The Wire | October 29, 2017
People scatter rose petals in front of a portrait of B.R. Ambedkar. Credit: Reuters
This last month marks the solemn occasion of Babasaheb Ambedkar embracing Buddhism, along with lakhs of people, drawn to his vision. The Buddhism that Ambedkar made his own was described and argued in The Buddha and His Dhamma, a complex, layered text, which brought together his multiple and intersecting concerns: his commitment to a life of the mind, and his passion for bringing together knowledge and ethics, to leaven the claims of pradnya with those of sila; his desire for and commitment to fraternity, to maitri, or social fellowship, which, in his lexicon, was ‘greater than karuna’ (compassion); and the struggles that he and his fellow Dalits and other democratically minded opponents of the caste order waged to bring forth a more just and beautiful world, and one animated by sadhamma.
In writing this book, Ambedkar drew from several fields of knowledge, in history, philosophy, law, economics, ethics and politics; and practices of justice, in the legislature, government, and in social and political movements and forums of which he was a part. Anyone who has spent even a minimum amount of time at Siddhartha College of Arts and Sciences in Mumbai, with his collection of books, is bound to be awestruck by the capaciousness of mind that he brought to his concerns.
The Siddhartha College Collection comprises only part of Ambedkar’s great library, and has been looked after with care and affection by the generous and knowledgeable Shrikant Talvatkar, until recently the college’s chief librarian, and an able successor to S.S. Rege. Yet it could be the basis for developing an imaginative philological approach to the thought world of Ambedkar. In a recent essay, Scott Stroud has demonstrated what such an approach could yield.
In what follows, I have made a small beginning towards the reconstruction of the myriad ideas that mirrored – and shaped – Ambedkar’s thought-world in the 1940s, and found fruition almost a decade later in The Buddha and His Dhamma. This is a suggestive exercise, based on some of the books I had occasion to leaf through in the Siddhartha College Collection. This latter comprises: books on law, constitutional matters, representative government and governance; religious literature, including a selection from The Sacred Books of the East series, edited by Max Mueller, and studies of particular traditions, such as Sikhism, the Kabirpanthi, the Vallabha cult, the cult of Meher Baba; Buddhist and Jaina texts, especially historical and fictional explorations to do with Buddhist presence and influence in the sub-continent; writings by leading pragmatists, John Dewey and William James; historical literature to do with socialism and the labour movement in the UK and US, chiefly by those who were aligned to British Labour politics and arguably influenced by histories of the British working class; publications from the Soviet Union, including a 1947 edition of Vladimir Lenin’s classic Marx Engels Marxism and Vyshinsky’s treatise on Soviet law; books to do with science and society, by, among others, Joseph Needham and Jack Lindsay, as also books on science behind the atom bomb; histories of political thought and behavior to do with democracy, communism and the cold war, by American social scientists such as W.W. Rostow and the behavioural theorist Charles Merriam; Indian tracts on the linguistic organisation of states, and the future of Indian politics, including Rajni Palme Dutt’s The Indian Problem and Its Solution, with a respectful and affectionate inscription by its author. There are also a few elegantly inscribed titles from his student days in Columbia, which indicate his persistent interest in labour and in theories of the state. This is, by no means, an exhaustive listing of book categories, but merely one that maps in broad terms Ambedkar’s interests.
Palme Dutt’s inscription. Credit: Siddhartha College Library, Mumbai
These interests, though sustained over a lifetime, acquired coherence and shape in the unique historical conjuncture that was the 1940s, a crucial decade that witnessed world-historical changes. Unsurprisingly, his collection comprises at least in part carefully chosen texts published during this period; evidently he saw them as valuable for the many purposes that he desired to outline and fulfil. Before I get to the books, I would like to summarise briefly how Ambedkar engaged with the 1940s.
World War II and the difficulties and sorrows it brought in its wake, the prospects for independence that appeared both immediate and dim, the crisis that beset the nationalist leadership as the Quit India movement slipped into political restiveness and violence, the onset of a terrible famine in Bengal, armed communist uprisings in parts of the country, desperate populations that slaughtered each other in the wake of the partition of the sub-continent… The 1940s in India were troubled years, as in the rest of the world. Yet this was a critical and productive decade as well, which saw the emergence of quasi-welfarism within the colonial order of things, the making of the Indian constitution, attempts to codify Hindu law, and Indian freedom.
As far as Ambedkar was concerned, the contradictions that shaped the period proved both enabling as well as restrictive. He was Labour member in the Viceroy’s War Cabinet, and in that capacity, acquired a firsthand acquaintance with the conditions under which men and women laboured, in a wartime economy and in a colonial-imperial context. He was also present at that precise historical moment, when labour was viewed as an asset by a war-beleaguered coalition government in Britain. Given this historically opportune hour, whose significance was not lost on him, he went about his tasks with alacrity, suggesting and carrying out much needed reforms in the Indian context, and which, in his understanding, would benefit India’s workers, placed as they were in the bottom most rungs of the caste order.
This decade also saw him mobilising opinion and men on matters to do with adequate and fair representation for the scheduled castes in future constitutional arrangements such as the British were likely to support. It soon became clear that the latter were fundamentally disinterested in his attempts to render Indian constitutional efforts adequate to the society they wished to alter. However, Ambedkar persisted in seeking the ear of the colonial state through a variety of means: he advanced historical, sociological and ethical arguments that explained why caste Hindu society cannot be expected to deliver justice to the so-called untouchables; and how, therefore justice must be built into, provided for in constitutional terms. In a future free India, he argued, given current constitutional provisions, economic and political power would be vested in a ‘permanent’ majority of caste Hindus, presided over by a ruling combine of Brahmin ideologues and political leaders and merchants and industrialists. This combine, he noted, would not be receptive to undercaste and working class political demands and struggles. The extraordinary document that he submitted to be read at a peace conference convened by the Institute of Pacific Relations drew parallels between Indian and American instances, between the fate of the undercastes and that of Negroes; and sought democratic guarantees that would enable the scheduled castes take on India’s ruling classes. Thus he argued for what he termed ‘adequate’ rather than proportional representation, for separate rather than joint electorates. He appealed to world conscience, stricken by the advent of Nazism, in this and other instances, most notably in the essays that feature in What Gandhi and Congress Have Done to the Untouchables. He pressed forth his political claims in other texts as well. Who Were the Shudras, Who are the Untouchables, and the books that we today know as Revolution and Counter-revolution in Ancient India, Essays on Untouchability, Untouchables or Children of India’s Ghettoes, India and the Pre-requisites of Communism were all written, published and worked on, during this period. While they continue a lifelong debate he waged with Indian civilisational history, at the time of their writing and publication, these texts underlined the uniquely stigmatized position which historically had been accorded the untouchables in Indian society – and rendered their justice claims distinct.
Towards the end of the decade, Ambedkar was active in the drafting committee of the Constituent Assembly that he headed, and as law minister, played a crucial role in the early years of freedom and Indian self-government. His experiences in governance, extraordinary knowledge of constitutional histories and expansive understanding of democracy were all put to use, in framing a scheme of government that would be republican in form and democratic in content.
This was also a period, when Ambedkar, like many democrats and putative socialists across the world, wondered what the end of World War II would bring to a world, wearied by its horrors, deceptions and violence. The fight against fascism had been waged in the name of world civilization, was understood to be a struggle to keep political barbarians at bay, and if possible, make it impossible for them to rise again. Yet the defeat of fascism did not provide easy political comfort. The cynical use of the atom bomb to secure a foregone Japanese surrender and the persistence of imperialism across British and other European ruled territories soured the taste of victory. Further, the world stood divided into two camps, presided over by the US and the USSR respectively. A third space was sought by labour and social democratic parties, in the UK and parts of Europe, and their ideologues argued for an important role for the state in settling economic conflict, assuring social justice and in undertaking massive welfare efforts that would support indigent citizens in diverse ways.
Even as the battle for ideas raged on, nations and states had to rebuild themselves and it soon became evident that the US and USSR would set the terms of debate, as to what was politically just, good and right. On the other hand, their credentials for doing so, were turning increasingly questionable. For one, the end of the war witnessed a concerted political and intellectual assault on socialism in the United States, which, eventually, would result in harmful and destructive red-baiting in the 1950s. The twisted moves essayed by the so-called proponents of American democracy did not however render Soviet socialism attractive either. The heroism of the Soviet people in stopping the Nazi war machine from progressing further proved inspiring to thoUSnds of working people across the world, but the political hegemony the Soviet state established in central and northern Europe, in the Baltic regions and in lands to the east of Berlin appeared deeply problematic to those socialists, already dismayed by the fate meted out to Leon Trotsky and the Bolshevik old guard from the late 1920s and into 1930s.
As far as Ambedkar was concerned, the historical moment appeared to be shaped by old and new conundrums. The Indian problem was what it had always been for him: the graded inequality of the caste order as well as the line of separation that divided caste Hindus, however degraded within the caste system, from the so-called untouchables meant that democratic fraternalism would remain a distant ideal in free India. There were additional concerns: he was taken with the question of the economy, as never before, on account of his experiences in the Viceroy’s cabinet and in the Constituent Assembly, and wondered about those conditions that would help secure economic justice, while ensuring production and the creation of wealth. He was also worried about the political fate of critical reason, in a world that had until recently been held captive to a philosophy of hatred and violence, exemplified by Nazism. Unreason had bothered him in the past as well, and he associated Gandhi’s homespun philosophy of Swaraj and sacrifice with it (as What Gandhi and Congress Have Done to the Untouchables makes clear), but the fascists had taken unreason to new levels, and it was not clear that scientific rationality alone could prove an enabling defence against it.
These myriad concerns dovetailed into a search for an enabling political and social philosophy and the good society shaped by it. Books and reading proved invaluable in this context.
Many of the books in the Siddhartha College collection, especially those published in the 1940s are not explicitly or even remotely about India. But they clearly were carefully chosen, sometimes on account of their content, and possibly also on account of the intellectual and political credentials of the author. I list below some of these texts. I have chosen those that have been heavily marked, as well as those which bear a family resemblance to the latter.
- Howard Selsam, Socialism and Ethics, 1943
- Joseph Needham, History is on Our Side: A Contribution to Political, Religious and Scientific Faith, 1946
- Thomas Huxley and Julian Huxley, Touchstone for Ethics, 1947
- Henry Ehrmann, French Labour: from Popular front to Liberation, 1947
- William Z Foster, American Trade Unionism, 1947
- John Parker, Labour Marches On, 1947
- Francis Williams, The Triple Challenge to the Future of Socialist Britain, 1948
- Margaret Cole, Makers of the Labour Movement, 1948
- Harold Laswell, The Analysis of Political Behaviour: An Empirical Approach, 1948
- Way Lewis, Man’s Quest for Significance, 1948
- Norman Mackenzie, Socialism: A Short History, 1949
- William Dale Morris, The Christian Origins of Social Revolt, 1949
- Jack Lindsay, Marxism and Contemporary Science, 1949
As is evident, taken together, these books engage with the historical advance of socialism, its ethical content, the politics inspired by it, particularly of labour movements, and the relationship between socialist thought, religious ideas and scientific knowledge. Dr Ambedkar’s choice of authors is significant. Francis Williams, Margaret Cole, Norman Mackenzie and John Parker were fellow travelers with and ideologues of the British Labour party. William Dale Morris was a Fabian. Ambedkar was familiar with Labour politics, and with core Fabian ideas. The Independent Labour Party he founded in 1936 was modeled on Keir Hardie’s party by that name. As Labour member, he could not have been unaware of the British Labour Party’s political and economic objectives such as they were defined during this period. He agreed with Labour ideologues that World War II was indeed a people’s war, and would secure economic and social justice for the working class. On the other hand, his interest in writers associated with the party was not on account of contemporary labour politics, and instead had to do with the histories of the English working class that they invoked, in particular pre-modern underclass revolts whose vision of the world to come was coloured by religious and millenarian ideals.
The passages Ambedkar has marked in books by these authors are revealing. I shall confine myself to a few examples. The first is from Francis Williams’ book and appears to echo his own questioning of what awaited the world: “…whether the personal freedoms and individual values which Western civilisation cherishes can be safeguarded and extended under socialist planning…” (p. 71). This was an important question for those convinced of the efficacy of the latter, as indeed Ambedkar was.
Ambedkar’s copy of Cole’s Makers of the Labour Movement shows a tick mark against all chapters, and extra ones against the ones devoted to Francis Place and John Stuart Mill. Place was an early working class organiser and democrat, who fought to have the right to association affirmed by the parliament. He was also associated with the early phases of the Chartist movement. More important, he was a ‘moral force Chartist’ who believed in persuasion rather than the use of force, the holding of public meetings, the sending of petitions to government and the publication of newspapers and pamphlets to argue the case for adult male suffrage. Ambedkar’s own interest in advancing ideas through public debates must have rendered Place’s example inspiring. Further, Place was concerned with the education of the working class, an ideal that was dear to Ambedkar as well and instrumental in the setting up of what were known as ‘Lancastrian schools’ – where students who learned faster and displayed greater abilities than their peers taught the latter, a unique monitorial system that was also imported into India.
Ambedkar’s interest in Mill is unsurprising. Mill was widely read in India, and his essay On Liberty was a favourite text with Indian liberals of all persuasions. Ambedkar drew on his ideas on several occasions. Of particular interest to him was Mill’s exhortation to citizens to not lay down their rights at the feet of great men, an argument he deployed to criticise Gandhi; but which also was meaningful in the context of fascism.
The most marked book in this collection is Mackenzie’s short history of socialism and the passages Ambedkar calls attention to include references to peasant uprisings in England, associated with John Ball in the 14th century and Gerrard Winstanley in the 17th century. Of these revolts, Mackenzie notes (and Ambedkar has marked these lines): “In spite of brutality and bloodshed, these plebian heresies flourished amongst the peasants and among the poorer townsmen, keeping alive the early Christian doctrine that private property was sinful… that men had a right to equal share of the wealth they produced”(p. 17).
The role essayed by the Christian faith in answering to the justice needs of the poor and oppressed was also noted by William Dale Morris and it is noteworthy that one of the passages marked is this one: “…at the time of St Augustine, it was the working class, the unfree and manumitted peasants, hand-workers and the like who furnished the greatest number of recruits (that, is to the new faith of Christianity – VG)”(p. 11)
Ambedkar had argued in Annihilation of Caste that the impulse to revolt, especially in the context of caste society, is unlikely to be motivated by the desire for bread alone; and pointed to socialists that the oppressed would join the revolution to equalise property only if they “know that after the revolution is achieved they will be treated equally, and that there will be no discrimination of caste and creed”. In other words, for revolutionary action to be effective, it ought to be leavened by ethical desire, a sense of the transcendent that claimed its right to bread, but in the name of a higher morality. He was thus drawn to what Dale Morris referred to as the “Christian roots” of social revolt, sensing in these that desire for not only the just but also the good society. William Morris appealed to him for the same reason, as these marked lines from Mackenzie’s book indicate: “His (Morris’) socialism was primarily a fierce emotional protest and an assertion that fraternity and beauty were as vital to life as bread”.
Joseph Needham’s attempts to reconcile his Christian faith with communism also spoke to Dr Ambedkar’s sense of the numinous and its relationship to politics. The lines marked in that text include the following. Speaking of the importance of the political project of communism, Needham remarks: “How then shall the outward and visible sign of love between man and man be brought into the being?” (p. 29). In another instance, he notes: “If you are theologically disposed, there will be a profound temptation to be occupied with dead theological issues, to tithe mint and cumin, and to neglect justice and mercy, the weightier matters of law…” (p. 53). For Ambedkar, who would later remark that religions only explain the world, whereas with Buddhism, he hoped to reconstruct it, these lines must have appeared significant.
Other things that appear to have interested Ambedkar were: the ways in which the working class organised itself; the education of workers; the nature of the good and just society; and the role of the state in securing it. Passages to do with these matters are invariably marked, for instance, the sections in Mackenzie’s book that have to do with the First International and the Paris Commune. Clearly, Ambedkar was fascinated by the example of the international, and the way it conducted its affairs, as he was by the revolutionary and democratic functioning of the commune. In both instances, the working class was present, as itself, except that it was imbued with keen political awareness, and an awareness of its historical role. Ambedkar held that workers must think beyond their status as workers and acquire political self-knowledge. He did not think that a party that was external to their presence and leadership could achieve this – rather he desired the working class to fashion itself into a political group, with workers arbitrating their affairs directly, almost echoing Marx and Engels that the “Self-emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself”.
This is perhaps why he sought to study closely histories of labour. Ehrmann’s book, which deals with the French working class and the way it organised itself against fascism, and the subsequent narrowing of union politics must have been important in Ambedkar’s scheme of things – because Ehrmann too laments the lack of political vision on the part of the post-War French working class. This is also why he must have acquired William Z. Foster’s book on American unionism. Foster was a working class radical, who hailed from a slum, worked at several jobs and was a self-taught communist. He moved from being a Syndicalist to a member of the International Working Men of the World, before he became a member and head of the Communist Party of the US. A self-made political leader was clearly important in the Indian context, where labour was often spoken for, as Ambedkar pointed out, and did not so much speak for itself.
However, it was not so much authentic self-expression that Ambedkar endorsed – it was not enough that workers represented themselves but they ought to do so, with intellectual self-assurance and political knowledge. This may have also been why he was drawn to Howard Selsam’s work. Selsam was closely associated with the Communist party of the US and ran a school for democracy and later, one for the social sciences, intended to educate the working class and all those that wished to join socialist politics. (It is noteworthy that Ambedkar too wanted to set up a school for democracy.) Selsam was also that rare left thinker who took the question of race seriously, and wrote about it. He also invited W.E. Dubois to lecture at his school for social sciences.
Ambedkar’s copy of Selsam’s Socialism and Ethics is unmarked. Yet clearly, it was acquired for a specific purpose. Selsam’s work was viewed as authoritative in its own time and after. Selsam attempted to derive an ethics from Marxist texts, even as he argued that Marxism is not devoid of ethics. As a contemporary reviewer remarked, Selsam “argues that for our epoch the test of actions must be whether they contribute to the advancement of the working people of the world as the most numerous, the most oppressed, and the most progressive class in modern society”. Selsam was however no idealist and also resolutely opposed to political pragmatism (and a staunch critic of John Dewey). For him, actions that made for the ‘good’ were those premised on a scientific understanding of material reality, of the interlinked worlds of production and social relations.
For Ambedkar, the question of what was both good and just did not pose a problem. He held that democratic principles were inherently good, and particularly so, in the context of the caste order. Of socialist verities he was less sure, but in the ethical world view that he endorsed in The Buddha and His Dhamma, private property, the acquisitive instinct that fosters it, and the coercive power, of the police and the state, which flows from the need to guard property are all deemed wrong, and as impeding self-knowledge, as well as knowledge of social suffering. But Ambedkar also held that religious world views which sanctified social relationships and consecrated inequality equally caused social suffering. In this, he was not unlike critical rationalists, of whom the Marxists were a large group, who held that wrong knowledge, or delusional approaches to knowing, deliberately upheld by the powerful and sustained by an intellectual class aligned to the latter, caused ignorance and delivered hurt. In the context of the caste order, such approaches played a vital role in sustaining graded inequality and were not likely to disappear with the onset of economic justice, rather they had to be challenged by other ways of knowing and being. The standard Marxist approach that linked ethical world views to social circumstances, historical conditions and social class, and which held that structural transformations would free consciousness was an idea that Ambedkar did not fully agree with, and he must have wanted to critically engage with a text such as Selsam’s which addressed this problem at length.
The question of ethics is what perhaps drew Ambedkar to the Huxleys, and to Lindsay’s book on science and Marxism. How may one stay ethical, even as one was bound to a scientific world view? This appeared a conundrum, for biologists in particular, since Darwin’s time; and the problem had to do with the evolution of one’s ethical sense, and whether it was to remain contingent, relative and therefore highly opportune, given the nature of human evolution, which proceeded through random selection; or if it could be endowed on a firm and irrefutable basis. Without seeking an absolutist basis for ethics, Julian Huxley attempted to endow it on a recognisably durable basis. He wrote: “In the broadest possible terms evolutionary ethics must be based on a combination of a few main principles: that it is right to realize ever new possibilities in evolution, notably those which are valued for their own sake; that it is right both to respect human individuality and to encourage its fullest development; that it is right to construct a mechanism for further social evolution which shall satisfy these prior conditions as fully, efficiently, and as rapidly as possible”.
For Ambedkar, who would later claim that the Buddha’s point of view, his manner of argument and his irreproachable logic reflected a rational, scientific world view, science had to be more than method, rather it had to represent the best possible as well as the most just way of looking at society. Arguments which linked science and ethics, a rational, critical approach to reality with the possibility of discerning and following what was right and true were thus important to his purpose. The Buddha that Ambedkar ushered into the pages of his book was not to be a revered ancestor, rather he was to be seen as a relevant companion and mentor for the present.
This is perhaps also why Lindsay’s work was part of his collection. Lindsay’s book comprised essays on various subjects to which he applies the dialectical method, including the biological, physical and human sciences, art, ethics and religion. Arguing that social reality was both contradictory and unified, Lindsay proposed that the challenge for Marx was to sustain a sense of the ‘human’ in the face of class identities, imposed by capitalism. This ‘human’ element was not something that could be assumed, nor was it a given, rather it emerged in the context of man’s relationship to nature, and men’s relationship to each other. The free development of the human person and their ability to enter into free association with each other were not possible under capitalism, and for these to be realised human society must be reorganised on a socialist basis. Lindsay noted that human freedom and association were not abstract entities for Marx, rather they were dynamic and complex and emerged in and through changes that took place in the interlinked worlds of production and culture, scientific knowledge and ethics. For a socialist, freedom and association were thus both ethical as well as scientific ideals
The union of ethics and science, of freedom, equality and justice with a non-delusional knowledge of the universe – these would figure in Ambedkar’s understanding of Buddhism. Ethics mattered to him for other reasons as well – he desired to ground notions of the good in forms of cooperative coexistence. In The Buddha and His Dhamma, the Buddhist sangha is presented as an ideal form of collective co-existence. It was however not organised around the principle of production, rather the sangha’s voluntary poverty was sustained by the modest largesse of the state and wealthy laity. The sangha was thus an ethical collective, and one which spread its gospel of cooperation, compassion and mindful fellowship by example and the force of dialogue. What was to sustain a fellowship of those committed to a new ethics, in the context of the caste order?
In practical terms, it was the state that Ambedkar looked to, like many democratic socialists and Fabians of his time, to resolve the question of economic and social justice. In his view, the collectivisation of land and industry was an important pre-requisite for the delinking of caste and occupation, and occupational status and social standing. On the other hand, he was anxious that the scheduled castes secure their rights not only in common with others, but also possessed distinctive rights. He thus favoured separate settlements for them: in part this might have been influenced by the utopian settlements that he read of in Mackenzie’s book, particularly Robert Owen’s efforts in this regard (a heavily underlined section). He was familiar with the idea of cooperatives, as advanced by Proudhon and others. A less fortunate example, which he actually refers to, was to be found in the bantustans (See Volume 17, 2, p. 194), which were created by the racist South African state, but which appeared to Ambedkar to represent autonomy. Howsoever he came to it, the question of settlements was one that had to be backed by state fiat.
Of the many passages on the state that are marked in the books he read, the following stand out. Mackenzie’s short descriptions of French socialism, particularly of Louis Blanc, appear to have caught Ambedkar’s attention, possibly because Blanc held that the state could be used as an instrument of reform than a machine of domination of one class over the other. Interestingly, the Napoleanic period also appears to have interested him. One heavily marked passage argues that the rise of Napolean and the restoration of the monarchy led to the return of the privileged and rich to positions of power in France. Yet, “The intense political experience of the revolution could no longer be forgotten. Socialist ideas were no longer an abstract doctrine. Men had learned that the State may be used to abolish privilege, to direct production and control distribution, to give reward according to need, to sustain the interests of the poor against the greed and exploitation of the rich” (p.21). While this description appears a distinct vision of the post-War British welfare state, rather than what existed in Napoleanic France, it appears to have absorbed Ambedkar’s attention, as did the more neutral view of the State advanced by the Fabians.
For Ambedkar, the State in the Indian context posed a problem as his numerous edgy, critical references to imperial rule and governance make clear. Nevertheless, he viewed the colonial state, with its espousl of the rule of law, and the equality of persons in the eye of the law, as a harbinger of modern political changes. Further, as I have noted above, the colonial state looked to present itself as a proto-socialist state during the war years, when Ambedkar engaged with it most directly and over a period of time. Yet, when it came to the transfer of power, from British to Indian hands, Ambedkar was none too sanguine about the free Indian state (as I have noted above). However, when the occasion arose, and when he had a historic opportunity to engage with state-making and building he did not let his conceptual understanding – of what a future Indian state would be – deter him from doing his part to shape it. His labours in the Constituent Assembly and as law minister made that evident, as also his speeches as a member of the Opposition in the 1950s.
Yet, for all that, Ambedkar did not imagine that the political state could achieve much on its own, without a concomitant social revolution that would help foster constitutional morality, which in turn, would impact the state. Drawn as he was to theories of the state that envisioned for it a productive and at worst a neutral role, his own sense of what could be achieved in and through it remained ambiguous. It would be useful to recall a remark that he made years earlier, when he appeared before the Simon Commission: “True enough that the state in India will not be able to compel touchables and untouchables to be members of one family whether they liked it or not. Nor will the state be able to make them love by an Act of the legislature or embrace by order in council of the executive. But short of that the state can remove all obstacles which make untouchables remain in their degraded condition”.
His remarks on the Vajji confederacy in The Buddha and His Dhamma perhaps capture the rich and contentious ambiguity in his thought concerning the role of the state: that so long as its workings are transparent, founded on principles that it has assented to, and guided by open debate the Vajji confederacy can hope to endure. If it failed to do so, its ruin was imminent.
The ethical as well as collective state that Ambedkar invoked in his writings, and the Indian state that he worked with were two different entities. To him, the latter was both a class and caste state, and yet he did not demur from trying to building within its confines a stable and democratic mode of governance.
It is evident that in his search for a polity and social order that would upend the logic of caste, and untouchability and the regime of private property, Ambedkar sought to travel in several directions all at once: he wanted to stage a social revolution, but was aware that such revolutions are necessarily of a long duree, and need to be sustained by a faith in justice and compassion, which, in the past had been provided by religion. What was to be the religion of the future? He did not imagine that Marxist thought could take the place of religion, yet socialism remained a defining line for him, and one he did not wish to fudge or evade. Economic justice, rather the end of a regime of private property, and the dawn of a collective future, under the aegis of the state appeared a desirable end, both because it would do away with the relationship between caste and mandated labour, and because it would secure the effective organization of production and wealth. But would the state be capable of delivering such justice? Political democracy was central to modern existence, and Ambedkar was committed to it and to fashioning institutions that would keep it alive, parliament, the courts and a free civil society. Yet, what was one to do, when democracy came up against its own limits, in the face of economic unfreedom and social hierarchy?
Thus, we have him returning to the social sphere, to that realm where human beings settle their relationships with each other, and this is where he imagined change had to be secured and made enduring. A change in consciousness in the context of the caste order, he held, could and ought to be initiated through public action, in this instance of conversion that announced the end of a way of life, and the beginning of another. In this, Ambedkar was not unlike those utopians he read of, in Mackenzie’s short history, who looked to and did live outside of the ambit of capitalism, in their own cooperative and communal settlements. On the other hand, Ambedkar remained in the world that bothered him, of caste, economic unfreedom and notional democracy, even as he attempted to create a liveable ethical universe.
As his priceless collection of books shows us, his was both a restless and practical imagination, at once utopian and pragmatic, ethical and historical. The questions which engaged his mind were those that animated communists and democrats, Christian socialists and liberals across the world – and he sought to address them within the historical context of the caste order on the one hand and the promises held out by socialism and democracy on the other. He also came to them, as a legislator, a state builder, an educational thinker, founder of colleges and libraries, and an organizer of men, women and movements. In the event, he came to Buddhism, which afforded him, in the realm of both ideas and immediate practice, a space for that synthesis of the good, the just and true.
In The Buddha and His Dhamma, he had succeeded in expounding an ethics, and, had he lived longer, would have worked through a politics and economics commensurate with the new ethics.
V. Geetha is a writer based in Chennai. She thanks Shrikant Talvatkar for putting aside time to speak to her and allowing her to browse and access Dr Ambedkar’s collection at Siddhartha College of Arts and Sciences, the library staff for their assistance and Minal Sangole for putting her in touch with Talvatkar.