ON DEMOCRACY AND SOCIAL JUSTICE

Dr Udayon Misra

The strength of a democratic society lies not just in its ability to tolerate dissent and divergent views but also in accommodating these into the body fabric of the nation. The sanctity of individual space and the right to dissent have emerged after centuries of struggle against authoritarian forces, both religious and feudal. The long struggle of science to free itself from the clutches of blind faith/ superstition and the stranglehold of that which went by the name of tradition has run concurrently with the effort to find space for the questioning spirit and the scientific temper based on rationality and experimentation. As Europe emerged from the days of the dark Inquisition into the Renaissance of thought and feeling, ultimately the greatest beneficiary would be the individual whose right to differ from the canon was eventually endorsed, thereby opening up new vistas for the entire human race. In India too which has had its own long history of individual dissent and discussion as marked out in the different schools of Indian philosophy, the liberal ideas of the West gave a new impetus. It was the increasing acceptance of the sanctity of individual space and the democratic basis of community action that gave a distinct identity to our freedom struggle,-- the ideas and values of which continue to form the basis of our democracy. Whatever the flaws in our democratic system, it has survived for well over seventy years when several of our neighbours who had gained freedom at the same time as we, have skidded into authoritarian and dictatorial paths. But, that in itself need not put our nation on a superior moral ground precisely because the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution have not been made available to all our citizens with successive governments having failed to ensure distributive justice to the poor and the unprivileged while the gap between the haves and have-nots has been increasing at a speed which should be a concern for all those who wish well for our republic.  

It is a matter of concern that over the years a particular school of thought has emerged which tries to push aside the right to free speech and dissent in the name of development which is supposed to reduce the discrepancy between the rich and the poor. To this has been added the bogey of national security which is supposed to receive priority above all the other rights of the citizen. Both these presumptions are untrue. While in no democratic system pluralism of thought and belief and the right to express one’s views can ever be sacrificed at the altar of “development”, similarly the surreptitious attempt to sideline citizens’ rights in the name of national security is, to say the least, a dangerous proposition. The proponents of militant nationalism need to be reminded that the major threat to our democratic polity does not lie so much from external aggression (which the nation has successfully repulsed on several occasions) but springs from within our very social system where inequality and repressive violence are so deeply embedded. It is disturbing to note that intolerance seems to have gained unseemly ground in recent years and authoritarian tendencies have been on the rise in the name of defending religion and community beliefs and traditions. The newspapers and social media are filled everyday with instances of caste-based violence from different parts of the country in which those at the receiving end have invariably been the socially and economically backward classes. There is much talk of government measures aimed at cleanliness and conservancy which are indeed welcome. Yet the fact remains that after all these years of independence, a scourge like manual scavenging still poses a major challenge in several parts of the country. It is significant that the failure in finally uprooting this odious system lies in the vicious grip of the caste-system in many regions of the country, especially in predominantly rural areas. Instead of seriously engaging itself in making distributive social justice available to the large masses of people, the State today seems to be more involved in charting out an agenda of cultural nationalism in the country. This runs counter to the very pluralistic idea of India as enshrined in the Constitution. For instance, during the Constituent Assembly Debates which finally led to the framing of the Constitution, one witnessed a wide range of opinions which represented a large spectrum of social and political beliefs. But, after all the debates, discussions and disagreements plus the reports of the different drafting committees, it was generally agreed upon  that the country would go in for an inclusive socio-political  order where pluralism of thought and belief and autonomy of life-patterns would be seen as some of the basic attributes. That the framers of the Constitution, who were working under the shadow of the Partition and it trauma, rejected the very idea of a theocratic State and opted for a secular, democratic and inclusive republic is indeed commendable.  It is this pluralism of thought and belief that has marked Indian civilisation over the centuries, which seems to be under threat today from those who are trying to impose a uni-cultural model on the nation. Therefore, it needs no assertion to state that the democratic experiment in India is bound to be stunted if the concerns of the minorities and the marginalised sections of the population are not addressed.

Talking of distributive justice for the impoverished millions of the country, one is reminded of B. R. Ambedkar’s reply in the Constituent Assembly to the resolution moved by Jawaharlalal Nehru on the course and content of the Indian Constitution. Moving the resolution, Nehru justified the absence of the word, “democracy” or “democratic” prefixing “republic” because he felt that democracy would be an inevitable part of the republic.  This is what he said: “The House will notice that in this Resolution although we have not used the word ‘democratic’ because we thought it is obvious that the word ‘republic’ contains the word ‘democratic’ and we did not want to use unnecessary words and redundant words, but we have done something much more than using the word. We have given the content of democracy in this Resolution and not only the content of democracy but the content, if I may say so, of economic democracy in this Resolution. Others might take objection to this Resolution on the ground that we have not said that it should be a Socialist State. Well, I stand for Socialism and I hope, India will stand for Socialism and that India will go towards the constitution of a Socialist State and I do believe that the whole world will have to go that way. What form of Socialism again is another matter for your consideration. But the main thing is that in such a Resolution, if in accordance with my own desire, I had put in, that we want a Socialist state, we would have put in something which may be agreeable to many and may not be agreeable to some and we wanted this Resolution not to be controversial in regard to such matters.”[1] [Read More]




[1] Sumit Sarkar(ed) Towards Freedom, Documents on the Movement for Independent India  1946 Part I ,  ICHR-OUP,  New Delhi, 2007: pp. 203-204.

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