics and socioeconomic policy as envisioned by parties like the Dalit Panthers, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Janata Dal (United) and others, has more or less normalized for us the idea that Dalit and OBC interests are different from those of upper castes. For Ambedkar, it was difficult to have to accept that there was no way in which caste Hindus would willingly and according to a rational calculation of the greater common good grant an equal status to Untouchables. He faced this harsh truth only after several failed attempts to either already assume or forcefully demand equality.


Ambedkar launched his Navayana in October 1956. Through mass conversion to this new sect of Buddhism, the difference between Untouchables and caste Hindus became refigured as the difference between non-Hindus and Hindus. This agonistic re-inscription and deepening of difference, and the coalescence of Dalit identity as a negative identity became, as Anupama Rao points out, a charter for a permanent state of struggle, confrontation, and combat. As I will suggest later on in this article, perhaps Ambedkar on his own would have preferred a more Deweyan route – that of the resolution rather than the exacerbation of difference, through certain forms of schooling, ‘social endosmosis’, associational life2 founded on rational principles, and the careful construction of a communicative, dialogical, deliberative and consensual public sphere.

But Indian democracy, carrying the original sin of caste, did not permit such a path to be taken by the society as a whole. By Ambedkar’s lights, Indians understood liberty imperfectly, equality even more imperfectly, and fraternity almost not at all. Late in his life he attempted to re-inscribe the essentially foreign concept of ‘fraternité’ into the Indian political lexicon by translating it through a range of Buddhist terms including, in the first instance, maitri (goodwill, benevolence), bandhuta (fellow feeling, solidarity), as well as samata (impartiality, like-mindedness), and more indirectly, karuna (compassion) – all qualities attributed to the Buddha himself.

If India in the 1920s and 1930s was thoroughly caste-ridden, let us say, and India in the 1990s and 2000s is not caste-ridden in the same way, but nonetheless is not caste-free either, then what has changed? Perhaps only the structures of justification. A hundred years ago, savarna Hindus felt compelled to treat certain sections of society in a manner that was humiliating because they thought such treatment was mandated by their religious texts and confirmed by custom. While religion is no longer the touchstone for social behaviour, and the law of the land might actually make certain practices of discrimination both de jure illegal and de facto impossible, a new kind of acceptability has emerged for the notion that different groups in society have different needs, capabilities and ways of life.


All groups are now free to pursue whatever mode of public conduct works for them in so far as they don’t breach the outermost limits of the whole by a monomaniacal pursuit of sectional interests, or by violating the human and political rights of other groups. In other words, India has settled for plurality, seen as an uneasy but unavoidable truce between incommensurably different sections, and more or less abandoned the project of building a pluralist society, where people might willingly accommodate one another despite a full understanding of the differences between them.

In December 1952, in an address to the members of the Poona District Law Library, Ambedkar listed seven conditions necessary for the successful working of democracy.3 He began his speech by attempting a definition of modern democracy, whose purpose, according to him, was the welfare of the people. He differentiated modern democracy from Athenian democracy, which tolerated slavery, and English democracy, whose main purpose was to limit the powers of the monarch. Rather than define democracy as ‘government by discussion’ (following Walter Bagehot), or ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people’ (following Abraham Lincoln), Ambedkar wanted to define it as the type of government in which ‘revolutionary changes in economic and social life are brought about without bloodshed.’

This is a somewhat surprising definition, coming from Ambedkar, because of the Gandhian connotations of change ‘without bloodshed’. But perhaps rather than suggest ‘non-violence’, Ambedkar really only meant to indicate a constitutional rather than a revolutionary passage to the establishment of the people’s sovereignty. The emphasis he intended was on the revolutionary nature of economic and social transformation, not on revolutionary violence that might be used to achieve such transformation. In all events, we have to let the ambiguity stand, because he does not elaborate further.


The conditions Ambedkar sets out as the presuppositions of a successful democracy, should be read in the context of his resignation as the Law Minister of Nehru’s cabinet in September-October 1951, his defeat in the first Lok Sabha elections of January 1952, and his induction as a nominated (i.e., not elected) MP into the Rajya Sabha, representing Bombay, in March 1952. The first condition he lists is that there ought not be glaring social inequalities, and society should not be a ‘house divided’ (again, a phrase he borrows from Lincoln) between a privileged class and a burdened class.

The second condition is that there ought to be robust opposition. By this he means not only a periodic veto to power once in five years (via a general election), but a continuous challenge in the legislature to any tendencies in the ruling power towards dynastic and hereditary authority, and autocratic authority. Here he seems to be asserting his faith in the Parliamentary system together with regular elections. The third condition is equality before the law, and an autonomous and impartial civil service that carries on the work of administration regardless of which party is in power at a given time.


After these first three conditions, Ambedkar becomes more abstract in his desiderata. Thus, fourth, he calls for ‘the observance of constitutional morality.’ If the skeleton of the Constitution is its legal provisions, then its flesh, he says, is constitutional morality. Pratap Bhanu Mehta has traced Ambedkar’s use of this phrase to George Grote.4 The fifth condition is that the majority should not exercise tyranny over minorities, and minorities should feel secure. The sixth condition is ‘the functioning of a moral order in society’ – once more, a state of affairs whose details are left to the audience’s imagination. And the last and final condition is the existence of a ‘public conscience’.

Ambedkar exhorts his listeners to not sit back and feel smug at the achievement of independence and self-rule by India, or even at the writing of the Indian Constitution. He gives a number of examples of failed democracies and urges the people to remember that ‘democracy is not a plant that grows everywhere.’ The seeds have been planted in India, but for them to flourish, all seven of these conditions, some in the realm of the practice of politics and others in the realm of norms and values, have to be in place. Ambedkar wants to remove the ‘stones and boulders’ that obstruct the safety and survival of India’s fledgling democracy.

Would Ambedkar have been happy with India’s current predicament of plurality without pluralism? To my mind, the answer is ‘no’. Ambedkar spent his time at Columbia University (1913-1916), studying, among other things, two subjects very carefully. One was the history and structure of the caste system in India; the other was pragmatist philosophy, American liberalism and democratic theory as formulated by John Dewey. Both sets of themes became permanent fixtures on Ambedkar’s intellectual agenda, so that he was reading, writing, reflecting and debating on these issues throughout the nineteen twenties, thirties, forties and fifties, up until the very end of his life. After his initial training at Columbia, Ambedkar was both buying books and writing books on caste and on democracy for the rest of his life. He followed Dewey – who died only in 1952, the same year that Ambedkar was awarded an honorary LLD (doctorate of law) at Columbia – right to the culmination of the American philosopher’s very prolific career.


Between August and October 1954, we find Ambedkar writing letters to a young friend, one V.B. Kadam, a graduate student at the London School of Economics, requesting him to locate and send back to Delhi Dewey’s writings on democracy. Ambedkar seems a bit confused about the exact title of the work he wants sent to him: he refers to it, variously, as Democracy and Dewey’s ‘essay’ on democracy. Kadam evidently copies out and mails to Ambedkar one work of Dewey’s that he finds in the British Museum, but this turns out not to be what Ambedkar had in mind. He describes the relevant piece to Kadam as ‘a very small pamphlet’ and later as ‘a reply to Sir Henry Maine’s book called Popular Government which was an attack on Democracy. Dewey’s is a reply to it. You will see reference to Maine on the opening page of the Essay.’

Eventually Kadam sends Ambedkar a work with the title, Ethics of Democracy. This seems to satisfy Ambedkar, who thanks Kadam for it. ‘I am writing a book on Democracy in India. For this I need very much Dewey’s book’, Ambedkar explains. To my knowledge Ambedkar never wrote this book he intended to model on Dewey’s example. Dewey’s The Ethics of Democracy (1888) is a rather early paper by the American philosopher, and one it seems reasonable to presume that Ambedkar was exposed to in the Columbia classroom environment. It’s quite remarkable that he remembers it more than forty years later, and he says as much himself to Kadam: ‘I am glad my memory is as good as it is!’


We may focus on this or that of Ambedkar’s many works, and find in it his attempt to grapple with a particular problem – say of imperial finance, federalism, minority rights, the sudra as a social category, the history of untouchability, religious nationalism, partition, comparative constitutionalism, Buddhism, and so on. But the fundamental underlying tension in his thought was between the empirical reality of caste in Indian society, and the normative appeal of democracy as the basis for a new kind of polity that he, along with at least some of his peers and adversaries in the Congress, wanted to actualize after decolonization. The fact that he wanted to write a book on Indian democracy, or on democracy in India, in the very last phase of his life (at the time when he was in fact writing The Buddha and His Dhamma), and that he had in mind comparisons to and derivations from figures like Maine and Dewey, whose ideas he had been exposed to in his formative years as a student in America and England, is testimony to the centrality of democracy – together with caste – in Ambedkar’s political thought.


The tension between democracy and caste – which mirrors the deep contradiction running right through the DNA of modern India – was, for Ambedkar, exacerbated by his own role as the leader, organizer and spokesperson for the depressed classes. The burden of being a sectional representative, that too of a downtrodden group, is that your sense of moral responsibility towards the weak community you stand for never allows you to forget its difficult predicament. So Ambedkar the politician had to stay in the business of Dalit politics, as much for the sake of the Dalits who needed someone of his stature to guide them, as for the sake of his own conscience that never permitted him to leave behind the very place he had come from and in many ways, in his personal achievements, had transcended. But as a political thinker, Ambedkar’s inclination was towards a much broader, a more far-reaching conception of democracy, in which he would have wanted to look at India as a whole.

A proper engagement of this order presupposed two factors: an egalitarian society (not a caste society), and a place in the pan-Indian political landscape for an unusual individual like Ambedkar (who ought to have been recognized as a national statesman and not just a Dalit leader, but was never acknowledged as such in his lifetime). Since neither of these two enabling conditions prevailed, he could not spell out a full theory of democracy for India, say one to match and perhaps complement that of his American mentor and role-model, Dewey. Without this Ambedkarite elaboration of the promises and problems of Indian democracy – and I say ‘Ambedkarite’ because none of the other nationalist-era leaders, including Gandhi, could quite match Ambedkar’s intellectual capacity – we do not have, even now, the possibility of realizing an Indian pluralism.


The disappointment that I am imagining Ambedkar would have felt, were he to visit India today, had in fact set in already when he was still alive and able to foresee the shape of things to come. It was the fearful anticipation of the failure of a robust democratic pluralism that led him to turn, at the last moment, to Navayana Buddhism. This is not to say that the conversion did not have powerful positive and empowering effects on Dalits, but Ambedkar’s decision to convert was undeniably born out of a certain post-constitutional disillusionment with Indian politics.

Ambedkar’s famous speech to the Constituent Assembly in November 1949 warned his compatriots against three kinds of political habits: one, the culture of protest politics and civil disobedience; two, the worship of political leaders and the neglect of democratic institutions; and three, the practice of democracy in politics without the observance of equality in social life. These were the elements, according to him, of a ‘grammar of anarchy’ – a grammar because of which India could never learn to speak the language of equal citizenship. Gandhian methods of satyagraha and ahimsa, the cult of the mahatma and the principle of dynastic succession, and the persistence of the caste system: these would be the undoing of democracy even before it could take root in India. It’s ironic that some 65 years on, every one of Ambedkar’s warnings has gone unheeded and the result can be seen in the deeply flawed democratic order that exists in this country. It could be argued that pluralism, too, has been a casualty of the failure of democracy’s ‘software’ to ‘install’ properly in the Indian political context.


It is probably fair to say that Ambedkar, by his natural inclination, would have been a Deweyan in at least three respects: (i) in interpreting identity as a project rather than an essence; (ii) in wanting democracy to have not just political force but also social meaning; and (iii) in being unequivocally committed to modernity, including its technological aspects. But in each of these inclinations, Ambedkar was thwarted. He could not abandon caste identity, whatever its essentializing effects, lest the humiliation suffered by the depressed classes for centuries be forgotten. The social sphere in India was not amenable to being rendered democratic in the same way that the political sphere was, and this continues to be the case even today. And finally, Ambedkar’s preference for modernity could not remain untouched by some consideration for tradition, as evidenced by his turn to Buddhism (a theme I have discussed at length in my book, Righteous Republic).

According to Arun P. Mukherjee, Ambedkar’s greatest debt to Dewey was the idea of ‘social endosmosis’ between distinct social classes, a concept perhaps less significant in the architecture of Dewey’s thought than it became for Ambedkar once he had borrowed it. For the caste system is built on a principle that does not allow any osmosis – the give and take, circulation or exchange of physical-biological, emotional-aesthetic, or social-psychological energies between castes. Only transactions of an economic-political nature are permitted: a rigid, inhumane conception of associational (or associated) life, anathema to Ambedkar the democratic thinker and egalitarian social theorist. The practice of bahishkar, ‘casting out’, with connotations of complete bodily rejection and moral contempt, ‘rendering outside the limits of what may be physically touched’, is in a sense the exact opposite of osmosis. Democracy and caste, endosmosis and endogamy, pluralism and plurality: the two elements of each pair pull in opposite directions, yielding utterly opposed forms of sociality. Additionally, Mukherjee reminds us that the view of many aspects of the past as ‘dead wood’, too, was originally a Deweyan one.


In her new book on the history of citizenship in India, Niraja Jayal also suggests three contradictions in Ambedkar. She describes how, in 1946-47, he entered the process of the debating and drafting the Indian constitution by arguing for the parity of social and economic rights with civil and political rights, but by late 1949, ended up defending the separation of these two sets of rights into justiciable fundamental rights (civil and political) and non-justiciable directive principles of state policy (social and economic). Since there never was and was never going to be any kind of massive payoff for Ambedkar personally in terms of gaining political power by playing along with the Congress, why did he make this about-turn?

According to Jayal, there was a three fold conflict at work: between Ambedkar the lawyer and Ambedkar the politician; between his socialist convictions and his role as a parliamentary democrat; and between his responsibilities as a leader of the depressed classes and his proclivities as a constitutionalist thinker. Jayal’s diagnosis has merit. Another way to put it might be to say that the tension, now very familiar to us, between caste and democracy, surfaced in the empirical conditions of India’s birth as a republic; and yet another way to understand the dilemma within Ambedkar is to suggest that perhaps the Deweyan theorist was at war with the Dalit leader.


On 25 November 1949, Ambedkar exhorted the Constituent Assembly not to be ‘content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles of liberty, equality and fraternity are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity. They form the union of a trinity in the sense that to divorce them one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy. Liberty cannot be divorced from equality, equality cannot be divorced from liberty. Nor can liberty and equality be divorced from fraternity...

‘We must begin by acknowledging the fact that there is complete absence of two things in Indian society. One of these is equality. On the social plane, we have in India a society based on the principle of graded inequality, in which there are some who have immense wealth as against many who live in abject poverty. On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man, one vote and one vote, one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our 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 or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has to laboriously built up.’


The contradiction that Ambedkar warned his colleagues about repeatedly – between the ‘vote’ and the ‘value’ of every citizen – was both out there writ large in Indian democracy and lodged within his own thinking, divided as he was between political thought and political praxis. The scholar who could research and write books on the historical origins of caste categories like the sudra and the untouchable, also had to resort to symbolic shock tactics, like the burning of the Manusmriti, because persuasion could not be relied upon as an effective instrument of societal transformation.

Social democracy and political democracy needed to be reconciled with one another and jointly pursued. To institute a properly democratic ethos in India would mean not just putting into place the institutions of democracy, but altering the dominant mode of Indian sociality itself. A choice needed to be made between the graded inequality of the caste system and the egalitarian principle of a democratic polity. The new Indian citizen had to be seen not just as one who could cast a vote, but also as the repository of inalienable human value. A truly pluralist society would emerge only after the resolution of these contradictions.



1. Incidentally, I am not alone in referring to the tank and temple entry movements as ‘debilitating’. Rao (2009) writes of the ‘failure of Dalit-led satyagrahas’ (p.165).

2. Ambedkar used the phrase ‘associated life’.

3. B.R. Ambedkar, ‘Conditions Precedent for the Successful Working of Democracy.’ Address to the members of the Poona District Law Library, 22 December 1952.

4. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, ‘What is Constitutional Morality?’ Seminar 615, November 2010.



B.R. Ambedkar Papers, Microfilm Roll No. 1, F. No. 1-3. R2922. Correspondence with Kadam. Microfilm section, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

B.R. Ambedkar, Conditions Precedent for the Successful Working of Democracy. 22 December 1952, Y.M. Panchbhai, Nagpur, (1976).

Christopher A. Bayly, Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Partha Chatterjee, ‘B.R. Ambedkar and the Troubled Times of Citizenship’ in V.R. Mehta and Thomas Pantham (eds.), Political Ideas in Modern India: Thematic Explorations. Vol. X, Part 7 of D.P. Chattopadhyaya (ed.), History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization. Sage, 2006, pp. 73-90.

Niraja Jayal, Citizenship and its Discontents: An Indian History. Harvard University Press, 2013.

Dhananjay Keer, Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission. Popular Prakashan, 2010 [1954].

Keya Maitra, ‘Ambedkar and the Constitution of India: A Deweyan Experiment’, Contemporary Pragmatism 9(2), December 2012, pp. 301-320.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, The Burden of Democracy. Penguin India, 2003.

Arun P. Mukherjee, ‘B. R. Ambedkar, John Dewey, and the Meaning of Democracy’ in New Literary History 40(2), Spring 2009, pp. 345-370.

Anupama Rao, The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India. University of California Press, 2009.

Alan Ryan, The Making of Modern Liberalism. Princeton University Press, 2012.

Seminar, We the People: A Symposium on the Constitution of India After 60 Years, 1950-2010. Seminar 615, November 2010.

Ananya Vajpeyi, Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India. Harvard University Press, 2012.

Ananya Vajpeyi, Politics of Complicity, Poetics of Contempt: A History of the Sudra in Maharashtra, 1650-1950 CE. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Chicago, 2004. UMI Proquest Digital Dissertations, Ann Arbor, MI, 2004, -291 S. UMI Publ. No.: AAT 3136552.

Eleanor Zelliot, ‘Dr. Ambedkar and America’, a talk on the occasion of the Columbia University Ambedkar Centenary, 1991: zelliot1991.html

Constituent Assembly Debates, 25 November 1949:

Narhari Damodar Vaidya vs Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar on 17 March 1937; (1937) 39 BOMLR 1295, 173 Ind Cas 910: