The more one reads John Dewey, the easier it is to see the profound impact he had had on Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Indian Constitution. When I came across one of his quotes as part of a reading in my course just a week before the Republic Day of India, I couldn’t help but reflect on what seemed to be sign and a reminder.
Everywhere there are waves of criticism and doubt as to whether democracy can meet pressing problems…Wherever it has fallen, [democracy] had not become part of the bone and blood of the people in daily conduct of its life. Democratic forms were limited to Parliament, elections and combats between parties. What is happening proves conclusively…that unless democratic habits of thought and action are part of the fiber of a people, political democracy is insecure. It cannot stand in isolation. It must be buttressed by the presence of democratic methods in all social relationships.
– John Dewey
Ambedkar consistently warned and fought against the lack of democratic methods in social relationships as he saw and experienced being part of the caste system. The elitism and other-isation that manifests as a function of the caste system across different avenues—state, market, and community—dictates which voices are heard or ignored. All this weakens the possibilities of political democracy.
At a time when democratic forms are threatened in the Parliament, elections and combats between parties are compromised and the very idea of citizenship is being perversely interpreted, reading Dewey and reflecting on Ambedkar’s writings reminded me of the bigger picture—wherever our karmbhoomi is, we have the opportunity (and the test) of relating to one another, of employing (or dismissing) democratic methods in building and cultivating our relationships despite being raised in various systems that make us differentiate or discriminate.
This is not a one-off act. This is a daily challenge. In an age where it is easier to be a consumer than a citizen, we are called to reflect on the ethics of every role we play and how the inevitable politics of our roles contribute to a democratic society.
I am glad Ambedkar met and studied under Dewey. It is a meeting of minds that has led to ideas and action that will continue to inspire generations.