Background Culture and Democratic Ideals

The belief that humans are free and equal, having intrinsic worth is taken for granted today—be it our socio-political theories, or democratic imaginations, or our constitutional laws! However, in reality, this is not a belief shared by all, nor is it innate to human imagination. Aristotle intuitively reasoned as follows: “But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? — There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and other be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” Consequently, he argued that it is natural that Hellenes should rule over barbarians and men over women.

Yet, today, thanks to the demands of political correctness, even those who don’t believe it pretend to believe it just the same! While reason may function as a vehicle to make sense of egalitarianism, it is not a belief derivable via rational or logical deduction. What then should we make of the American Declaration of Independence which holds that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” as being “self-evident”?

Historically, the belief that every individual, irrespective of race, gender, ethnicity or nationality, shares an intrinsic value as a human being has been seriously questioned. Hitler’s genocide of the physically and mentally disabled and his ethnic cleansing of the Jews are not the only times in history where the intrinsic worth of humans has been defied. The myriad other cases of mass murders and ethnic cleansing of tribes and religious minorities, in the past and today, are often advanced by the underlying belief that one race or group is superior to the other.

Given this propensity to view races and groups hierarchically, any democracy, worth its salt, will necessarily have to enforce a view of the human that affirms intrinsic worth to each individual irrespective of race, religion, caste, or economic background. It undoubtedly is to the advantage of the state to have its background cultural and predominant religious doctrine eschew egalitarianism, making it “self-evident.” This allows the democratic machinery of the state to harness it towards a healthy expression of a plurality of views (including of those that oppose egalitarianism) and representations within the state.

However, for societies where the predominant background culture conflicts with egalitarian ethos, functional democracy becomes challenging. Understandably, where the popular religious and cultural doctrines promote inequality and disparity, the state’s task becomes an arduous one, in that it has to uphold ideals against the popular beliefs of its population. Given this reality, the case of Indian democracy, which for practical reasons has adopted a democratic structure, needs a sympathetic evaluation. The law cannot deliver beyond what it can! It is pointless to demand of a people a behavior fitting to the spirit of the constitution, without changing what Alexis de Tocqueville calls, “the habits of the heart.” As Dr. Ambedkar astutely observed: “Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic.”


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