Dr Ambedkar argued that in a democracy, a popular government should benefit everyone equally. As he noted,

A Government for the people, but not by the people, is sure to educate some into masters and others into subjects; because it is by the reflex effects of association that one can feel and measure the growth of personality. The growth of personality is the highest aim of society. Social arrangement must secure free initiative and opportunity for every individual to assume any role he is capable of assuming provided it is socially desirable. A new rule is a renewal and growth of personality. But when an association and a Government is after all an association is such that in it every role cannot be assumed by all, it tends to develop the personality of the few at the cost of the many a result scrupulously to be avoided in the interest of Democracy. To be specific, it is not enough to be electors only. It is necessary to be lawmakers; otherwise who can be lawmakers will be masters of those who can only be electors.

Dr Ambedkar’s conception of democracy and government was based on the welfare of the people.

In order to make the government truly representative, Dr Ambedkar questioned the conditions and standards existing for someone to be a part of the government and administration or even a participating voter. As stated previously, the conditions of education and property, for having franchise rights, led to the exclusion of several marginalized communities from the electoral process. Dr Ambedkar submitted that if the conditions of franchise do not allow members of a community to join the government or be eligible to become a part of the government, then it is against the concept of popular government. He noted, “Any scheme of franchise and constituency that fails to bring this about fails to create a popular Government.”

Dr Ambedkar then questioned the British argument that “India is unfit for representative Government because of the division of her population into castes and creeds.” Even though Dr Ambedkar was speaking on behalf of the Untouchables, he ensured that his stand was not used by the British to deny the demand for democracy in India. DrAmbedkar argued that India is fit for popular government in the same way as any European country or the United States of America, where democracy exists despite social divisions in their respective societies. Rejecting the British invocation of caste as grounds to deny the demand for popular government, Dr Ambedkar pointed out that the real issue to be addressed is that of untouchability, which creates isolation among different communities in India.

The prevalence of caste relations posed a serious problem for the formation of a truly participatory government. Dr Ambedkar’s biographer, Dhananjay Keer, believed that during the time of the Southborough Committee, Dr Ambedkar foresaw the importance of home rule for all caste communities. However, he also knew that self-determination would be meaningful only when there were no disparities between different social groupings. Writing in newspapers, Dr Ambedkar noted that the responsibility for dismantling caste oppression was upon dominant castes too. Therefore, Dr Ambedkar advocated that because they possessed a privileged position in society, powerful castes had to advance the position of the oppressed castes through their education.

By creating distinctions between the pure and Untouchable castes, the existence of untouchability also acted as a significant obstacle to the free interaction of social groups. Dr Ambedkar also highlighted how social divisions and practices such as untouchability ‘operate to the prejudice of the political life of some communities’. Consequently, the oppressor castes, who had access to education and property, gained extra political rights in British India. Dr Ambedkar pointed out how Brahmins, despite being fewer in numbers, were overrepresented as voters in proportion to their population. He therefore demanded a relaxation in the conditions of eligibility to become a voter, so that the proportion of non-Brahmin voters could increase. This would equalize the undue position that one community held. As he noted,

It is in the interest of all that the Brahmin should not play such a preponderant part in politics as he has been doing hitherto. He has exerted a pernicious influence on the social life of the country and it is in the interest of all that his pernicious influence should be kept at a minimum in politics. As he is the most exclusive, he is the most anti-social.

Dr Ambedkar further demanded the lowering of eligibility standards of franchise for the Untouchables, since otherwise there were no more than ten individuals from the community in Bombay state who could get franchise rights. He proposed,

To this I should like to add that we should differentiate the qualifications for a vote not merely between provinces or parts thereof but between communities of the same province. Without this differentiation some communities with a small but wealthy or educated population will secure more votes than a large community consisting of poor and uneducated members. Uniformity in franchise should be dispensed with.

Dr Ambedkar submitted that the political rights of the Untouchables were most important not just because their political demands were not being considered but because their very existence was at stake. Since caste oppression denied the oppressed their basic humanity, basic civil rights were a question of the survival of the community. He noted,

The untouchables are usually regarded as objects of pity but they are ignored in any political scheme on the score that they have no interests to protect. And yet their interests are the greatest. Not that they have large property to protect from confiscation. But they have their very persona confiscated. The socio-religious disabilities have dehumanised the untouchables and their interests at stake are therefore the interests of humanity. The interests of property are nothing before such primary interests.

Dr Ambedkar highlighted how the Untouchables were treated as slaves in Indian society, and were denied even the basic rights of citizenship. They were denied the dignity that everyone deserved. The discrimination forced on them was such that they lost their ability to resist. He summarized their situation in the following words:

If one agrees with the definition of slave as given by Plato, who defines him as one who accepts from another the purposes which control his conduct, the untouchables are really slaves. The untouchables are so socialized as never to complain of their low estate. Still less do they ever dream of trying to improve their lot, by forcing the other classes to treat them with that common respect which one man owes to another. The idea that they have been born to their lot is so ingrained in their mind that it never occurs to them to think that their fate is anything but irrevocable.

Dr Ambedkar also submitted that untouchability denied basic civil rights to the Untouchables. He gave an example from the Konkan area:

Not only has untouchability arrested the growth of their personality but also it comes in the way of their material well-being . . . For instance, in Konkan, the untouchables are prohibited from using the public road. If some high caste man happens to cross him, he has to be out of the way and stand at such a distance that his shadow will not fall on the high caste man.

Such denial of civil rights violates the idea of citizenship. For Dr Ambedkar, the conception of civil rights was interlinked with the idea of citizenship. In that sense, he noted, “The untouchable is not even a citizen.”

He explained that citizenship cannot be understood in abstraction, but needs to be conceptualised in terms of universal rights. He submitted,

Citizenship is a bundle of rights such as (1) personal liberty, (2) personal security, (3) rights to hold private property, (4) equality before law, (5) liberty of conscience, (6) freedom of opinion and speech, (7) right of assembly, (8) right of representation in a country’s Government and (9) right to hold office under the State . . . The right of representation and the right to hold office under the State are the two most important rights that make up citizenship.

The citizenship framework proposed by Dr Ambedkar was broader, as it allowed everyone not just civil and political rights but also the right to be a part of the government. This was in line with his imagination of a popular government which meant “government by the people”. This broader idea of citizenship opened the gates for the marginalized castes and communities to argue for their inclusion in a government system. Dr Ambedkar argued that the interests of the Untouchables cannot be voiced by Brahmins, Muslims or the Marathas, but by the Untouchables themselves. Therefore, he submitted, “We must find the untouchables to represent their grievances which are their interests and, secondly, we must find them in such numbers as will constitute a force sufficient to claim redress.”

The inclusion of the Untouchables could not have happened by merely extending franchise to them as it would have been difficult for an Untouchable to get elected to a seat/constituency comprising oppressor communities, who would not vote for them. He demanded special provisions for ensuring their adequate representation, i.e., a provision to ensure that a specific minimum number of candidates from the Untouchable community would enter the legislature.

Excerpted with permission from The Foresighted Ambedkar: Ideas That Shaped Indian Constitutional Discourse, Anurag Bhaskar, Penguin India.