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From Ambedkar to Thakkar and Beyond: Towards a Genealogy of Our Activisms

This paper draws on a letter B R Ambedkar wrote in 1932, that was addressed to A V Thakkar, secretary of the Anti-Untouchability League in order to bring out the implications for present day activism in dalit struggles. The letter itself was a discussion of alternative ideas on how to work for the welfare of the "Depressed Classes" and makes a critique of the Gandhian programme. The paper attempts an understanding at the present historical juncture of the structure of Ambedkar's political thought as it emerges in the logic of Depressed Classes activism and its structural strain against the Marxist position.


From Ambedkar to Thakkar and Beyond: Towards a Genealogy of Our Activisms

R Srivatsan

This paper draws on a letter B R Ambedkar wrote in 1932, that was addressed to A V Thakkar, secretary of the Anti-Untouchability League in order to bring out the implications for present day activism in dalit struggles. The letter itself was a discussion of alternative ideas on how to work for the welfare of the “Depressed Classes” and makes a critique of the Gandhian programme. The paper attempts an understanding at the present historical juncture of the structure of Ambedkar’s political thought as it emerges in the logic of Depressed Classes activism and its structural strain against the Marxist position.

I would like to thank Deeptha Achar and Shivaji Panikkar for providing me with an opportunity to do a preliminary presentation of this letter in the Art and Activism Seminar, Baroda, 2004. A slightly edited version of this essay is due to appear in the forthcoming volume of essays that emerged in that seminar. This independent essay was written in the context of a PhD dissertation on the nationalist concept of Seva, at the Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Hyderabad, in affiliation with Dr B R Ambedkar Open University, Hyderabad. I am grateful to K Satyanarayana for his comments that have strengthened the paper and given it greater depth. I thank Madhava Prasad sincerely for his provocative and constructive critical comments which (as usual) forced me to say things a little more rigorously than in the first instance.

R Srivatsan ( works on development initiatives at the Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies, Hyderabad.

attempt in this paper to draw out the implications of a minor document from the writings of the freedom movement in a manner that is alive to that context and at the same time useful to our thinking today. This seemingly innocuous text is a letter proposing a programme of action for the Anti-Untouchability League (AUL), written by B R Ambedkar in 1932, and addressed to A V Thakkar, secretary of that organisation.1 Ambedkar’s argument in this letter is not a polemic, though he did indulge often in polemic with dramatic effect. It is rather a fiercely focused discussion of ideas about how to work for the welfare of the Depressed Classes and social reform.2 Through this discussion, Ambedkar provides a critique of the Gandhian activist programme and structure. The document provides us with some of Ambedkar’s most profound and enduring insights regarding the structure of caste oppression, the politics of the oppressed, and the scope of social activism.

I had originally titled this essay ‘Towards a Preliminary Genealogy of Our Activism’ to suggest that this “genealogy” of activism was proposed as a future programme to be undertaken by me, and that Ambedkar’s letter is a vehicle for my proposal.3 Through the process of reading, I now think that it is Ambedkar who sketches the genealogy of nationalist voluntary activism in this letter, critically tracing its descent in caste-Hindu thought through his proposal for a different programme. The activism he criticises is Gandhian, and I will primarily focus on this aspect. Alongside, I will also use Ambedkar’s complex understanding of the struggle against caste oppression as a viewing platform to examine Marxist thought and practice in the Indian context. To this end, I will read this letter as if he is addressing Marxism too, even though his writings on Marxism only appear after the 1950s, and his earliest written reference to socialism and communism perhaps come four years after this letter in ‘Annihilation of Caste’.4 My reading of Ambedkar’s letter will stress the structural aspects of his thought-in-praxis that complicates Marxism as we know it, rather than dwell on his explicit criticisms of Marxism. These have been dealt with at length by the writers cited, among many others.

My reading of this letter is not unprecedented. Gail Omvedt has dealt in detail with the same letter in her recent biography of Ambedkar.5 Given the focus of her work in that book, she has read the letter as expressing a more progressive view than Gandhi’s and has narrated the history of how it was smothered to Ambedkar’s dismay and defeat (in that particular battle). While Omvedt’s reading is almost entirely valid and acceptable from my perspective, what I want to do here is to read this letter with less

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of a straightforward historical/biographical intent. I want, rather, to attempt understanding for our present juncture the structure of Ambedkar’s political thought as it emerges in the logic of Depressed Classes activism, in implicit criticism of the Gandhian position and its structural strain against the Marxist one. It is within this view that I will read his letter in a way that will be significantly ahistorical.

Some “straightforward history” will situate the letter and its contents for the reader who is unaware of the background. Gandhi started the Anti-Untouchability League in 1932 after the Poona Pact resolved the crisis of his fast unto death. Gandhi had undertaken this fast in protest against Ramsay Macdonald’s Communal Award which had provided a separate electorate to the Depressed Classes, thus removing them from the Hindu fold. The idea behind the AUL was to extend in a logical manner Gandhi’s constructive strategy of demonstrating that the Congress and its penumbra organisations provided an increasingly deep political representation for the people of India as a whole.6 It was felt that the untouchables alienated from the Congress by Ambedkar’s crisis-provoking interventions had to be won back to the fold of the nationalists. Gandhi’s bitter battles with Ambedkar in connection with the Yeravada fast found some reconciliation in Ambedkar and his Depressed Classes colleagues Rao Bahadur Srinivasan and Rao Bahadur M C Rajah agreeing to join as part of the eight member AUL board. G D Birla was president and A V Thakkar of the Servants of India Society (and Gandhi’s lifelong companion) was elected secretary.

Ambedkar’s letter dated November 14, 1932 was written to place his views before the AUL board for their consideration, on route to London. I would like to imagine that the all too brief peace at sea, and the distanced view of the battleground, gave Ambedkar moments of reflection that shaped the magnificence and generosity of his writing in this letter.

Two Methods of ‘Uplift’

Ambedkar starts his argument by outlining two ways of thinking about the causes of social suffering and the methods of uplift that flow logically out of each of these ways of thinking. The first way thinks that a person who belongs to the Depressed Classes suffers because of some failing in his “personal conduct”. Ambedkar’s critical use of the term personal conduct is noteworthy:

If he is suffering from want and misery it is because he is vicious and sinful. Starting from this hypothesis this school of social workers concentrates all its efforts and its resources on fostering personal virtue by adopting a programme which includes items such as temperance, gymnasium, cooperation, libraries, schools, etc, which are calculated to make the individual a better and virtuous individual (ibid: 134).7

The second way suggests that if a person suffers from want and misery, it is because his environment is adverse. Ambedkar professes this second way and asserts that it is the task of social work to lift the Depressed Classes as a whole and not just a few individuals, as the first way would. This task would be to change the environment in which the Depressed Classes lived in society. Since the AUL came into being to lift the Depressed Classes as a whole, it would be a wasteful dissipation of energy to focus on individual uplift.

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This opening argument is significant. Firstly, though it does not name Gandhi, it targets his approach to service comprehensively. Secondly, as we shall see, the criticism provides a valid perspective to evaluate many future versions of voluntary activism and service that are with us today. In Gandhi, viciousness or sinfulness is a matter of past incarnations of the individual – his present suffering is due to his past sins. However, the kinds of intervention described, and their focus on individual conduct, i e, “temperance, gymnasium, cooperation, libraries, schools, etc”, point to the new avatars of the Gandhian mode of intervention that dominate many of our activist efforts. In fact, we need to pay special attention to those holy cows of our own developmental activism, i e, libraries and schools here. The library and school, when used as an instrument to improve the individual conduct of the “sinful wretch”8 from the Depressed Classes, is as much an object of criticism as is the attempt at promoting temperance, vegetarianism, praying to Ram, and other Gandhian methods of “uplift”. Thus Ambedkar criticises a social reform or welfare initiative that moulds the conduct of an individual from the Depressed Classes as if it was that conduct which was flawed and needed improvement, without fighting the social oppression that is the root cause of the problem.

What then does the second method that tries to improve the social environment imply?

Civic Rights/Civil War/Crisis of Belief

The most important step of the AUL, in Ambedkar’s pursuit of the second path, would be a campaign to secure “civil” rights. It is interesting that while the heading of this section says civil rights, the text uses the word “civic rights” or “rights of a civic nature” on three occasions and never uses the word civil. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary gives the primary definition of civil as belonging to citizens, while civic is defined as pertaining to citizens. What belongs to a citizen almost with the force of a possession, i e, civility, is described in the dictionary as an orderliness of life, well-governedness in civil society, politeness of address, privacy, legal right, etc. In stark contrast, the attribute of a citizen that pertains to his character as the civic comes from corona civica a crown of oak leaves and acorns bestowed upon one that saved a fellow-citizen in war. It is an oath of allegiance to the new order of things, demanded from citizens in the French Revolution.9 The shift in the usage from “civil” in the heading, to “civic” in the text, marks the shift from a politics of civil society to a specific kind of revolutionary politics.

Such a programme if carried into the villages will bring about the necessary social revolution in Hindu Society, without which it will never be possible for the Depressed Classes to get equal social status… First of all, there will be riots between the Depressed Classes and the Caste Hindus which will result in breaking heads and in criminal prosecutions of one side or the other (letter regarding AUL, p 135).

What are these rights, the defence of which may confer the corona civica? They are precisely the rights of entry to schools, public places, public transport, etc. Entry to school as a civic right has a desirable connotation that is different from that of an instrument to improve the conduct of the sinner. Here education


is a general programme of intellectual growth, not a method of improvement premised on the individual’s flaw.

There would be many obstacles to such a campaign to secure civic rights, the first being the magistracy and the police who would ensure that the dignity of the caste Hindus, even if they were guilty, was upheld against the Depressed Classes. The second deadly obstacle would be a social boycott, which would harass the Depressed Classes, throw out them of jobs and starve them. But this trauma was inevitable in pursuit of the goal, and the AUL would need to have an army of activists in the rural parts to support and encourage the Depressed Classes to fight their battles.

The reason why this campaign was necessary in spite of bloodshed, according to Ambedkar, was its dramatic effectiveness in forcing the caste Hindu to think about his everyday conduct. The caste Hindu will never think about his habitual practices of oppression unless a crisis forces him. Preaching and other easy options of converting the Hindu opinion through rational ideas will fail because “they do not compel thought, for they do not produce a crisis” (ibid: 136). Thus, the most important lesson Ambedkar teaches us about activism for social justice is that it must produce a crisis in order to force thought.

The other aspect of Ambedkar’s formulation is the way in which he imagines revolution for the Depressed Classes in the context of this letter. The caste battles are not to consume the whole of society in flames, they also do not attempt the overthrow of the oppressor – they are acute (in the medical sense of short and intense) engagements that force a dominant community to think about its practices. The assumption behind this imagination of the revolution is that while there are a large number of thoughtless and violent followers of the dominant tradition, there is also a significant part of the dominant group that can be forced by a critical situation to see reason and enlightenment over the issue of caste. The change in the social environment sought by Ambedkar through the AUL activism was to come about by a shift in the dominant consensus.10

Against an Economics of Caste Oppression

The next step that the AUL would have to undertake would be a struggle to bring about an equality of opportunity for the Depressed Classes. The “bar-sinister” operates against them in rural self-employment (they are not permitted to sell vegetables, milk, eggs or butter in order to earn a living), government employment (where they do not even get the posts of messengers), and in urban private industry (where they are employed in the most menial jobs, being thrown out at the slightest hint of business adversity). Focusing on the cotton spinning and weaving industry, Ambedkar describes how the Depressed Classes employees never rise to the highest rung, are discriminated against in distribution of raw material for piece work even among women, where the Naikins give all the raw materials to caste Hindu women, leaving the women of the Depressed Classes to face their hunger. The AUL, in this environment, would have to work to create public opinion against such practices and establish bureaus to deal with this kind of inequality.

Much can be done by private firms and companies managed by Hindus by extending their patronage to the Depressed Classes and employing them in their offices in various grades and occupations suited to the

capacities of the applicants (ibid: 138).

The current debate among dalit intellectuals about reservations in private industry echoes the political assertion made here. However, the optimism Ambedkar shows in his expectation from caste Hindu industrialists, which seems misplaced in today’s context, has also to be explained against the miserable employment context of the textile mills he himself describes. Why does he think such a drastic shift in employer opinion and action is possible when the reality in that era was so stark?

The contradiction Ambedkar describes here is a caste contradiction within the same working class.11 He does not seek a Marxian metahistory of class struggle and ultimate goal of communism to ground the proposed initiative; that is, there is no proposal for a base of class inequalities that gives rise to a superstructural effect of caste struggle.12 He focuses on the directly observable caste contradiction between the caste Hindu and Depressed Classes. The struggle takes on an immediate, perceptible meaning, and provides a specific logic of finding allies that is based on the singular character of caste oppression. Thus, it is possible for Ambedkar to hope to find caste Hindu allies among the managers of industry who may help in the annihilation of caste. In this hope, Ambedkar seems to depend on the inherent rationality of industry that will drive it to find the most suitable candidates for jobs, in “various grades and occupations suited to the capacities of applicants” regardless of caste.13 It would seem that this reasoning is a valid one for industries seeking good employees even today. On the other hand, the same caste contradiction would divide the potential Depressed Classes employees and actual caste Hindu ones as it did then.

This single-minded focus on caste oppression alone is a well thought out policy for Ambedkar, who in another less amiable context, responded to A V Thakkar’s sarcastic description of him as “the doughty champion of the oppressed, depressed and exploited”,14 in the following vein

Mr Thakkar has sought to give point to his criticism by calling me a “doughty champion of the oppressed and depressed”. Let me tell Mr Thakkar that I have never claimed to be a universal leader of suffering humanity. The problem of the untouchables is quite enough for my slender strength, and I should be quite happy if I could successfully rescue the untouchables from his clutches and those of Mr Gandhi.15

Ambedkar’s logic of focused support to one issue is again seen in the strategy he proposes in his 1945 speech on “Communal Deadlock and the Way to Solve It”. There, Ambedkar formulated a system of reservations in parliamentary representation that would ensure that no minority would face the oppressive hegemony of majoritarian Hinduism. At the same time, no single minority would have to try to find a theoretical rationality that would cover all the specific oppressions faced by all the minorities. Thus, with an intuitive pragmatism, he rejects a single overarching battle against oppression theorised according to one “primary contradiction”. He prefers to find conjunctural partners to struggle alongside the Depressed Classes against the single source (i e, caste Hinduism) of different kinds of contradiction and different forms of oppression. Even if there is one dominant oppressor, the oppressed are divided and differentiated

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by the structural logic of caste Hindu oppression in the Indian context. We may deduce here that the result of the struggle against caste Hindu oppression, even if successful, is not a utopian community free of all struggle, but clearly another set of struggles that arise in that emergent situation in ways that cannot be theorised today.

Thus, while the first step of a campaign for civic rights is theorised in a way that problematises the Congress-Gandhian concept of service to the untouchables, the second step to fight for equality of opportunity problematises for us the Marxian concept of class struggle, and forms of activism based on this concept. The important thing about this criticism those of us with a Marxist habit must understand is this. The logic of a contradiction and the language of a struggle against oppression have to be born of the experience of the oppressed. Ambedkar’s position may be read as arguing that there is no use in trying to achieve an understanding of oppression according to a category (of class) which calls for a reasoning beyond the strong experience of caste oppression.16 The analysis of forces in a struggle, if democratic, must arise organically from the consciousness of the oppressed. Any attempt to short-circuit this consciousness of the oppressed with ready-made formulae of universal history will regress to an authoritarianism that undercuts the experiential basis of the struggle. This is why the struggle against caste oppression even today must be a dalit struggle, and not an upper-caste agenda.

Sharing a Meal, Shaping a Community

The next paradox Ambedkar poses for us in his conceptualisation of struggle is his proposal for inter-dining between caste-Hindus and the Depressed Classes,

…to dissolve the nausea which the touchables feel towards the Untouchables, and which is the reason why the two sections have remained so apart as to constitute separate and distinct entities (From the letter regarding AUL, p 138).

Ambedkar argues that only a common cycle of participation in a way of life can overcome the strangeness one feels for the other. Social unity, “which we are all striving after” will come only with understanding and a sense of bonding that arise in an associated way of life. In one of those rare instances when Ambedkar refers to Gandhi as “Mahatma”, he says that in those 10 days when the Mahatma undertook the fast that shook the nation, many of the caste Hindus employers broke rules of untouchability and fraternised with the untouchables. This led to caste Hindu servants striking work. Instead of pushing ahead with their programme of fraternisation, the employers capitulated to orthodoxy and abandoned their newfound friendship. Ruing the existence of such “fair weather friends”, Ambedkar argues that the AUL should work to strengthen sympathisers so that they are ready to fight alongside the Depressed Classes against the forces of orthodoxy. Trust in the caste Hindu will come only when he is ready to shed blood for the Depressed Classes, as the whites of the north in the United States did against their own kin, the whites of the south “for the emancipation of the Negro”. Sympathy and trust are reciprocal. However, it is important to note that Ambedkar’s example is not a simple espousal of the “American way”. In the

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American civil war, it was the whites who fought each other over the issue of “Negro slavery”. In Ambedkar’s programme, the Depressed Classes will assert themselves and wage the primary struggle – the caste Hindu sympathisers are mere supporters and fellows-in-battle.

Thus in the same argument, Ambedkar runs together both a reference to revolutionary violence on the one hand, and a plea to the employer to put into practice a programme of change that will affect the caste Hindu servant’s behaviour on the other. The attack here is on our understanding of how a community works, how Ambedkar thinks for and about the Depressed Classes, their political condition, and what justice consists of. It would be worth exploring each of these aspects in some detail:

The first point to note is the complexity of Ambedkar’s concept of community (or of a group or class as such) – it is necessary to set aside all imaginary communities that find peaceful coexistence or are uniformly structured classes in their loves, understandings and antagonisms. Thus, we need to recognise that communities are richly textured in their levels of oppressiveness, irrationality and sophistication. While it may be necessary at one place in a given period to break caste Hindu heads in a pitched battle, it may be equally necessary at another place, in the same period, to dine with the caste Hindu and get used to him while he gets used to us. It is necessary to work different aspects of the community (or class, or caste) against the other, exploit the failure of the logic of community, force its inconsistency, in order to bring about a change in its structure. It is plain that such a process cannot provide a final resolution to the caste question – only continuing battle. This is far from both a Gandhian imagination of ‘Ramarajya’, and from a Hegelian/ Marxist dialectical resolution of class contradiction.17 The Ambedkarite model of community is one that is put constantly under stress, working it apart and together in a jerky, malfunctioning, slowly improving, always provisional unity.

The second point to note is that in Ambedkar’s conception, the oppressed do not think themselves as victims, nor do they hunger for world transforming state power. He suggests that the Depressed Classes recognise the contours of their oppression and will fight actively to overcome it to the extent they feel necessary. The structure of oppression, like that of comradeship in battle does not follow geometric lines and rectilinear perspectives; therefore, a uniform, high modernist approach to oppression will not serve the purpose. On the other hand, it is necessary to refrain from seeing the Depressed Classes as passive recipients of pity and alms, in the way the Gandhian programme did.

The third noteworthy point is the suggestion that the demand for justice in the face of untold oppression will be a demand for blood. Anything like a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” which listens to the victim and compensates him in a simple way without punishing the oppressor will not be enough in itself, even though it may be part of the whole process. At the same time that bloodshed is not an apocalyptic river of revenge – there will be different levels of battle against oppression which will be conjunctural, contradictory and multiple. Justice demands respect, not only sympathy. It requires love, which will arise both through the crisis of bloodshed and through acts of courage and


generosity that go beyond the imagination of bloodshed. This follows from the complex, multilevelled logic of the way in which a caste-ridden community, which is trying to become a nation, will have to work.

Activism Born of Love, Not Pity

If the activists of the AUL have to fight alongside the oppressed, they will have to be people who love the oppressed, and are not “fighting” mainly for financial consideration. “Hire purchase” of Depressed Classes activism by organisations who are also engaged in several other programmes is to be eschewed because love for the Depressed Classes cannot be purchased on hire. Activists will have to be disciplined to have a single-minded devotion to the problem, “narrow-minded and enthusiastic about their cause” (From letter regarding AUL, p 139). Such activists will best be found among the Depressed Classes themselves.

I do not suggest that there are not scoundrels among the Depressed Classes who have not made social service their last refuge. But largely speaking, you can be more sure that a worker drawn from the Depressed Classes will regard the work as love’s labour – a thing which is so essential to the success of the Anti-Untouchability League.

Thus, again, through his explicit advocacy of Depressed Classes activists, Ambedkar clearly shows his assessment of the limitations and limits of caste Hindu activism. Ambedkar reiterates in his closing lines the need for love to bring together, however doubtfully and provisionally, the national community.

The touchables and the untouchables cannot be held together by law – certainly not by any electoral law substituting joint electorates for separate electorates. The only thing that can hold them together is love. Outside the family justice alone in my opinion can open the possibility of love, and it should be the duty of the Anti-Untouchability League to see that the touchable does, or failing that is made to do, justice to the Untouchable (ibid: 140).

What Happened, Then?

Given the powerful criticism of the structure of nationalist activism in his letter, we may guess that Ambedkar did not feel too upset when there was no response from Thakkar, even thought he did express rhetorical surprise in his retrospective narration (ibid: 140). In complete contradiction to his recommendations, the AUL had decided to adopt the method of “peaceful persuasion”, eschew force and the creation of crises, avoid reference to inter-dining and intermarriage, and adopt constructive work of uplifting the Untouchables. Meanwhile, Gandhi began to call Untouchables Harijans.18 He renamed the organisation the Harijan Sevak Sangh (HSS), after a discussion of terms in 1934.19 To add insult to injury, the organisation decided not to permit membership of Harijans, even though the original central board of eight members had once had three untouchable leaders. Thus the AUL, through its renaming as the HSS reverted to its genealogical descent – it began functioning as a caste Hindu organisation seeking salvation for its members’ souls by offering repentance for the sins of untouchability committed by Hinduism in history. The irony of this ‘prayaschitta’ for the caste Hindu soul was that it was to be achieved through the purification of the physical body and moral fibre of the Harijan! The AUL/HSS thus sacrificed what Ambedkar felt was an invaluable concept of service to improve the environment of Untouchable life at the altar of the constructive programme that was central to the caste Hindu nationalist strategy.

Perhaps most importantly, Ambedkar’s strategic move of writing this letter forced the AUL to unmask its agenda and show the caste Hindu hegemony it stood for and expose its limitations. The AUL could have responded positively to Ambedkar’s letter, in which case, the historical situation would be altogether different today. The fact that it did not, does not belittle Amkedkar’s attempt at critical retrieval. Herein lies the last lesson Ambedkar teaches us in this letter. In an activist struggle, he did what he implied should be done in his writing, and that is not to abandon hope of support from any quarter, however unlikely. Partners in struggle may make strange bedfellows. The logic of an oppressed minority’s struggle that is taking place on the ground may not be reduced to a simple political and ethical calculus of comrades and class enemies.20 It calls for strenuous efforts at working counter-hegemonic consensus with all parties who share related positions, until such time that these hopes are belied. However, that alliance should be on terms that affirm the oppressed minority’s implicit perspective of the struggle. It is this call to collective self-assertion that becomes the critical differentiating principle of the term “dalit” (which arises in the same period), from the term “Harijan”, which connotes a passive, once sinful, individual to be redeemed by upper caste benevolence.

What Then Do We Make of All This?

The first question to be addressed is how far can a letter outlining a social service programme be theoretical? Is it valid for my analysis to attribute this top heavy theoretical and philosophical intention to such a slender text? My answer is that insofar as Ambedkar, an exceptionally sharp theoretician of caste and at the same time one of the most powerful activists India has produced, was thrown in the middle of events that had enormous theoretical and practical significance, it is logical to assume that even his simple activist communications were driven by a broader conceptual framework. It becomes necessary to make this assumption in reading this letter given the scope of the specific struggle within which Ambedkar framed it, and given the fact that he was mounting an increasingly systematic and radical critique of Gandhi, Congress and caste Hinduism. At the same time, this conceptual framework evolved and transformed its underpinnings under the inexorable pressure of the political battles he fought. Through

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all this, Ambedkar practised fully what he found to be a residual to strife confounds our understanding of pluralism which is fire in Marxism, “small but still very important” and that is “the essentially a non-violent civil societal process of collective function of philosophy is to reconstruct the world and not to bargaining and negotiating for political goods. waste its time in explaining the origin of the world”.21 For this (iv) It is also not possible to incorporate Ambedkar’s counterreason, I would argue, Ambedkar’s theoretical reflection is hegemonic strategy in Ernesto Laclau’s concept of hegemony rarely oriented towards an abstract diagnosis and prescription as socialist strategy without introducing a texture, detail for a universal problem – it is always a perpetually sharpening and range of activism that exceed the scope of Laclau’s “theoretico-pragmatic” instrument geared to the here and now abstract formulations. In addition, Ambedkar’s insights on the of activist work. strategy of struggle are more incisive than anything Laclau

This reading of Ambedkar’s political thinking is based on a has formulated. snapshot view provided by one letter written in a specific his-(v) While Ambedkar’s working philosophy is essentially a pragtorical context of activism. My attempt has been to draw out the matism I would hesitate to reduce it to any simple application of implications of the letter for the different kinds of activism that Dewey’s thinking, given Ambedkar’s demonstrated habit of we inherit. This has necessarily entailed sketching a positive out-completely reworking the terrain on which a concept is originally line of how Ambedkar viewed Depressed Classes activism in that proposed. moment. However, this positive outline is not a theory of dalit (vi) Whichever philosophical element it takes on board, changes activism as it emerges and evolves historically in his writings and or rejects, it is clear that Ambedkar stresses the self-assertion of in post Ambedkarite practice.22 This exercise clearly demands a dalit consciousness through the perspective and structure of depth of primary and secondary scholarship that is beyond the activism he proposes. It is this that differentiates and makes scope of this essay. Given these structural limitations, some con-specific the Ambedkarite, dalit agenda today. cluding cautions about categorising “Ambedkarism” as it emerges The most important thing to be remembered here is that in this letter are in order:23 the specific content of his programme reflects an evaluation

  • (i) Even as this stage of Ambedkarism problematises Gandhian of the condition of the Depressed Classes at that point in history welfare activism, it accepts the notion of welfare and provides it as much as it reflects Ambedkar’s choice of political strategy with a transactional content of great dignity. in that context. In fact this evaluation and choice are inter
  • (ii) Even as it problematises Marxism, it takes on board a woven inextricably. If we have to draw on his thinking, we practice of revolutionary violence where needed and couples will have to construct it anew for our situation, to deal with our it with a whole spectrum of activism ranging from this violence at impasses. This construction will surely put our ingenuity one end, to strategically planned expressions of love at the other. and analytical understanding to test. What do we make of
  • (iii) While there is undeniably an element of pluralism in Ambedkar’s legacy of dalit activism? How then do we construct Ambedkar, the element in his thought which goes beyond civility our Enlightenment? 24

    Notes History’ in Aesthetics: Essential Works of Foucault is reasonable to assume that Ambedkar was
    1 I will henceforth refer to this letter as the “letter regarding AUL”. See pp 134-40, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches: Vol 9 edited by Vasant Moon (Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, Bombay, 1991). The entire Chapter V in which the letter appears, ‘A Political Charity – Congress Plan to Kill by Kindness’ is a resource of value to activists and theorists inter 4 1954-1984,Vol 2, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1994. See ‘Annihilation of Caste’, Writings and Speeches: Vol 1, pp 27-96. The dating of his major texts is based on Anand Teltumbde’s diary of important life events in his invaluable CD e-compendium of B R Ambedkar’s writings. See also, Valerian Rodriques (ed), The Essential Writings of B R Ambedkar, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 5 6 familiar with Marxism from his early days in Columbia, since his course work included a study of Marxism, and his guide Edward Seligman was conversant with the materialist conception of history. See her discussion in Omvedt op cit, pp 49-51. It was this use of the AUL as an organ of constructive activity rather than service as he understood
    ested in issues of welfare and social reform. 2002, Introduction for a useful background and it that led to Ambedkar’s disillusionment with
    2 3 In this essay I will use the term “untouchables” and “Depressed Classes” more or less interchangeably. The term genealogy, which I have used in the title, put in quotation marks in this sentence and in italics in the next sentence, is from Michel Foucault, a thinker from another milieu, whose theoretical work establishes interesting convergences (though certainly not identical thought processes) with this letter. To make it absolutely clear, my point is not to say that Ambedkar is Foucauldian, or that Foucault is an Ambedkarite! I am just trying to illuminate each with the work and thought of the other. I will bridge these convergences with footnotes at relevant points in this essay. Genealogy, according to Foucault is an effective history (or similarly functional rough chronology. In the broad historical context of Ambedkar’s letter we discuss here, we may note in passing that the Communist Party of India has two dates of origin. One was started after the Indian National Congress Kanpur session in 1926, by S A Dange, Singaravelu Chettiyar and others. The other was started in Tashkent in 1924 by M N Roy, Muzzafar Ahmed and their colleagues. Thus, there was a Marxist historical context in India when Ambedkar wrote this letter in 1932. This historical context in Depressed Classes discourse is described in detail by Gail Omvedt, Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2004. Omvedt argues that class radicalism and Marxism were part of the milieu of 7 8 9 10 Congress and Gandhi, leading to the text that begins with those words. This term “conduct” is used by Foucault in a similar way. Power for Foucault is the conduct of conduct. See his ‘The Subject and Power’ in H L Dreyfus and P Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, The Harvester Press, Sussex, 1982, pp 219-21. “Sinful wretch” is bechara, or even paap bechara as they would say in Hyderabadi. Similar terms in common use would be ayyo paavam in Tamil (paapam in Telugu). See p 342, Shorter Oxford Dictionary, Oxford University Press, London, 1973. In this context, it is important to note that Gandhian activism operated with a Janus (dou
    description) of a dominant, morally unassailable dalit thinking even in the 1930s (see chapter ble) face: Against the British Communal Award,
    concept or practice from a critical perspective titled ‘ ‘Against Capitalism and Brahmanism’ his fast provoked an immense moral crisis not
    subjecting the underlying ethical values to a Years of Class Radicalism’). Anand Teltumbde, least for Ambedkar himself, and in the face of
    thorough revaluation. “It will uproot traditional ‘ ‘Ambedkar’ in and for the Post-Ambedkar Dalit Hindu opinion, it sought rational, peaceful
    foundations and relentlessly disrupt its pretended Movement’, paper presented in the seminar on consensus for improvement of conditions of the
    continuity. This is because knowledge is not the Post-Ambedkar Dalit Movement, dept of untouchables, who Gandhi begins to call the
    meant for understanding. It is meant for cutting.” political science, University of Pune, March 27-29, “Harijans”. It is precisely at the receiving end of
    See Michel Foucault, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, 1997, Usha Wagh, Pune, 1997, argues that it this “peaceful” oppression of the Gandhi Congress

    September 27, 2008


    combine that Ambedkar gives up this position on changing the dominant consensus within Hinduism and calls for the annihilation of caste. Tracing the growth of Ambedkar’s revolutionary agenda calls for a different project with more detailed analysis of the relevant texts and their context.

    11 See “Annihilation…”, where Ambedkar argues that the caste system is not only a division of labour, but a division of labourers, p 47.

    12 See ibid, where he argues that That economic power is the only kind of power no student of human society can accept. That the social status of an individual by itself often becomes a source of power and authority is made clear by the sway which the Mahatmas have held over the common man. Why do millionaires in India obey penniless Sadhus and Fakirs? Why do millions of paupers in India sell their trifling trinkets which constitute their only wealth and go to Benares and Mecca? That religion is the source of power is illustrated by the history of India where the priest holds a sway over the common man often greater than the magistrate and where everything, even such things as strikes and elections, so easily take a religious turn and can so easily be given a religious twist (p 44).

    13 See ibid, where Ambedkar argues about the dynamism of industry and the need for an open channel of movement so that people can survive (pp 47-48).

    14 A V Thakkar, Letter to editor, Times of India, Poona, May 12, 1945 (issue dated May 17, 1945). The context was Ambedkar’s famous speech on the “Communal Deadlock and the Way to Solve It”, delivered to the Scheduled Castes Federation in that month.

    15 B R Ambedkar, Letter to Editor, Times of India, Bombay, May 17, 1945 (issue dated May 18, 1945), emphasis added. See Michel Foucault, Power/ Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, Colin Gordon (ed), Pantheon Books, New York, 1980, pp 126-27 in chapter ‘Truth and Power’ for a discussion of the difference between the specific intellectual and the universal intellectual (or leader, as Ambedkar says here). Though the issue in Foucault is posed from the 1960s onwards in the context of scientific knowledges, the differentiating concept of the specific intellectual is useful to gain some insight into Ambedkar’s intuitive adherence to the problems of the untouchables. This focus of Ambedkar’s intervention may again be understood in Foucault’s terms as a genealogy that is, “the union of erudite knowledge and local memory which allows us to establish a historical knowledge of struggles and to make use of this knowledge tactically today”, p 83.

    16 Again, ‘Annihilation..’ provides us with the anchorage for the deeper theoretical point we are trying to make. In that speech/essay, Ambedkar argues that the logic of economic oppression will not hold because people find religion a source of power, and therefore a socialist of India must deal with the issue of caste either before or after the revolution.

    17 It is useful to look up this point about the dialectic in Foucault’s ‘Power and Strategies’ in Power/ Knowledge, see pp 143-45.

    18 Omvedt discusses this point in her account. See Omvedt op cit, p 50.

    19 It was called Service to the Untouchables Society in an interim period, and C Rajagopalachari objected to this term saying that by doing service to the untouchables, they would be perpetuating the experience of untouchability while the purpose was to eliminate it. It was then that the name Harijan Sevak Sangh was proposed and found acceptable. See The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Compact Disc, National Book Trust, Delhi, 2000, Vol 58, pp 58, 155, 473 for the discussion regarding the name. Gandhi’s letter to Birla (p 58) suggests a name which is slightly modified, in that “Sevak” replaces “Seva” in the final version.

    20 Again, Foucault provides us with a useful perspective to understand the practical struggles and the primacy of their demand in Ambedkar’s political philosophy and the importance of constructing theory not as a system of analysis according to universal parameters, but as a toolkit that explores “(i)…the logic of the specificity power relations and the struggles around them; (ii) …This investigation can only be carried out step by step on the basis of reflection (which will necessarily be historical in some of its aspects) on given situations.” See Power/Knowledge, pp 143-45.

    21 B R Ambedkar, ‘Buddha or Karl Marx’, Speeches and Writings: Vol 3, p 444.

    22 This is surely the task and privilege of the dalit activist-intellectual before whom one must stand aside in respect.

    23 These cautions are formulated in extreme shorthand given the limitation of space.

    24 The reference is to Michel Foucault, ‘What Is Enlightenment?’ in Paul Rabinow (ed), Ethics: The Essential Works Vol 1, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1994. In this essay Foucault overturns the generally accepted meaning of Enlightenment as a universal good to which the world would and must progress, into a problematisation of a dangerous modernity that would have to be negotiated through the use of exceptional wisdom.

    September 27, 2008

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