Ambedkar and the Liberalism of Our Fears

Aishwary Kumar's book presents Ambedkar and Gandhi as “two thinkers in the modern non-West struggling with [the] risk of an inegalitarian democracy".

December 6, 2019 marks the 63rd death anniversary of Dr B.R. Ambedkar

There is a familiar way in which the intellectual history of modern India has been written: that it be sufficiently hagiographic as to be a kind of splitting image of the nation and the nationalism that ground it.

The problem is that at the heart of the ‘idea of India’ lie two distinct visions in tension with one another. Depending upon the ways in which these distinct visions are drawn or redrawn – and the key dramatis personae named and tracked – the histories that are forged come to acquire their own contemporary character. Aishwary Kumar’s Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi and the Risk of Democracy, is one such history, albeit singular and striking in its attributes, and the two distinctive visions engaged with are those of B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi.

Originally published by Stanford University Press, the work has been in circulation within both scholarly and activist spaces since 2015. It has obviously taken a while for Navayana’s Indian reprint to appear, and to it goes goes the credit for facilitating the book’s wider circulation.  The author himself has, in the interim, moved on Stanford, where he taught history, to the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he holds a chair of political philosophy and intellectual history.

On its own terms: the work in question

Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi and the Risk of Democracy (RE, for short) brings together six substantive chapters, spread over three parts, each part comprising chapters responding equally and respectively to Gandhi and Ambedkar.

Part I is framed as ‘Beginnings: Elements of a Critique of Force’. It traces the ‘early anticipations’ of Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s “shared interest in the category of force” and accordingly being seen to take shape “outside India at the turn of the century”.  The focus here is on Gandhi’s ‘satyagraha’ – itself a combination of ‘satya’ (truth) and ‘agraha’ (rendered as “firmness, steadfastness, or force”) – with the author Aishwary Kumar shifting the axis of its criticality towards the latter part of the pairing. This is juxtaposed with elements of Ambedkar’s ‘critique of force’ coming from his “early days in New York”, where an incipient interest in classical texts on sovereignty would take shape and form the basis of his corpus that would soon evolve. Kumar sees these ‘early anticipations’ in their respective critiques of ‘force’ to be ‘momentous’, translating into “two distinct conceptions of moral and political action, two distinct articulations of justice … the effects of which would play out with greatest intensity in the 1930s and 1940s”.

The two chapters in Part II – ‘Interwar: Sovereignties in Question’ – address precisely these tumultuous decades, a period when “experiments with franchise and constitution reached an abrasive highpoint”.  Thus we have an engagement with Gandhi’s ‘maryada dharma’ and his consequent anointing of the ‘untouchable’ as ‘harijan’ – itself seen to prefigure “all future conceptualizations of the social question in India” – as indeed the recounting of the tumultuous stand-off with Ambedkar, which while translating into the Poona Pact of 1932, also lent Ambedkar a reconfiguration of the space of freedom and equality.  In fact, this latter reconfiguration is seen to not only transform Ambedkar’s “own intellectual history but the very framework of debates on popular sovereignty and dissidence in modern India”.

Accordingly, the Ambedkar part of the chapters in Part II yields a formidable reading of his Annihilation of Caste, as indeed of his Thoughts on Pakistan, each being seen to mark an inheritance of, and an ambivalence with, the ‘classical republican tradition’.

Aishwary Kumar, Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi and the Risk of Democracy. New Delhi: Navayana Publishing, 2019.  South Asia edition, pp. xiv + 393 (including notes/bibliography and index), Rs.599.

Part III, significantly positioned as ‘Reconstitutions: Of Belief and Justice’, takes these dramatic intensities forward, the first of this set of chapters yielding an understanding of the ‘limits’ configuring Gandhi’s ‘response’ to the Annihilation of Caste – Ambedkar’s call for ‘annihilation’ being seen as a denial of ‘satyagraha’s moral ontology’ – and the subsequent chapter traversing closely the edifice of “the mature Ambedkar’s most radical gesture yet toward a religious politics” (as represented primarily in his ‘Buddha or Karl Marx’ and The Buddha and His Dhamma).  Ambedkar is here seen as ‘supplementing’ the very idea of “religion’s transcendence itself” into obligation for or towards an ‘immortal justice’ founded on a ‘revolutionary fraternity’ (maitri).

The book also has a robust and expansive introductory chapter both laying out and summarizing its arguments as a whole and a concluding ‘Epilogue’ outlining a set of thoughts strictly about the ‘radical equality’ of Ambedkar.  The introductory chapter enlarges the scope of the investigation, offering the study as both “an archaeology of [the] egalitarian commitment” as expressed in the thought and practice of both Ambedkar and Gandhi and a “study of the global life of democracy – the tension between popular sovereignty and civic virtue, the struggle for balance between insurrection and constitution”.

Indeed, with specific reference to the latter rubric, Kumar is very clear that this “entails not simply an inquiry into the processes by which the meanings, values, and practices of ‘the political’ … came to acquire their ambiguous universality”, but also “requires an archaeology of the limits – conceptual, rhetorical, material, and symbolic – lodged at the centre of the political as such …”.

Furthermore, it is with reference to the ‘limits’ that ‘the risk of democracy’ (as expressed in the book’s title) takes its unique measure, wherein  “the founding norms of democracy exclude its most insurrectionary practitioners, just as, in a moment of striking unity between force and justice, the excluded turn against those norms and rules of democracy that structure their oppressive existence”.

Consistent with this move, the book presents Ambedkar and Gandhi as “two thinkers in the modern non-West [-] struggl[ing most productively] with [the] risk of an inegalitarian democracy, [the] sacrifice of equality in the very name of an ethical and political community”, although in the overall handling of the ‘risk’ Ambedkar is seen to be overseeing the terms of a more radical translation.

Even as this latter point comes through at every opportunity of thinking through these ‘two thinkers’, the ‘Epilogue’, provocatively titled ‘Citizenship and Insurrection’, not only cautions against “a wilful, selective embrace of Ambedkar” (including the “appropriation of Ambedkar into the grand narrative of nation”) and poses the imperative of squarely facing up to “Ambedkar’s own refusal to dissociate the question of republican sovereignty from the struggle for justice, his attempt to inscribe the right of civic insurrection at the heart of citizen virtue”.

Of course, as RE places in perspective, the “relationship between freedom and citizenship, sovereignty and justice, constituent power and constitutional principles” remain as unsettled today as they were “at the foundation of 19th and 20th-century anti-colonial experiments with truth and self, morality and sacrifice”.  But again, as Kumar forcefully avers, ‘Ambedkar’s struggle’ must be approached as seeking to “institute another truth … one rooted in a dissident practice of citizen virtue and creative action, anchored in a demanding balance between reciprocal rights and unconditional freedom … and pegged in an uncompromisingly just – possibly impossible – point between measure and immeasurability” – a “positing”, overall, “of equality as autonomy and incommensurability”.  RE has accordingly “tried to return history to the heart of that insurrectionary past of citizenship, the soul of that responsibility that Ambedkar had called, in a moment of revolutionary clarity (and irreducible risk), ‘the essence of a truly religious act’”.

Lineaments of ‘force’: a movement across

Having staged the book largely on its own terms, let me now turn to a word that ‘leaps’ out of almost every page of RE – namely, ‘force’ – with Kumar presenting both Ambedkar and Gandhi as thinkers primarily of ‘force’, as indeed the force of their thought, and bequeathing an important legacy of force, each with their own unique valencies and nomenclatures to describe the actions of force.

Indeed, the word ‘force’ considered over and against canonical conceptions of power and sovereignty is a powerful word with equivocating consequences.  In fact, the resort to force or to arguments of ‘force’ has become a central trope of modern and contemporary historical and philosophical thinking, with the desire for dynamism of thought and practice, beyond form and structure, bringing perforce a resort to ‘force’.  Not quite only in its English usage, the word ‘force’ – with its many translations across the space of the Indo-European languages – has a range of significations attaching to it; ‘force’ as something more empirical and non-empirical, at once actual and potential (in a word, ‘dynamic’), a ‘force’ with the potentiality to reduce the world of things (including the human) to nothing and accordingly a power that simultaneously deposes the world of objects and imposes a field of relations.

Surely, then, there are different ways of responding to the challenge of thinking ‘force’.  And, consistent with that manoeuvre, I see RE as one part of that challenge of thinking force emanating from ‘our’ part of the world.  As Kumar  states emphatically in the book’s opening pages, the work answers essentially to the force of the ‘egalitarian commitment’ which ‘bring[s] Gandhi and Ambedkar together and pull[s] them apart’, and that indeed this “is less a history of enunciations and universality of meaning … than it is a history of rarity and exception, a history of depths”.

Accordingly, RE turns the full measure of its attention in particular to Ambedkar and Gandhi’s ‘critique of force’, which while central to their constitutive ways of thinking about transformative action “would remain unbridgeable”. Both Gandhi and Ambedkar are seen as “shift[ing] nationalism’s obsessive interest in ends” and “seek[ing] to reformulate the means and force proper to justice”. In a nutshell, both are approached as equally investing in the question “What kind of force – routine, infinitesimal, even invisible – constitutes a free and equal life?” and, in particular targeting the idea and condition of a “suffering mandated by religious injunction and inflicted by involuntary force of law”.

Needless to say, in the balance of this treatment of Gandhi and Ambedkar, the centre of gravity and challenge is more the latter than the former.  Indeed, RE constantly represents Ambedkar as ‘the thinker of force par excellence’ and, as such, as offering a moral and political ontology which complicates “the conceptual and historical line between a people’s constituent power and the constituted domain of authority (the state) to which that power gives rise”.

Now, of course, the lineaments attaching to this thinking of ‘force’ as represented in and through the pages of RE are hardly philological, invoking explicitly an order of treatment that one may term broadly ‘ontological’ and ‘historical’.  This is further consolidated through the means of a contextualized intellectual history, casting a glance also at the cross-Atlantic moorings and influences as operating in the thought of both Ambedkar and Gandhi, and a ‘dab’ at political philosophy.  At some risk of sounding pedantic, allow me to say that I am not sure that all the limits of abjuring a ‘philological’ treatment of the very idea of ‘force’ are being heeded; and, what is more, that the ontological and historical treatment also compromises the stakes of a political philosophy howsoever conceived.

This latter point is of course not to query a move at the heart of RE, namely, to challenge the “circumscription of Ambedkar as a theorist of social amelioration – and his evacuation from the realm of insurrectionary politics”.  To be sure, as Kumar explicitly states, RE is an attempt to capture “[Ambedkar’s] conviction that any understanding of politics must be necessarily insurrectionary in its articulation”, while going on to hold suggestively that “[p]olitics can be philosophical – and philosophy political – only inasmuch as it requires a moral groundwork, a theory of action, which would both be realistic and prompt in its response to lived experience in its uncertainties” and simultaneously urging that “[t]his responsiveness – and ethics of responsibility – would mould Ambedkar’s thinking when he engaged such classical categories as ‘the state’ and ‘the multitude’ (or such ontological categories as ‘truth’), or even ‘social reform’, refusing to constrain them within the boundaries of nations, traditions, and theologies” (emphasis mine).  This is certainly suggestive, and the reader may well ask about the problem I am raising.

I am underplaying the precise influence on my pattern of thought here, but the problem largely has to do with paying heed to an aspect of ‘our’ collective existence that arises from the feeling of incommunicability haunting the ability to communicate. This feeling is as true of work given over to examining the communicability of language – as in, say, philology or even hermeneutics, where words are invariably taken to leap out of their conceptual determinations – as in ontological and historical projects of the kind attempted by RE.  Indeed, the problem, I am inclined to think, is accentuated in the case of the latter, given over to sustained examinations of the political (as indeed the language of politics), and especially where ‘the political’ and ‘politics’ are seen to both give effect to and deliver into the terms of the ‘theologico-political’.

Far from inflecting on the terms of the latter, RE is interested to fold into this very problematic, even refurbishing it, as in Kumar’s rendering of the ‘theologico-political’ as “that intractable concept-figure constituted by the triad of faith, force and sovereignty” and, more insistently, locating Ambedkar’s “struggle for an ethical and political religion” within that very frame.  The ground is compounded further by the claim (or, rather the assertion) that “India’s political modernity [-] was not simply a radical experiment in the politics of faith, as both Gandhi and Ambedkar would come to insist … [but] rather it was theologico-political at it source”.  Surely, there is a limit – an incommunicability haunting the ability to communicate – underscoring the ‘theologico-political’, as indeed any (or given) enunciations of that problem.

Getting a measure of that ‘limit’ is imperative, and not quite only in the context of the contending visions that can (or ought to) inform our contemporary present.  Quite apart from an aesthetics of reading, it also requires an engagement with the ‘recursivity’ of all histories.

Beyond the aesthetics of reading: the question of recursive histories

The problem for us is that, across the space of contending histories, each with their ideas of India that are in tension with one another, what seems clearly to be a kind of symptom of an extant historical condition, for which one wants a diagnosis, is often taken as the diagnosis of the extant condition (or pathology) itself.

In sheer programmatic terms, this is to conflate the demands of analysis with the compulsions of advocacy, but certainly one need not have qualms about this denouement.  Surely, it is never easy to separate descriptive claims from their evaluative undertones.  The truly perplexing aspect, yet, has to do with a coming to terms with the ‘recursivity’ of all (or most) histories, especially as accentuated to the contemporary present.  In a manner of speaking, all thought (and cognition per se) is ‘recursive’ in the sense that it uses the results of its own operation to ground further operations.  But when transposed to the terrains of history and historical narrativisation per se, the matter comes to acquire a particular cast.

The distinguished historian, Romila Thapar, has repeatedly drawn attention to this in her extended corpus, whether in terms of ‘the past before us’ or even ‘the past as present’.  But one is not entirely sure whether the orders of this work are adequate to the question that one is placing here in perspective.  More specifically, with reference to the question of recursive histories, we are dealing at once with aspects of a historical configuration that answers to our present – India’s present, and maybe even a global present – and a theme within a theory of emergence, so that even as social and historical operations (as rendered in thought as in practice) have to take responsibility for themselves, they do so by virtue of a structure of reflexivity that is best explained as a peculiarly radical experience of operations which adapt themselves to their own results.  The ‘doubleness’ that defines the space of this problematization therefore – where a ‘concept-figure’ both inhabits a configuration and draws on it, while also altering (or remaking) the dimensions of its programme – has to be grasped as a means really of actualizing recursivity.

All this may seem somewhat obscure; let me illustrate from within the pages of RE.  In giving the measures of his book, Kumar tellingly observes:

“Here, I only want to re-emphasize that Radical Equality is neither a study of an important figure and his corpus in its integrity nor is it a social and historical biography of an encounter between two thinkers at war.  It is a history of an antinomy in anticolonial political thought, a history that seeks to consider Ambedkar and Gandhi together as exemplars of a shared philosophical conviction that was as radically new in its prescriptions as it was classical in its problematic.  This conviction … was a shared and strained conviction that was locked in a ceaseless struggle to formulate a new political and moral ontology” (emphasis added).

The recursive gesture here, clearly, is not quite only in the positioning of Ambedkar and Gandhi as key to unlocking ‘an antinomy in anticolonial political thought’; it also consists in the outlining of a ‘new political and moral ontology’, whose more complete measure is held to accord more with Ambedkar than Gandhi.  The ‘Indian Political’ – a ‘distinctive expression’ which, as Kumar discloses, “appears in what is also Ambedkar’s most republican treatise” (namely, in the latter’s re-issued second edition as Pakistan, or the Partition of India [1945]) – is thus seen to translate into a ‘vision of freedom’ “[un]concerned with the ethics of civilizational mastery and national spirit” and targeting in the most exacting manner the “ambiguity in Indian imaginaries of the nation form – the juridical and religious exclusions inseparable from the triumphant proclamations of anticolonial nationalism”.

Without doubt, such a recursivity underscoring the history that Kumar provides has tremendous (and even radical) implications – and not quite only as a counterweight to triumphalist affirmations of Indian nationalism, whether articulated in India’s past or in its presents.  Indeed, as a form of ‘counter-desolation’, the consolation that RE offers can be lucid and cathartic.  It may therefore seem pretty trite and somewhat pedantic to forward the claim that I now will.  But it is important. Kumar is explicit:

“(M)y argument is that Ambedkar experienced the political – and its relationship with the ethical – at its limit; that he inhabited, probed, vacillated, thought, and made demands on it at the extremities of its conceptual and methodological norms; that, above all, a global genealogy of democratic ethics becomes possible only by attending to those moments when his conceptual and rhetorical choices transform the limits of the political in its specificity and universality” (emphasis added).

Mark the lines that I have italicized – clearly, RE is both coming up to this measure and falling short of it.  The consolations of all ethics is of its nature limited and personal; when ethics is combined with politics (or comes to acquire a political cast), both the ends – the ethical and the political – come to acquire a heady and volatile character.  Sounding the limits of this enterprise may be as imperative as participating in it.  Thinking with, consequently, requires thinking against – this is as true of Ambedkar as of Gandhi (or, for that matter, any other figure of the ‘Indian Political’).  The political community of which we (may wish to) speak is marked as much by communicability as by incommunicability.  Essentially, this was also the thought underscoring our point in the penultimate paragraph of our previous section, namely, about paying heed to an aspect of ‘our’ collective existence that arises from the feeling of ‘incommunicability’ haunting the ability to communicate.

The question of recursive histories requires as a rule, the ‘observation of observations’, where the focus is not quite (only) on what an observer observes, but how the observed observer observes.  While this may be easily admitted, actualizing it can be quite difficult and challenging.  An equally, if not more perplexing aspect of a rule of recursive histories is also what and how an observed observer is unable to observe.  Surely our ‘habitations’ of the idea(s) of India in our present would require adhering to these protocols, as much of scholarly inquiry as of charged political engagements.

* I am grateful to my university colleague Jyotirmaya Sharma for the stimulus and for reading through a preliminary draft. 

Sasheej Hegde teaches sociology at the University of Hyderabad