Two Visionaries

When we speak of inequality and democracy, B.R. Ambedkar's name is almost automatically invoked, but the iconic poet and creative genius (whose 150th birth anniversary falls today), is rarely thought of...

As the Middle East passes through its season of revolutions, one wonders about the complex, contradictory convulsions through which societies change. In 'democracies' like India and the US, many point out how ‘they' are fighting for what 'we' have’. For sheer arrogance it is a cliché hard to beat. But let's seize the chance and use it to hold up the mirror to ourselves: what is it that 'we' have? My purpose is not to minimise the strengths of existing democracies, such as the one in India. Nor do I think this is only about corruption, staggering as that is. But as the support for Anna Hazare demonstrates, there are serious questions to be raised about the nature of the beast we have come to call 'democracy'.

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How much inequality can a democracy tolerate -- and still remain a democracy? This is not just about the astounding levels of economic inequality. It is also about the more pervasive kind of exclusion that generates those inequalities and allows them to continue. The debate over the Food Security Bill is my favourite case in point. In a nation as hungry, anaemic and undernourished as India, we are told that some 100,000 crores for a universal Right to Food is an expense it ‘cannot afford’. At the same time, concessions worth 3-5 times that amount are doled out routinely to the affluent classes. What kind of democracy can legitimise such a decision?

There are many ways to understand democracy. For this essay, I want to invoke two voices - BR Ambedkar and Rabindranath Tagore. The choice of Ambedkar is hardly surprising: the chief architect of India’s constitution and an indomitable voice against social inequality. But why Tagore, you may ask. The iconic poet and creative genius (whose 150th birth anniversary falls today), is rarely thought of when we speak of inequality and democracy. Why not? As Ramachandra Guha has rightly alleged, Tagore has not only been ‘parochialised’, he has also been unacceptably depoliticised, particularly in the West - and even more sadly, in the popular culture of Bengal (with exceptions of course). As if Rabindranath has been woven into the Bengali existence like the handloom sarees Bengali women wear every day but hardly think about; and even when they stop to admire the color or the weave, they never speak of the weaver, of what may have crossed his mind when he worked at his loom.

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On the question of inequality and democracy, the parallels between Ambedkar and Tagore go very far: both viewed India’s development from the perspective of inequality and saw ‘chauvinistic nationalism’ as a disaster; both wished for the ‘annihilation’ of caste rather than its reform; and both hoped to see resistance of the oppressed. But where the visionaries met, above all, was in their refusal to see India – and her predicament – as a simple binary between ‘colony’/‘nation’, or between tradition/modernity. To both, the primary questions for India were those of inequality and social justice; the primary contradiction between the façade of formal democracy and the reality of structural injustice.

Ambedkar’s views on inequality are well-known, Tagore’s less so. Let's begin with some of Tagore’s writings on the agrarian situation of his times, particularly in Bengal.

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Tagore: A civilization based on inequality

In the villages, millions are toiling to produce food. Wealth on the other hand is being produced by a few in the cities. This deliberate disconnection between the production of food and the production of wealth is engendering the greatest possible divide between people. A civilization that grows within such a divide can not last for long…

Tagore, The Neglected Villages, 1934

Today our villages are half-dead. If we imagine we can just continue to live, then that would be a mistake. For the dying can pull the living only towards death,

Tagore, The Neglected Villages, 1934

The plight of rural India that Tagore describes appears amazingly prophetic when viewed against today’s reality. But how did he arrive at this analysis? Through a rather interesting journey. It begins at a very young age, where he is first exposed to life in rural Bengal as a young zamindar. The poverty and desperation of rural India enters his literary creations almost at once. The poem Dui bigha jami (A half-acre of land, 1895), for example, tells the story of Upen, a dispossessed farmer. Upen refuses to sell his last half acre to the landlord, who wants to acquire it to embellish his garden. The landlord, enraged at the insolence of a measly farmer, frames Upen in a series of false debts and gets him evicted. In many ways this is a story of ‘straightforward’ feudal oppression. But by the time Tagore writes his novel Ghare baire (The Home and the World, 1915), the structures of oppression had become far more complex. Feudal oppression had been entrenched through colonial rule; as envisioned by the colonialists, a prosperous class of absentee landlords loyal to the British rule had emerged. Absentee landlordism became a long nightmare for the tiller, compounded by the rise of the moneylender and the jotedar. Narrow chauvinistic swadeshi (nationalism) had added yet another dimension to this repertoire of oppression.

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In Ghare Baire, Tagore described this almost in a documentary fashion. Take for example the plight of a near-landless farmer Ponchu. He is forced to sell the little land to treat his ailing wife, then has to perform a penance imposed by Brahmins, and finally is lynched at the behest of a local upper caste swadeshi zealot Harish Kundu for petty trading in boycotted foreign goods, which he does out of sheer desperation. Nikhilesh, the zamindar hero of the novel, watches in utter dismay as desperate, pauperized Ponchu is lynched and harassed - and Harish Kundu becomes a celebrated Swadeshi hero. As Nikhilesh says:

One will have to fight till the end this monstrosity of greed and power which has fattened itself through sucking the blood of the dying and burdens this earth with its sublime immovability, while below it lie all those who starve, remain blinded by ignorance, worn down by endless toil. This is the task that has remained postponed century after century…

Ghare Baire/ Home and the World, translation by Sumit Sarkar,
Beyond Nationalist Frames Postmodernism, Hindu Fundamentalism
, p.129)

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Between 1915 (when Home and the World was published) and 1940, Rabindranath wrote extensively on what he saw as the deepening rural predicament. By this time, a more fundamental structural rupture was occurring between the city and the village, between the agrarian economy and the yet-emerging industrial economy. As he observes, ‘the production of food was being ‘artificially separated from the production of wealth’. As a result, the ‘producers of food’ were being completely marginalized, even though they performed the most important productive function. As a social class, they had no economic or political power; even their once abundant cultural wealth was now destroyed by their struggles for survival. His critique at this point is extremely sharp - increasingly focused on the exploitative character of emerging social relations. ‘Exploitation is the main policy of our contemporary civilization’, wrote Rabindranath in a particularly trenchant critique.

Rabindranath did not expect independence to automatically solve these problems. He lamented, in anticipation, about the independent India that was being fashioned by an urbanized, English-educated, prosperous middle class riding on the heady scents of nationalism and ‘progress’. Rabindranath feared an even faster decimation of the rural economy, and complete marginalization of what he called the ‘real India’ from this elite’s glamorous framework of ‘development’. In an essay titled Rayater Katha (About the Rayat, 1926), he writes:

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Our so-called ‘bhadralok’ (gentlemen) think politics is simply a power sharing arrangement between politicians and themselves. That politics takes place through speeches and newspapers articles; its language is the King’s English. And while these caprices and semantics float in the air above, the people of our soil continue to live and die as they have for centuries, toil with their flesh and blood to produce food for every living being, laugh and cry in their vernaculars, bow before the very god who deems them untouchable … Between this common man and the ‘politicians’ there exists an immeasurable distance (Rayater Katha/About the Rayat, 1926; my translation)

This is no simple-minded rejection of Westernization or development. Tagore strove all his life to get beyond such dichotomies as East/West, tradition/modernity, and so on. What is important is the framework of justice and equality that he wanted to put forward, to counter the dominant narrative of nation. Not being a ‘strategist’, Rabindranath saw little that he could actually do to reduce this yawning gap between the elite and the ‘real people’ -- other than educate the elite. Tagore founded two institutions in rural Bengal, with the hope of democratizing the very ethos of higher education. He sent his son and son-in-law to the US to study agrarian science, which he thought should be one of the principal subjects of study in an Indian university. In a letter he wrote:

Remember that the wealth of the zamindar is the wealth of the farmer – in reality it is the starving farmer who is financing your education. Upon your return, you have the full responsibility to repay this debt rather than pursuing your own prosperity (Letter dated 1907, my translation)

I digress. Rabindranath’s philosophy of a democratic, people-centered education is quite another story, a different essay. For now, let us turn to Ambedkar.

Unlike Tagore, Ambedkar had an advantage - he was directly engaged in the actual task of constitution making. Like Tagore, Ambedkar was also deeply sceptical about ideas of nation and democracy. He too, was preoccupied with inequality, which led him to identify clearly the deepest contradictions of democracy in a country like India: that it is a vital tool in the hands of the marginalized, and yet must remain a limited one in the face of entrenched inequalities of power.

Ambedkar: ‘revolution without bloodshed’

My definition of democracy is – a form and a method of Government whereby revolutionary changes in the social life are brought about without bloodshed

--address at Poona District Law Library on December 22, 1952.

Recently, some Anna-sceptics have been quick to invoke Ambedkar’s scorn for civil disobedience in a democracy. But they conveniently forgot the man’s indictment of parliamentary democracy in a deeply unequal society. In 1943, Ambedkar delivered a lecture on parliamentary democracy to the All India Trade Union Workers’ study camp in Delhi. In this scathing critique, he attacks the three pillars of parliamentary democracy, namely, constitutional morality, adult suffrage, and frequent elections:

They have taken a very formal and superficial view …by making constitutional morality, adult suffrage, and frequent elections the be-all and end-all of democracy. Those who propound this view are probably unaware of the fact that they are doing nothing more than and nothing different from expressing the point of view of the governing classes. The governing classes know by experience that such mechanisms have not proved fatal to their power and their position. Indeed, they have helped to give their power and prestige the virtue of legality …

--cited in V. Rodrigues, The Essential Writings of BR Ambedkar, p. 64)

His point throughout the essay is a simple yet incontrovertible one: political equality cannot be sustained on a structure of deep economic and social inequality. Yet, he argued passionately for the fullest expansion of political equality. When the question was raised as to whether franchise should be ‘given to illiterates’, Ambedkar pointed out the deeply undemocratic implications of such a question. As the chief architect of modern India's constitution, he argued, and put forward, ‘constitutional safeguards’ for the ‘depressed classes’.

However, Ambedkar never lost sight of the limitations of law and politics to change underlying social structures, and even less attitudes of the governing classes to the ‘others’. Surely, the unbearable tenacity of caste that we see in India would not surprise him. Caste not only survuves but thrives - and takes on newer forms every day. As the latest survey on poverty tells us SC/STs form half of India’s poor and only 22 percent of the non-poor. Just as Ambedkar had said, caste and class remain intertwined.

But more than the intertwining, the false debate between merit and justice that we see today in most major democracies is perhaps the greatest obstacle to the ‘bloodless revolution’ that Ambedkar had imagined democracy to be. What shows more clearly how parliamentary democracy in deeply unequal societies can be used to legitimize class power – just as Ambedkar had warned?

What ‘we’ have

How would Tagore and Ambedkar have assessed India’s democracy today? What would have given them hope? And what would they have found most distressing?

Surely, the most precious thing about India’s democracy today is that the poor and the marginalized have come to believe, albeit sceptically, in its possibility. There is a clear surge in aspirations amongst ordinary people. Not in the Goldman Sachs sense, i.e., merely to acquire and attain a certain lifestyle. This is the aspiration for representation, for overcoming the marginalization that has come to define their lives, for finding that social space from which they can voice their collective dreams.

Think of Babytai Bais, a Vidarbha widow who appeared in one of P. Sainath’s stories. After her farmer husband committed suicide, Babytai ran for office with no assets except for the meagre compensation amount she received for his death – when other contenders were running campaigns with millions of rupees. Armed with that ‘asset’ and her symbol, the candle, Babytai set out ‘to unite the 7,000 farm widows and 35,000 orphans of Vidarbha whose concerns are common, to lead a life of dignity and honour.’

I saw the same aspiration as I travelled through a dozen different panchayats in Kerala to meet women of Kudumbashree. This is a 3.7 million member network of women from households below the poverty line. In 2010 alone, 11,773 Kudumbashree women contested panchayat elections – and 5,485 of them won. Wherever I went I sensed a cautious, yet confident excitement about a new-found voice and social space.

There are countless other examples. The initial successes of the Right to Food Campaign, the RTI movement etc. are all cases in point.

But on the other side of these aspirations stand the staggering inequality, the colossal corruption and the fundamentally undemocratic nature of policy-making.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates this more than the phenomena of farmer suicides. Even as some 200,000 farmers take their lives (at the rate of one suicide every 30 minutes), we hardly see any substantive shift in the direction of policy. Instead, there are denials, accusations of alcoholism, conspicuous consumption hurled at the victims themselves (not to mention misguided adventures in film-making which justify our collective indifference. Indeed, just as Tagore had observed, while some die, others imagine that they can continue to live (and even laugh and prosper).

This is perhaps the greatest failure of our democracies, in India and elsewhere. The decisions that determine the lives of the millions of ordinary citizens are almost entirely taken by others. The poor have little say in determining the poverty line, the hungry in deciding the distribution of food or the farmer in defining agrarian policy. In a democracy, this constitutes a serious injustice. If we are forced to live by norms we cannot in any way participate in establishing, it violates a basic principle of self-determination. This is a structural deficit of democracy, particularly unacceptable from elites who regularly milk the democracy cow for electoral gains or for glory at the global stage.

Let me end with the words of a rickshaw puller I met in Kolkata a few years ago. I had asked him if he thought India had progressed, if it had indeed become an economic powerhouse. Pointing to the Kolkata horizon of glittering concrete, he said, ‘Of course, can’t you see? But none of this has anything to do with us. It is as if we have been issued tickets to a movie – and have been ordered to watch from our seats’.

Ananya Mukherjee-Reed is Professor of Political Science and Development Studies at York University, Toronto. Her latest book Human Development and Social Power: Perspectives from South Asia is published by Routledge (London and New York, 2008). On the occasion of Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary, she has created a website

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