Anticipating the Threat of Democratic Majoritarianism: Ambedkar on Constitutional Design and Ideology Critique, 1941–1948

Published date01 June 2023
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/23210230231166196
AuthorRahul Govind
Date01 June 2023
Subject MatterOriginal Articles
Anticipating the Threat of
Democratic Majoritarianism:
Ambedkar on Constitutional
Design and Ideology Critique,
1941–1948
Rahul Govind1
Abstract
This article analyses B. R. Ambedkar’s works written between 1941 and 1948, and it discerns a central
set of concerns and arguments in this otherwise diverse corpus. It argues that since universal franchise
as a political principle is uncontroversial, Ambedkar’s primary concern is geared towards the danger of
democratic majoritarianism in a society riven by historically, legally and ideologically determined forms
of inequality and their logic—a danger that can only be addressed at the dual levels of institutional
design and ideological critique. Reading together Pakistan or the Partition of India and What Congress and
Gandhi have done to the Untouchables, the initial sections argue that Ambedkar was critical of Congress
and Muslim league politics because he saw in them both, albeit in distinct ways, the affirmation of
religious identity as central to the formulation of political identity. Such an orientation, in the actual
mechanics of mass politics and constitutional negotiation, is therefore read as inevitably leading to conflicts
including demands for Partition, but at the same time such politics avoided fundamental questions of
internal critique and instituted forms of socialized inequality. It is in this context, and the imminence
of Partition, that the article analyses Ambedkar’s argument for the need of both a specific institutional
design (constitutional provisions) and an ideology critique (his historical research including Who were
the Sudras and The Untouchables). The analysis of the demand for partition and the category of the
minority can only be understood through Ambedkar’s acute historical and theoretical understanding of
the nation and its history, as well as the normative demands required for institutional justice, as will be
shown through a reading of this corpus.
Keywords
Ambedkar, caste, democracy, Gandhi, nationalism
Original Article
Studies in Indian Politics
11(1) 66–84, 2023
© 2023 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
Article reuse guidelines:
in.sagepub.com/journals-permissions-india
DOI: 10.1177/23210230231166196
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1 Department of History, Faculty of Social Sciences Building, University of Delhi, Delhi, India
Corresponding author:
Rahul Govind, Department of History, Faculty of Social Sciences Building, University of Delhi, Delhi 110007, India.
E-mail: govind.rahul@gmail.com
Govind 67
Ambedkar’s acute grasp of the principles and practices of nationality, both in general and as they pertain
to the emergence of the Indian nation and state—as much as Partition and Pakistan—remain to be
adequately reckoned with. In the eight years between 1940 and 1948, he produced a corpus of work that
is mesmerizing in its account of the granular possibilities of the nation as state and nations and states
as they appeared to be emerging in British India. His analytical lens while zooming inward into the
‘molecular’ movements of riots and constitutional negotiations as discerned in texts such as Pakistan or
the Partition of India and What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables, simultaneously
arches outward towards ‘molar’ takes of deep historic–tectonic shifts characterizing sub-continental
history—in these very works as well as in Who were the Sudras and The Untouchables.
This essay argues that the animating impulse behind Ambedkar’s ‘late’ corpus may be interpreted as
the task of articulating a normative constitutional design to best ensure justice in a society seen to be riven
by historically, legally and ideologically determined forms of inequality and their logic. This demand for
a ‘just state’ is not driven by a fear that democracy in the sense of universal franchise may not be
institutionalized—something that is assumed and taken for granted.2 Rather, the danger is seen to emerge
from the pernicious possibilities of democratic majoritarianism that had to be addressed at the dual levels
of institutional design and ideological critique. Ambedkar’s diagnosis of this danger lies in his recognition
of the artificiality and historicity of the nation as a state, his understanding that a people as much as a
nation finds intelligibility and articulation only through mass mobilization and representation as much as
the legal structures and a constitutional architecture within which life is lived. Such a perspective,
grounded—as it is—in a historical and theoretical understanding of the nation-state, enables a clear-eyed
discussion of the Pakistan demand. It provides critical insights into the decades of anti-colonial nationalism
in accounting for its literal failure in the fact of Partition, an event that thereby formed the specific
historical juncture in terms of which Constitution-making for India might be understood.
Ambedkar interprets the Gandhian Congress as being responsible for re-articulating religion and
religious identity in the mass mobilization of the Khilafat-Non-cooperation movement, widely perceived
to be the first country-wide, anti-colonial mass campaign. This is seen as a hardening and sharpening of
religious consciousness as communal–political identity to the detriment of the possibilities of inter-
religious secular politics as much as an internal critique affecting crucial matters such as caste and
gender. Notwithstanding his forceful critique of the Muslim League on similar grounds, Ambedkar
detects in its politics the truth of a very real threat of Hindu majoritarianism. It is in this context of
religion as the predominant form of political identity that Ambedkar struggles to make a case for
constitutional provisions that would protect the ‘untouchables’ as a “minority” from the possibilities of
a democratic majoritarianism even after India’s independence’.3 Not in the sense of their actual historical
development, but in the conceptual sense, this might well spell the logic of the trajectory of texts being
examined; from the critique of the Muslim League and the Congress being established in Pakistan or the
Partition of India (1941; expanded edition 1945) and What Congress and Gandhi have done to the
Untouchables, which provides a context for the inter-connections between States and minorities (1945),
Who were the Sudras (1946) and The Untouchables (1948). Discernible, thereby, is the need to reflect on
the double and doubling levels of institutional design (constitutional provisions) and ideology (historical
and social critique) in the context of an emerging nation and state. In fact, the key features of the final
form of the Indian Constitution such as justiciable fundamental rights may be traced to fears of a Hindu
2 On the limitations to universal franchise in independent India, see Shani (2018). Colonial India witnessed a very restricted
franchise that was only slowly expanded, even as it remained very restricted to the very end. This context needs to be kept in mind
in the context of the discussion later.
3 This essay will use the term ‘untouchables’ since it is one that has been used by Ambedkar. The term will be placed in quotation
marks.

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