Dr. Ambedkar, Neo-liberal Market-Economy and Social Democracy in India (Part I)

Ronki Ram

[This paper was originally published in Human Rights Global Focus, Vol. 5, Nos. 3&4, July-December 2010, pp 12-38 (late issue)]


Social democracy, as a philosophy, occupies a pivotal role in determining the social life of millions of oppressed and downtrodden communities all over the world. In the case of India, it occupies the central theme in the philosophy of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, where he identified caste and social exclusion as the main blocks to the real attainment of the social democracy. This paper looks at the ways in which neo-liberal market-economy impacts social democracy as conceived by Dr. Ambedkar and examines its implications for the millions of ex-untouchables. It argues that the institution of social democracy, which flourished in India during the era of mixed economy and state welfares, seems to be fast approaching its demise under the ongoing process of neo-liberalisation. The paper further argues that the fast expanding domain of corporate sector and free flow of global capital, in conjunction with the gradual withdrawal of the welfare state, will not only widen inequalities, but also stifle the growth of social democracy in India.


Social democracy occupies centre stage in the philosophy of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the chief architect of the constitution of Independent India and the messiah of millions of downtrodden, reverently called Baba Sahib. The dominant and oppressive social structures like caste and the resultant social exclusion are what he considered as the main stumbling blocks on the way to social democracy in India. For democracy to survive in a country like India, it must be rooted in social democracy. To help emerge genuine and true democracy in India, Dr. Ambedkar gives a clarion call for the ‘annihilation of caste’ through constitutional and democratic way. His emphasis on the total transformation of ‘public sphere’ in colonial and Independent India distinguishes him from his contemporaries who were more concerned with the political freedom of the country from the British rule and its consolidation afterwards. As far as Indian freedom struggle is concerned, the contributions of Dr. Ambedkar were second to none. Furthermore, he reiterated that the struggle for political freedom should be thoroughly embedded in the social democracy, which in turn is primarily based on social emancipation and empowerment of ex-untouchables while making their participation in the local structures of power active and significant. Thus, for Dr. Ambedkar the struggle for political freedom would not cease to exist with the historic mid-night celebrations at the Red Fort, it will continue rather uninterrupted until independent India achieves equality and fraternity, the two equally important components of the trinity mantra (liberty, equality and fraternity) to liberate the people from the thraldom of ignorance, slavery and poverty. It is in this context, that the social democratic vision of Dr. Ambedkar becomes central to his post independent political discourse and praxis in the country. To strengthen liberty with equality and fraternity at its base, and to imbibe the true spirit of democracy in the country, Dr. Ambedkar devoted his entire life to the cumbersome task of annihilating caste from the Indian society.

His vision of social democracy assumes added importance in the wake of neoliberal reforms in India, particularly since 1991.The neo-liberal market-economy with singular focus on economic growth and profit, suffocates the delicate nurturing milieu of social democracy in India. Given its exclusive agenda of economic growth and profit, and insensitivities towards the rabid discriminatory social structures, will it be feasible for economic liberalization to plough through the arid land of caste hierarchies and rampant social exclusion – the main enemies of social democracy? Or would the neo-liberal freemarket economy further deepen inequalities, caste hierarchies and social exclusion by tightening caste-rope around the neck of the incipient institutions of social democracy? Would it not delay, if not preclude, the often talked about trickle-down impact of the economic liberalization on the lives of the multitudes of the Indian poor with majority of them historically relegated to the periphery?

This paper looks at the ways in which neo-liberal market-economy impacts social democracy as conceived by Dr. Ambedkar and examines its implications for the millions of ex-untouchables. It argues that the institution of social democracy, which flourished in India during the era of mixed economy and state welfares, seems to be fast approaching its demise under the ongoing process of neoliberalisation. The paper further argues that the fast expanding domain of corporate sector and free flow of global capital, in conjunction with the gradual withdrawal of the welfare state, will not only widen inequalities, but also stifle the growth of social democracy, which Dr. Ambedkar thought to be the most pragmatic and viable way of putting an end to the oppressive social structures in India.

The paper is divided into three parts. The first, deals with the phenomenon of social democracy as articulated by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and the ways it helps downtrodden to improve their living conditions. How the institution of free market economy scuttles the essence of incipient institution of social democracy in India and the challenges it throws to the socially excluded sections of the society are also looked into. In the second, complex but intricate relationships between caste, poverty and neo-liberal market economy are discussed. This part is based on a premise that neo-liberal marketeconomy not only deepens poverty but also strengthen the asymmetrical structures of caste, which in turn entrench the already existing social exclusion in the society. The third part draws heavily on the implications of the neo-liberal economic reforms for the emancipatory project of social democracy in India and the birth of new contradictions that it gave rise to the disadvantage of Dalits[1].


 Ambedkar and the Dilemma of Social Democracy

Social democracy occupies centre stage in the philosophy of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. It constitutes the core of his struggle against the historic social malady of graded inequality in India. This is what distinguished Dr. Ambedkar from the rest of the mainstream Indian freedom thinkers and fighters who were struggling primarily for the liberation of the country (political freedom) from the yoke of British Empire. Dr. Ambedkar expanded the meaning of political freedom by incorporating in its fold the less talked about issue of freedom from internal colonialism – caste based social exclusion. He assigned special importance to the principles of social democracy by championing the cause of the socially excluded sections of the Indian society. He wanted to strengthen the emerging sphere of political democracy in India by substantiating it with the institutionalisation of the less talked about phenomenon of social democracy. Dr. Ambedkar defines social democracy as:

a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles … are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity. They form a union of trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy (Three Historical Addresses 1999:53).

Frozen in the centuries old stratified structure of the Hindu social order, the principles of equality and fraternity are yet to find a clear expression and a significant space in the political democracy of independent India. Social life in India is still governed by the principle of birth-based graded inequality that tends to elevate some (upper castes) and degrades many (lower castes). Even after more than sixty four years of India’s independence and wide spread anti-untouchability laws, the so-called outcastes continue to be subjected to repulsion and all sorts of humiliations. They have continuously been deprived of education, human rights, social status, and equal opportunities in the field of art, culture, science and technology[2].

It is repulsion rather than fraternity that underlined the social structure of the Indian society. Repulsion promotes social exclusion. Repulsion is one of the three main agencies (the other two are hierarchy and hereditary occupation) of caste that determine the exclusionary boundaries of Indian social structures (Bougle 1971). In the views of Dr. Ambedkar:

In fact, it makes isolation of one caste from another a virtue. There is isolation in the class system. But it does not make isolation virtue nor does it prohibit social intercourse. The class system, it is true produces groups, but they are not akin to caste groups. The groups in the class system are only non-social while the castes in the caste systems are in their relations definitely and positively anti-social <http://www.ambedkar.org/Babasaheb/Commandments_of_Baba_Saheb.htm>

The caste based principle of repulsion, thus, generated mutual antagonism within the society that ultimately squeezed the required space for the deepening of social democracy in the country. The roots of democracy are to be searched in the fabric of social relationship/associated living (Chand 2005). Since caste thrives on mutual repulsion and complete rejection of fraternity, it goes against the norms of associated living that affects the machinery of the state by making public opinion impossible (Mungekar 2006:1). It introduces separation in the society, and generates jealousy and antipathy among the socially segregated inmates of the society. On the completion of the Draft Constitution (25 November 1949), Dr. Ambedkar sounded a grave warning in his famous address in the Constituent assembly:

On the 26th 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 or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so labouriously built up (Three Historical Addresses 1999:53-54).

It seems that the Indian state has accorded some heed to the prophetic warning of Dr. Ambedkar. Independent India opted for a mixed economy model of development and introduced the system of reservation for the downtrodden in government jobs, education institutions and legislature. Legal provisions for reducing the enormous gap between the rich/upper and the poor/lower castes have been incorporated in the law book of the land. The preamble of the constitution clearly spells out the objectives of securing “to all its citizens JUSTICE, social, economic and political” as well as “EQUALITY of status and of opportunity”.

The social Democratic vision as nurtured during the freedom struggle as well as drafting of the constitution under the stewardship of Dr. Ambedkar got further reflected in the Resolution of the Government of India for the creation of the Planning Commission[3] in March 1950. The Resolution clearly defined the scope of the work of the Planning Commission in the following terms:

The Constitution of India has guaranteed certain Fundamental Rights to the citizens of India and enunciated certain Directive Principles of State Policy, in particular, that the State shall strive to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice, social, economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of the national life, and shall direct its policy towards securing, among other things –

(a) that the citizens, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means of livelihood;

(b) that the ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as best to subserve the common good; and

(c) that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment (The First Five Year Plan: 1)

Thus an all inclusive vision of development and an egalitarian social order underlined the basic spirit of the constitution as well as the ambitious Five Year Planning projects of the Planning Commission of India. To translate the ideals of the founding fathers, a number of special provisions are incorporated in the constitution and the Resolution for the creation of the Planning Commission. State affirmative action is the most prominent among them. It aimed at overcoming historic caste-based social exclusion and oppression. Along with reservations in education, employment and legislature, rural development programme, public distribution system, public health programmes, cooperatives, the Right to Education Act, mid-day meals programme, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Food Security Act, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, and the Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana are a few more significant state initiatives taken over the last six decades since independence to help emerge social democracy in India. Yet another important measure towards the formation of social democracy has been a series of attempts, under the Directive Principles of state policy, to democratize and decentralize governance and the devolution of authority from the centre to the grass-roots (panchayati raj institutions). Thus the constitution of India, as aptly argued by Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, is “a unique social charter – the boldest statement ever of social democracy” (Singh 2010:1). Whether these varied measures have been able to facilitate the growth of social democracy in India or not, is a matter of contention (Desai 2010:10). Nevertheless, the incorporation of such measures in the constitution is a vindication enough that the founding fathers of Independent India wanted to deepen the roots of liberal democracy while placing it on firm foundation of social democracy. However, the adoption of the neo-liberal market-economy model by India in 1991 dilutes the social welfare concerns of the Indian state. It is in this context that the institution of social democracy has come under dark clouds of the free market economy model in the country.

Neo-liberal market-economy is primarily based on delicensing, removal of import quotas, cutting down tariff levels, liberalisation of the inflow of foreign capital, capital goods, imported inputs, capital markets, industrial liberalisation, removal of MRTP constraints, opening of yet newer areas hitherto reserved for the public sector, tax concessions, voluntary retirement scheme, hidden closing of non-viable units, widespread use of contracted/casual labour, sub-contacting work to the small scale sector, taming labour etc (McCartney 2009: 212-13; Kohli 2006: 1361 & 1363)[4]. Before Indian economy could actually open its gates to the surging tides of world market-economy, the study of economic liberalisation had already deepened its roots in the domain of social sciences in the country. However, in terms of content and scope, neoliberalism is yet to enter mainstream political sociology with vast body of pertinent literature remains confined to the discipline of economics (cf. Bardhan 2007: 397; Nayyar 2007:361-2). It rarely focuses on the intricate but often neglected relationship between caste and economy as well as contradictions between the emerging structures of neo-liberal market economy and the incipient institutions of social democracy (see also Basu 2010: xvi; Thorat and Newman 2010:7). In other words, economic liberalisation, caste, social democracy and intersections among them constitute the core challenges that India face today.

Among the core challenges that contemporary India face, the issue of economic liberalisation seems to be the latest, while caste certainly remains the oldest. Caste, at the same time, also enjoys the dubious distinction of being the most perennial and complex phenomenon. As an exclusionary social phenomenon, it has eclipsed the Indian (read Hindu) society for ages and continues to affect its economy and polity even today so much so that it proves to be a stumbling block in the way of substantive democratization from within. During the long spell of Muslim rule and the subsequent British Raj, the scourge of caste has expanded beyond imagination (Barrier 1968). In the postcolonial India, it assumed a new potent identity against its traditional hierarchised stance (Still 2009). The constitution-based state affirmative action has further aided the institutionalisation of caste as identity[5].

Social democracy figures somewhere in between these two above mentioned challenges. It, however, remains peripheral to the critical thinking of the builders of modern India. Although a sharp division between the moderates and the extremists within the Indian freedom struggle brought into focus social of the colonial India, the political, however, took precedence over the social in independent India. Ultimately, the form of democracy that India has come to acquire is a parliamentary democracy that in fact was implanted on Indian soil during the British rule. It did not evolve from within under natural conditions. Thus, despite the widespread belief about its ancient roots, it is considered to be of recent origin[6]. But once it was transplanted, efforts were being made for its survival7. It is in this context that social democracy becomes prerequisite for the survival of the parliamentary democracy in India.

The story of the emergence of social democracy in India is different from that of Europe. Unlike Europe and Latin America, Social democracy in India did not emerge as a response to rabid capitalism and economic depression. Instead, it started taking shape in colonial India, as aptly argued by Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, “ to liberate ourselves from centuries of misrule, from the scourge of poverty, ignorance and disease, from tyranny and bigotry, from caste prejudice and communal divisions’’ (Singh 2010:1). Social democracy in India, thus, emerged as a response to deep rooted caste-based social disabilities as against the fiscal crisis of 1929 and the upheaval generated by the World War II in Europe. The central focus of social democracy in Europe was on economic equality (Desai 2010:9). Whereas, in India the main focus of social democracy has been on deepening democracy while empowering the downtrodden to come forward to democratically struggle for their long denied human rights as enshrined in the constitution. In other words, it is the ‘social’ as against the ‘economic’ that provided impetus to the rise of social democracy in India. It is in this regard that the role of state affirmative action becomes noteworthy, which aims at distributive justice that helps downtrodden to make equal contribution towards strengthening the base of liberal democracy. It intends to empower them in such a way that they reap the fruits of hard earned freedom, at par with the privileged twice born. In other words, state affirmative action aims at rescuing the Indian society from the clutches of centuries old institution of caste and the all pervasive social exclusion and discrimination embedded in it (Jacob 2009). It is in this context that the neo-liberal market-economy and the institution of social democracy come face to face in a mutually antagonistic posture with serious implication for the sustainability of the growing sapling of liberal democracy in India.

My key argument here is that social democracy in India is different from its counterpart in Europe. In India, it aims at building an indigenous base for the restoration of an egalitarian social order that in turn facilitate in internalisation of democratic values of equality, freedom and fraternity as incorporated in the constitution. It underscores the need of demolition of discriminatory social structures. Since democracy thrives on numbers in a closely contested sphere of electoral politics, the burden of tradition becomes too difficult to be avoided. Given the typical communal character of the electoral constituencies in India, caste has come to acquire a leading role in the arithmetic of electoral number game; thus blocking the ongoing process of deepening democracy in the country. There is a general impression that instead of blunting the fangs of caste, the institution of liberal democracy has further sharpened them (for communalisation of electoral process see: Juergensmeyer 1988: 22-32). How to overcome caste and similar other socially stagnating forces, is really an uphill task for the policy makers in India? It is in this context that social democracy aims at deepening the roots of liberal democracy in India – established on the pattern of British parliamentary setup – while facilitating ethnically divergent and socially fragmented vast majority of rural poor to become active participant in the political process at the grass-roots. In fact, the inherent contradiction between the indigenous institution of caste and the transplanted institution of democracy are what acted as stumbling blocks in the way of deepening the roots of democracy in India. This contradiction subsequently assumed the form of a tug-of-war between tradition and modernity (Gurumurthy 2009).

My another key argument is that the entry of neo-liberal market-economy in India in 1990s has further compounded the ongoing tug-of-war between tradition and modernity to the disadvantage of the latter by entrenching, albeit indirectly, the oppressive caste structures in the country (discussed in details below). In the tug-of-war between tradition and modernity, the institution of social democracy stands with modernity and openly confronts the forces of neo-liberal market-economy which quite interestingly seem to toe the line of the primordial and ascriptive institution of caste. Free market discriminates against the poor. Majority of the India Poor belong to lower castes. Thus, the free markets discriminate against the Dalits. Taking side with the lower caste victims of the ‘economics of market’, which are mercilessly excluded from the business domain, social democracy compensates them in ensuring a respectable space in the ‘politics of democracy’8. In other words, social democracy aims at overcoming the primordial and ascriptive hurdles in the way of arduous but steady march of liberal democracy in India.

Social democracy is thus aims at building an indigenous base for the restoration of an egalitarian social order and internalisation of democratic values of equality, freedom and fraternity. It aims at imbibing the spirit of constitutionalism among its people. It underscores annihilation of caste and caste-based social exclusion. There is a general impression that given the presence of caste in the social structure in the country and the typical communal character of its electoral constituencies, the former has been able to acquire a leading role in the arithmetic of electoral number game in post-colonial India, thus blocking the way of social democracy.

It is in this context that the induction of neo-liberal economic reforms in India further complicates the existing contradictions between caste and democracy. Neo-liberal economic reforms were adopted to bridle the ever-increasing menace of fiscal crisis and to help India get rid of its chronic poverty. The problem of chronic poverty in India, however, seems to be not merely an economic issue. It has equally been rooted rather more deeply in the asymmetrical social structures of its Brahminical social order, which finds its natural ally in the fast expanding operations of new-liberal market economy in the country. It is against this backdrop that the project of economic liberalisation seems to block the way of nascent institution of social democracy in India.

 Neo-liberal Economy v/s Social Democracy

The neo-liberal market-economy model runs in the opposite direction of the well conceived social democracy model of Dr. Ambedkar. The profit driven paradigm of free market economy accords no importance whatsoever to the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. The only value that it considered worth of honouring is the value of unrestrained and free flow of capital without least interference by the institution of the state. This new paradigm of neo-liberal market economy did not confront at all with the pre-modern institution of caste in India. On the contrary, caste and market nurture close relationship within the paradigm of neo-liberal market-economy. They reinforce each other. Market thrives on capital and profit. Since capital has traditionally been accumulated by the upper castes who have been able to establish their monopoly over the economy of the country, the free market economy, based as it is on the unrestrained flow of capital, tends to promote the interests of the upper castes rather more confidently. It welcomes them with enormous opportunities and hefty profits. But at the same time, it ignores the ex-untouchables who lack the requisite capital.

In the traditional Hindu social system, the ex-untouchables were kept at distance from the capital through the mechanism of purity-pollution principle. They were not allowed to own land, possess precious metals and keep certain kind of animal. Whereas in the present system of the free market economy, they were forced to be fence sitter precisely because they did not possess the desired amount of capital or capacity, which are passports to enter into business in the market economy. Earlier, the ex-untouchables were denied all sort of access to capital in the name of sacred scriptures. Now, they were kept at a distance because free market economy does not entertain them because they do not show capital. It is in this context that the dialectics of inverse relationship between democracy and untouchability and the complimentarity between market and caste assumes an added importance for the understanding of the impact of globalisation on the life of the Dalits in India in general and the structures of social democracy in the country in particular.


 Caste, Democracy and Market: The Boiling Cauldron

The question of the survival of democracy in India is linked with the rooting of social democracy in the country. Social democracy, in turn, is strongly confronted by the well entrenched institution of caste in India. What further strengthens caste, ironically, is the inherited institution of parliamentary democracy. Caste and democracy are locked in a peculiar relationship. Traditionally, caste assigns rights to some and excludes many from the public domain merely on the basis of birth. As a pristine discriminatory social system, it permeated and continues to permeate almost all fields of the Indian society even today Every thing is organised around it, as Thorat notes, ‘in unequal measures of social, religious, economic relations and rights’(2002). Opposed to the exclusionary nature of the institution of caste, democracy, on the other hand, is based on liberal legacy of “equal dignity and worth of all persons” (Meyer & Hinchman 2007:10). It promotes popular participation and freedom of action and speech. Caste as mentioned earlier shelved all such liberal principles that in turn render democracy into a farce. Though caste and democracy are antithetical to each other, but in certain respects politicisation of caste is flagged as having a positive impact on the deepening of democracy in post-colonial India. Scholars, of late, have started recognizing the fact that once caste structures get politicized they help in deepening democracy which in turn empowers the marginalized sections of the society (Yadav 1999; Palshikar 2004). Delivering a lecture on “Democracy and its Critics” organized by the United Nations Foundation, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen notes, ‘here is a need for caution, however, for those who believe that invocation of caste in any form in democracy is an evil force. As long as caste is invoked in speaking for a lower caste or uniting it, it is good’ (Hindu: 16 December 2005). Such a pragmatic view of caste eclipses the common conjecture predicated on the idea that the onset of the modernity project would inevitably render the institution of caste invalid as a power index in the long run. Politicisation of caste, however, does not go well with the grammar of fast economic growth model of the neo-liberal market economy, which sharply underlines the phenomenon of the rollback of the state as a stumbling block in the way of economic growth and democracy.

What further complicates the process of deepening of democracy in India is the intermeshing of caste and poverty. The problem of poverty in India is not merely an economic issue as discussed above (cf. Sunil Khilnani, The Hindu, September 24, 2009). It is equally well entrenched in the asymmetrical caste structures of the Brahminical social order, which in turn, as Alam (2004: xvii) argues, ‘defy every norm of democratic justice, even of decency’. It is against this backdrop that the status of Dalits who have been pushed to the bottom of the social hierarchy in the Indian society needs to be examined rather critically in the wake of the implementation of neo-liberal economic reforms in the country.

The bulk of Dalit population in India falls in the category of below poverty line. Majority of Dalit population continue to live in:

extreme poverty without land or opportunities for better employment or education. With the exception of a minority who have benefited from India’s policy of quotas in education and government jobs, Dalits are relegated to the most menial of tasks, as manual scavengers, removers of human waste and dead animals, leather workers, street sweepers, and cobblers. Dalit children make up the majority of those sold into bondage to pay off debts to upper caste creditors. Dalit men, women, and children numbering in the tens of millions work as agricultural labourers for a few kilograms of rice or Rs. 15 to Rs. 35 (US $0.38 to $0.88) a day (Human Rights Watch 1999:2).

Another factor that distinguishes poverty stricken Dalits from the poor of the upper caste in the country is their social exclusion. Scheduled Tribes (STs), Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and the other poor of the upper castes are generally clubbed in the category of economically deprived (economic exclusion) sections of the society. Historically, Dalits have been deprived of social, economic and political rights including the right to education and employment. In the rural areas, most of Dalits earn their livelihood as landless agricultural labourers and in towns as labourers and menial workers. In both the rural and urban sectors, Dalits live in segregated colonies and slums respectively.

The relationship between caste and poverty seems to be of symbiotic nature. They reinforce each other and often club together in posing a serious challenge to the nascent institution of social democracy in India. The inextricably intertwined phenomena of caste and poverty is so well entrenched that it has failed to recede back even after the adoption of economic reform measures in India in 1991. On the contrary, the latter has further been strengthening the anti-democracy nexus between caste and poverty in the country.

The capital intensive and profit driven model of neo-liberal market-economy has, in fact, not only flared up the dormant caste contradictions in India, but has also brought into light some fresh ones between Dalits and various ‘Backward and Other Backward Classes’ that have mushroomed in the post-Mandal era. Though the neo-liberal market economy has been promised to provide an ample space to the socially excluded sections of the society by opening new and unrestrained opportunities for them in the fast emerging domain of free market economy in India, but the reality is the other way round. The neo-liberal market-economy has failed to ward off the contagious effect of the hoary and exclusionary institution of caste in India. Untouchability and democracy are antithetical. Democracy is totally negated in the scheme of untouchability. Democracy is premised on the liberal principles of freedom, equality and fraternity. On the contrary, untouchability thrives amidst inequality and denial of human rights. It promotes social segregation and denies freedom to the socially excluded sections of the society. It rests on asymmetrical social structures of difference and domination that preclude democracy to emerge in its natural stance. It is at this crucial juncture of vendetta between democracy and untouchability, the institution of free market economy enters into the whirlpool of caste contradictions in the social set up of the country.

In the tug-of-war between democracy and constitutionally rendered illegal institution of untouchability, the forces of the free market economy sided with the latter. They strengthen the hands of the capital rich upper castes by making it almost impossible for the capital starved ex-untouchables to participate in the glamorous domain of finance capital. Since capital lies mostly with the upper castes, it is only they who matter the most in the multiplexes/malls of the new market economy. It is only they to whom the market has been pushing into billionaires (Damodaran 2008). There is hardly anyone from the ex-untouchables communities in India who have joined the elite club of the billionaires. Thus market does not only favour the upper castes, it also accentuates the gulf between the rich and the poor. Since poor and lower castes are co-terminus, market further marginalizes the lower castes by preventing them from entering into business operations.

If untouchability debarred the ex-untouchables from the public sphere, the free market economy discourages them from entering into the domain of business. If the former had squeezed the ‘public’ or the ‘social’ into ‘public’ or the ‘social’ of the privileged few (the savarnas/dvijas [upper castes]) only; the later seems to have mortgaged the entire economic domain of the country to the upper castes only. Market elevated a few upper castes and degraded many socially excluded lower castes. Quite interestingly, untouchability and free market economy join together in favouring the upper castes with immense wealth/privileges as against the lower castes who in spite of working hard have to live a life of abject poverty and severe deprivations. This in turn deprives them (lower castes) substantially of the periodic opportunities to compete for power berth in the electoral bogies of the political democracy in the country. Elections over the years, in fact, have become very costly affairs. They are beyond the reach of the poor and socially excluded sections of the society. Thus social exclusion and poverty deprive the lower castes of the opportunity to compete on equal footings with their rich and upper castes rivals in the limited electoral arena of the political democracy in India.

Thus it is in the above discussed context that untouchability used to preclude deepening of democracy in India by supporting the oppressive social structures of power in the country. It is in this very context that free market economy and social democracy become incompatible. Thus the neo-liberal free market economy model by virtue of its being anti poor and anti lower caste has ultimately led to squeezing the already skimpy space hard earned by the nascent institution of social democracy in India. Since social equality and freedom are inseparable, political democracy without social democracy is farce. In the absence of social democracy, the socially excluded sections of the society would find it difficult to participate effectively in the process of the political democracy. It raises the most obvious and perennial question of freedom: political v/s social and economic.

 Freedom: Social v/s Political

Though political liberation from the British rule was the central theme of the Indian freedom movement, the question of freedom had never been merely a ‘political’ issue in colonial India. It had always been intertwined with the ‘social’ of the country. In other words, the question of freedom from the external/British rule was closely tied with the much larger as well as complex internal question of freedom from the oppressive Hindu caste system in the country. But the mainstream anti-imperial stance of the Indian freedom movement failed to address the later larger question of social exclusion of the vast number of downtrodden/ex-Untouchables of India who were sandwiched between the oppressive systems of internal colonialism of Hinduism on the one hand, and British colonialism, on the other. The ex-Untouchables were, thus, doubly oppressed. They had no hope for any relief whatsoever from the Hindu social order as it was based on the doctrine of permanent inequality in every sphere of life[9]. Their social conditions too remained almost unchanged even during the long spell of the so-called liberal minded British rulers who probably did not like to touch the institution of caste lest it unleash revolt from within the upper caste hegemonized Hindu society (Ambedkar speech at Roundtable). On the contrary, the British rulers rather reinforced caste as it helped them in some ways in maintaining their hold over colonial India[10] (Thekaekara 2005). Though the constitution of independent India has provided ample space to the inherited institution of democracy, it has yet to overcome the subtle legacies of centuries old caste structures in the country.

Since Hindu society is intensely rooted in the pre-modern system of caste-based social hierarchies, it openly clashed with the liberal principles of equality and liberty. It is basically indifferent to the liberal principles of individual worth and justice, which blocked the way for the natural growth of the social democracy in the country. Caste inculcates a sense of complete alienation among those who have been condemned to live separately as ‘outcastes’ away from the mainland habitations of the upper castes. The goal of Political freedom of the people of India can never be accomplished in the real sense of the term until and unless the deprivations and sufferings of the large numbers of the ex-Untouchables are removed by completely annihilating the oppressive caste system of the Hindu society (Ambedkar 1995[1936]). In the words of Dr. Ambedkar, “Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy” (Three Historical Addresses 1999:53). Social democracy, in fact, is the ‘cornerstone’ of the edifice of political democracy in India. Saheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh, one of most prominent of the few forerunners of the institution of social democracy in India, also expressed the similar views, of course much earlier, in his less quoted article published in the June issue of Kirti 1929. He was of the firm opinion that Political freedom gained from the British colonialism could not last long if failed to be accompanied by a massive social and economic reforms measures for the transformation of the rotten undertaken in the internal social set up of the country.

The next section attempts to explore, how free market economy operations under the phenomenon of globalisation have affected the lives of the marginalised sections of the Indian society, which had, hitherto, been looking towards the state for some support to stand on their own feet. Since the very logic of globalisation is based on the notion that welfare state is a hindrance in the way of the global free market economy, it contained no space for the welfare of the socially excluded and marginalized sections of the society. This has further deepened the marginalisation and exclusion of the downtrodden and has severely limited the possibilities of their emancipation in the neo-liberal free market economy system of globalisation. It is against this backdrop that the processes of globalisation and the principles of social democracy come into an open clash.


 Globalisation, Dalits and Social Democracy

Globalisation is based on the principle of unrestrained functioning of the free market economy. In the paradigm of globalisation, state is reduced into a sort of security mechanism to protect its citizens from internal disruption and external threats. State is not supposed to care for the social and economic interests of its citizens. It is argued that the social and material interests of the citizens would be better served if they were left free to flourish in the market ‘prompted by the profit motive to supply essential services’. The Neo-liberal argument goes further by highlighting the point that the interests of the individuals are best served by maximum market freedom and minimum intervention by the state. Thus globalisation robs the state of its welfare functions. On the contrary, the principle of social democracy calls upon state to play a positive role for the protection as well as promotion of the interests of the downtrodden. It expects that state need not be confined solely to law and order system; it is expected to function as a harbinger of social and economic justice as well. It is in this context that the extended contractarian tradition of the welfare state comes into head-on-collision with the forces of neo-liberal market economy in the contemporary domain of globalisation.

Globalisation, thus, poses a serious challenge to the formation of social democracy in India. It is often paraded as a custodian of enormous ‘opportunities’. But such ‘opportunities’ are and whom they benefit is a question that directly concerns the Dalits. In an existential asymmetrical world, where we actually live, such opportunities open many doors to the haves. But the interests of the have-nots, a large majority of whom happen to be low castes, socially excluded, tribal, women, and other vulnerable sections of the society, are often neglected. The socially excluded sections of the society are the worst victims of much-hyped Special Economic Zones [SEZs] and the resultant consequent process of forced displacement (Ahlawat 2008; Palit 2008; Partha 2008; Kumar 2007; Gill 2007; Shankar 2007; Shankar 2008; Sampat 2008; Sharma 2009; and Sarma 2007). This has led to further perpetuation and deepening of the social and economic inequities, which in turn seriously diminish the values and principle of social justice in the society. In other words, it deepens the perennial evil of social exclusion through its much advertised project of new economic reforms, which in effect is less about ‘reforms, and more about ‘exclusion’. It has led to the closure of various industrial units in the public sector that “played havoc with the employment scenario of the populace as a whole and of the Dalits in particular” (Puniyani 2002) This, in turn, has increased unemployment and poverty on the one hand, and widened the hiatus between the rich/upper castes and the poor/lower castes on the other. In the first decade of the new economic reforms in India, the ratio of both unemployment and poverty increased from 28 per cent in 1989 to 48 per cent in 1992.

 Marginalisation of the Marginalised

Since Dalits constitute the bulk of the poor and unemployed, they have suffered the most. Their chances of acquiring jobs in the high-tech industry at home as well as in the multinational corporations have been getting curtailed since the beginning of the process of globalisation in India. The system of primary and elementary education in the rural and urban settings has been subverted almost totally. Since, majority of the rich upper caste send their wards to the private/convent/public schools, government schools have been reduced into dysfunctional centres of learning for the poor Dalits. It is simply out of the reach of the matriculates of such neglected government schools, where hardly any infrastructure and teachers are available, to be able to compete for admission in the prestigious Information Technology (IT) or management schools. Moreover, since the background of a majority of Dalit undergraduates is in Arts and Humanities, it becomes difficult for them to meet the job requirements of the multinational corporations. Even if some of the Dalits aspire to compete in the technology driven new job market, it would be, perhaps, out of their reach to acquire the requisite qualifications at exorbitant rates from various engineering and management institutes. It is precisely due to these reasons that Dalits are rarely to be found in the prestigious management schools all over the country.

Dalits happened to be the beneficiaries of state’s affirmative action before India entered into the realm of neo-liberal free market-economy. The Indian state had brought some improvements in the lives of Dalits by making special provisions to provide them in education, employment, respectable wages, access to land, water, health, housing and other resources. But the welfarist stance of the Indian state gave way to a new system of free market-economy in 1990s. One of the main tasks of this new paradigm is to force the roll back process of the welfare state and to allow the market forces to operate in an unrestrained manner. The pro-market stance of globalisation has led to the widening of the gap between the privileged few and the large mass of the marginalized sections of the society. It further led to marginalisation of the already marginalized people, thus widening the gulf of inequity in the society (Kumar 2007). Dalit labourers, daily wage workers and workers in the informal sector among them suffer the most. In other words, globalisation process severely affects some categories of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes who are deprived of jobs, and face great difficulties in accessing housing, drinking water, food, healthcare, education, and employment. Thus the way globalisation affects the life of a Scheduled Caste worker differs significantly from that of the non-Scheduled Caste one.

In a caste-based hierarchical and graded social setup where lower social status and economic backwardness seems to be coterminous, social rank plays an important role in determining one's economic status. Globalisation further aggravates this vicious interrelationship between social and economic backwardness. The logic of economic globalisation favours the rich, who can invest and multiply capital. The favoured rich are mostly found among the so-called traditional ‘upper castes’ that have monopolised land and other economic resources in the country. It has made them prominent in the newly carved out vast private space of the open market. In other words, capital and caste have joined hands against labour and the principle of state social welfare it has led to an alliance between the forces of the market and the upper castes – much to the disadvantage of the marginalised and the lower castes.

Another way through which the process of globalisation has been affecting the lives of the Dalits rather more severely is the transformation of their traditional hereditary occupations into lucrative profit seeking competitive avenues where they find themselves incapable of competing with the so called upper castes who until very recently used to consider such professions as polluting. In other words, when the occupations of sewage disposal, scavenging and raw hides were performed in the Jajmani (hereditary system of asymmetrical reciprocity and patronage between landlords and occupational experts) set up, bereft of profit incentive, Dalits were forced to take them up. But when these same occupations became profit-generating businesses, Dalits find themselves at odd in their own tested fields. It is in this context that the process of globalisation perpetuates the system of caste and inequality albeit in a new form. Instead of liberating them, it further pins them down. Earlier they were excluded and were condemned as shudras because of their closeness to the sewages, now it excludes them by way of defeating them in the profit oriented open market system of the neo-liberal economy. In fact, this market is open only for those who have the capital to play the profit game on the chessboard of its unrestrained competition. In this new profit driven game of the process of globalisation, Dalits – normally starved of capital – stand disqualified.

Yet another way through which the process of globalisation severely affects the lives of the Dalits is the accentuation of the phenomenon of their exclusion from land. Significant parts of the vast majority of them who live in villages are landless labourers. Only a small number of them are cultivators with marginal holdings. The large-scale landlessness on the part of the Dalits led to their dependence on the upper caste land owning communities, which in turn deepened the caste based inequalities with the additional burden of asymmetrical class structures. The neo-liberal economic policies adopted under the regimes of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation widen already existing caste and class divisions between the Dalits and the dominant castes, and further minimises the chances of the emergence of a sense of solidarity among different communities.

Please read Part II of this paper here.


Ronki Ram

ICCR Chair Professor of Contemporary India Studies,

Leiden University Institute for Area Studies & IIAS,

Leiden University, The Netherlands.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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