Rescuing Ambedkar from Ambedkarites

I have often asked myself whether I am really capable of engaging with B R Ambedkar. My privileged location in a caste-ridden hierarchical society, it can be argued by his passionate disciples, is a permanent obstacle; I cannot understand the agony of the Dalits; and hence my interpretation would remain ‘inauthentic’— a clever strategy to appropriate him by an ‘outsider’!

I see a danger in this ‘epistemology of the insider’ because it negates the potency of the human spirit — its ability to transcend borders and expand its horizon. It is ugly to possess a thinker, an idea, a philosophy. Marx is not merely for the Marxists; Ambedkar is not merely for the Ambedkarites.

And hence, I dare to invoke this extraordinarily courageous thinker-activist known for his relentless critique of the Hindu social order, his determined struggle for a casteless society, and his urge to unite the three principles of democracy —liberty, equality and fraternity. I learn and unlearn. While I admire him, I do not see him as the ultimate saviour. For instance, I do not believe that praising Ambedkar, as many of his followers think, ought to necessarily imply condemning Gandhi.

To begin with, I see Ambedkar as a great teacher who helped me come out of my comfort zone. He taught me: Be aware. See the pathologies of your culture. True, the Upanishads were enchanting; the bhakti saints taught me about love, not hierarchy; and the likes of Swami Vivekananda inspired me to feel the need for radicalising Hinduism.

However, it was Ambedkar (and of course, Jotiba Phule) who came with a hammer, spoke of the harsh reality, debunked the dharmashastras, showed us the violence implicit in the institutionalised Brahminism, and opened our eyes to see how the caste system—with its ruthless hierarchy, endogamy and ‘purity-pollution’ duality—goes against the fundamentals of modern economy and its principle of social democracy.

Furthermore, Ambedkar taught me the therapeutic power of resistance—the way the oppressed can regain their lost voice, experience the creativity of human agency and redefine the trajectory of history. Likewise, Ambedkar’s scholarship was truly amazing; the way he travelled through the discourses of law, politics, sociology and religion, I believe, shows the spirit of life-long learning.

No wonder, Ambedkar was the embodiment of the spirit of rebelliousness. As we know, he could interrogate even the iconic Mahatma Gandhi. True, Gandhi was amazing—a Christ-like figure daring to walk through the risky path of politics, and seeing the possibility of ahimsa in a world characterised by what the Marxists would regard as ‘structural violence.’ But then, Ambedkar (further disillusioned after the Poona Pact) saw the incompleteness in the Gandhian project—its ambiguity towards the dialectic of varna and caste, its top-down or paternalistic approach, its ‘soft’ (yet ‘problematic’ Hinduism), and its ‘ non-progressive anti-modernism’.

While the erudite Ambedkar—through the stormy texts like The Philosophy of Hinduism, The Annihilation of Caste, and What Mr Gandhi and Congress have done to the Untouchables — enriched the debate on the nation and its inner cleavages, his angst (absolutely understandable because of the traumatic history of humiliation and stigmatisation), I fear, led him to overuse the sword of debunking and, as a result, he failed to understand Gandhi in a deeper way.

Who could forget that Gandhi did evolve constantly—from his early ambiguity towards the varna system to his radical pedagogy—inspired by the likes of John Ruskin and Leo Tolstoy—that emphasises labour, redefines the notion of dirt, and thereby, interrogates the Brahminical ‘purity-pollution’ duality; from a sanatani Hindu to a critical spiritualist constantly reminding the oppressors (upper caste Hindus) of the sin of untouchability?

Spirit of Gandhi
From the Tolstoy Farm in South Africa to Noakhali—can one really find casteism—or, to use Ambedkar’s language, ‘Manu’s Brahmin/Nietzsche’s Superman’— in Gandhi’s life? It is an irony of our political history that Ambedkar, despite his brilliance, could not understand the spirit of Gandhi—his inclusiveness, his cross-religious sensibilities, his profound awareness of the violence of industrial modernity, and his striving for a spiritually regenerated society based on love, decentralisation, ecological living and radically reconstructed villages.

However, there is no reason to believe that today we too have to retain this tradition of a broken communication. We need both—Ambedkar’s hammer, Gandhi’s smile; Ambedkar’s penetrating scholarship, Gandhi’s prophetic/intuitive vision; Ambedkar’s angst, Gandhi’s compassion; Ambedkar’s struggle from the bottom, Gandhi’s urge to transform the privileged castes; Ambedkar’s constitutionalism, Gandhi’s gentle anarchy; and Ambedkar’s reminder of the ugliness of institutionalised Hinduism, Gandhi’s life-purifying experiments with the Bhagavad Gita.

It is also important to reflect on Ambedkar’s engagement with Buddhism. I would like to believe that Buddha’s deep realisation (one’s attachment to the temporal causes dhukkha or suffering; nirvana is the release from the baggage of ‘ego’; and hence instead of Brahminical hierarchy and separation, love and compassion ought to become the dharma of life) began to touch his otherwise modernist temper.

No wonder, Ambedkar chose Buddha, not Marx because, as he argued, Marxism, despite its celebration of egalitarianism and critique of private property (like Buddha’s non-possessiveness), invites authoritarianism and violence, and hence no transformation is possible without altering the inner disposition of man. In other words, Ambedkar was realising that casteism could not be fought without cultivating man’s deep religiosity. This brought him closer to Gandhi’s insistence that one has to work on one’s self, and the abolition of caste hierarchy is also a deeply moral/ethical project.

We should not forget that when an unholy alliance of militant nationalism and instrumental religion is causing a new form of social control with its characteristic violence, it is important to walk with both Ambedkar and Gandhi for consolidating the basis of a counter-hegemonic resistance for creating a non-hierarchical/inclusive/compassionate society. And this is possible only when Ambedkar is rescued from the non-communicative group of exclusivist Ambedkarites.

(The writer is Professor, Centre for Study of Social Systems, JNU, New Delhi)

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