He challenges the illusions about power and democracy, wealth and violence, Hinduism and tradition, nationalism and justice, and about all that metaphysical cant. He is the mirror in which we dare not look at ourselves. His presence is a constant reminder of our bad conscience and bad faith
ANNIVERSARIES are usually moments of stock taking, assessing achievements and failures. In the case of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, such an exercise would be both presumptuous and foolish. With many great leaders, we assess how they measure up to standards and ideals of a civilisation. In Ambedkar’s case, the reverse is true. He is the yardstick to which a whole civilisation must measure up. We don’t judge him by our ideals; he should be the ideal by which we judge ourselves. In engaging with Ambedkar, the question is not of assessing him; it is of assessing ourselves, and trying to understand why we continue to avoid confronting his bracing call to justice, his advocacy of reason, the depth of his institutional imagination. He is the mirror in which we dare not look at ourselves; his presence is a constant reminder of our bad conscience and bad faith.
Writing about Ambedkar is difficult for a number of reasons. There is the prosaic matter that scholarship has not served him well. He is still awaiting a great biography. Except for sporadic efforts, some in Marathi, there are few annotated or authoritative editions of his work. His correspondence remains scattered and inaccessible to varying degrees, caught between various issues of institutional ownership. If there is one desideratum of his 125th anniversary, it would be to produce authoritative editions of all his works, papers and correspondence. Even if you plough through all his works, it is hard to get to know the individual with the intimacy that we have with Nehru and Gandhi. Scholarship, institutional power and a thicket of social support and contemporary memoirs have given Gandhi and Nehru scholarly scaffolding. Ambedkar has to shine through the veil of relative neglect.
No attempt to marginalise Ambedkar can combat his blazing political and moral power. He is the only leader of his generation who has more than religious significance for millions of followers: he is deified and memorialised across the bylanes of Dalit colonies in a way that begs comparison, not with ordinary statesmen, but religious revolutions of the past. ‘Jai Bhim’, the liturgical greeting of the Dalit movement, is quietly but surely becoming more potent a force than ‘Jai Siya Ram’. He is no longer merely a leader, but a prophet and a redeemer.
Ambedkar’s most telling charge against Nehru was that his Discovery of India, as it were, draws a kind of veil over
injustice; and he often openly accuses Nehru of Brahmanism
Prophets are also difficult to write about for two opposite sets of reasons. For followers, the deification and hagiography that Ambedkar had warned about can close deep engagement; Ambedkar becomes an authority rather than someone one thinks with. There is also a pall of suspicion over writing about Ambedkar. For non-Dalits, there is a psychological sense in which they are not entitled to write about him. For decades, he was the disconcerting figure we chose to ignore. It is as if a society does its level best to marginalise a figure, and then jumps on his bandwagon when he succeeds despite them. There is also the suspicion that attempts to use him are also attempts to tame and contain him. Reverence to Ambedkar is the easy facile gesture that prevents us from confronting his radicalism. This is apparent, for instance, in the BJP’s appropriation of Ambedkar. It says something about the way in which Congress marginalised him that the BJP’s attempts at least seem a political gesture of some sort. At least he is now spoken of more. But the gesture highlights not just the limits of appropriation. It also shows how in bowing our head to him we prevent him from piercing our soul.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently made a well-articulated call, when laying a Foundation stone for an Ambedkar Memorial, to see Ambedkar as more than a sectarian leader of Dalits. There is an obvious sense in which this is true: anyone who cares about justice and democracy cannot fail to benefit from his brilliance. But the claim that he is more than a leader of Dalits alone should not be a facile gesture. It would need to ask the deeper question of what would have to be true for all of us to be entitled to claim him as our leader as well. Ambedkar spoke universal truths. But he had no doubt whatsoever that the right to claim him had to be earned. Only when Dalits are emancipated will it be possible to claim that right. If we want to claim him as a leader of more than Dalits, the onus is on us to pass the test he would have set.
There is often a justified fear amongst Dalits that the gesture of treating him as more than a Dalit leader comes at the cost of blunting his radicalism. Non-Dalits become comfortable with him by blunting the piercingly clinical anger he always displays against injustice. This anger is even more direct in his Marathi speeches than his English texts. Indeed, making injustice visible is the abiding thread of his career. No cause, not nation or power, culture or wealth, that draws even the slightest veil over injustice is worthy of allegiance. He is often accused by critics like Arun Shourie of not being a nationalist. His greatness was to insist that a nation that did not have its foundations in justice was not a nation at all. He chafed against the fact that almost all ideology was a ruse to render oppression of Dalits invisible, to cloud its visceral presence under a fog of abstraction. The raw violence, the duplicitous oppression, the daily humiliation, inflicted on Dalits is something we turn our gaze away from. Raw violence against Dalits was never fully acknowledged, or if acknowledged, its significance was minimised by a fog of mendacity and defensiveness. His complaint against Nehru, perhaps even more searing than his indictment of Gandhi, was just this: he had no ability to acknowledge the centrality of this violence to Indian society. He wrote, ‘Turn to Jawaharlal Nehru. He draws inspiration from the Jeffersonian Declaration: but he has never expressed any shame or remorse about the condition of sixty million untouchables. Has he anywhere referred to them in the torrent of literature that comes out of his pen?’ There is something to the charge that Ambedkar constantly levels against ‘Touchables’: ‘They just don’t get it.’ It is not clear that we do either.
What makes his anger productive is that it never shades into vengeance: it is always a form of pointed social critique. But his own lack of vengeance has become an excuse to de-radicalise him. There are two issues here. One is the issue of Ambedkar’s deep thinking on the relationship between ends and means, which we will touch upon later. But there is amongst Dalits, rightly, a sense that the lack of vengeance in Ambedkar has become an excuse for our lack of genuine anger at the structural oppression in which society traps Dalits. He, rightly, in his engagement with Gandhi, was offended by the idea that Dalit liberation would be anything less than their empowerment. Gandhi’s construal of it as a problem for upper castes was in some measure a ruse just to deny that empowerment. This is not the occasion to go over the Gandhi- Ambedkar debate (those interested can look up DR Nagaraj’s great writing on the subject, The Flaming Feet and Other Essays: The Dalit Movement in India, still the best thing available). But Ambedkar’s emphasis that Dalits would not play passive victims has become an excuse to forget the extent to which they continue to be victimised; his advocacy of constitutional politics has become a ruse to limit Dalit emancipation to facile constitutional gestures. Ambedkar’s own writing, if you are honest, leaves you gutted and defenceless. By the strange alchemy of appropriation he has been made into a safe rather than disconcerting figure. He is an object of consensus when it comes to invoking a figure to be revered. In truth, he is at the heart of the most fundamental conflicts over the soul of India.
Ambedkar disconcerts at so many levels. Of all the leaders of his generation, his clarity is the most bracing. He is unsurpassed in astute marshalling of facts and logic. There is, unlike Nehru, never a trace of sentimentality in any of his arguments. This is true in his early doctoral writings. It is also a feature of his incredibly wide ranging economic analysis, his work as a legislator, both in the Bombay Legislative Assembly and the Constituent Assembly. His erudition, learning and range of references are unmatched. If you want a feast of relentless logic and unblinkered clarity, simply turn to his Thoughts on Pakistan, which to date remains the most clear-eyed, take-no-prisoners view of the subject. It is a tract that is selectively quoted by both Hindu nationalists and proponents of Pakistan. But it was in its own way, a reduction ad absurdum of the logic of each position. Ambedkar also disconcerts because at some level, his positions are constantly exposing the hypocrisy of our own. I do not mean this in a superficial sense that he always reminds us of the reality of injustice. I mean it in the deeper sense that he takes any ideal and shows how we do not fully follow through its conclusions.
His most telling charge against Gandhi is not just that Gandhi failed to do justice to Dalits. Gandhi in his view had certainly employed non-violence in the cause of immoral ends of blunting Dalit demands. Gandhi also failed to do justice to the ideal of non-violence in a deeper sense. This was the idea that for someone who was a proponent of non-violence, there was an incredible psychological coercion at the heart of Gandhi’s tactics; and he even had the temerity to suggest that some of it was directed inward. It is a measure of Gandhi that he probably would have accepted some truth in this charge. The claim that in a constitutional culture satyagrahya could be a form of violence, a narcissistic belief in one’s own truth without acknowledging the reality of difference, was a telling charge. Ambedkar’s belief in constitutional methods in the face of the experience of injustice was at least as much if not a more radical expression of non- violence than Gandhi could ever imagine. It takes an immense and different kind of courage to not convert the deepest kind of oppression into a call for cathartic violence. In many ways it is Ambedkar who tied India into a deeper form of non-violence than Gandhi did, by committing Dalits to a repertoire of constitutionalism— a fact some Dalit radicals rue has tied their hands.
Gandhi in Ambedkar’s view had certainly employed nonviolence in the cause of immoral ends of blunting Dalit demands. Gandhi also failed to do justice to the ideal of non-violence in a deeper sense
His most telling charge against Nehru was that his Discovery of India, as it were, draws a kind of veil over injustice; and he often openly accuses Nehru of Brahmanism. But more tellingly, Ambedkar is one of the few leaders of his generation who understood the deep transformative effects of wealth on society. This was not just from the idea that while renunciation could be a meaningful gesture for upper castes, it was something of a sick joke to call on those who were dispossessed to practice it.
It stemmed from a unique sociological appreciation of wealth that all those trying to modernise India ignore at their peril. One of his most remarkable essays is a critique of Bertrand Russell’s Reconstruction of Society. He chided the aristocratic Russell for his platitudinous critique of the love of money. Ambedkar writes, ‘Neither does the restatement of the evils of “love of money” by Russell add any philosophic weight to its historic value… The misconception arises from the fact that he criticises the love of money without inquiring into the purpose of it. In a healthy mind, it may be urged, there is no such thing as a love of money in the abstract. Love of money is always for something, and it is the purpose embodied in that something that will endow it with credit or shame….Thus even love of money as a pursuit may result in a variety of character.’ This alignment of money with variety, and its absence with a possible dead uniformity, has more plausibility than easy critiques of avarice that come from a flippant moralism. So Ambedkar disconcerts. He stretches non-violence to its constitutional logic more than Gandhi; modernity to its association with variety more than Nehru; and his historical consciousness to the exploration of dark and evil spaces more than anyone else. In doing so, he exposes the limits of our allegiances to our own convictions.
The deep discomfort Ambedkar still causes, however, comes from a claim that is central to the contemporary struggle over the soul of India. The first was his claim of the centrality of violence to the constitution of Hindu society. Violence was not an aberration, a flotsam that could be cleared up to reveal the bright and placid waters of Hindu society underneath. It was central to its identity and functioning. There is no skirting around the fact that for Ambedkar, justice required declaring a war of sorts on Hinduism. As he wrote in his reply to Gandhi, ‘I would like to assure the Mahatma that it is not the mere failure of Hindus and Hinduism which has produced in me the feelings of disgust and contempt. I am disgusted with Hindus and Hinduism because I am convinced that they cherish wrong ideals and lead a wrong social life. My quarrel with Hindus and Hinduism is not over the imperfections of their social conduct. It is much more fundamental. It is over their ideals.’
This pointed declaration makes Ambedkar so central to contemporary struggles. The project of achieving justice was not simply a matter of reforming a tradition, making it live up to its ideals. Justice would require whole-scale destruction of a tradition. As a new Dalit consciousness gains strength on Indian campuses, this is arguably going to be the single biggest cultural fault line to emerge in contemporary India. The emerging conflict between Ambedkar- Periyar activists on the one hand and ABVP on the other gives a whiff of this undercurrent, and why student politics is becoming even more intense on issues of identity. It is true that what Ambedkar had in mind was Brahmanism, the most astonishing and imprisoning ideological structure ever invented. Even non-Brahmanical modes of Hindu articulation were so infected with its vice-like grip that it had to be dismantled before justice even becomes a possibility.
Justice would require wholescale destruction of a tradition. As a new Dalit consciousness gains strength on Indian
campuses, this is arguably going to be the single biggest cultural fault line to emerge in contemporary India
A large part of Ambedkar’s oeuvre that still repays close reading is his diagnostic: his relentless attempt to understand what produced such a diabolically oppressive structure as caste. Many of his theses are acute in their sociological insight and historical penetration. He rejected the Aryan Invasion theory of subjugation. He rejected all race-based explanations. He was particularly scornful of functional explanations of caste, since caste involved an imprisoning hierarchy of functionaries, not functions. This is not the occasion to go into Ambedkar’s strengths as an Indologist or historian, which, as Arvind Sharma noted in an important article, ‘BR Ambedkar, on the Aryan invasion and the Emergence of the Caste System in India’, are considerable. But two large claims emerge from his analysis. The first is that, whichever way we cut it, material or functional explanations could not by themselves explain the peculiarity of caste: it was at base a diabolical series of representations, imposed by a priestly class, as an act of power. It was self perpetuating through its denial to Untouchables of all three means of advancement: power, wealth and education. It is diabolical in creating a series of gradations in society where adjacent classes oppress each other. It revels in permanent division. The moral rage at Brahmanism comes from precisely this fact: that there is no possible functional justification for the order they created. It was an imposition of power, pure and simple. This power operated through a particular conceptual ordering of reality, and that entire conceptual ordering had to be dismantled for liberation to be possible.
Rather than frontally confronting this point, almost all Hindu engagement with caste begins with an apologia of some sort or the other: ‘Caste was functional at some point,’ we intone; ‘The social reality of caste did not correspond to the ideal’, as if caste could ever be a justifiable ideal; ‘There was a lot more flexibility and mobility,’ as if that can excuse the general loathsomeness of the system. ‘Caste was based on worth, not birth.’ In the end, even the slightest defensiveness of caste is a ruse to blunt its sheer vileness as a social system.
Or even worse: apologists defensively argue that Hinduism affirmed equality. This equality was a metaphysical abstraction, quite compatible with an oppressive social order. For Ambedkar, the Purusa Sukta was a late interpolation in the Vedas. But the lesson he drew from it is that metaphysical categories always come braided with social hierarchy: no amount of allegorical reading of the Vedas or the Gita could get away from the fact that the transcendental was always aligned in the service of social hierarchy. Any attempt to detach the two was an exercise in bad faith. So what’s at stake in Ambedkar’s engagement with Hinduism was not just a social critique; it’s the claim that this social critique would require felling an entire intellectual structure. If you are brutally honest about the crisis of Indian intellectual traditions, you have to acknowledge the fact that this crisis has its roots not in Western delegitimisation, as potent as that might have been, but in the eruption of the ‘social question’. With what straight face, what act of good faith, could you defend an intellectual tradition at whose core was an oppressive, hierarchical and segmented social system? What does one make of a tradition whose intellectual radicalism almost always ends up serving the ends of social conservatism in one form or the other?
The nationalist movement was the last intellectual gasp of a project that thought it was possible to transcend tradition without making tradition despicable; it was possible to reform in order to preserve. Ambedkar threw a gauntlet to that project: the abolition of religion was necessary to the abolition of slavery
This is not the place to settle the intellectual argument over the relationship between the transcendental and the social. And certainly a critique can be made of Ambedkar’s reading of philosophy in a socially reductionist way. But just how sensitive an issue this is for many of those who claim to defend Hinduism can be gauged from the fact that anyone who throws a spotlight on the question of power and hierarchy in traditional intellectual constructions is immediately seen as suspect. The intensity of the recent Hindutva charge against Sheldon Pollock, for example, does not come from his being Western, it comes from the allegation that he reads a tradition through the way it structures relations of power. To make the question of power the defining hallmark of a tradition, the yardstick by which it is judged is Ambedkar’s singular achievement. There is no question that the contest over Ambedkar is over the very possibility of rescuing Hinduism from this moral taint of power through and through; in that sense, his critique is the most radical that anyone in Indian civilisation has ever professed.
The critique is made all the more disturbing by Ambedkar’s moral psychological excavation of Hindu identity. He peels the layers of violence and resentment that go into the construction of that identity. He was amongst the first thinkers to link the question of gender violence and communalism in relation to caste. In his early essays, he rightly pointed out not only that endogamy was central to caste, but that control of women, widows and unmarried girls in particular would be central to the maintenance of caste identity. As he put it, the problem of caste ‘is the problem of surplus men plus surplus women’. In this sense, regulation of women was central to caste. His unkindest cut of all was to argue that communalism was the mechanism for the creation of a Hindu identity. As he acerbically put it, a caste has no consciousness of being affiliated to another caste, unless it is in the context of Hindu-Muslim riots. In short, Hindus needed an ‘Other’ to consolidate their identity in the face of internal division.
The centrality of ahimsa in the Indian tradition was not a description of our non-violent history. Quite the contrary, it was a testament to the centrality of violence. The sociologist Orlando Patterson had once argued that a proper discourse on freedom arose in Greece precisely because it was a society constituted by slavery: freedom was valourised precisely because it was needed as a negation of the existing social reality of slavery. Similarly, the discourse on ahimsa was more a sign of violence inherent in society. And even when Brahmanism responded to violence by internalising the Buddhist critique, it needed a totem. Ambedkar linked the existence of untouchability with beef; the peculiar horror at the Untouchable can only be explained by associating them with beef eating. He was concerned in part with explaining the intensity of the hate against Untouchables. This was not a mere relation of inequality or oppression: it served the function of securing purity. Again, anyone who does not know this history will fail to understand what the conflict over beef on Indian college campuses is about.
Violence was not an aberration, a flotsam that could be cleared up to reveal the bright and placid waters of Hindu society underneath. It was central to its identity and functioning. For Ambedkar, justice required declaring a war of sorts on Hinduism
In short, Ambedkar’s project was the biggest, most daring act of the systematic unmasking of any civilisation that anyone has seen. It involved the ‘revaluation of values’, detecting the true springs of vice behind the profession of virtue. These Nietzschean references are not entirely out of place, because it was just that. He was claiming that behind the valourisation of ahimsa lay a deep himsa; behind the interdictions of ritual lay the most serious mutilation of human personality anyone had seen; behind the homilies of a unified cosmic order lay the deep divisions of society. Behind the solicitude for the cow lay a visceral hate for beef eaters, as if the very gentleness towards the cow was merely a sublimated form of cruelty towards others. If you have ever wondered why defenders of the cow can be so callous towards other human beings, read Ambedkar. His critique stings, not because it is a lament that we have deviated from an ideal. It is the claim that the ideal has, at every step, violence and cruelty behind it. He had lamented that the hold of Brahmanism was such that India never had a Voltaire. It had an Erasmus maybe, partial reformers working within the paradigm of existing social structures. But no one who could radically question the legitimacy of the whole edifice.
Reservations now, in a sense, depend on a majoritarian alliance of Dalits and Other Backward Castes. It gives reservations a political solidity. But it has obscured the ethical specificity of the Dalit condition
To take Ambedkar seriously would be to take this critique seriously. But the response to Ambedkar has been, first, resistance: with the grand exception of his participation in the drafting of the Constitution, there was a systematic attempt to marginalise him. Then it was defensiveness: the appalling lengths to which we will go to deny the violence inflicted on Dalit bodies, or the continual denial of opportunities for empowerment. When defensiveness is no longer a political option, there is appropriation. It is hard to imagine RSS workers who chant his name coming to terms with his critique of Hinduism. His Riddles in Hinduism was, after all, banned. But it is appropriation that seeks to tame or disguise the brutal truth Ambedkar was telling us about ourselves. Defenders of Hinduism would do better to acknowledge the truth of his critique; at least their response will be in better faith. The nationalist movement was the last intellectual gasp of a project that thought it was possible to transcend tradition without making tradition despicable; it was possible to reform in order to preserve. Ambedkar threw a gauntlet to that project: the abolition of religion was necessary to the abolition of slavery. You do not reform to preserve; you have to destroy to liberate.
What kind of an intellectual life can a nation construct after such knowledge? Ambedkar himself had no doubt that the destruction of Brahmanism was central to any project of retrieval or justice. But despite his own turn to Buddhism, the question of tradition remains a vexed one. Perhaps one key to understanding him is to look at the poignant and moving dedication to ‘What Congress and the Gandhi Have Done to Untouchables’. This dedication is unusual because it is one of the rare moments in Ambedkar’s writing where he seems to let down his emotional guard. The only other moments are when he speaks of the immeasurable tragedy of the loss of his children: ‘With the loss of our kids the salt of our life is gone, and as the Bible says, “ye are the salt of the Earth, if it leaveth the Earth, wherewith shall it be salted.”’ The dedication is to a person addressed as ‘F’. It begins with a quotation from the Book of Ruth, a dialogue between Naomi and Ruth. The quotation ends with ‘thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest will I die, and there will be buried; the LORD do so to me and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.’ Ambedkar then goes on in a passage worth quoting in full:
I know how, when we used to read the Bible together, you would affected by the sweetness and pathos of this passage. I wonder if you remember the occasion when we fell into discussion about the value of Ruth’s statement “The people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” I have a clear memory of it and can well recall our difference of opinion. You maintained that its value lay in giving expression to the true sentiments appropriate to a perfect wife. I put forth the view that the passage had a sociological value and its true interpretation was the one given by Prof. Smith, namely, that it helped to distinguish modern society from ancient society. Ruth’s statement “Thy people shall be my people and thy God my god” defined ancient society by its most dominant characteristic namely that it was a society of man plus God while modern society is a society of men only (pray remember that in men I include women also). My view was not then acceptable to you. But you were interested enough to urge me to write a book on this theme. I promised to do so. For as an oriental I belong to a society which is still ancient and in which God is a much more important member than man is. The part of the conversation which is important to me at this stage is the promise. I then made to dedicate the book to you if I succeeded in writing one. Prof. Smith’s interpretation had opened a new vista before me and I had every hope of carrying out my intention. The chances of developing the theme in a book form are now very remote. As you know, I am drawn in the vortex of politics which leaves no time for literary pursuits. I do not know when I shall be out of it. The feeling of failure to fulfil my promise has haunted me ever since the war started. Equally distressing was the fear that you might pass away as a war casualty and not be there to receive it if I were to have time to complete it. But the unexpected has happened. There you are, out of the throes of death. Here is a book ready awaiting dedication. This happy conjunction of two such events has suggested to me the idea that rather than postpone it indefinitely I might redeem my word, by dedicating this book which I have succeeded in bringing to completion. Though different in theme it is not an unworthy substitute. Will you accept it?
It is hard to imagine RSS workers who chant his name coming to terms with his critique of Hinduism. But it is appropriation that seeks to tame or disguise the brutal truth Ambedkar was telling us about ourselves
This dedication is of deep interest because there is an almost unbearable tenderness and sense of commitment in this dedication. It shows the state of neglect of Ambedkar that we know almost nothing about the person ‘F’ to whom this is dedicated. Dhananjay Keer’s biography of Ambedkar describes her simply as Ambedkar’s ‘Bible teacher’. But more philosophically, Ambedkar lays his cards on the table. The gulf between the modern world and the ancient world is identified as the centrality of ‘man’. The striking sentence, ‘I belong to a society which is still ancient and in which God is a much more important member than man is’, is said with a deep sense of the tragedy of this condition; the claim that anything higher than ‘man’ is an erasure of humanity, a condition that we need to overcome. Ambedkar was out to slay all gods.
His embrace of Buddhism needs to be seen in this context. His quest to place humanity as the centre and measure of truth is relentless. It is so relentless that in slaying God, he wants to slay all metaphysics. Buddhism served many purposes for Ambedkar. It was the central axis of moral and historical conflict around which Indian history was organised, the alternative tradition that unmasked but was subjugated by Brahmanism. Conversion to Buddhism was also a modality of social protest. Buddhism could also be recast as a revolutionary social ethic: combining freedom and equality and a social harmony. The Sangha was a possible model of a democratic organisation, of a people freely conjoined together in a relationship of harmony. Scholars have often remarked on the fact that his interest in Buddhism is shorn of his interest in metaphysics either of causality, self or karma. If you want to see the gulf in the sensibilities between two approaches to Buddhism, all you need to do is contrast the socialist leader Acharya Narendra Dev’s contemporaneous magnificent 500-page tome Baudhadharma Itihaas with Ambedkar’s Buddha and his Dhamma. Despite the fact that Narendra Dev was a socialist, he has almost no interest in Buddhism as a social ethic; Ambedkar by contrast has little interest in Buddhist metaphysics. In a sense this ‘encounter’ sums up India’s intellectual tragedy: on the one hand, a deep metaphysics without a social ethic; on the other, a social ethic that is deeply suspicious of metaphysics. This has become an impossible dialogue, the marker of an unresolved aporia in Indian intellectual traditions: a piety of metaphysics locked in a battle with a deep hermeneutics of suspicion. By his conversion to Buddhism, Ambedkar was saying: either one can have a just social ethic or be in thrall to a false metaphysics. One cannot have both. The act of conversion was a rescue of humanity.
If you have ever wondered why defenders of the cow can be so callous towards other human beings, read Ambedkar. His critique stings, not because it is a lament that we have deviated from an ideal. It is the claim that the ideal has, at every step, violence and cruelty behind it
Ambedkar is, for the most part, interested in Buddhism as his social ethic, his principle of fraternity read backward into the organisation of Sangha. But this is not an accident: if Buddha slayed ritual, Ambedkar wanted to slay any residue of metaphysics, where man simply becomes an effect of some larger force, or gets lost in an abstraction. It is no wonder that he repeated over and over again like a talisman that his lodestar was Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. He categorically went on to equate Fraternity with Truth Itself. He said, “Whatever is for fraternity and brotherhood is for truth.” After this, all inquiry needs one focal point itself: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. This is the only religion Ambedkar would countenance.
And it is Ambedkar’s radical embrace of this trinity that makes him a central figure in another struggle of our time: the struggle over the nature of democracy. His genius in helping draft the Constitution can sometimes blind us to his clear-eyed view of its limitations. As Aishwary Kumar has pointed out in an important recent book Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi and the Risk of Democracy (Stanford University Press), Ambedkar is a radical in many senses. He is radical because of his unsentimental and unsparing view of democracy. He is the only Indian thinker who made Grote’s phrase ‘constitutional morality’, a government marked by a combination of moral self restraint, deference to forms, and free discussion, his own. But this was only a ‘top dressing’ on an Indian soil which was essentially undemocratic. But he was quite clear that the maintenance of a constitutional form was ‘not quite the same thing as self government by the people’. In fact, he was prescient in warning that there were two limitations to constitutional morality. The first limitation ‘was that the form of administration must be appropriate to and in the same sense as the form of the constitution’. Indeed, this is perhaps one reason, as Madhav Khosla has argued, that there is such an emphasis on codification of administration within constitutional law in India. More importantly, almost as if he is directly admonishing us even 70 years later, ‘it is perfectly possible to pervert the constitution without changing its form by merely changing the form of administration and to make it inconsistent and opposed to the spirit of the constitution.’ Similarly, representative government was not necessarily responsive government. As he wrote in What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables, ‘By itself [universal suffrage] cannot bring about a government, in the sense of the government by the people and for the people.’ And finally, he understood the deepest contradiction of democracy: trying to institute a regime of political equality amidst deep social and economic inequality. This was a tension no democracy could survive for long.
In this climate, it is also worth reiterating his scepticism about privileging nationalism over justice. As he categorically states, ‘Nationality is not such a sacrosanct and absolute principle as to give it the character of a categorical imperative, overriding every other consideration.
This radical critique of democracy makes him more than a conventional liberal. There is a temptation to think of Ambedkar as a radical republican of sorts: a republican in his belief in fraternity, a republican in his suspicion that economic inequality and genuine democracy can go easily together, and a republican in his belief that there can be any ground for authority other than one that is self imposed. But I think the appellation of ‘Republican’ to Ambedkar can be misleading in three respects. First, Ambedkar is relentlessly suspicious about the idea that the sovereignty of the people is a unitary thing. One of his reasons for reliance on liberal contrivances of checks and balances was this: that sovereignty cannot be a unitary thing, and therefore cannot be represented by anyone. Second, given the depravity of Indian social conditions, he had more faith in the state as source of social order than in virtue as the basis of social harmony. His relentless critique of decentralisation and localism, in part borne of a suspicion that it would simply empower local tyranny, was simultaneously a faith in the state’s ability to reconstruct society. And finally, though Ambedkar longs for fraternity, a quality of reciprocity between citizens, his fraternity does not have any of the exuberance of unity evidenced in most republican thought. Ambedkar is, in some profound sense, too much of a believer in individuality to risk losing it in the metaphysical unity of republicanism. In some ways, there is a hard-to-capture but fundamental loneliness to his sensibility that makes him stand at some distance from republicanism.
Ambedkar had no doubt that social justice would require the empowerment of Dalits, and this empowerment would require a share in all forms of power. As he sardonically remarked, other systems of exclusion marginalised excluded groups on one or two dimensions: exclusion from wealth, arms or education. The exclusion of Dalits was oppressive because it was along all three dimensions. It is not an accident that Ambedkar valued not just education as a means of empowerment; the creation and expansion of the Mahar Regiment, and creating a space for access to wealth were also instruments of power. These could not be secured without access to state power. His lifelong quest to secure equitable representation for Dalits was borne of this recognition. He was amongst the first to articulate the idea that the notion of merit needed ideological demystification: it was inherited privilege. That some of these platitudes still need to be reiterated is a testament to the degree to which we are still far from his ideals. There is no question that Dalits require continuing affirmative action of a radical kind. This is an elementary requirement of justice. But there is a little bit of an irony in the framing of reservations. One of the abiding passions of Ambedkar was his relentless insistence on the specificity of the Dalit experience. Indeed, one of the criticisms of his strategy was that this specificity made him less adept at making alliances with other groups. At the heart of this specificity was a particular experience of discrimination. It is for this reason that he wanted the acknowledgment of Dalits as a minority identity. One of the great ironies of the way reservations have unfolded is that both of these ideas have got lost to some degree. The expansion of a paradigm of reservations that was appropriate for Dalits to OBCs did two things simultaneously. In the ‘caste wars’, it obscured the specificity of Dalit history; it was a history that was appropriated by others, often even by Other Backward Castes directly instrumental in oppressing them. The extension of the metaphor of power sharing has made the category of discrimination all but invisible. It has replaced Ambedkar’s hope of cultivating a new ethical relationship into an open struggle for power and reactionary resistance. But it has also reworked the political basis for reservations. Reservations now, in a sense, depend on a majoritarian alliance of Dalits and Other Backward Castes. It gives reservations a political solidity. But it has obscured the ethical specificity of the Dalit condition. *** So Ambedkar is disconcerting because he challenges any politics of illusion: illusions about tradition, about power, about Hinduism, about democracy, about metaphysical cant. In this climate, it is also worth reiterating his scepticism about privileging nationalism over justice. As he categorically states, ‘Nationality is not such a sacrosanct and absolute principle as to give it the character of a categorical imperative, overriding every other consideration.’ But there is a profound pathos at the centre of his thinking: how could Ambedkar, who had seen farther into human depravity and oppression than anyone else, keep hope? It is to his eternal credit that he did not rely on any external crutches, the dialectic of history, the comforts of metaphysics, the consolations of religion, the certainties of a false scientism, to sustain hope against centuries of suffering. In one respect, he did resemble Gandhi: there is no basis for social action other than the wits of our own conscience. In another one of his poignant essays on ‘Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah’, he insisted:
As experience proves, rights are protected not by law but by the social and moral conscience of society. If social conscience is such that it is prepared to recognise the rights which law chooses to enact rights will be safe and secure. But if fundamental rights are opposed by the community, no Law, no Parliament, no judiciary can guarantee them in the real sense of the word. What is the use of fundamental rights to the Negroes in America, to the Jews in Germany and to the Untouchables in India? As Burke said there is no method found for punishing the multitude. Law can punish a single, solitary recalcitrant criminal. It can never operate against a whole body of people who are determined to defy it. Social conscience—to use the language of Coleridge—that calm and incorruptible legislator of the soul without whom all other powers would, “meet in mere oppugnancy, is the only safeguard of all rights fundamental or non fundamental”. This can be a reassuring or a deeply disconcerting thought, depending on your point of view. The idea that in the final analysis we have no resources other than our own conscience can leave us defenceless, particularly, as Ambedkar knew, when that conscience was so easily overridden by false beliefs. Ambedkar does not, beyond a point, have a theory of political praxis; in a way, that made him politically less effective if measured by conventional yardsticks of political success. But what he had in ample measure was the power of his conscience against the depravations of a whole civilisation. He once said of himself, “I am like a rock that does not melt but turns the course of rivers.” He certainly bent the course of a whole civilisation towards the arc of justice. But the resulting conflicts and reverberations are yet to be fully felt: they are unfolding in the demand for liberation and violent resistance playing out in Indian society. Ambedkar is not everyone’s thinker, because we have not done enough to deserve him. He is everyone’s thinker in only one sense: he stands as a permanent admonishment to us all.
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