Ambedkar, Gandhi and the Rise of Subcontinental Philosophy

We know that both Ambedkar and Gandhi had a “shared struggle to affirm life in its irreducible equality”. Yet Gandhi was unable to think equality radically enough.

After the Great Demonetisation of 2016, I really did expect that the new banknotes would have the faces of people other than Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. That was not to be, of course. It is still his face which peers out at us from every banknote. In a way this eternal union of Gandhi and the Indian currency is symptomatic. Both of them are universally acceptable abstractions whose primary function is to reduce difference to diversity.

Differences sound dangerous. Expressed as diversity on the other hand, they are laudable. The allure of diversity lies in its ability to regulate rather than negate differences. Totalitarian regimes view differences as something that need to be overcome and lead to the emergence of a homogeneous identity. In such regimes, whether they be fascist or communist, there is a marked tendency to overcome differences through force. Differences are expressed here in the form of contradictions. A contradiction generally offers the choice between two or more incompatible realities, some of which must supersede the others. In totalitarian regimes contradictions have to be overcome, which usually meant the liquidation of entire populations. Contrasted with such a totalitarian view of difference, Gandhi’s commitment to diversity can be seen in his ability to live and breathe his contradictions. He thereby showed everyone how these differences were not contradictions at all, but only diversity.

Despite the absolute correctness of his position, Gandhi is still the name for a philosophical impasse. The only way to avoid the erasure of differences that occurs in contradiction, is to posit diversity as their regulation. However differences are maintained here in an absolute state of indifference, shorn of their singularity, formally reduced to the same. Difference in itself can have no political consequences without being anchored in one of these two forms of identity. Totalitarianism completely denies difference to the extent that it has to seek it out and eliminate it. Liberal democracy on the other hand encourages the proliferation of difference but only through the prism of the neutral site which regulates it. Thus liberal democracy gives us an abstract equality in place of a radical one; an abstract difference, in place of an annihilative one. Who recognised this dilemma for what it is almost immediately if not the one thinker of whom Gandhi almost joyfully said, “Thank God, he is singularly alone”— Dr. B.R. Ambedkar?

The absence of any serious engagement with Ambedkar as a philosopher in the Indian academy has coincided for many decades with the dominance of postcolonial theory. The latter has quite correctly affirmed diversity and denied the totalitarian nature of contradiction whether it borrow the discourse of dogmatic Marxism, ethno-nationalism, or colonial ‘Progress’. However the choice that it gives us, between diversity and contradiction, is quite properly speaking a false one. What if difference is neither static nor negative but annihilative? What would this annihilative difference look like, and how would it be related to an equality no longer abstract but radical?

While in the paradigm of contradiction, differences are meant to be overcome in favour of a future homogeneity, in the paradigm of diversity differences are kept apart, insulated from each other in a sort of regulated stasis. The philosophical question of difference in itself never becomes a political problem because it is always refracted through these two paradigms. Is there another kind of politics where difference is intensified and neither denied nor regulated? In point of fact there are thinkers from the Indian subcontinent who are engaged in developing a political project of difference in itself. This essay is simply my own attempt to nominate this project, which I call ‘Subcontinental philosophy’, and to describe how it differentiates itself from the earlier postcolonial theory which could not think difference outside of diversity. I will therefore take up two books, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincialising Europe (2000) and Aishwary Kumar’s Radical Equality (2015), to mark the immense difference between postcolonial theory and Subcontinental philosophy.

Two anecdotes from Provincialising Europe

Chakrabarty is one of the most important living postcolonial theorists and historians, a Professor at the University of Chicago whose abovementioned book is a minor classic in its own right. Chakrabarty’s major point in his book is that there are two histories- History 1 which is the “indispensable and universal narrative of capital” and History 2, which is an “affective” history, one of the lifeworld in which a person dwells. History 2 cannot be reduced to the totalising thrust of History 1, even though they are both inherent to capital. In the conclusion to Provincialising Europe, Chakrabarty provides us with two anecdotes that exemplarily prove his point.

The first anecdote is about the astronomer and mathematician A.A. Krishnaswami Ayyangar who in his spare time was an erudite astrologer; his son was the poet A.K. Ramanujan who recalled that he was “troubled by his holding together in one brain both astronomy and astrology”. To this his father replied, “don’t you know, the brain has two lobes?”. The second anecdote is about the scientist and winner of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1930, C.V. Raman, who would take a ritual bath before a solar eclipse. These anecdotes, even if uncircumstantiated, tell Chakrabarty that these men of science “did not need to totalize through the outlook of science all the different life-practices within which they found themselves and to which they felt called… To provincialise Europe in historical thought is to struggle to hold in a state of permanent tension a dialogue between two contradictory points of view”. Perhaps this is the entire argument of Chakrabarty’s book condensed into a few sentences: contradictory life practices such as being both an astronomer and an astrologer can be maintained in a “state of permanent tension”.

Also read: ‘Never a Mahatma’: A Look at Ambedkar’s Gandhi

Chakrabarty notes that Ayyangar told his son, “don’t you know the brain has two lobes?” while Raman said “The Nobel Prize? That was science, a solar eclipse is personal”. The anecdotes detail situations where the force of a contradiction no longer holds. This absence of the force of contradiction illustrates almost perfectly the point made throughout his book: that the historicist project which lies at the base of colonial ideology has to be abandoned. This historicist project was justified by English thinkers of the 19th century like J.S.Mill who consigned colonised peoples to the ‘waiting room of history’. The colonised were considered chronologically backward as compared to the colonisers. There was only one single plane of history whose logic always was the same- first in Europe, then elsewhere.

Colonisation was thus justified as it brought colonised peoples into history and allowed them to gradually progress towards the European ideal. This ideologically coloured perspective on history was also put forward by Marxist historians like Eric Hobsbawm who described the Indian peasant insurgencies and rebellions of the 20th century as ‘prepolitical’ and ‘archaic’. For Hobsbawm, Chakrabarty writes, “Peasants’ actions, organized—more often than not—along the axes of kinship, religion, and caste, and involving gods, spirits, and supernatural agents as actors alongside humans, remained for him symptomatic of a consciousness that had not quite come to terms with the secular-institutional logic of the political”.

For Hobsbawm such contradictions needed to be resolved on a separate plane before the peasants’ actions could be considered actually ‘political’. Chakrabarty’s entire thesis is directed against such a reading. The existence of contradictions does not compel a movement towards some sort of resolution. It is perfectly possible that contradictions can remain frozen and suspended in a “state of permanent tension”. The significance of this philosophical decision on the contradiction must not be understated. Colonial and postcolonial subjects can now participate in their own particular traditions and ways of life while also being thoroughly involved in the universalising project of European modernity, even if doing so appears to be contradictory. Thus one can simultaneously be an astronomer and an astrologer without having to choose between these two seemingly incompatible professions. The essential point is that the logical law ex contradictione quodlibet or ECQ (the principle of explosion which says that from a contradiction anything follows) has to be suspended. It might even be the case that from a contradiction nothing follows.

Subaltern studies and diversity

Chakrabarty has been associated with the Subaltern Studies Group, which was founded in the 1980s by Ranajit Guha at the University of Sussex, a historian best known for his 1983 work, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India. Subaltern studies sought to describe the differences in the constitution of nationalism and politics in the postcolonial countries without subscribing to the idea of a “waiting room of history” where there would be an inevitable movement towards the European ideal of modernity. Subaltern Studies was part of the attempt to develop a theory of difference without contradiction. Chakrabarty writes, “European history is no longer seen as embodying anything like a ‘universal human history’.”

This relegation of European history from the status of the universal model was a result of the rejection of historicism, which “came to non-European peoples in the nineteenth century as somebody’s way of saying “not yet” to somebody else”. It is perfectly possible that contradictions cannot just co-exist but even thrive. The peasant revolts were indifferent to the contradictions imposed upon them by European categories of the separation of the political from the religious or spiritual. Chakrabarty approvingly cites Guha’s work as saying that

“this peasant-but-modern political sphere was not bereft of the agency of gods, spirits, and other supernatural beings…Guha’s statement recognized this subject as modern, however, and hence refused to call the peasants’ political behavior or consciousness ‘prepolitical’. He insisted that instead of being an anachronism in a modernizing colonial world, the peasant was a real contemporary of colonialism, a fundamental part of the modernity that colonial rule brought to in India.”

Also read: What Gandhi’s Racism Tells Us About Anti-Racist Politics Today

Contradictions in historicist discourse always entail a movement from one state to the other. When they are substituted by difference, what results is as Chakrabarty said, a “state of permanent tension”. It is entirely correct to abandon the logical movement of the contradiction in history. However, what is the end result if not some kind of stasis? Differences exist but insulated from each other, isolated into separate lobes of the brain. This is the discourse of diversity. Postcolonial studies, especially as distilled in Chakrabarty’s book, manifests its intense commitment to the liberal democratic project of diversity. What it disavows, however, is its own position, the neutral site from which alone diversity can be proclaimed.

What is more astonishing than Chakrabarty’s blindness to the caste angle here – it is no coincidence that both Ayyangar and Raman are Tamil Brahmins – is the way he reduces difference to diversity. This is in fact a very common move for postcolonial theorists and one which strangely enough mirrors the way caste as a social and political formation functions. Differences are isolated from each other, sometimes with extreme violence. Diversity, which is a laudable civilisational achievement on one level, conceals the force of an immense and machinic regulation whereby difference is absolutely regulated through the positing of a neutral site. Projects that otherwise function so differently, like Gandhi’s village as the caste ideal, Nehruvian secularism, and postcolonial theory, are tied together by their commitment to diversity.

Subcontinental philosophy

Should we remain in this stasis, this “state of permanent tension”, where social and political formations like caste seem to thrive rather than being dissolved by capitalism? Should we be satisfied with caste’s gradual transformations, the slight movements upward and downwards of caste communities? It now becomes urgent for us to think difference in itself, without regulation by the formation of a neutral field, and to do so is to think the necessity of what Ambedkar quite aptly called annihilation. It is Aishwary Kumar’s 2015 book Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi and the Risk of Democracy which attempts to free difference from the straitjacket of diversity, without however abandoning the question of equality. In Kumar’s book the concept of difference is sharpened through his consideration of caste and is made into the harbinger of a radical equality which is much more than the stasis of “permanent tension” that is even now seen in India’s cities and villages.

The critique of historicism that was made by postcolonial studies led to diversity. But diversity is a state which requires a neutral site, which while it regulates play, is itself unchangeable and outside of play. Difference on the other hand is a state where there can be no neutrality, no site which is uncontaminated and isolated. While diversity creates an abstract equality, difference is the project of creating radical equality, one which cannot function from any kind of transcendence but is always radically immanent. It is for this reason that I classify Kumar’s project under the name of ‘Subcontinental philosophy’ since it seeks to develop this question through an intensive reading of Ambedkar as a philosopher and not just a political theorist, constitutional scholar, or polemicist.

Books like Kumar’s and Soumyabrata Choudhury’s Ambedkar and Other Immortals (which I reviewed here) are unique in their attempt to think the strange relationship between difference and equality. For Kumar, via Ambedkar, caste is no longer the name for an obscure set of practices in the Indian subcontinent but rather the cipher for a universal philosophical problem, a “making-unequal of the political subject”. If in India we find the violence of diversity exhibited in an exemplary form, this makes Ambedkar’s project of ucchedvaad or annihilation an example for a politics of difference freed from the paradigm of diversity. Subcontinental philosophy therefore reads Ambedkar as someone whose political project led to the thought of a revolutionary fraternity where one can find a radical, and not abstract, equality. The annihilation of caste does not require the valorisation of diversity, as it is in Gandhi, but confronting the puzzle embodied in the question “how can one think of equality within the reality of India’s centrifugal difference?”

While Chakrabarty’s project avoids the annihilative nature of difference by regulating it through the concept of contradictions isolated and insulated from each other, Kumar through his reading of Ambedkar argues that a truly radical equality is only possible through the intensification of difference. Subcontinental philosophy is nothing but this proclamation of radical equality from within a philosophy of difference in itself. It is this which makes it not just an inheritance from, but a contribution to, the problems of Western philosophy.

Abstract and radical equality

In the classical liberal tradition from which Ambedkar drew much of his resources, equality remained much too abstract. In Ambedkar, Kumar finds the “privileging of a nonmasculine notion of fraternity and brotherhood over abstract theories of equality…the idea that the moral obligation of one’s soul in its primordial and secluded authenticity is grounded in the shared values and quotidian sacrifices of collective life alone”. The issue for Ambedkar, as Kumar understands it, is not simply the bare assertion of equality as an abstract principle. That would at most be a legal prescription but never take the form of ‘custom’. The law despite all its violence cannot change custom but is always in the danger of becoming one, as Kumar writes, “custom is not the antithesis of positive law; it is simply that which comes before the law…Custom gives the sovereign’s wish the form of voluntary acquiescence; in truth, it is voluntary servitude maintained by the invisible threat of ostracism and (if need be) police power”.

It is this failure of law, even the moral law, to break the power of custom which is best reflected in the failure of Gandhi’s political project. We know that both Ambedkar and Gandhi had a “shared struggle to affirm life in its irreducible equality”. Yet Gandhi was unable to think equality radically enough. It is not the case that Gandhi was oblivious to the existence of deep rooted and inherited inequality amongst the Indian people. What escaped him however was nothing other than the fact that in India even inequality has the structure of ‘graded sovereignty’, that “untouchability is not one inequality among others, not one more form of slavery among others”. It was Ambedkar who was most alert to the exceptionality of the untouchable at his or her most vulnerable, in the inherited nature of their trauma.

Also read: RSS and Ambedkar: A Camaraderie That Never Existed

Gandhi’s abstract formulation of equality was reflected through his use of the Sanskrit term samadarshi which is a compound formed from sam (same) and adarsh(ideal) or darshan. Darshan, as we know, means vision but is usually part of a religious and spiritual vocabulary. Against this visual metaphor, Ambedkar argued that “caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire which prevents the Hindus from co-mingling”. Against Gandhi’s samadarshi Ambedkar brandished the word samata which as Kumar writes, “refers to an equalness grounded in a person’s inalienable right of being and becoming, in the knowledge, the samatajana of every creature’s unique way of living and dying”.

Equality was no longer founded on the negation of difference but neither was it based on Gandhi’s samadarshita. Even though the latter had an emphasis on humanity and asked for a measured response to the call of unequals, it remained wholly incapable of enforcing equality. This was because it made it a moral commitment which could be honoured only in terms of the strength of the individual satyagrahi’s soul-force. Thus Gandhi strictly opposed Ambedkar’s campaign for inter-caste dining and marriage: “We shall ever have to seek unity in diversity, and I decline to consider it a sin for a man not to drink or eat with any and everybody”. Gandhi’s samadarshita was a moral claim that could not enforce the priority and necessity of equality.

Ambedkar’s opposition to Gandhi was based on the fact that the latter remained blind to the reality that the individual (or even the entire caste to which he belonged) could not in the least affect the rule of the caste system. As Ambedkar wrote in Annihilation of Caste, “If a caste claims the right to inter-dine and intermarry with another caste placed above it, it is frozen the instant it is told by mischief-mongers— and there are many Brahmins amongst such mischief-mongers—that it will have to concede inter-dining and intermarriage with castes below it! All are slaves of the caste system. But all slaves are not equal in status”.

If an entire group comprised of thousands of individuals could not affect the continuance of caste prohibitions, then is it not utterly futile to argue that one satyagrahi could make any difference to its functioning? The only effect Gandhi’s formulation for abstract equality could have would be in the revitalisation of an ascetic spirit that is already a part of the way caste functions.

Radical equality and sacrifice

The violence embodied in custom is more efficiently enforced by people than the law is by the state. We saw this in the recent gangrape of a Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh by upper caste men. Kumar conceptualises Ambedkar’s philosophical contribution to the discourse of equality as that of a ‘weak force’ that belongs to the untouchable: “Force as weakness, force as an ethical nonsovereignty, force above all as the radical relinquishment of the state and its laws of sacrifice”. This weak force is for Kumar nothing other than the multitude’s will to annihilation. It is an ‘authentic’ force that is absolutely in excess of the Gandhian limits of measure. It is opposed to the punitive juridical force of chaturvarnya which is inauthentic, a “failure of thought…the multitude’s forgetfulness of force as such”. The abstract notion of equality propagated by both the liberal tradition and Gandhi was nothing other than an alienation of man from himself, the reduction of his personhood to an abstract and negotiable number, (from “Millions to Fractions” as the title of an essay by Ambedkar tells us).

The weak force of the untouchable on the other hand is oriented towards transforming the world through collective action. Equality was at best a legal fiction unless it was oriented towards a strange kind of sacrifice, where the subject sought to “sacrifice oneself for justice”. In Ambedkar the logic of sacrifice returned in a very different and even unrecognisable form: that of the right to sacrifice oneself for the freedom of all others. This demand could no longer be calculated and negotiated with as it was by Gandhi; it was on the contrary essentially annihilative. This sharing of the collective burden of sacrifice, of “the unconditional sharing of freedom among mortals” is for Kumar what Ambedkar called fraternity or maitri. Such a sacrificial assertion is the proclamation of an absolute becoming-other and thus an absolute difference which generates the equality of all of those who are willing to die for all the others.

The difference between life and death was mobilised in this sacrificial community as the most absolute difference. At this point only could a fraternity of equals be created. It is in the inscription of this difference between life and death within the body of the untouchable subject who is willing to sacrifice herself which generates radical equality. This difference is hardly of the same order or degree as that between simultaneously being an astronomer and an astrologer. For Ambedkar the assumption of this difference between life and death by the sacrificial subject produces a non-masculine fraternal community of equals. It is only thus that difference can be utilised to produce radical equality- the equality of a revolutionary fraternity or maitri.

In the penultimate sentence of Provincialising Europe, Chakrabarty writes in a tone that may perhaps even be considered fawning, “For at the end of European imperialism, European thought is a gift to all of us.” If subcontinental philosophy breaks with postcolonial theory, it is only in its insistence that this gift is in fact the inheritance of a philosophical impasse. Only by recognising it for what it is can we begin the task of moving from an abstract equality enshrined in the discourse of diversity to the concept of radical equality produced by difference at its most intensive. Kumar’s book is therefore exemplary in this regard as it finds the seeds for this surpassing in Ambedkar’s theory of a sacrificial difference freed from the straitjacket of diversity.

Huzaifa Omair Siddiqi is a PhD candidate at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.