Category Archives: Op-Ed

Utopian Socialism: An attempt to understand the precursors to Scientific Socialism

Anmol Narain

Utopia has been lovingly described as a state of speculative existence in which society possesses qualities that are highly desirable and near perfect with respect to the dynamics of the division of labour, of individual liberties enjoyed by citizens in a collectivist framework and the distribution of power amongst the inhabitants of that particular entity. The word utopia was first coined by Sir Thomas Moore in 1516, in his book describing the fictional island of Atlantis.

The term has, over the years, been used to describe both social experiments grounded to reality and works that have been associated with the description of a fictional state of existence that chronicle a perfect end to be achieved. Dystopia, on the other hand, finds its way into the murky waters of well written fictional enterprise that elaborates upon everything that could go wrong in situations that, in practice, centralise power to such an extent that individual freedoms take a back seat. Take, for example, George Orwell’s 1984, the epitome of everything that could go wrong with the excessive centralization of power to the extent that freedoms thought to be free from infringement, such as basic privacy, are rendered unimaginable. One could even think of Aldoux Huxley’s Brave New World, which takes one to the institutionalisation of mankind’s most basal sexual passions, the underlying theme amongst both pieces converge in the excesses of power and control, which could be interpreted to be manifestations of the biggest fears of western liberal thought espousing individual freedoms. This, as well as practical failures of excessive centralization and their eventual collapse, has created a culture that cringes at the every hint of the term ‘social engineering’, which is quite detrimental to the pursuance of certain value orientations, albeit, with a healthy system of checks and balances in place.

This very end to be achieved, in terms of the virtues that the near perfect state will possess, varies across different conceptions of the term utopia. One could start by categorising the differences in all of these near perfect ends on the basis of the themes that are most commonly addressed in the most prominent works of discourse ranging from Plato to utopian socialists like Owen that consolidated the platform for the beginnings of scientific socialism. These differing ideas vary along the lines of the distribution of power within social systems in relation to the ownership of property, in the division of labour with respect to the contribution of different aspects of the population in the process of production and in individual freedoms and liberties that citizens enjoy. All these processes are then seen in the light of the larger moral structure that conforms to each author’s perception of what is right and wrong, built upon socio-cultural institutions that complement each other like the family in relation to theology, music, literature and systems of education.

The earliest conception of an ideal society can be traced to Ancient Greece, within which, the works of Plato delve into fundamental questions about what constitutes justice, virtue and reason. The true nature of these absolutes can only be perceived if people manage to obtain a great degree of control over the mind and body that arises from years of rigorous training in mental, physical and moral arts. This, in essence, would allow people with the necessary intellectual vigour to perceive reality in its absolute form, as an interaction of abstractions removed from reality allegorically described as the objects that cast a shadow on the walls of the cave that represents the vision of humanity (Cohen 2006). Plato, in one of his last dialogues refers to the creation of his ideal city, Magnesia, which would be situated far from ports that would have facilitated maritime trade, which by consequence would have made the population of the city more vulnerable to corruption that stems from the mercantile aspiration of profit making, wealth creation and hoarding. His conception of the city is influenced by the close relation between ethics and law, between education and moral psychology in bestowing upon the citizens, the ability to attain true virtue (Plato Laws 664 CE, cited in Bobonich and Meadows, 2013).

In accordance with what was stated earlier in The Republic, it consists of a society that is divided into classes on the basis of a division of labour. It proposes a categorization of citizens into a class structure of producers in the form of farmers and artisans, the warriors which are the auxiliaries and guardians which constitute the ruling class. Virtue, at first glance, can be contextualised as adherence to normative functions that place people along the societal hierarchy. But at a deeper level of understanding, the very concept of what virtue constitutes of becomes of paramount importance in relation to the true nature of things and the existence of absolutes that only those with the necessary intellectual vigour can grasp. This is where the role of the king who understands the fluidity between the true nature of things and how they have to be contextualised to different situations in practical reality, comes into play.

Power hence rests within the hands of those who have access to resources involved in the process of production such as the merchant class but even more so with the guardian classes and the philosopher kings. They, by virtue of being on a higher platform in terms of intellect combined with access to robust training, have a clearer understanding of the forms and hence have greater moral authority. Each household within Magnesia is to be given ownership of two plots of land that are equally productive. Hence, there is individual ownership of land but each shareholder must consider his share to be the common property of the whole city, though the land itself is passed down within the family over generations. Further, each household is to help fund the city’s system of common meals. The volume of land allocated differs in within the classes wherein those at the top receive land that has assets four times worth the value of the lot a given to the class at the bottom (Plato 740A3–6, Bobonich and Meadows, 2013)

In terms of citizenship, it is only the landed gentry and their male heirs that constitute the decision-making mandate in a participative direct democracy of the polis. But within Plato’s utopian city of Magnesia, Although women lack an independent right to own property, they are liable to military training and service and attend their own common meals. The Athenian holds that they can attain the four cardinal virtues and for this reason requires that they are educated (Laws 804D-805A, Bobonich and Meadows, 2013).

For Aristotle, women are not citizens of the ideal city, since they are excluded from political office. But in Plato’s Magnesia, women can participate in elections and hold political office and so the Athenian explicitly counts them as citizens. All citizens apart from the philosopher-rulers arguably remain within the cave with access to the glorified vices of music and poetry that is correct only if deemed virtuous by a man that possesses virtue himself, of a higher social standing, of course, which in effect, though extremely subjective, leaves little room for individual choice, freedom and creativity. But this is only in respect to creativity in expression, in terms of rhetoric and logic, all citizens are educated in accordance with their aptitude for mathematics, resistance to basal pleasures and rhetoric wherein those who qualify to move on to dialectics and become the future pool of guards and rulers. Those who do not, are directed towards practical aspects of social life such as trade and commerce.  In terms of religion, god is presented as the appropriate source of law and human institutions. But the very definition of god is that of the immortal element within each human, which is the reason.  Hence virtue is equated with a godlike quality of reason and the standard that one must aim towards. (Peters, Zarnic, Besley and Gibbons 1999)

As society trudged through the rise and fall of empires that had consolidated themselves into the ambit of a feudal nature with the surplus of mercantile capitalism, it eventually came to a point where the change in the productive forces was such that it brought to light the beginnings of a new class struggle that stemmed from changing social relations between the dispossessed and those with resources. The identity of the proletariat developed in this context of the aftermath of the French revolution and the beginnings of industrial capitalism stemming from science, innovation and the influx of capital from colonies. (Mukherjee 2010)

There came a point in time during the Kantian period of enlightenment that constituted the bedrock of the greater movements towards positivist empiricism, that everything was subjected to the most unsparing of criticism wherein everything had to justify its existence before reason. Hence, the reason became the sole measure of everything. Hegel characterised this point as one in which the world stood upon its head (Engels 1880)

It was only later on in history, that it became possible to contextualise this vision only to the bourgeoisie. And virtues of justice and reason could only be confined to beneficiaries within that class. Hence the ideals of the French revolution (liberty, equality, fraternity) though the product of the antagonism between the feudal nobility and the powerful guilds, were only limited to those that had the material resources to benefit from the auctions of the land seized from former nobility. This is in contradiction to the general perception of the victory of the exploited masses over the rich and lazy.

At this point in time, the antagonism between the masses and the capitalists had not developed because it was at this point that the workers began to get alienated from the guild workers as capitalism moved from her mercantile origins to industrial vigour which later consolidated proletariat identity. Hence, the great thinkers of the 18th century could no more than their predecessors; go beyond the limits imposed upon them by their epoch. (Engels 1880)

It was in this context that Saint-Simon, Fourier and George Owen came to be and the one thing they had in common was the fact that none of them represented the interests of the proletariat in particular. They didn’t claim to emancipate a particular class to start with, but all aspects of the population in one go. They, like the French philosopher Rousseau, wished to bring about a kingdom of eternal reason and justice, but this kingdom, they realised was as far from reality as that of the French philosophers. It is to all three that the bourgeoisie world seemed as irrational and unjust as the feudalism and barbarism that preceded it. This claim towards a higher ideal, a truth of sorts was seen more as a happy accident from individual men of genius, isolated from the chains of historical development. The ideals of  Rousseau’s social contract, convoluted in practical reality, had found their way into the reign of terror, from which the wealthy upper middle classes, who had lost confidence in their own political capacity, had taken respite in the corruption of the directorate and finally under Napoleon’s despotism. The polarisation of the working class as an identity came to be a consequence of the freedom from property that the small-scale peasant and capitalist proprietors were subjected to.

To sum it up, the brilliant promises of the French philosophers and what they believed to achieve with the social and political institutions born out of this triumph of reason were, disappointing caricatures, beings of satire. The time was apt for men to formulate this disappointment and search extensively for better alternatives. 

The categorization of a class war

It was in 1802 that Henry Saint Simon’s Geneva letters came to be. Born in 1760, as Engels puts it, he was the son of the great French revolution. Quite scientific in his approach, he has been known as the founder of modern sociology. His analysis of class difference and human ideals to achieve were less based in the quantitative but on more qualitative aspects such as socio-cultural institutions that, according to him, would foster an environment conducive to the achievement of his ideals of a just and fair society. To him, the conflict between the 3rd estate and the privileged classes was one that was characterised by friction between the workers and the idlers. These workers and idlers were, in his account, not restricted to particular classes. The workers included the wage workers, the merchants and the bankers. From the reign of terror, it had become apparent that the workers were not capable of handling political power in a just and transparent manner. The idlers had already lost their capacity for intellectual leadership, he, therefore turned to a rigidly hierarchic New Christianity that would combine science and industry, while giving legitimacy to political power in a pseudo-theocratic structure. (Caspar J M Hewett 2008)

The scholars that represented science and the bourgeois that represented industry were to transform themselves into public servants while at the same time, retain a position of social and economic privilege. It was at this time that he showed fluid tendencies towards authoritarianism within a capitalist setup and welfare in terms of responsibility to the poorest of the poor that would, through concerted action like the extension of credit to all, eventually be elevated to higher levels of socio-economic prosperity. This must be seen in a temporal context wherein there was no significant polarisation along the market-state continuum in popular political discourse. (Vincent Geoghegan 1988)

What Saint-Simon especially laid stress upon is this: what interested him first, and above all other things, was the lot of the class that is the most numerous and the poorest (“la classe la plus nombreuse et la plus pauvre”).

Due credit must be given to him for categorising the French revolution as a class war, not one between the nobility and the guild workers but also one that involved the non-possessors, which was in the year 1802, a pregnant discovery. It was in 1816 that he declared that economic conditions were the basis for political institutions. In terms of administrative structure, he called for the decentralisation of power wherein decisions would be made on the basis of unbiased market forces and precedence to be given to individual decision making in the hands of the aware and reasonable. (Engels 1892)

An Amorous World: Coming to terms with our metaphoric relation with Nature and the Law of Passionate Attraction

Charles Fourier was born in 1772 at Lyons into a family of drapers. After losing all his property to the revolution, he went into business as a broker. It was in the context of this market-oriented structure that he was struck by the shortcomings and injustices of individualism in a competitive social space. He spoke about the perfectibility of human nature and put emphasis on the free play of appetites and passions as opposed to the misery that stems from the restraints imposed by society. Unlike his contemporaries, his criticism of society on the basis of its historical growth is valuable in the anticipation of scientific socialism. The four stages of the development of society are Savagery, Barbarism, Patriarchy and Civilization. (William Morris and E. Belfort Bax 1886)

Civilisation represented the period of modern society that he happened to live in during the post-enlightenment era. In his criticism of mercantile and industrial capitalism, he insightfully speaks of the creation of poverty as a result not of a lack of resources but, of superabundance in direct reference to systems of competition that increase the gulf between those that have access to resources related to production and those that do not. “under civilization poverty is born of superabundance itself” (Engels 1892)

In terms of his utopian vision, he wrote, in precise mathematical formulations, the exact number of people he wanted one polis to consist of. His people were to be governed by a ministry of Amorous Relations. He does not dispute the division of labour, rather, he celebrates it in a form that encourages and enables people to do what they want to do, thus abolishing the opposition between pleasure and work. Hence power would be centralised to the extent of proper state machinery which would not come at the cost of individual freedoms and passions. The link between pleasure and wealth is the very ground of his conception of an alternative social order. (Christopher Prendergast 2012)

Family relations were to be deconstructed and reconstituted in accordance with god-given passions which were the elementary fluid of the cosmos wherein the purpose of science was to discover a mechanism by which the satisfaction of human beings was the highest. Hence, in the Amorous world, Omnigamy was imperative to the functioning of utopia.(Beecher 1986)

Social Experiments: New Harmony and New Lanark

Robert Owen was a welsh industrialist who conducted several social experiments in order to create self-sustaining systems of utopia that he invested and lost most of his fortune in. His alternative to the existing regime was not based on a theory rooted in progressive history. He was of the opinion that history was a series of fortunate or unfortunate accidents dictated by chance rather than the human agency, independent of patterns of any significance. He had the utmost faith in the ability the of capitalist enterprise to uplift the masses. It was on elite social engineering and the manipulation of the environment by those with means in the form of resources at their disposal, that he laid emphasis on. This would primarily be the initiative of the government which would take the lead in policy and practice to kick start a slow and gradual process of transition towards his utopia of freedom from the dogma of religion and institutionalised norms supporting specific status quos, a society where reason would prevail. (Stewart, Anne 2012)

It was he who popularised the notion of establishing islands of socialism in a sea of capitalism. He happened to be a successful capitalist himself.From 1800 to 1829, he directed the great cotton mill at New Lanark, in Scotland, as managing partner with a population, originally consisting of the most diverse and educated elements that gradually grew to 2,500. He turned an industrial township into a model colony called New Harmony within which drunkenness, police, magistrates, lawsuits, poor laws, charity, were unknown. He was the founder of infant schools and introduced them first at New Lanark. (William Morris and E. Belfort Bax 1886)

He posed great faith in the development of human agency at the hands of external circumstance and nurturing environments. It was with this in mind that he set up comprehensive systems for education and at the age of two, the children in his experiment went to school, where they enjoyed themselves so much that they could scarcely be home again. (Engels 1892)

Whilst his competitors worked their people 13 or 14 hours a day, the working-day at New Lanark was only 10 and a half hours. When a crisis in cotton stopped work for four months, his workers received their full wages all the time. And with all this, the business more than doubled in value, and to the last yielded large profits to its proprietors. In spite of all this, Owen was not content. The existence which he secured for his workers was, in his eyes, still far from being worthy of human beings. “The people were slaves at my mercy.” Three great obstacles seemed to block the path to social reform: private property, religion, the existing form of marriage. He knew what confronted him if he attacked these – outlawries and excommunication from official society.

Banished from official society and ruined by his unsuccessful Communist experiments in America, in which he sacrificed all his fortune, he turned directly to the working-class and continued working in their midst for 30 years. Every social movement, every real advance in England on behalf of the workers links itself on to the name of Robert Owen. He forced through in 1819, after five years’ fighting, the first law limiting the hours of labour of women and children in factories. He was president of the first Congress at which all the Trade Unions of England united in a single great trade association.


The new mode of production was only beginning to gain momentum in terms of the consolidation of the class antagonism between the newly forming proletariat and the bourgeois capitalists. Socialist thought until the advent of scientific socialism was governed by notions of breaking away from systems to create entirely new ones. The formulations of different ideals to be achieved came out of a need for meaning and greater purpose, the conquest of reason, in a society manipulated by greed and crony profiteering. Escapists, as some might call them, they were well-informed mechanisms that isolated themselves to a very large extent from the existing mode of production and called for a leap to a greater pedestal of clarity and truth. The fundamental flaw common to all conceptions of utopia before the advent of scientific socialism was an understanding of the historical process that didn’t base itself on historical materialism but rather to random happenings of chance not worth studying in detail, Fourier being the only exception to the rule. Unfortunately, he proposed a resolution between Freudian repression and actual impulses which were, and still is to a very large extent, an idea that most societies aren’t ready to face.


(Anmol Narain is a graduate student of Master of Public Policy in the National Law School of India University. She can be reached at



Beecher, J. (2008). Charles Fourier: Il visionario e il suo mondo. Bolsena: Massari Editore.

Bobonich, C., & Meadows, K. (2013, June 21). Plato on utopia (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy/Summer 2013 Edition). Retrieved from

Cohen, S. (2006). Allegory of the Cave. Retrieved from

Engels, F., & Aveling, E. B. (1892). Hegel: The Philosophy of History. In Socialism, Utopian and scientific (p. 535). New York: New York Labor News Co.

Frankel, B., & Geoghegan, V. (1988). Utopianism and Marxism. Contemporary Sociology,17(6), 763. doi:10.2307/2073573

Geoghegan, V. (1987). Utopianism and Marxism. London: Methuen.

Hewitt, C. M. (2008, December 28). The Great Debate 10th Anniversary, 2008. Retrieved from

Morris, W., Bax, E. B., & Oliver Wendell Holmes Collection (Library of Congress). (1886). The Utopists: Owen, Saint-Simon, and Fourier. In Socialism from the root up. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co.

Mukherjee, A. (2010). Empire: How Colonial India Made Modern Britain. Economic and Political Weekly45(50), 73-82. Retrieved from

Oliviera, R. (1999, July 6). Plato and Philosophy of Education – The Encyclopaedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory (edited by M. Peters, B. Zarnic, T. Besley and A. Gibbons) – EEPAT. Retrieved from

Stewart, A. (2012, February 16). Social engineering can have positive outcomes too | Owen Sound Sun Times. Retrieved from



Featured image source:

Policy Brief | Literacy Without Learning

Sakshi Mehra


Screen Shot 2016-07-19 at 12.37.38 am.png

Executive Summary

India has made significant progress in boosting school enrolment rates and increasing access to primary education as evident from the fact that enrollments have reached 96 percent since 2009 and 56 percent of new students enrolled between 2007 and 2009 have been girls. However the same has not reflected positively in dropout rates and levels of learning. Nationally 29 percent of children drop out before completing five years of primary school. Increase in school enrolment is not translating into higher learning outcomes and cognitive skills as measured by several studies.  

Reasons to be Worried

  • Annual Survey of Educational Research (ASER 2013) found that only 54 percent of class V children were able to do simple 2 digit subtraction.

  • In 2005, 50 per cent of children in Grade V were unable to read a simple Grade II level text. The number is virtually unchanged 10 years later in 2014.

policybriefloknitiTable 1: Grade 9 completion rates of children by their reading levels at age 8-11
Source: IHDS data for 2004-5 and 2011-12.

Policy Options

India’s education system has many challenges at all levels, but all of them will fail if children don’t emerge from their early years of school reading fluently. The current discourse on education reforms have been discussing the following alternatives

  • There is an active national debate to scrap the No Detention Policy (NDP), a policy that prohibits failing children in classes 1 to 8. It is believed that in the absence of a proper regulatory framework, this has unfortunately led to ‘no learning’ in many cases.
  • Another approach involves a detailed look at the financing structure of school development plans. Currently, all budgetary plans are made using DISE (District Information System for Education) data, which has no component for learning outcomes. A specific amount that can be used as a learning grant should be given to the states, which should be linked to clearly determine learning goals. School committees based on learning outcome plans should take expenditure decisions regarding this grant.
  •  I believe we need to look at investing our time and resources in an approach that is neither too myopic and shortsighted, nor so broad and long-term that the millions already in school remain excluded from its benefits. In this context, we must begin from correcting the deficiencies in the classroom. It has already been established by researchers over the past decade that the teacher is the most influential factor for achieving quality education. Unfortunately, despite Teachers’ salaries accounting for 90 percent of education expenditure, One in four government primary school teachers are absent and only one in two is actually teaching.

Influencing learning outcomes by improving the teacher’s performance may further be adopted in two different ways: –

  1. Financial incentives and sanctions for teacher motivation: It is the intangible factors such as enthusiasm and passion that are likely to account for a majority of the variation in value added by the teacher and students’ learning outcomes. Evaluation of teachers based on their contribution to students’ achievement or their true value addition should be made the basis for financial rewards and promotion decisions. Performance based incentives could prove to be an effective way to keep the teachers motivated and deliver optimally. A UNICEF paper on teacher absenteeism in India also talks about the scope to effectively enforce sanctions on erring teachers. (Saihjee 2011) Guarantee of a salary, accompanied by weak sanctions actually creates an incentive to be absent. Thus, addressing the moral hazard problem will provide a solution to the problem of academic underperformance.
  2.  A Teacher empowerment program: This approach delves into the root causes of underperformance of teachers by addressing the hindrances to perform to potential. Thus, empowering the teacher through institutional changes for a more conducive teaching environment is the key. The program aims to place power in their hands and facilitate its responsible use. Of all these options, I recommend that teacher empowerment be pursued.

Why Teacher Empowerment?

It has already been established by researchers over the past decade that the teacher is the most influential factor for achieving quality education. Addressing teacher motivation through sanctions or financial incentives will not be as effective as desired as proven in several studies.

A study by National Bureau Of Economic Research conducted on New York City Public Schools suggests that there is no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance. (G. Fryer, Jr, 2011) Similar studies conducted in the Indian States reveal the same trend. If anything, this may adversely affect learning levels by increasing stress levels on teachers and students, encourage a narrowed curriculum of teaching to the test and propel student exclusion. Despite the opportunity and incentive to be absent, the fact that 3 out of every 4 teachers opts to be present indicates that there is clearly more to the issue than merely a “free-rider” problem. Thus, the root problem does not stem from the teacher’s motivation level, but from the lack of institutional support that is necessary for the teacher to perform to his or her potential and these are what need to be fixed so as to empower the teacher to deliver better in the classroom.

Scrapping the no detention policy is likely to be counter-productive by increasing the chances of early dropouts.  Moreover, the decline in learning levels is erroneously being attributed to this policy, whereas data from 2005 to 2010 (before implementation of RTE that introduced NDP) shows the same poor results.

Screen Shot 2016-07-19 at 12.39.40 am

What Needs to be done?

An insight into the following challenges substantiates the need for institutional changes for a more conducive learning environment that enhances teacher performance and thus reiterates the need for a teacher empowerment program.

  • A study by Sipahimalani-Rao highlights unauthorised leave in Government schools is actually a mere 3-4 percent of total teacher absenteeism as against an inflated projected figure of 24-25 per cent (Priyam 2015). The latter per cent is because teachers are sent on formal chores outside the school during working hours. These non-teaching tasks include management of mid-day meals, organising construction work in the school, maintaining data and so on. During elections, government schoolteachers are posted as booth-level officers on voting days, and they have to prepare, check and maintain electoral rolls prior to voting. Distraction from core responsibilities of teaching could not be more obvious.

Action item: Raising the amount of time teachers spend on the core job needs serious attention and a minimum benchmark for the same must be clearly demarcated.

  • To exacerbate the problem, there are huge teacher shortages (Rajasthan has close to 20percent single-teacher schools) and this further overburdens the teachers.

Action item: Filling the staffing gaps should be made a priority.

  • Despite 16,000 teacher training institutes, the passing rates of the 2015 Teacher eligibility Test (TET) was a mere 17 percent, which is an alarming indication of the underperformance of the teacher education system. The 2012 Justice Verma Commission has made remarks including lack of training in training institutes and exam results being manipulated (MHRD 2011) Low-cost private schools barely spend anything on teacher training.

Action items:

Making teacher training institutes more accountable

Teacher unions need to act as institutions of value to produce well-informed teachers with an enhanced capacity for consensual action for the common good.

Teachers also must be given special training to deal with the diversity amongst students, especially students from underprivileged backgrounds as social class also impacts learning abilities. 21 per cent of children from economically stronger backgrounds who could not read or recognise letters in the age group of 8-11 managed to complete Grade 9 as against 7 per cent of their counterparts belonging to economically weaker and poorer sections

  • A significant number of Indian teachers, especially government teachers are expected to miraculously teach in multi-grade classrooms in remote locations with few amenities. This is a clear Violation of the 1986 Policy Operation Blackboard norms, which mandates at least one teacher for each class/section and at least one room for each class.

Action item: Strict adherence to Operation Blackboard norms, of at least one teacher for each class/section and at least one room for each class. Pupil-Teacher Ratio (PTR) of 40:1 and 35:1 at primary and upper primary level respectively, as prescribed in the RTE, should be enforced.

Screen Shot 2016-07-19 at 12.43.11 am.png

(Sakshi Mehra is a graduate student of Master of Public Policy in the National Law School of India University. She can be reached at


Paper by Aarti Saihjee, Education Specialist, New York UNICEF-Penn Learning Programme on Social Norms July 2011

Teacher Incentives and Student Achievement: Evidence from New York City Public Schools Roland G. Fryer, Jr. Harvard University and NBER, November 2011

Manisha Priyam 2015 Contested Politics of Educational Reform in India: Aligning Opportunities with Interests: Oxford University Press

Justice Verma Commission on Teacher Education, Volume 3, 2012


Featured image source:


When Bad Guys Get Elected: A Quick Take on the Electoral Process


Sachin Tiwari

This polemical account is an upshot of a twitter conversation with another MPP grad on an article in New York Times by Maskin and Sen that he shared. The authors explain how a majority rule based electoral process (instead of the prevailing plurality rule) might have stopped Trump, who is the leading presidential candidate in the upcoming election in the US and has won the primaries in 23 states (Read: How Majority Rule Might Have Stopped Donald Trump). The authors seem to suggest that on a one-on-one contest, Trump would have been defeated in 17 states. Sure! But, it is a conjecture as best as anyone else’s because it just did not happen. Giving it to the authors, they do say that it might have stopped Donald Trump.

The alleged outcome must necessarily happen for this thesis to hold any water. Launching off from this point, the authors write –

In the early contests, Mr. Trump attracted less than 50 percent of the vote (in Arkansas he got only 33 percent); a majority of voters rejected him. But he faced more than one opponent every time so that the non-Trump vote was split. That implies he could well have been defeated in most (given his extreme views on many subjects) had the opposition coalesced around one of his leading rivals.

 True! Anyone with a keen eye on elections and voting behaviour would agree with that one on defeating a candidate by coalition of the opposition around a leading rival. This leads to the question – does it (coalitions as these) happen? If yes, what prevented it from happening in Trump’s case? The near impossibility of determining this curious phenomenon is the point of this post. I would argue that this is at best an academic quest which helps scholars but lacks the capacity to look beyond the process and account for the outcome. It appears sloppy on account of the fact that the reasoning (as quoted above) is used to argue that the candidates getting elected are not the right ones or desirable ones. It is theoretically correct that the winners lack the support of a majority of voters. The problematic bit comes next –

As with the Republicans and Mr. Trump’s flirtations with fear and violence, India now suffers the ill effects of a serious confusion when a plurality win is marketed as a majority victory. The Muslim Brotherhood government of 2012 to 2013 in Egypt provides another, and similarly disturbing, example; it helped to undermine democracy in Egypt altogether.

The assumption that the winning candidates in the cited examples from US, India and Egypt (party in this case) are ‘disturbing’ and have had negative consequences is the problem. This is an impressionistic inference. Let me present a counter view – that the inherent ability of a democratic setup in checking the unrestrained behaviour of elected leaders prevents the ‘disturbing’ consequences from happening, although during the campaign the contesting candidates might come across as potentially problematic if they act on their rallying points.

Systemic checks in a democratic setup

This is true of India and the US as history suggests. The system of governance – executive, legislature and the judiciary, are at least minimally robust enough to check the anti-public interest and self-serving (or even party serving) of the winning candidate when he is appointed. Except for the period of emergency in India during Indira Gandhi’s reign, we can see no evidence of a leader running amuck with his own agenda. The analysis by Maskin and Sen stands reasonable in the electoral process but runs out of consistency when it comes to their assertion that this process produces winners who are likely to undermine democracy or are against the best interests of the country. It would have been nice to see a specific example supporting their assertion. In India, even a seemingly larger than life leader like Prime Minister Modi has had a tough rope walk in terms of appeasing the Hindutva groups supporting his party, and keeping the interests of other minority groups in regard. It is not as straightforward as the article might suggest. When bad guys get elected bad things do not necessarily happen! A campaigning Donald Trump is very likely to undergo a change as Donald Trump in the White House. This change will be due to the candidate being given the power as a result of his electoral win. This power is not dictatorial. This power is not freewheeling. It comes with rules, conditions and protocols of decision-making. And hence, it should not be assumed that a candidate pitching contentious and potentially divisive policies during campaigns when given power will be able to do exactly same things. That is the strength of the democratic system.  Otherwise, one can forever imagine and probably introduce more workable election procedures and keep finding problems with the winning candidate because he may end up acting in problematic ways. That failure of the winning candidate is not because he was not voted by the right procedure. What stands as a guarantee in the ranking system that the winning candidate who will ‘truly command majority support’?

If the challenge is to arrive at an election system which leads to a winner who truly commands majority support then that elegant suggestion by the authors is well taken. But for those who are keen on understanding leaders in roles of power and acting in full public glare, this is only a wishful arrangement. There are other variables like human behaviour which can lead to equally desirable or undesirable outcomes. The point is to throw light on those situations that can make a useful contribution to political theory.


(Sachin Tiwari is a graduate student of Master of Public Policy in the National Law School of India University. He can be reached at


Featured image source:

Climate Change in India: Challenges and Solutions

Sai Charan Bandaru

To begin with, India is the fourth largest emitter of Green House Gases (GHG) and has the obligation to take a proactive stance since it is going to be one of the worst victims of climate change as mentioned in the IPCC 5th Assessment Report (AR5). The estimated countrywide agricultural loss in 2030 will be over $7 billion. It could severely affect the livelihoods of at least 10 percent of the population. Wheat yields in the Gangetic plains are expected to experience a 51 percent reduction in the most high-yielding areas due to heat stress. This region currently produces 14 to 15 percent of the world’s wheat and feeds around 200 million people of the region. Extreme temperatures are expected to increase by 1-4°C, with a maximum increase in coastal regions.

If the impact of climate change is felt at local levels then adaptation measures should also focus on the same instead of imposing it from the top. The need of the hour is not to wait for global aid or wait for the negotiations to be successful, but to act intelligently at the local levels since small, consistent efforts bring about lasting change. The AR5 suggests that about 80 percent of the agricultural losses could be reduced if climate resilient and cost effective agricultural practices are followed. For example, simple measures like rainwater harvesting can prevent intensive groundwater usage and the need for constructing large dams which will eventually harm the ecology. However, the real challenge lies in implementing the same across India. Constitutional challenges like division of powers between the Centre and the States – agriculture belonging to the state list, lack of political incentives for the policy makers to take far-reaching steps, non-homogeneity of geographical features etc (e.g. rain water harvesting measures for the plains of Uttar Pradesh and the dry land regions like Vidarbha in Maharashtra are entirely different) are major hurdles. Most importantly, we should take into account people’s reaction to any changes in their agricultural practices. Particularly in India, where more than 80 percent are small and marginal farmers, their willingness to adopt a new practice is fraught with difficulties and it compounds when it is taken for the entire country. Under such circumstances, the optimal policy level solution is to tweak the existing programs instead of framing a new program altogether.

One alternative is to create a separate component in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) that includes climate change adaptation measures like rainwater harvesting and climate-resilient agricultural practices in the dry land. NREGS is well penetrated in all the states where dry land agriculture is practised, namely Maharashtra, Telangana, Rajasthan, parts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand (constitutes nearly 60 percent of the net area under cultivation). The awareness regarding the harmful effects of climate change and adaptation measures must be penetrated to the local levels and demand for sustainable agriculture must come from the people. Once the demand is created it will be easier for the climate resilient crop varieties to enter the market. Moreover, the process involves participation which is a necessary prerequisite to enhance the people’s capacity to handle climate change.

In the energy sector, the obvious solutions are to increase the energy efficiency of coal plants and to promote the renewable sector. In the former, India is investing in supercritical and ultra-supercritical technologies to improve the efficiency of power generation in coal plants and phase out the older generation power plants. Such measures are necessary but not sufficient in cutting the GHG emissions. Moreover, coal continues to have a major share in power generation since we still have 30 crore people who do not have access to electricity and coal is still the cheapest option. The real challenge lies in the augmentation of solar energy since compared to biomass, wind, and other renewable sources India has a geographical advantage of receiving 4-7 kWh of solar radiation per on an average. Presently, India is running the largest renewable energy capacity addition program in the world with the target of 1,75,000 MW of renewable energy by 2022 of which solar itself constitutes about 1,00,000 MW. In the year 2014-15, it witnessed 42 percent increase in the solar capacity. Funding mechanisms like diverting additional revenues from coal cess increase ($6/ton, which is the highest clean energy cess among developing countries) to fund renewable energy projects have been initiated. But such momentum can only be sustained if it is backed by indigenous R&D, innovation, and manufacturing capability. Solar systems are dependent on local conditions and need to be optimised for specific applications and geographical factors. Therefore, a flourishing R&D base in the country is critical if India wants to convert this solar energy vision into a reality. Such an innovation ecosystem requires close collaboration between the research community and the industry. India can be a laboratory for the global R&D institutions and industry to collaborate with their Indian counterparts to come up with innovative solutions. The innovations should also focus on utilising solar power to low-cost home appliances especially in rural areas where more than 60 percent of the energy needs are met through traditional biomass-based fuels. These innovations in solar energy also need a consistent demand to make them viable in the long run. Online platforms like e-commerce sites can be incentivized by the government to market them with competitive pricing. By virtue of its geographical advantage, it can actually be a focus point for research in solar energy provided right incentives are given from the policy side.

Another area where creative solutions are required is the creation of carbon sinks. They are necessary to trap the emissions in the atmosphere and bring them back to the carbon cycle. India is following the afforestation program to increase its carbon intake capacity. For the past 27 years, India has been trying to increase its forest cover from the present 23 percent to 33 percent, which still remains a pipe dream due to increasing pressures to achieve rapid industrial development. The problem lies in the poor implementation of the afforestation program. Afforestation is often seen in India as a compensatory mechanism for the forests destroyed and not as a source of revenue generation for the timber products and other forest produce, particularly for the local communities. Sufficient studies in this area are required to market afforestation as an innovative tool for climate change adaptation. Nearly 40 percent of the forest cover in the country is degraded and the trick lies in increasing the productivity of this land instead of searching for new barren lands through mapping using satellite data already available for these lands. The administration becomes easier if the local communities were made a part of this process. If they are allowed to sell the forest produce it becomes an incentive to protect them. Also, agroforestry can be coupled with it to augment their revenues. Research focus should be on promotion of those species of plants that have high carbon sequestration potential.

Innovations are also required for a sustainable habitat through energy efficiency and smart urban management. More than 30 percent of the emissions are from the urban areas. The National Mission on Sustainable Habitat (one of the eight missions under NAPCC) talks about improvements in waste management, recycling of waste water, sewage utilisation, sludge management and extensive increase in public transport like Rapid Bus Transit, Metro Rail improving the energy efficiency of buildings etc. in urban areas. Each of these problems requires separate attention and they are much bigger issues even if we do not consider the climate change aspect. For example, urban waste management is a vexing issue with problems ranging from bureaucratic apathy to lack of appropriate technologies suited for local needs. Even more is the increasing vehicular pollution. Before we see the complete effects of climate change, India needs to address its homegrown pollution which has more immediate and direct impact on its people. For example, the Uttarakhand floods in 2012 were caused by poor urban management meddling with the sensitive Himalayan ecology.

To achieve that target of limiting the temperature rise to below 2ᴼC by 2100, the world can emit only 2900 Giga ton (Gt) of Carbon dioxide. Till 2011 the world has emitted 1900 Gt, meaning the carbon budget is highly constrained and the remaining 1000 Gt has to be used judiciously for the next 80 years through the means of climate change adaptation and mitigation measures. Although it requires collective action, India cannot wait for anyone. The focus of the mitigation and adaptation measures in India should be to find innovative indigenous solutions which will complement foreign-funded programs like Clean Development Mechanism. After all, we are living in a time borrowed from our future generations and it is never too late to act.



This essay was submitted for the European Union-The Hindu Centre Essay Competition

(Sai Charan Bandaru is a graduate student of Master of Public Policy in the National Law School of India University. He can be reached at


Chikkatur, A. (2008). A Resource and Technology Assessment of Coal Utilization in India. Coal Initiative reports. Pew Centre on Global Climate Change. Available at

IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA

Jaiswal, A, India’s Climate Change Challenge,2013 (Interview). Available at

Ministry of Finance, GoI, (2015). Climate Change and Sustainable development. India Economic Survey 2014-15. Available at

Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, (2008). National Action Plan on Climate Change. GoI.. Available at

Ujjwal Bharat (2015), Ministry of Power, Coal, New and Renewable Energy, GoI. Available at 



Featured image source:

From Haymarket Square to Hosur Road: State of workers in India in 3 charts

Sachin Tiwari

The revolution never came. Battles of workers’ rights were won but the war often lost across the world. This is what unites the Haymarket Affair of 1886 with the garment workers’ protest on Hosur Road in Bengaluru a fortnight back. From 1886 to 2016, the world has tried every conceivable arrangement of the economic system, yet workers have never seemed to have found a way out of the daily insecurities of their wages and livelihoods.

Today, as countries across the world celebrate International Labour Day, it presents an occasion to look back at labour welfare over the century. The paradox is that the concerns of the workers don’t appear to have changed from the Haymarket incident to India’s Hosur Road protests in Bengaluru. Some may be quick to point out that Haymarket was about an 8 hour work day and Bengaluru protest was workers protesting against an arbitrary and sudden change in Employees’ Provident Fund rules pertaining to withdrawal of funds by the workers.  However, at a broader level, the nature arguably remains the same – the arbitrariness exercised by employers in dealing with workers, work conditions, wages and matters which are related to their livelihood. The sense of insecurity among the workers remains high, as seen in the extremely short time that it took from the notification of changed rules to the demonstration that happened across the garment industries clusters in Bengaluru.

Lenin’s sense of confidence in his 1919 May Day speech and the international optimism with the formation of International Labour Organization (ILO) in the same year was remarkable.  The Russian daily Izvestia reported a part of Lenin’s speech two days later:

Pointing to the children, Lenin said that they, who were taking part in the celebration of the festival of the emancipation of labour, would fully enjoy the fruits of the labours and sacrifices of the revolutionaries.

Our grandchildren will examine the documents and other relics of the epoch of the capitalist system with amazement. It will be difficult for them to picture to themselves how the trade in articles of primary necessity could remain in private hands, how factories could belong to individuals, how some men could exploit others, how it was possible for those who did not work to exist. Up to now the story of what our children would see in the future has sounded like a fairy-tale; but today, comrades, you clearly see that the edifice of socialist society, of which we have laid the foundations, is not a utopia. Our children will build this edifice with oven greater zeal.” (Stormy applause)

The world moved on quickly from that moment in history. The capitalist system contrary to Lenin’s dream is not a relic but the order of the day. Factories have increasingly gone on to belong to individuals. Free market economics soon took over pounding the socialist dream to fine dust.

Back home, India of 2016 too has ventured far away from the socialist dream of some of its leaders. Prime Minister Narendra Modi prefers to mark this day in 140 characters on twitter with this message –

“On Labour Day we salute the hard work, determination & dedication of millions of Shramiks who have an invaluable role in the making of India” (sic)

The point of this post is to illustrate that the developments related to workers’ rights and welfare should be a cause of concern to policy makers. The workers continue to contribute to the making of India but they certainly need more attention and care than what can be expressed in 140 characters.

The first chart (Chart 1) indicates a quiet and unseen quelling of workers’ right to collective action. In a nine-year period from 2000 to 2009 the number of registered trade unions has halved. Labour movements thrive on collective action. It is not a hard guess to figure the bargaining power that the workers might be left with in the wake of a declining number of registered unions across the country.

sachin - chart1

Chart 1: Chart was developed from MOSPI data available on


The next major trend was affirmed formally by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector under Arjun Sengupta’s lead (the Commission’s report was long withheld by GoI for reasons best known to the corridors of Vyapar Bhavan). The report as indicated –

 “…is focused on the informal or the unorganised economy which accounts for an overwhelming proportion of the poor and vulnerable population in an otherwise shining India. It concentrates on a detailed analysis of the conditions of work and lives of the unorganised workers consisting of about 92 percent of the total workforce of about 457 million (as of 2004-05). For most of them, conditions of work are utterly deplorable and livelihood options extremely few. Such a sordid picture coexists uneasily with a shining India that has successfully confronted the challenge of globalisation powered by increasing economic competition both within the country and across the world…

Further, it found that –

At the end of 2004-05, about 836 million or 77 percent of the population were living below Rs. 20 a day and constituted most of India’s informal economy.

Understandably, this was a damning report to come out in 2007 and most certainly was kept away from public attention. Chart 2 compares the formal and informal sector employment in organised and unorganised sectors.


sachin - chart2
Chart 2: The chart was developed from datasets available on 


Finally, let us examine the central spending on social security across various categories of expenditure of GoI. This is to illustrate the state of neglect and dereliction of the state from its professed commitment to workers’ welfare.

sachin - chart3

Chart 3: This data was first presented by Ravi Duggal at Medico Friends Circle meeting in Hyderabad, 2013. The figures are extracted from Ministry of Finance's annual publication Indian Public Finance Statistics - 2012-2013


Labour welfare as observed from the chart, forms least of the priority compared to pension and retirement benefits for civil servants. The priorities of GoI, if not stated, can sure be observed from these patterns of spending. In the Indian government’s imagination it isn’t the workers but civil servants who have an invaluable role in the making of India. Perhaps!


For all the optimistic, enthusiasm laden lectures that labour rights lawyers and professors make in the country’s many universities, the real picture isn’t a happy one. Neither is it a narrative of winning the rights cause. If any, it is a losing battle and thinkers, professors and lawyers must necessarily move beyond the glory song of rights won. The direction to move in is to think of how must the workers be armed (not in the weapons sense) to take on this shove from the current economic system which appears to be shortchanging them left, right and center.


(Sachin Tiwari is a graduate student of Master of Public Policy in the National Law School of India University. He can be reached at


V. I. Lenin Internet Archive (, 2002

Narendra Modi Twitter post (

Report of the Committee on Unorganised Sector Statistics (




Featured image source:


NJAC: A Necessary Evil?

Siddharth Sekhar Barpanda

There is little doubt that Indian citizens from all walks of life are tired of the slow process of reforms customary in the nation. There is also a valid reason to blame the Government (of the day) for the sorry state of affairs. Democracy is work-in-progress and it takes time to build institutions capable of meeting the demands of an aspirational society. But, is it only the Executive and the Legislative pillars of democracy, which to a large extent overlaps in the Indian context, are to be held responsible for bad governance? Isn’t the Judiciary, if not wholly, but nevertheless partially liable?

Pendency (of Cases) & Vacancy (of Judges) Galore!

Let’s first look at some current issues distinctive and ubiquitous to Indian judiciary. The access to speedy justice is still a dream for the majority of the citizens. The courts in India are famous for their long & arduous process of delivering justice. No wonder, the pendency of cases in courts are rising day by day. In the Supreme Court of India alone, the pendency of cases stands at 61300 (as on 1st March 2015). Similarly, across the nation’s 24 High Courts, cumulatively more than 4 lakh cases are pending. These astronomical figures in itself stand as an alibi to the poor functioning of Indian judiciary.

Of course, for a country of 1.27 billion people, this may seem defensible. Yet, the higher judiciary cannot hide behind the veil of a large population. Even so, the pendency of cases is related to the quantity & quality of Judges. The Law Ministry has itself in its annual report claimed that Shortage of judges in courts is one of the main causes for backlog and pendency of cases in courts.As on 1st August 2015, there are 3 vacancies in Supreme Court of India against the approved strength of 31 (including Chief Justice of India). Moreover, there are 384 vacancies in all 24 High Courts against a total approved strength of 1017.

The Need for NJAC

So basically, the vacancies only in Supreme Court and 24 High Courts amounts to 36.9% of the total sanctioned strength. Note that, this doesn’t include the District & Subordinate Courts. Also, it’s true that many appointed judges lack competency and credibility. Justice Rama Pal, a former judge of the Supreme Court described the process by which a judge is appointed to the High Court or the Supreme Court as, “one of the best-kept secrets in this country”!

It is in this context, the need to have a comprehensive, transparent and a robust mechanism to select judges of the SC and HCs was initiated. Subsequently, the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) Act, 2014 and the corresponding Constitutional Amendment Act came into force on 13th April 2015, after the Parliament passed it by a special majority followed by ratification of the new legislation by 16 State legislatures, and subsequently assented by the President of India.

The Impact on Governance

However, some Public Interest Litigations (PIL) challenged the constitutionality of the NJAC on the ground that it affects the independence of the judiciary that forms part of the basic structure of the Constitution, which is inviolable. A 5-member bench, set up by the Chief Justice of India, is now hearing the validity of the legislature’s decision to do away with the two-decade-old collegium system of judicial appointments.

Without going into the larger philosophical debate of whether the Government or the Supreme Court has the right to invoke the basic principles of Constitution, it’s important to address the inconvenience caused to the citizens due to this ideological tussle between the Government and the Supreme Court. On April 27, 2015, the Chief Justice of India informed the Prime Minister that he would not join the NJAC panel until the SC decides on the validity of the new system.

As eminent and distinguished lawyers argue the controversial case in the SC, the vacancies in the higher judiciary are increasing every passing month.

Judges Vacancies in HCs

1st May 2015

1st June 2015

1st July 2015

1st Aug 2015

The need of the hour is that the democracy should function for the larger public good as opposed to the ongoing supremacy struggle between the different pillars of the state.

(Siddharth Sekhar Barpanda is a graduate student of Master of Public Policy in the National Law School of India University. He can be reached at


Department of Justice, Government of India

Department of Justice, Government of India (


Featured image source:

Ambedkar in the Gandhi-Ambedkar Debate

Neha Mallick

Deconstructing Ambedkar through the Gandhi-Ambedkar Debate

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar was one of the architects of the Indian Constitution. The significant contributions of Ambedkar to both British and modern India has been his work for the socioeconomic inclusion of the ‘Dalits’. Ambedkar’s efforts to eradicate social evils like untouchability and caste restrictions were remarkable. The political views of Ambedkar are brought to relief in his exchange of ideas on caste and untouchability with Mohandas Gandhi, after the publication of his ‘Annihilation of Caste’. This essay examines this debate between Ambedkar and Gandhi to understand Ambedkar’s political position.

Ambedkar’s Political Life

In 1936, Ambedkar founded the independent labour party, which won 15 seats in the 1937 elections to the central legislative assembly. He published his book ‘The Annihilation of Caste’ in the same year, based on the thesis he had written in New York. Attaining popular success, Ambedkar’s work strongly criticized Hindu religious leaders and the caste system. He protested the Indian National Congress (INC) decision to call the untouchable community ‘Harijan’, a name coined by Mohandas Gandhi. Ambedkar served on the Defense Advisory Committee and the Viceroy’s Executive Council as Minister for labour. Ambedkar oversaw the transformation of his political party into the ‘All India Schedule Castes Federation’, although it performed poorly in the elections held in 1946 for the constituent assembly of India.

Ambedkar’s opinion on partition remained in a state of confusion for many. Between 1941 and 1945, he published a large number of books and pamphlets, including ‘Thoughts on Pakistan’, where he criticized the Muslim league’s demand for a separate Muslim state of Pakistan. While in the chapter ‘A nation calling for a home’, in his book ‘Pakistan or Partition of India’ Ambedkar eloquently stated that the things that divide are more crucial than the things which unite. He also stated that depending upon certain commonality of Hindu and Muslims social lifestyle, common language, common race and common country, the Hindus are mistaking what they consider accidental and superficial to what actually is essential and fundamental. The political and religious antagonisms divide the Hindus and the Muslims far more deeply than the so-called common things that are able to bind them together. Ambedkar considered that the Muslims have developed a ‘will to live as a nation’. For them, nature has found a territory, which they can occupy and make it a state as well as a cultural home for the new-born Muslim nation. While justifying the partition of India, he condemned the practices of child marriage in Muslim society, as well as the mistreatment of Muslim women (Hamdani, 2014).

Ambedkar and Jinnah had a friendly association with each other. As men of the law and as leaders of groups outside the upper caste milieu of Hindudom and Congress, they considered each other as the great resistance to the Hindu caste domination in India. At the time when the Congress quit the government in 1939, Ambedkar joined Jinnah in the celebration the day of deliverance along with Periyar E V Ramasamy Naicker of the Dravidian movement. While he criticised Jinnah, publicly and privately, wherever and whenever he felt Jinnah was making a mistake and Jinnah took it uncharacteristically. He argued that Hindu and Muslims should segregate and the state of Pakistan be formed, as ethnic nationalism within the same country would only lead to more violence. He cited precedences in historical events such as the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and Czechoslovakia to bolster his views regarding the Hindu-Muslim communal divide (Hamdani, 2014).

The Poona Pact

Ambedkar was a critic of Gandhi and the INC. Gandhi had an arguably romanticized view of traditional village life in India and a sentimental approach to the untouchables. Ambedkar rejected the epithet ‘harijan’ as condescending. He encouraged his followers to leave their home, villages, move to the cities, and get an education. In his book ‘Gandhi & Gandhism’ he strongly criticized Gandhi as an incapable leader who failed to fulfil his promise given to the untouchables in Satyagraha through temple entry bills.

The Poona Pact refers to an agreement between the ‘Untouchables’, who were excluded from the varna system (then called Depressed Classes, now called Dalits) of India led by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and the upper caste Hindus of India that took place on 24 September 1932 at the Yerawada Jail in Poona.

During the first Round Table Conference of 1930-1931, Ambedkar supported the move of the British Government to provide a separate electorate for the oppressed classes which was done in the case of other minorities, like Muslims, Sikhs and others. The British Government invited various Indian leaders for Round Table Conferences during 1930-32 to draft a new constitution which would include self-rule for Indians. Mahatma Gandhi was absent from the First Round Table Conference but attended the latter ones. At that time, Gandhi strongly opposed the proposal of separate electorate for the depressed classes, , which was initiated by the British Government and supported by Ambedkar. He thought that it would disintegrate Hindu society. Gand then went on an indefinite hunger strike from September 20, 1932 against the decision of the then British Prime Minister J Ramsay Mac Donald. Ramsay who granted a communal award to the depressed classes and he gave them a separate place in the constitution for governance of British India (Poona Pact, 2012).

The whole country was agitated at Gandhi’s fast. A mass upsurge began in India to save the life of Gandhi. Dr B.R Ambedkar had undergone great pressure and was forced to soften his stand on the separate electorate for the depressed classes. The compromise between the leaders of caste Hindu and the depressed classes was achieved when Dr B R Ambedkar signed the Poona Pact on September 24, 1932. The resolution was then announced at a public meeting held on September 25, 1932, in Bombay, which declared that “henceforth, amongst Hindus, no one shall be regarded as an untouchable by reason of his birth and they will have the same rights in all the social institutions as the other Hindus have”. This was a red letter day in the Dalit movement process in India that gave a share to the Dalits in the political empowerment of democratic India (Poona Pact, 2012).

The Annihilation of Caste

‘The Annihilation of Caste’ was a speech that Ambedkar was going to deliver in Lahore. Ambedkar never gave the lecture as he was asked by the organisers to modify its content. Later he published it as a book. He did not accept the defence of caste on the basis of division of labour and stated that it was a division of labourers. The former was voluntary and depended upon one’s choice and aptitude and rewarded efficiency. The latter was involuntary, forced, killed initiative and resulted in job aversion and inefficiency.

In the book, Ambedkar reflected mainly on the caste issue and Hindu social system. He cites from D R Bhandarkar’s paper ‘Foreign Elements in the Hindu Population’ stating that there is hardly any caste or class system in India left untouched with a foreign strain in it. These castes and classes are an admixture of foreign blood not only among warrior classes but also among the Brahmins who happily consider themselves to be free from all foreign elements. Ambedkar thus makes a strong argument for the caste system having no scientific basis. Ambedkar states that caste has destroyed the concept of ethics and morality. He said that “The effect of caste on the ethics of the Hindus is simply deplorable. Caste has killed the public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. Caste has made public opinion impossible. His loyalty is restricted only to his caste. Virtue has become caste-ridden, and morality has become caste-bound.” Ambedkar found the solution to the problem of caste in inter-caste marriage (Mungekar, 2011).

In ‘The Annihilation of Caste’, Ambedkar’s critique of the Hindu social order was so strong that Mahatma Gandhi, in the weekly journal ‘Harijan’, described Ambedkar as a ‘challenge to Hinduism’. Ambedkar wrote a reply to Gandhi. He was convinced that political empowerment was a key path to achieve the socioeconomic development for the untouchables. Therefore, he demanded a separate electorate for the depressed class in the Second Round Table Conference in 1932. When the British agreed to fulfil his demand, Gandhi started his historic fast unto death at the Yerawada jail. Pressure aroused from all corners that mounted on Ambedkar to forego the demand for a separate electorate as Gandhi’s life was at stake. Unwillingly Ambedkar agreed to the formula of a Joint Electorate with reserved seats in legislatures for untouchables (Mungekar, 2011). Ambedkar thought that only through the abolition of untouchability and the eradication of caste would India become a unified country (Mungekar, 2011).

A statesman, scholar, crusader of the downtrodden and above all a spiritual guide, Dr. Ambedkar has left an indelible impression in the Indian history. Throughout his life, he fought for the rights of the untouchables and during his political career, he remained a strong critic of Gandhi. Gandhi had a more positive, arguably romanticized view of traditional village life in India and a sentimental approach to the untouchables. This essay was a reflection on the contradictory principles of Gandhi and Ambedkar and on the debate that took place between them throughout their political career.


Mungekar, B. (2011, July). Annihilating Caste. Frontline. 28 (15). Retrieved December 18 from

Hamdani, Y.L. (2014, March 10) Ambedkar, Jinnah and Muslim nationalism. Daily Times. Retrieved from

B. R. Ambedkar. (n.d.). In New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved on 1 July 2015 from

Poona Pact (2012). Retrieved on 1 July 2015 from

(An economics graduate and a keen follower of contemporary debates, the author is a postgraduate student of MPP: Master of Public Policy (2016) at the National Law School, Bangalore.)

Featured image source: