"Ambedkar is a constitutionalist only because he is a revolutionary": Professor Aishwary Kumar

04 November 2019

In the recently published Indian edition of his 2015 book, Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi and The Risk of Democracy, the academic Aishwary Kumar—a professor of political philosophy and intellectual history at the University of California-Santa Cruz—argues that it is time we move beyond examining Indian political life merely in terms of its difference from western counterparts, as postcolonial theory sometimes tends to do. Instead, by revisiting the intellectual legacies of BR Ambedkar and Mohandas Gandhi, and their thinking on equality, Kumar proposes we use India as an exemplary model for analysing global politics.

In September, Appu Ajith, an editorial assistant at The Caravan, spoke to Kumar about the premise of his book. Kumar said that one of its central concerns is “to speak to the problem of inequality in a way that is both fundamentally Indian, and tragically global or tragically universal.”

Appu Ajith: The question of equality is central to the book. How did you stumble upon this particular topic and decide on to taking it forward?
Aishwary Kumar: I did not start out as a scholar or as an intellectual biographer of these two thinkers. My intention was to write an account of a philosophical history of the political, in the anti-colonial world. What is it that allows a certain kind of politics around the question of freedom and self-determination to emerge, and once it emerges, what is it that is lacking in this politics that allows for something like a critique to also emerge from within that tradition? The moment you start thinking about critique you think about Ambedkar, because it is in him that the most glaring silences of this entire tradition of thinking about politics acquires its most formidable and radical form. I stumbled upon a question which was simply about the nature of inequality—that is both specific to Indian traditions, but also in their violence, universal.

By the time I started reading Ambedkar, it had become clear to me that histories of modern India that are otherwise rich and fascinating in detail have settled down with a consensus: that post-colonial politics was anchored in a fundamental difference with other forms of political thought and thinking; that there was something very different and that it needed another language and another vocabulary to be understood. It seemed to me, when I started working on the book in 2005-06, that, while that question was an important one, it had outlived its importance and that it had reached its own impasse. … So, what became different for me was not that post-colonial, colonial or anti-colonial traditions were different, but that they were exemplary in the way they could silence their own internal contradictions. When Ambedkar introduces the Constitution of India, he says that this is not a moment for triumphalism, and that they were entering an age of contradictions—social and political. There will be political equality and there will be social inequality. What does Ambedkar mean by this? Why is the architect of this constitution so skeptical of its own ability to right these contradictions?

AA: I think you also mention in the book that Ambedkar can be thought of as a posthumous thinker.
AK: Kalyan [Kumar Das, an assistant professor at Presidency University] does that in the foreword. You know, because of how Ambedkar reads a lot of these philosophers themselves often at the margin. Nietzsche is not marginal now, but because of the searing critique he had of European morality and so on, he figures in Ambedkar’s thinking very, very importantly and very significantly. I think Ambedkar says it more than once, that in order to be a thinker, the first thing you have to do is to give up the fear of being judged by history, because the truest, most rigorous thinkers are often read only after they are gone.

Appu Ajith is a Deputy Editorial Manager at The Caravan.

Keywords: BR Ambedkar MK Gandhi caste equality