"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.

AA: How important is this project to revisit Ambedkar and Gandhi in our times, when they are being appropriated by right-wing Hindu nationalist outfits?
AK: With Ambedkar, this much can be most safely, and without any risk said that he is inappropriable. I mean, a thinker who gives a theory of an inappropriable politics cannot himself be appropriated. Not because there is no dogma that he is aware of; not because he is unaware of ideological manipulations; nor because he does not know that democracy is always at a risk or rather at the mercy of demagoguery. But precisely because he knows that these risks of democracy are real, and that, therefore, answers to the impasses of democratic life must be addressed to specific historical questions and moments. And because he can develop a theory of politics grounded in an absolute specificity of the question, it makes him inappropriable to any ideological mainstream.

Part of the magic of reading Ambedkar is to realise how miraculously recalcitrant he is to any stream of thought that wants the whole or part of him. He is a thinker whose whole you can’t have because he is unbearably different or resistant. … So you have a thinker who nationalists today want to appropriate in the name of a strong state, but they don’t realise that Ambedkar was, first and foremost, the champion of plebiscite—direct democracy—and his readings on ancient Greek and the classical traditions are full of those elements, in which he says, if you have to wipe out an entire state off the map of the Union of India—which can happen, we now know—the way to do it would be through a plebiscite.

AA: Where does the idea of force in your book—which is stressed upon—come into play?
AK: If you read Ambedkar, the motif, the concept, the notion, the idea, the word “force,” haunts his writing, because clearly he is not for the exercise of force. He sees enough of it—our world is saturated by force, whether we call it coercion, whether we call it violence, domination, interference, intervention, lynching—all forms of force. … That entire tradition of thinking about force—force in relation to everything and nothing—that marks Ambedkar's philosophical trajectory between Annihilation of Caste and exactly twenty years later in The Buddha and His Dhamma. That twenty-year period we are looking at, add to that another decade—1926-56—when he prepares for the Mahar Satyagraha [Mahad Satyagraha was a satyagraha led by Ambedkar to allow untouchables to use water in a public tank in Mahad, Maharashtra], when he burns a copy of the Manusmriti publicly. We often wondered, should books be burnt? Should any book be burnt? And Ambedkar would say yes. So the notion of force is for him a conceptual intrigue into thinking about those who have nothing and yet are capable of everything, and the greatest example, the most exemplary act of that force is conversion. [He said] “I was born a Hindu but I will not die a Hindu,” “I am not a part of a whole, I am a part apart,” or when he says the “secret of freedom is courage.” A major theoretical claim I make in the book is that in order to read Ambedkar as a thinker is to go with him on a journey of force, is to understand what really force is. Not what power is, not what violence is, not what non-violence is, not what inequality is, not what equality is, but rather what force is and this ability to comprehend equality in terms of force is radical equality. Radical equality is not a liberal measure, it’s not a measure of redemption, not a matter of proceduralism, of deliberation…. It’s a measure of understanding the nature of force, how force saturates our world, and therefore to exit that world and think of another force. That would be radical equality—that everyone would have that force, that irreducible, insoluble force. The example of that if you will, would be conversion.

AA: You discuss the idea that Ambedkar wants to destroy religion, specifically to create anew. Because religion is not something dispensable for Ambedkar. This finds an articulation in The Buddha and his Dhamma. So how is his relationship with religion different from that of Gandhi’s?
AK: What Ambedkar means when he uses the word religion—and he uses it in a very salutary fashion—for him, religion is the name of a responsibility. Political religion, of which he is a great expert, and, in fact, Gandhi was too. What I try and say in the book is that they are both great exponents of a political religion—religion given a political form. But for Gandhi, religion has a political form insofar as it allows us to live a life of truthfulness. For Ambedkar, religion is a political form insofar as it allows us or gives us the moral capacity to judgement. One is truthfulness, the other is judgement, and they are two very distinct things. Truthfulness assumes a universalism or posits one. Judgement posits distinction, specificity, anarchy—that is to say, the ability to break free of the rules that categorise or confine the ways in which we reach a conclusion. Ambedkar’s religion is this relationship between this responsibility and judgement. In Annihilation of Caste, he says, “We need to destroy any religion that is irresponsible.” …

The question I really ask today … is that in the major political, philosophical and religious traditions worldwide, especially of Europe, within Christianity or Judaism or Islam, have [there been] thinkers who have freely denounced Christianity, for example, in order to imagine a modern politics? You cannot think of republicanism or the French Revolution and so on without thinking of [the Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques] Rousseau and [the English philosopher Thomas] Hobbes, or [the Dutch philosopher Baruch] Spinoza within the Jewish tradition, who are at once Jewish and critics of that tradition. Why is it that the so-called Indian tradition, or the post-Vedic tradition, or the classical Indian tradition, which has so many critics of that tradition even in its own time: it’s not that there is no source of critique, [the question is] why is it not politicisable? That’s the question that Ambedkar asks, why is it that critique is not political in India?

Why is it that pacifism, agreement, low-intensity conformism is the defining framework of political life in India? Why is it that despite a great tradition of critique of religion, we have not had a modern religious critique of religion, a religious responsibility that addresses religion in all its toxicity and violence? [We have not had] a political judgment aware of its own fundamental relationship to the theologico-political; a political thought that does not look at religion apologetically, and this is the great limit of Indian liberalism and Indian Marxism, in the last seventy years. Part of why today Ambedkar is important in the face of a resurgent conservative or reactionary Hindu nationalist politics is because through Ambedkar we understand one grave deficit in our political thinking or thinking about democracy. For the best part of the last sixty [or] seventy years, liberals and social democrats, or Marxists, even, have thought that they can disavow the sheer paradoxical, violent and yet enriching permanence of the theologico-political.

AA: In his book Ambedkar and Other Immortals, Soumyabrata Chaudhury speaks about how India’s university spaces and their Brahminical disposition have sort of factionalised Ambedkar, and moved him to the margins, where only Dalits scholars—or Dalit studies as a discipline—are the ones to actually read him as a critical political thinker. Do you think this has played an important role in delaying Ambedkar’s recognition as a serious political philosopher?
AK: Soumyabrata Chaudhury makes a very important claim about the Ambedkarite strand of politics, embracing with unflinching brilliance the purported factionalism of Ambedkar's posthumous political life by giving it a counter-intuitive theoretical heft. For nothing is more important to our ability to understand Ambedkar outside of the nationalist framework than our willingness to bear witness to how fearlessly, in his time and ours, Ambedkar splinters the nationalist consensus (which is also his critique of the pedagogical and linguistic consensus). …

Let us note the logic underpinning the accusations of factionalism that are often leveled against progressive and radical student groups committed to articulating an Ambedkarite politics in the universities. Such accusations stem not only—not even necessarily—from reservations about Ambedkar as a symbolic figure of revolutionary political thought. The liberal left, let alone the Hindu nationalist formations, are now only too happy to appropriate Ambedkar for those symbolic purposes. Instead, accusations of factionalism stem from another, profounder epistemological worry: that Ambedkarite politics, which takes his moral and political thought seriously and to its extreme, pushes the nationalist consensus itself to its breaking point. This consensus, which has always been a tacit, unspoken compact between disparate political formations built around a low-intensity stasis, a running war on the Dalit body, scaffolds the gravest, most enduring, most formidable epistemic exclusions of the Indian university.

It has been eight decades since Ambedkar composed Annihilation of Caste. And yet, caste remains the juridical scaffold or “mechanism” within which Indian forms of cruelty continue to thrive, acquiring their mature, civil and civic life, insinuating themselves into newer spaces and technologies every day. It follows that caste is at once a machine specific to a mode of sacrifice and a name for generalised cruelty shrouded in ordinary vices and virtues: a cruelty that makes civility in India incurably violent and violence in India unimpeachably civil. We cannot understand the structure of our urbane civility without understanding the structure of caste privilege, it is often glibly argued. Not merely privilege, a word Ambedkar never uses, but instead “caste domination” or what he calls India’s “armed neutrality,” its unspoken civil war, is the foundation of this new civility.

Now, one might point out, not inaccurately, that we are at war with ourselves in a manner that makes any resolution of conflict impossible. Caste is the obdurate capital—or heading—of this war. And yet, the fundamental question for Ambedkar is not only caste. Instead, the question for him is of human freedom, caste being that instrument which thwarts human freedom, afflicting its victim no less than it deforms the perpetrator (and thus, democracy itself). Ambedkar’s archaeologies, as he calls them, are not simply archaeologies of caste violence, but of this epochal unfreedom, that gives stability to India's conformist, voluntary servitude. His archaeologies are not intended to amplify the insurmountable difference that marks out Indian forms of violence from other forms and modalities in the post-colony (or what we today call the Global South). Instead, his archaeologies are anchored in the idea that the Indian forms of violence are at once singular and exemplary. So exemplary that they provide a lens into the global forms that antidemocratic violence in the future—violence of the future—itself will take; that in the end all violence will have learned something from India.

AA: You point out two dimensions to Ambedkar—one as a constitutional thinker and one as a revolutionary. How do these exist in conjunction with each other? And what does it do for Ambedkar’s revolutionary status, the fact that he mobilised the constitution to fight for his ends, to achieve his ends?
AK: Some will argue that there are two Ambedkars—one revolutionary and a constitutionalist. I see Ambedkar within a constellation of thinkers like [the German-American philosopher] Hannah Arendt. Because the revolutionary tradition is unthinkable without the constitutional tradition. In fact, the primary or fundamental principle of all revolution is the writing of the constitution. Arendt calls it the lost treasure of the revolutionary tradition. So, the revolutionary and even the anarchist moments of Ambedkar’s political thought—when he says the rule breaks you and you break the rule; or infact he says a principle gives you the freedom to act, a rule does not—that [is an] anarchist moment. And I am not saying Ambedkar is an anarchist, I am saying that Ambedkar cannot be understood without understanding this anarchist formulation that runs through his political thought. Is that revolutionary anarchist articulation of politics in contradiction with his constitutional fidelity or faith? No. Remember in the 1950s he says that I can burn this constitution if it doesn’t work. … That will be the core idea behind Ambedkar's constitutionalism. It won’t be law that will save us. The Constitution will not save us. … And those who take the route of celebrating Ambedkar by simply saying, “But he is a constitutionalist,” forget that he is an insurrectionary first and a constitutionalist only because—I mean, let's be very precise—he is a constitutionalist only because he is a revolutionary.

This interview has been edited and condensed.