By Jeff Shantz
The work of B. R. (Bhimrao Ramji) Ambedkar remains influential, perhaps increasingly so in a period of anticolonialism and decolonizing movements—and Rightwing reactionism. On April 15, 2019, I had the opportunity to attend a keynote address on Ambedkar’s thought by Valerian Rodrigues (Visiting Professor, Simon Fraser University).
This reflection of the work of Ambedkar by Professor Rodrigues was shaped by and addressed the context of the current rise of the far Right, nationalism, xenophobia, and the further concentration of capital in fewer hands under neoliberal capitalism. It references the present period of resentments over migration and the focus on tightening borders in multiple geographic regions. And of course ecological crises. In this period humanity is challenged to support social and economic justice in a sustainable manner.
Rodrigues elects to discuss Ambedkar’s work with reference to three main considerations. First, Ambedkar’s critique of the Indian national movement and, in particular, its lack of connection with marginalized groups. Rodrigues notes that Ambedkar came from one of the lowest castes in India and spoke for them all his life. Second, his thoughts on the promise of democracy and its pragmatics. Third, the influence of his thought on resistance to modes of oppression and social exclusions today. Rodrigues notes that Ambedkar was wary of liberal democracy, Marxism, and emerging Indian nationalism alike.
In all of this Ambedkar was attuned to the underclases and excluded. He argued that certain communities and groups are caught in a “deep marginality.”
Rodrigues suggests that Ambedkar held to a commitment to democracy as freedom and equality (rather than formal procedure, electoralism, or parliamentarism). He related Indian democracy with the national liberation movement. This was a mass movement and included large sections of the working class and peasantry. It used critical memories of the past to shape visions of the future. And it emphasized non-violence.
Ambedkar pushed democracy to the forefront. Nationalism was only feasible, in his view, to the extent that it was attuned to democracy—a radical democracy. Democracy, according to Ambedkar, must guide nationalism, not the other way around.
The nation is caught in two tendencies. Nationality and ethnic bonds are fragile. Ambedkar argued against essentializing them.
According to Ambedkar, the rise of nationalism in India led to the rise of a governing class. That new class reflects the economic, political, and ideological structure of the traditional society despite the new context. Ambedkar argues that in decolonizing movements local capital will secure the governing class post-independence. The governing class shows traditions of ranking and gradation were not assailed within the nationalist movement. The movement reproduced ranks and hierarchies.
Post-colonial democracy was a divided house. There were moves toward democracy but also a maintaining of privilege and status. In Ambedkar’s view, democracy is a process of bringing social and economic changes. It is, he suggests, a redistribution of social resources without bloodshed. But democracy needs to respond to social conditions, not be based on dogma.
Ambedkar argued for special education and employment for lower caste and Indigenous people in India. These suggestions enter the Indian constitutional document. Ambedkar insisted that protections must be put in the Constitution itself, so they are not vulnerable to future political parties with their own unequal or exclusionary aims.
In Ambedkar’s view, democracy is a resource for new possibilities. Elections cannot be taken as the be all and end all of democracy. Ruling groups know that these will not threaten their power. Rather, it gives their power a veneer of selection.
Political democracy cannot last, according to Ambedkar unless there is a basis of social democracy. Liberty, equality, fraternity must be together at once. Fraternity, In Ambedkar’s view, is necessary to avoid the need of “a constable to enforce” the other two, as Rodrigues puts it.
Social democracy, in Ambedkar’s vision, encompasses an attitude of respect. It involves resocialization and a new likemindedness.
Rodrigues outlines Ambedkar’s critiques of liberal democracy and Marxism. Ambedkar, he says, suggests that liberal democracy is not sensitive to human needs for respect and dignity. It does not respect the need of people to pursue their own destiny. It is also not sensitive to the sociality of humans. And it is excessively focused on political democracy—not social and economic democracy. It ignores religious sensibilities (in non-religious expressions), the virtues that connect people.
According to Ambedkar, liberal democracy ignores economic inequalities and the inequality that obtains in bargaining contracts. The strong can defraud the weak. This adds to the economic ranks of the downtrodden and poor. Liberty has swallowed equality and rendered democracy a farce.
Ambedkar had critiques of Marxism as well. For one, he rejected materialist dialectics. He focused instead on consciousness. Ambedkar did endorse the Marxist understanding of class in society and the primacy of the ownership of the means of production in social relations of power—and the social architecture built up in defense of property. And, he agreed with Marx that the point of philosophy is to change the world.
Rodrigues concludes with a consideration of modes of oppression and exclusion in these times. The promises of post-coloniality have proved elusive. Ambedkar, like Franz Fanon and Paolo Friere have mush to suggest. Some have turned to Ambedkar and Hannah Arendt and Giorgio Agamben to understand the plight of refugees today. Ambedkar’s thought is concerned with transatlantic politics.
This was an event that offered numerous insights into Ambedkar’s ideas. Living and organizing in Surrey, I have hosted several events in the Ambedkar room of the City Center library. I must admit having too little familiarity with his ideas. This talk made a contribution to developing that understanding. Many ask: “Can democracy be more than a contrivance to benefit elites?” Ambedkar’s work offers interesting responses.
Forging Democratic Futures: Ambedkar on Complex Marginalities and Inclusion
Please join us for a free public lecture by Dr. Valerian Rodrigues, a visiting professor with SFU's Department of Humanities.This appointment is made possible through the Hari and Madhu Varshney Visiting Scholars Program in Indian Studies.
While India’s national movement against colonial rule traced a trajectory of its own, B. R. (Bhimrao Ramji) Ambedkar, strove to give a distinct turn to it by avowing egalitarianism, constitutionalism, and moral grounding. This turn grappled with the marginality of the socially excluded untouchable communities from which he hailed, and the deep diversity constitutive of India. While he wrote extensively on prevalent social relations that upheld graded inequality, he was deeply aware of the overladen and intersecting modes of exclusion and oppression that characterised societies such as India.
An alumnus of Columbia University, New York, and London School of Economics, in early 20th century, Ambedkar sought to anchor public life on a distinct conception of democracy that resonated a post-colonial context seeking its self-definition. The talk is an engagement with and celebration of the thought and action of an iconic figure on the day following his birth anniversary.
Monday, April 15 | 5:30—8:00pm
SFU Segal Building, Ground Floor
500 Granville Street, Vancouver
Free public lecture