BR Ambedkar’s fears about Indian democracy come true

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A recent Pew Research Center survey of religious identity, nationalism, and tolerance in India presented some interesting and puzzling results. Some are encouraging: an overwhelming majority of Indians, over 80%, believe that respect for all religions is at the heart of their identity as Indians. Most of those interviewed, regardless of their religion, said that they were free to practice their religion, that others were free to practice their religion and that they were not discriminated against.

These results seem to suggest that religious pluralism and tolerance hold up well in India. But the news shows a very different picture. The recent death of Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest and well-respected social activist who was jailed under a draconian anti-terrorism law, has renewed international attention to the undemocratic actions of the current Indian Hindu nationalist government.

A recent Pew Research Center survey of religious identity, nationalism, and tolerance in India presented some interesting and puzzling results. Some are encouraging: an overwhelming majority of Indians, over 80%, believe that respect for all religions is at the heart of their identity as Indians. Most of those interviewed, regardless of their religion, said that they were free to practice their religion, that others were free to practice their religion and that they were not discriminated against.

These results seem to suggest that religious pluralism and tolerance hold up well in India. But the news shows a very different picture. The recent death of Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest and well-respected social activist who was jailed under a draconian anti-terrorism law, has renewed international attention to the undemocratic actions of the current Indian Hindu nationalist government.

The Pew Research Center study noted deep-rooted segregation in India; in neighborhoods, friendships and marriage, the country’s major religious groups tend to lead very separate lives. As others have noted, tolerance for religious diversity does not necessarily lead to harmony between groups.

How do you reconcile these contradictions – religious tolerance coexisting with widespread segregation and an increasingly narrow space for political dissent? The words of BR Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution, provide some answers to the lingering conundrum of Indian democracy.

One of the liveliest minds of the 20th century, Ambedkar was born into a Dalit family (formerly called “untouchable”) and continued his education at Columbia University and the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is still famous for his tireless efforts to challenge the oppressive rigidity of the caste system and for his leadership of the committee that drafted India’s constitution. Less well-known but just as important is his astute understanding of democracy. Ambedkar has written extensively on what it takes for a nation to be a democracy in practice and the obstacles it might encounter along the way. These thoughts and warnings to fellow Indians remain surprisingly relevant to this day.

For many Americans, personal freedom is the most important value in a democracy: A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 84% of Americans think it is very important that “the rights and freedoms of all are respected “. But for Ambedkar, freedom was only one of the three essential and co-equal conditions of democracy, the other two being equality and fraternity.

Ambedkar believed that political democracy made no sense without social democracy. For social democracy to be possible, every citizen must be treated equally in governance and in society. Ambedkar insisted that more than a form of government, social democracy was an “associated way of life”, that is, a brotherhood. Having experienced caste discrimination throughout his life, Ambedkar believed that segregated Indian society, marked by rigid social divisions in all areas of life, made conversation, empathy and negotiations impossible. He made no bones about his words when he warned Indian lawmakers in 1949 that “without brotherhood, equality and freedom will not be deeper than layers of paint.”

Findings from the Pew Research Center show that Ambedkar’s fears are true to this day.

Although Indians accept other religions and, in fact, share many religious practices and beliefs with each other, they also live separate lives. The survey results tell us that 70 percent of Indians describe “most” or “all” of their close friends as sharing their caste; that number rises to 85 percent if we look at religion. In addition, most Indians oppose marriage outside of their caste or religion. This creates what Indian political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta calls segmented tolerance: “Each community has its place as long as each stays in its place. For Ambedkar, this lack of interaction between communities was not just a theoretical problem but a fatal flaw in India’s democratic project.

Ambedkar noted that political leaders have a moral and practical responsibility to treat people equally – that in fact, equal treatment of people is the “only way” to proceed in politics. In the absence of conscious efforts to strengthen freedom, equality and brotherhood among Indians, he warned that India’s bold experiment in democracy would remain fragile: a mere “dressing” on a soil undemocratic.

Today, although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) endorse Ambedkar’s words with their lips, their actions and words demonstrate that their vision for India is marked by great inequality. and a polarization. Their differing opinions seem to have permeated a significant part of society. The Pew Research Center survey found that two-thirds of Hindus now agree with one of the fundamental tenets of Hindu nationalist thought: to be truly Indian, you must also be a Hindu. This feeling is especially strong in the Hindi-speaking populated area of ​​India, which is concentrated in the north and center of the country. In this region, a majority believe that a true Indian should not only be Hindu, but should also speak Hindi. Hindus who express an increased preference for religious segregation also show a greater tendency to support the BJP.

These are worrying results, especially since about 20 percent of Indians are not Hindus. Large swathes of the country do not speak Hindi as their main language, and many Hindus do not subscribe to the doctrinal view of the BJP. In its quest to silence dissent, the BJP and other Hindu nationalist groups have consistently attacked Hindus and non-Hindus who questioned majority party policies, often labeling dissidents as “anti-national” extremists. Such gradations of who is or is not a “real” Indian are contrary to the founding principles of the Indian Republic.

Ambedkar himself viewed the establishment of the Indian republic with both hope and trepidation. In November 1949, just months before the adoption of the Indian constitution, Ambedkar entrusted the Indian people with the responsibility of protecting the nascent democracy. In a speech, he said, “If now things go wrong, we will have no one to blame except ourselves. … Let us resolve not to delay in recognizing the evils which are in our path… nor to be weak in our initiative to eliminate them. It is the only way to serve the country. I don’t know any better.

The Pew Research Center survey showed that India’s much-vaunted pluralistic beliefs have persisted despite its current turn of exclusion and most Indians (65 percent of Hindus and Muslims) view religious violence as a problem. important. Yet the results of the investigation into persistent segregation and mistrust based on caste and religion also confirm Ambedkar’s concerns. The preamble to the Indian Constitution says that the Indian people will guarantee justice, freedom, equality and brotherhood for their fellow citizens. Threatened by a repressive political climate and hypernationalist government, the promise of India’s constitution can only be fulfilled with a resolute and sustained commitment to these fundamental democratic principles.

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