Ambedkar, Fanon, Gandhi: On Truth and Violence

A conversation on the ideas of truth and violence between Ambedkar, Fanon and Gandhi.

Note: This article was originally published on April 13, 2016, and is being republished on the occasion of Ambedkar Jayanti.

This article is an attempt to establish a three-way conversation between Frantz Fanon, B.R. Ambedkar and Gandhi regarding the question of ‘truth’ and ‘violence’. For Ambedkar and Gandhi, the relationship between truth and violence is understood in relation to ahimsa. All three thinkers write in the context of the anti-colonial struggle. For Fanon, the question is a double-edged one, as colonialism takes place under the deep shadow of racism, while for Ambedkar it is a split battle, since apart from the united, nationalist struggle against the white coloniser, the question of caste has to be posed internally within the society struggling against colonialism.

Truth, power, caste

Gandhi places the idea of a satyagrahi against all sovereign power. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Gandhi places the idea of a satyagrahi against all sovereign power. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Gandhi places the idea of a satyagrahi against all sovereign power in these words: “It is a fundamental problem of satyagraha that the tyrant, whom the satyagrahi seeks to resist, has power over his body and material possessions, but he can have no power over his soul”.  So it is soul-force or truth-force that Gandhi’s satyagrahi uses as a political weapon against the violent power of the sovereign. In contrast, Fanon approaches the question of violence by first clarifying the relationship between truth and nationalism: “The problem of truth ought also to be considered. In every age, among the people, truth is the property of the national cause. No absolute verity, no discourse of the purity of the soul can shake this position. …Truth is that which hurries on the break-up of the colonialist regime; it is that which protects the natives, and ruins the foreigners. In this colonial context there is no truthful behavior.”

For Fanon, it is impossible to expect any truthful behaviour under the colonialist regime, because the only truth at stake is a complete break with the colonial regime. Truth for Fanon is as much a matter of dignity and point of difference vis-à-vis the colonisers as it is for Gandhi, but there is a fundamental difference. For Fanon, the property of truth is intrinsically linked to nationalism while for Gandhi it is also linked to a critique of nationalism. For Fanon, politics is what is at stake vis-à-vis truth, while for Gandhi it is the opposite: truth is what is at stake vis-à-vis politics. So for Gandhi, truth is something that is not wholly understood or explained through politics, but which nevertheless is an ethical activity within politics. Fanon also doesn’t hold Gandhi’s soul-body distinction in terms of the effects of colonialism. For Fanon, the colonised “owes the fact of his very existence, that is to say his property, to the colonial system.” Away from Gandhi’s spiritual soul-body distinction, Fanon formulates an existential meaning for the colonised subject. For Fanon, there is no property of the subject outside colonialism. But for Gandhi, the soul is a property which can resist being influenced by the coloniser.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ambedkar saw truth is the discourse of Brahminical power. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ambedkar presents a fascinating contrast to both Gandhi and Fanon. He will, to begin with, agree with Fanon about the question of truth in relation to the caste system. Truth is the discourse of Brahminical power, and its edifice needs to be smashed. Under the stain of the caste system, the upper caste cannot behave truthfully, nor will it demand any truthful behaviour from the people they oppress. In his reply to Gandhi’s response to his undelivered lecture on the annihilation of caste, Ambedkar writes with polemical force, “As a Mahatma he may be trying to spiritualise Politics. Whether he has succeeded in it or not, Politics have certainly commercialised him. A politician must know that Society cannot bear the whole truth and that he must not speak the whole truth; if he is speaking the whole truth it is bad for his politics.” What is the “whole truth” that Gandhi is hiding in order to present his opposition to the call for annihilating caste? Ambedkar clarifies what he means, “The reason why the Mahatma is always supporting Caste and Varna is because he is afraid that if he opposed them he will lose his place in politics.” By not attacking the foundations of caste, Gandhi, as Ambedkar can plainly see, is desisting from his own truth-claim. The contention is, the steadfastness to ‘truth’ that Gandhi deploys vehemently against the coloniser he is unwilling to use against Hindu casteism. Ambedkar finds this dichotomy in the two roles Gandhi is playing: as a saint and as a politician. In other words, the politician is not allowing the saint to be wholly truthful. For Ambedkar, Gandhi’s politics does not fully acknowledge Gandhi’s responsibilities as a saintly man who proclaims to speak the truth. Ambedkar draws a general view that saints have anyway never campaigned against caste and untouchability. So, as he puts it, “dependence on saints cannot lead us to know the truth”.

For both Fanon and Ambedkar, truth can only be wholly grasped in opposition to power. It is only in the destruction of the racist, colonial regime or the Brahminical law of exclusion that truth shows forth. The idea of the soul then works as an impediment to what the body is suffering. Against Gandhi’s idea of an individualist soul, Ambedkar and Fanon argue on behalf of the body’s collective suffering, and demands truth to acknowledge the liberation of that suffering. Anything that falls short of this is not “wholly” true.

Beyond violence: two ideas of ahimsa

If we connect this idea of truth to what all three thinkers thought about the question of violence, we get an equally interesting picture. For Gandhi, the idea of satyagraha is based on the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence, as a new mode of politics. Gandhi defines satyagraha, poorly translated as passive resistance, as “a method of securing rights by personal suffering”. “It involves,” Gandhi says, “sacrifice of the self”. Here too, we find, Gandhi’s idea of non-violence and the suffering one undergoes for it, explained within the framework of the individual subject. Non-violence is a deeply personal, individual self-ethic, even as it takes part in a larger movement of politics.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Fanon sees racist colonialism creating a situation where violence is natural. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For Fanon, since the racist interface controls the discourse of violence, which is marked upon the body of the native, he understands the problem in this manner: “The violence of the colonial regime and the counter-violence of the native balance each other and respond to each other in an extraordinary reciprocal homogeneity. This reign of violence will be more terrible in proportion to the size of the implantation from the mother country. The development of violence among the colonised people will be proportionate to the violence exercised by the threatened colonial regime.” Since there is nothing in Fanon’s schema of thought regarding the human being that can be saved from the racist coloniser’s violence, he is caught in a mode of equalisation of violence. The counter violence of the native is nothing more than the violence that has been put into him by the coloniser. The argument seems to be that racist colonialism creates a situation where violence is natural; it enhances a naturalist propensity for violence and the native is trapped in this naturalist logic. It is a ‘no-exit’ situation for Fanon, concerning violence.

Ambedkar might agree with Fanon, to begin with, that the Brahminical system, as much as the colonial, introduces a fundamental violence into the encounter with the oppressed. But Ambedkar is also invested in a Buddhist idea of ahimsa, which makes a distinction between ‘the will to kill’ and ‘the need to kill’. Ambedkar contends the Brahminical caste system “has in it the will to kill.” The perpetuation of power and interest is what drives this will to commit violence. Fanon would surely agree with Ambedkar at this point, though for him the matter is a bit deeper. For Fanon, “violence is not a simple act of will, but needs for its realisation certain very concrete preliminary conditions, and in particular the implements of violence”. Ambedkar would agree in turn, identifying what Fanon calls “concrete preliminary conditions” in the foundational laws of caste, including the Manusmriti. To Ambedkar, the distinction between “will” and “need”, or the desire for positive harm and compulsion, is a necessary distinction between active violence and self-defence.

The other interesting aspect regarding non-violence Ambedkar pays attention to is his reading of Buddha’s distinguishing between non-violence as a “Principle and as a Rule”. According to Ambedkar, Buddha “did not make Ahimsa a matter of Rule” but as a “matter of Principle”. As he understands it, “A principle leaves you freedom to act. A rule does not. Rule either breaks you or you break the rule.” This is slightly different from Gandhi’s version of non-violence, as for him ahimsa is a concept and conduct, where the principle becomes the rule. Since Ambedkar believed in ‘absolute non-violence’, which addresses the larger question of social violence and not simply violence at the individual level, he finds Gandhi’s idea of ahimsa lacking as a social ethic as it leaves the question of relative violence unanswered.

Manash ‘Firaq’ Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.

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