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“To be a democrat is not to decide on a certain form of human association; it is to learn how to live with other men”– Mary P. Folle

Whatever might be the differences of opinion as to the exact measure of self-government to be attained by India – Dominion Status or Independence – it is agreed on all hands that the form of Government to be established must be democratic. Democracy is now recognized to be a sort of ultimate good which it would be impious to challenge or even to criticize. The grant of Adult suffrage recommended in the Nehru Report is a characteristic proof of the faith of the Indian intelligentsia in Democracy, and is a convincing answer to those critics who find in the agitation for Indian self-government a Machiavellian plot by a microscopic minority to consolidate its own power.

poor peopleWhile the genuine faith of the educated Indian in the democratic principle cannot be questioned by the fair-minded critic, it would be pertinent to ask whether the average Indian possesses those qualities, which are necessary for the successful working of democratic institutions. This brings us to the fundamental question ‘what is democracy’? In popular discussion the word ‘democracy’ has obtained a connotation exclusively political and denotes a form of Government in which the ultimate control of the machinery of the State is committed to a numerical majority of the people. But democracy is not merely a form of Government. According to Lord Morley “in its broadest and deepest, most comprehensive and most interesting sense, democracy is the name for a certain general condition of society, having historic origins springing from circumstances and the nature of things, not only involving the political doctrine of popular sovereignty by (but) representing a cognate group of corresponding tendencies over the whole field of moral, social and even spiritual life within the democratic community”.

If Democracy then denotes more the form of a Society than that of political machinery, the foundations of a democratic State are to be laid in the character of its citizens rather than in the clauses of a constitution. It may be possible to create political safeguards against the exploitation of the masses by a class, but the ultimate safeguard for democracy itself must depend upon the extension of its principles and ideals into every region of life.

The modern conception of democracy starts from a recognition of the equal intrinsic worth of every individual soul, but the recognition of this principle would be worse than useless if it is not applied in practice to every walk of life. Our democrats must realize that the mere grant of the franchise to every adult citizen does not by itself establish that condition of equality which is an indispensable concomitant of a democratic society. The Indian Nationalist who upholds the doctrine of political equality does not realize the inconsistency of his position when he deliberately denies social equality to millions of his fellowmen. This accounts for the strange fact that many Indian “Nationalists” who are political extremists are at the same time social reactionaries. The conception of social inequality which is a product of the caste system is the very negation of the Democratic Idea. In this sense, whatever might be the historical justification of the caste system, it is the antithesis of and a direct menace to Democracy in India. An uncompromising fight against the caste system is a necessary corollary to the acceptance of the Democratic idea. It is said, “that the ultimate battleground of the Democratic ideal is in men’s hearts”. What is wanted in India is a real “change of heart” in this behalf. It will not do merely to pay lip service to the ideals of democracy, or even to accept them in a spirit of pious sentimentalism. “To the idealistic temper we must attach the pragmatic habit and translate our doctrines into concrete programmes of emancipation and co-operation”. “Enter Democracy, exit caste” must be the motto of every Indian nationalist.

If it is conceded that caste is inconsistent with democracy, it follows that a social revolution must be brought about in order to make India safe for democracy. Historically the democratic movement in the world began with such a social revolution. The first great turning point in the history of modern democracy began with the Protestant Reformation with its fight against ecclesiastical authority and the domination of the priestly class. The French Revolution affirming the political liberty of the citizen against the power of an aristocracy marks the second phase. The Russian Revolution and the movement for the emancipation of the working classes mark the third period in which the foundations of economic freedom are sought to be laid. It might be said that these three battles of democracy – the social, the political and the economic – are being fought side by side in India. The awakening of the so-called “depressed classes” and the various movements of Social Revolt especially in South India are the visible manifestations of the attack against the citadel of caste in which the most dangerous enemy of democracy is entrenched. With the successful storming of that citadel, success in the other two theatres of war will be assured.

The affirmation of the doctrine of equal worth of every individual soul does not by any means imply that every individual is endowed with equal capacity. It is only meant to emphasise that the fact of unequal capacity cannot and should not be a ground for denying fair and equal opportunity for every individual. While the justice of this plea is easily recognized, it is not by any means easy to translate it into practice. Very often the fair field given to every man has in practice resulted in creating an open field for the strong man with the result that the multitude is exploited and new forms of privilege are created. This danger to democracy is specially marked in our country where an iniquitous social system has relegated whole classes of the community in age-long subjection – and in some cases – degradation. The practical applicability of the doctrine of “equal worth” in such cases is not an easy matter. It is this real and practical difficulty that has resulted in the claims put forward by various classes of people in India for specific measures of protection and special methods of treatment. It is not merely unwise but undemocratic to condemn such claims as being anti-national. Those who are against such special claims base their argument upon the ideals of Nationality borrowed from the West, but conveniently forget the fundamental differences that exist in the structure of society in India. To make matters worse, these very pseudo-Nationalists are very often the obstacles to any measure of social legislation or reform intended to remedy our social evils. It is no good denying admission to certain classes in public educational institutions and at the same time maintain that the Competitive Examination is open to every citizen irrespective of class or creed.

Viewed calmly without prejudice it would appear that the special claims of certain classes are nothing more than a demand for such measures as will neutralize the position of inequality in which they are placed. Such a demand is not merely just and reasonable but is eminently consistent with the implications of Democracy. The word Efficiency is always trotted out in discussions on such occasions. Speaking about the danger to socialism arising out of the doctrine of Efficiency, Professor Hobhouse remarks, “Be that as it may, as the expert comes to the front and Efficiency becomes the watch word of administration, all that was human in socialism vanishes out of it … all the sources of inspiration under which socialist leaders have faced poverty and prison, are gone like a dream and instead of them we have a conception of society as a perfect piece of machinery, pulled by wires radiating from a single centre, and all men are either experts or puppets. Humanity, Liberty, Justice are expunged from the banner and the single word Efficiency replaces them.” The implication of these remarks of Professor Hobhouse is that an over emphasis of the doctrine of Efficiency may endanger the very foundation of democracy. The true Democrat must realize that Efficiency and capacity are measures not of worth but of obligation; and that the Law of Life is mutual service.

If Democracy is looked upon merely as a political form or an economic scheme, it is bound to decline and die. If Democracy is to survive and triumph over the iniquitous Social System of India based upon caste, its essential spirit must capture our consciences and wills and must compel that personal practice in our everyday life without which democracy cannot live.

- R. K. Shanmukham M.L.A. (Revolt, 12 December 1928)

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