Civil Disobedience in a Democratic Regime | Gandhi versus Ambedkar, Part I

The notion of civil disobedience in a democratic scheme of things might seem contradictory. If a person willfully disobeys the law enacted by a government elected fair and square by popular vote, to most people there seems to be little reason to allow for such disobedience under law.

However what such arguments fail to appreciate is that there is much difference between democracy and the rule of the majority i.e. popular vote. Democracy implies governance by all people, while the latter refers to rule by most people. And the rule of most people can be most dangerous. It acts as a serious inhibition to freedom, and kills individuality. Those are some loaded terms here, so I think I should explain to make myself clearer. Freedom and individuality are really unborn notions until a person’s ideas, thoughts and conduct comes into contradiction with what is popularly accepted. But if one has freedom, or enough individuality, or if one exists in a system which encourages both these concepts- one will be free to act in a manner which is opposed to the sensibility of a majority. Free to act, whereby his actions are not put under scrutiny, he is not looked upon as an oddity, or his ideas or actions do not draw a penalty from any authority. A system which guarantees this, is democracy.  And as the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin has (quite controversially) argued in his book, Taking Rights Seriously, being able to express oneself freely and with all of one’s individuality is what it means to have rights in a democracy, even if it means disobeying the enacted law.

Gandhi’s civil disobedience: Much before anyone else, you are answerable to yourself

As any casual reader of modern Indian history would know, civil disobedience was the arch weapon in Mohandas Gandhi’s and later, the Indian National Congress’s toolkit to inch towards independence. However there is in fact, a distinct way in which Gandhi viewed civil disobedience, which put him quite apart from Congress’s view which is later made quite clear in the Constituent Assembly Debates.

For Gandhi, “There is a higher court than courts of justice, and that is the court of conscience. It supercedes all other courts.” So even though Gandhi battled thus a colonial and undemocratic State, his civil disobedience did not stop at British rule. He proffered disobedience to all such law which fell short of one’s conscience. The 1922 trial of Gandhi for preaching sedition via two articles published in the Young India magazine which were alleged to cause general violence in the country, remarkably in Chauri Chaura, canvasses his brand of civil disobedience further. The proceedings of the trial are ironically is published on the Bombay High Court website. At the trial, Gandhi admitted to the charge of sedition alleged against him. This had always been Gandhi’s style and quite in contrast to a general defendant either before or after him in a court of law, who have all contested the charges against them. After admitting that he was in contravention of a legal provision in force, he said that he however, was forced to contravene the same because the said provision did not make sense to him. It seemed quite unjust and unrighteous to his conscience, and therefore even though he wanted to obey the law enacted by the State, he was unable to do so, because his reason told him that it would be quite inhuman to obey it.

In his own words, “The Advocate-General is quite right when he says that as a man of responsibility, a man having received a fair share of education and experience of this world, I should know the consequences of my acts.  I knew them.  I knew that I was playing with fire.  I ran the risk; and if I am set free, I would still do the same.   I wanted to avoid violence.  Non-violence is the first article of my faith.  It is the last article of my faith.  But I had to make my choice.  I had either to submit to a system which I considered has done an irreparable harm to my country, or incur the risk of the mad fury of my people bursting forth when they understood the truth from my lips.

Here one can plainly see that Gandhi is justifying his disobedience of legal provisions even as he admits that he knew that his disobedience might incite violence. And it is to be noted that his disobedience was not planned to save lives or take into account the popular opinion of the British rule. It was his and his opinion alone… “a system which I considered has done an irreparable harm to my country.” Further, “I am here, therefore, to invite and cheerfully submit to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is a deliberate crime, and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.

Gandhi’s civil disobedience was therefore not directed just against a colonial and not-popularly-elected government. It was a civil disobedience directed against any system which failed to take into account individual sensitivity. Any system which conflicted with one’s conscience…that is, conflicted with individual reason. Such civil disobedience was therefore, to survive in a democracy, if a democracy is to be defined as a system which takes tries to reason law with its people rather than impose law on them. For in this democracy (which is in spirit, governance by all, as opposed to governance by most) civil disobedience acts as a tool to express the shortcoming of legal provisions and their inability to appear reasonable to any individual, even if it’s only one person.

Ambedkar’s Civil Disobedience: An anathema to democracy

Ambedkar’s attitude towards civil disobedience, on the other hand appears in quite some contrast with Gandhi’s. On 25th November 1949, Dr. Ambedkar made his famous Grammar of Anarchy speech in the Constituent Assembly. Among other things, he said,

If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.

From the speech it is clear that unlike Gandhi, for Ambedkar, civil disobedience had no legitimacy in a democracy. Here democracy however has a different meaning than Gandhi’s system which entails freedom for each person. Democracy for Ambedkar, as he mentioned earlier in his speech, means “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Democracy for him, does not thus mean freedom- but a government elected by popular vote. This is a government of the majority, and to ensure that minority interests (which entail ideas, opinions and conduct different from the majority of the population) are not trampled upon, there has been provided a system of rights. Ambedkar’s democracy thus manages to create a dichotomy of majority and minority wherein the majority have the upper hand. When a democracy is equated with popular vote, the power lies within the majority, and rights begin to serve only as a mechanism to curtail the abuse of this power of the majority. Thus a dichotomy is created and measures laid down to overcome it. Contrast this with the Gandhian model where this dangerous dichotomy was not created in the first place at all- wherein there was no powerful majority versus the minority; there was only the promise of freedom for everyone. The majority-minority dichotomy on the other hand, reduces rights to mere checks on the popular government.

This has various disturbing implications, which are discussed in a subsequent post.

2 Responses to “Civil Disobedience in a Democratic Regime | Gandhi versus Ambedkar, Part I”
  1. chethan says:

    hi,nice article…like it very much.I admire gandhi than ambhedhkar..But I am dubious about gandhi’s political positions.Even though he says so much abt freedom,individual liberty, etc his views on caste system in India is very I right?In my view gandhi’s imagination of village is a village dominated by upper caste people where dalits very treated as worms,,,then how can we consider gandhi who supported the evils of caste system a libertarian thinker?did he oppose caste system as strongly as ambhedhkar?

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  1. […] the last post, I discussed the differences in Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s attitudes towards civil […]

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