When Scott Stroud, a professor of communication studies, calls Ambedkar a “pragmatic rhetor” in The Evolution of Pragmatism in India, he is not disparaging him. Rather, he portrays him as one of the world’s greatest practitioners of philosophical pragmatism, a school of philosophy that was influential in America at the turn of the 20th century, with William James and John Dewey as its two primary proponents.
Ambedkar studied under Dewey at Columbia University, and Stroud claims that Dewey’s lectures were the foundation for all Ambedkar’s thought and action to the very end. Specifically, meliorist pragmatism: the idea that the point of philosophy is to redescribe phenomena “to affect beneficial change in specific ways”.
The label of “rhetor” comes from allegiance to the centrality of communication in the construction of society. In his heavily annotated copy of Dewey’s Democracy and Education, Ambedkar has a check mark next to “Society not only continues to exist by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication”. Communication becomes central to Ambedkar’s conception of democracy; Stroud observes that India structured by Hinduism entailed “a separation into a privileged and subject-class” that prevented genuine communication.
Ambedkar’s indebtedness to Dewey, and Stroud’s detailed account of Dewey’s footprint in his speeches and writings, tempt the refrain of “go to the West to learn theory and come back to save your country in practice”. Added to this is the self-fulfilling twist of philosophical pragmatism: even when Ambedkar “appropriates” Dewey’s writings and refashions them to suit his own political ends, that would essentially be practising pragmatism well. But theory and practice are intertwined. Pragmatism accounts for what comes before philosophy—human experience. The business of the pragmatist philosopher is to “snatch and fix” what “glimmers or twinkles like a bird’s wing in the sunshine” (as James put it).
Ambedkar’s trauma and existential loneliness growing up as an untouchable were experiences in search of the right words, and these words could, in turn, be used to snatch and fix the trauma by reshaping society through persuasive force. In this characterisation of Ambedkar as pragmatism personified, he is perfectly transparent—there is no mystery about his motives, philosophy, or actions. In a seminar paper at university, Ambedkar argues that customs of caste were “essentially of the nature of means, though they are represented as ideals”. Once the inevitability of ends is recognised, intelligence lies in achieving these ends without violence. This is simultaneously a critique of the insidious ways in which Brahmanic Hindus use religious or moral camouflage to pursue their material ends, as well as a template for his life: the use of clear non-violent means to fight for the depressed classes.
Tracing the continuity between motive, thought, and action prompts Stroud to dig into Ambedkar’s notes and diaries, and we vividly picture a pragmatic mind at work. Ambedkar made notes while he read; counterarguments in coloured pencil are found in annotations and marginalia inside the pages of his 50,000 books (at one time, perhaps the world’s largest private library). More often than not, such annotations are found only in a chapter or two of his books, a practice that Ambedkar was not apologetic about. Stroud reports an exchange with a publisher, where Ambedkar conveyed that he read only those “chapters which probably offer some new thoughts and ideas… when I have done that, you may say I have read the book”.
“Ambedkar effectively conflates education and political action as necessary means to bring about institutional change, which in turn would make individuals creative members of society. ”
Pragmatic reading and writing did not dilute the centrality of philosophy in Ambedkar’s work; rather, this meant any political action was reasoned out in scholarly depth. In Stroud’s telling, one of Ambedkar’s first major political moves was a book review of Bertrand Russell’s Principles of Social Reconstruction, published in the Journal of the Indian Economic Society in 1918. Russell—arguably more popular to a British and Indian readership than Dewey—was a staunch critic of pragmatism as he believed in truth as an end in itself. Also, Russell was typically viewed as a pacifist scholar. In this review, Ambedkar shows that given the onset of war, Russell appears to be compatible with Dewey in the need for education to “eliminate the circumstances and institutions” that instill the “wrong spirit” or mental habits of individuals that dilute their creative impulses; it is not surprising that Ambedkar titles his piece “Mr Russell and the Reconstruction of Society”. Here Ambedkar chooses a journal that speaks to the influential community of economists to write on a philosophical oddity. He simultaneously displaces the notion that scholars like Russell who pursue truth believe in “quieticism and the doctrine of non-resistance”. Ambedkar effectively conflates education and political action as necessary means to bring about institutional change, which in turn would make individuals creative members of society.
- Amedkar’s pragmatism provides a counterpoint to the charge that he was in bed with the British.
- Ambedkar’s position was secured by moments of courage, such as the 1927 Mahad incident of marching up to a lake and drinking water that a Dalit dared not touch before.
- Despite being a primary draftsman of the Indian Constitution, Ambedkar came to view himself as a “hack” who helped build “a burning house”.
- Ambedkar’s wanted to instill constitutional principles of equality, liberty and fraternity through a mass conversion to Buddhism via persuasive speech.
The courage to communicate
If Stroud seems to focus more on Ambedkar’s writings than on “circumstances and institutions” to bring about reform, Aakash Singh Rathore’s Becoming Babasaheb: Birth to Mahad (1891-1929) makes for a complementary read. Author of several volumes on Ambedkar, Rathore documents Ambedkar’s university years and the first half of his working life, focussing on political action and lawyering that led to his status as an icon. While Rathore notes myriad scholarly influences on Ambedkar (Dewey among them), he highlights experiential exposure while “treading the streets of Upper Manhattan and Harlem” that “were beginning to buzz with a new black consciousness”. He similarly credits the suffragette movement in New York with Ambedkar’s idea that “the essence of caste was the control of women’s sexuality—foremost, the practice of endogamy”.
Rathore traces other moments of experiential exposure, such as mistreatment by Hindus and Parsis alike while looking for a place to stay on his return to Bombay. He also traces Ambedkar’s testimony before British policy commissions, journalistic forays, role as a barrister, and founder of colleges for the disadvantaged. Of note here is Ambedkar’s testimony before the Royal Commission on Indian Currency and Finance in 1925, based on his doctoral dissertation on “The Problem of the Rupee”. Here his argument for whether and to what extent the rupee should be devalued is premised entirely on the distributional effects of the exchange rate, and its effect on prices of goods. From the transcript, there is a clear conflict between the way “the national point of view” is understood by the elite business classes and Ambedkar, who speaks on behalf of the “labouring community”.
“Ambedkar took pains to build and maintain goodwill among Dalits by taking on multiple low-paying cases as a barrister, and to remain in the public eye through setting up and editing newspapers. ”
This example serves as a counterpoint to Arun Shourie’s claim in Worshipping False Gods that Ambedkar sacrificed national interests at the altar of Dalit politics; he understood national politics as distributionally charged with the uplift of the “labouring community” and “the depressed classes”. This does not mean that the interests of all minority communities and the economically underprivileged were compatible with the representation of Dalit interests. This is evident from clashes in the shadow of Partition, a period beyond the scope of Rathore’s book (but probably within the scope of the next promised volume). Pragmatism provides a counterpoint to Shourie’s other charge: that Ambedkar was in bed with the British. As Jesús Cháirez-Garza argues in his contribution to the volume Ambedkar in London, Ambedkar’s first big public contribution at the India Round Table Conference in London in 1930 was a way to convert the Dalit issue from a socio-religious to a political issue by speaking in a pan-Indian representative capacity on an international stage.
Following Stroud, Ambedkar’s use of the English language and participation in British bureaucratic channels can be more precisely described as pragmatic rather than strategic. There was parity in the manner of communication and the result of securing access to corridors of influence earlier reserved for the Brahmanic elite. To the extent that the focus is on communication, pragmatism provides a window to the means by which Ambedkar positioned himself and secured entitlements for Dalits. But what about his position among Dalits and other interests he sought to represent? In keeping with the focus on the institutional and experiential, Rathore points to pivotal moments of courage, rather than communication, that secured Ambedkar’s position, such as the 1927 Mahad incident of marching up to a lake and drinking water that a Dalit dared not touch before. A pattern emerges from Rathore’s book: Ambedkar took pains to build and maintain goodwill among Dalits by taking on multiple low-paying cases as a barrister, and to remain in the public eye through setting up and editing newspapers.
An end to suffering
What pragmatism cannot account for are instances of bureaucratic and representative failure, which are not lapses in communication, or perceived leadership among a community. Despite being a primary draftsman of the Indian Constitution, Ambedkar came to view himself as a “hack” who helped build “a burning house”. (Rathore in an earlier book argues that Ambedkar secretly drafted crucial bits of the Constitution, while Shashi Tharoor in his biography, Ambedkar: A Life, makes the bolder claim that Ambedkar almost single-handedly drafted the Constitution as the other members of the Drafting Committee were indisposed one way or another.) The Constitution is a political parchment containing provisions that accommodated communal nationalism, which have been subsequently mobilised to violent ends.
The Constituent Assembly Debates show that Ambedkar either did not have the support of the Congress in all matters, deferred decisions, or arrived at compromises. Contrary to an intuitive understanding of pragmatism, this was not the philosophical pragmatism that Ambedkar found in Dewey. The Constituent Assembly did not often adhere to the tenet of achieving social ends by transparent persuasive communication—rather, persuasive force was often secondary to the sheer strength of numbers. One cannot help but wonder whether this is inevitable in any legislative process based on communal representation—the mythical homogeneity of a community will prevail. This was glaringly so after the Partition bled into the Constitution-drafting process. Ambedkar’s response was to instill constitutional principles of equality, liberty, and fraternity through a mass conversion to Buddhism via persuasive speech; it is no surprise that Stroud calls Ambedkar’s Buddhism “Navayana pragmatism”.
At its bare minimum, any form of Buddhism involves some account of renunciation and enlightenment, motivated by a desire to end suffering. Ambedkar’s interpretation was specific—renunciation involved elimination of Brahminism (eight of the 22 vows at the time of conversion are pledges to not believe in incarnation, worship Hindu gods, or perform rituals through Brahmins). On enlightenment, Ambedkar interpreted “nirvana” not in relation to access to the cosmos as but “a kingdom of righteousness on earth”. Here is Ambedkar’s reconstruction of the first postulate of Buddha’s first sermon: “…his path which is his Dhamma (Religion) had nothing to do with God and the Soul. His Dhamma had nothing to do with life after death. Nor has his Dhamma any concern with rituals and ceremonies. The centre of his Dhamma is man, and the relation of man to man in his life on earth.” After this clarification, Ambedkar moves onto the Buddha’s second postulate: the foundation of Dhamma is “the recognition of the existence of suffering and the removal of suffering”. As to the root cause of suffering, it is the “conflict between classes”. On how to remove class distinctions, the elimination of God, soul, and rebirth is key.
Here I need to quote Moiz Tundawala at length: “The very absence of some higher guarantee in Buddhism, coupled with its refutation of rebirth and transmigration, enabled him [Ambedkar] to delink guilt for wrongful action in previous lives from the living individual at present, a doctrinal understanding of karma that had supplied the theological basis for the perpetuation of caste oppression in the Hindu social order.”
Buddhism, for Ambedkar is of, and only of, the here and now. Should this sound like the Constitution of a new country, there are two points to note: first, there is no Brahminic mystical gesturing to the unity and integrity of India. There is conflict and suffering of the underprivileged, which must be ameliorated. Second, as Ambedkar learnt the hard way, a legislative or representative approach to constitutionalism browbeats reason, and is susceptible to capture. How are we to achieve any constitutional ends in the here and now? Stroud notes Dewey’s disparagement of “nirvana” as “mere recourse to passive introspectionism”. Perhaps that was the moment when Ambedkar felt the need to explore what Buddhism could do.
Suryapratim Roy teaches law at Trinity College Dublin. He writes on citizenship, climate law, and Indian constitutionalism.