Book Review: Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi And The Risk Of Democracy By Aishwary Kumar

By | July 31, 2020
Book Review Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi And The Risk Of Democracy By Aishwary Kumar

This article reviews the book ‘Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi and the risk of Democracy’ written by Mr Aishwary Kumar. The assuring contextual analysis of the doctrines of both Gandhi and Ambedkar has been observed to bring out the challenges of equality in the times of Hindu cultural hegemony and Colonial independence.

Introduction

‘Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi, and the Risk of Democracy’ is a highly celebrated book written by Mr Aishwary Kumar, and published in 2015 by Stanford University Press. Mr Kumar is a political theorist and an intellectual historian on subjects and issues related to South Asia, the British Empire, and the Global South.

He is a recipient of fellowships in Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, and is serving as a faculty of History at Stanford University. He is also a Senior Fellow in Human Rights, Constitutional Politics, and Religious Diversity at the Lichtenberg Kolleg—Göttingen Institute of Advanced Study, Germany, and a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna, Austria.

His work relates to philosophy in the moral and political sense, political history, political freedom, inequality, justice, political realism, philosophy of action, postcolonial issues, nationalist constructions, and the like.

‘Radical Equality’ was Mr Kumar’s first book, and deals with the bonds between how freedom as a concept is seen from the point of view from religion, and how a system of democratic defiance and non-compliance came to be originated in response to the colonial rule, with a focus on how the concept of ‘authority’ has come to be viewed in the last two hundred years, and how this conception has changed over the years from a liberal and theological point of view.

The aim of Mr Kumar in the book is to outline the political and theoretical ideas of Ambedkar and Gandhi and to demonstrate how the two confronted, contested, accentuated, and interacted with each other, thereby, expanding and adding on to the understandings of both Western and non-Western political concepts. By doing so, he explores the interrelated philosophical history of the happenstance between the two, and thus attempts to show his readers its much wider universal impact.[1]

‘Radical Equality’ received wide acclaim, and was included in the Indian Express’s list of the “fifteen most important books on politics and morality published” that year.[2]

‘Radical Equality’: Background, the Historical and Normative Contexts

The book is divided into three parts and seven chapters, with an epilogue at the end. It focuses on the “intellectual and political history of the encounter between Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956) and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948)”, the two most striking and incredible non-Western thinkers of the twentieth century.

The chapters of the book alternate in their focus between Gandhi and Ambedkar, and begin from the turn of the century with Ambedkar in New York and Gandhi in South Africa.  Their conceptions and imaginations of how political and moral lives of the people of a nation should be, have left a profound impression on the perpetual and everlasting struggle that ‘Modern India’ has with its history.

Ambedkar was an ‘untouchable’ who overcame the social exclusion and violence to rise to become a radical and ground-breaking constitutionalist, and a revolutionary thinker and intellectual, who drafted the Constitution for our new independent Republic in 1950.

Gandhi, on the other hand, was a lawyer born into the Hindu Vaishnava merchant community, who through his sheer mass appeal and commitment to principles, gave the people the strength to organise and stand against the colonial British Empire.

Ideological Antagonists

These two remarkable personalities, who played such an important role in shaping the outlines and form of democracy to be practised in our country, however, have always characteristically been considered to be political adversaries who held contradictory and incompatible views on the British Raj, the Indian society, and the politics of the time, and therefore, it is rare that one sees Ambedkar and Gandhi being studied together.

‘Radical Equality’ places its emphasis on this complex relationship between the two stalwarts, and how they shared their commitment to the ideas of justice and equality in the society, which for them was indivisible from and united to the fight for sovereignty against the colonial regime.

Both Ambedkar and Gandhi were extremely prolific and passionate writers, and Ambedkar once even said, “one does not know when one might come out of the web of politics to finish writing. For there is justice only in relentless, frantic writing”.

The book seeks to explore the ideologies, visions, beliefs, and philosophies put forward by Ambedkar and Gandhi, and their incomparable, yet similar, paths to reaching the goal of “radical equality”. It will not be incorrect to say that the book has been written in the form of a conversation between Ambedkar and Gandhi, in relation to concepts such as “satya (truth), agraha (force), ahimsa (nonviolence), Samata (equality), and swaraj (self-rule)”.

Through this book, Mr Kumar aims to examine the inter-relatedness of the ideas of Ambedkar and Gandhi, and the various ways in which the ideas of these two great leaders confronted and at the same time heightened each other, while they continued their own struggles against the British rule and the inegalitarianism within the Indian society.

The book begins, in the first chapter, titled “Of Faith in Equality: Toward a Global Measure”, by dealing with the revolutionary and groundbreaking texts written by the two great leaders- ‘Annihilation of Caste’, an undelivered speech of Ambedkar distributed by him in form of a book-cum-pamphlet in 1936, and ‘Hind Swaraj’, written by Gandhi in 1909.

In a highly crisp and succinct manner, it brings to light how the two had somewhat shared a common, but extremely nuanced understandings and relationships when it came to their quests for justice, equality, and sovereignty in colonial India against the background of their apparent political rivalry.

The chapter talks about the kind of relationships that had developed between politics and faith, insurrection and philosophy, and democracy and sacrifice during the tumultuous times of struggle against the British colonial rule for the demand of national sovereignty.

This has been done by taking into account the critical moment in 1914-1915 when Ambedkar went to New York to study at the Columbia University, and when Gandhi came back to India after spending nearly twenty years in South Africa, and how over the next thirty years, they both produced an unmatched and incomparable body of writings and literature which dealt with questions relating to action, belief, and truth, thereby shifting the attention from the extremist and nationalist demand for sovereignty to an unwavering commitment towards what the author has called “unconditional equality”.

The chapter traces what can be termed as an “alternative history” of the concepts of political responsibility and political realism in the modern non-Western political and democratic tradition by rebuilding the indissoluble, but ironically at the same time, contradictory and conflicting, beliefs of Ambedkar and Gandhi, and by recovering the strength and vibrancy of Ambedkar’s idea of “faith in equality” as a methodological, explanatory, and performative “coup de force”.

Through this chapter, the author tries to argue that at stake, is the dilemma between the “political and the social question itself”.

The first part has been titled “Beginnings: Elements of a Critique of Force”, with the second chapter named “Spirits of Satyagraha: A History of Force”. In this portion of the book, the author, Mr Kumar, steers away from the typical classical and already well-established way Ambedkar and Gandhi’s philosophies have been interpreted previously, and instead chooses to focus on how the element and idea of “force” has always been the centre of the various writings by Ambedkar and Gandhi.

This is one of the attempts by Mr Kumar to bring to light the commonalities between the ideological beliefs of the two great leaders.

 Satyagraha: The Spirit of Gandhi

In this chapter, the concept of “Satyagraha”, as introduced and propounded by Gandhi into the political discourse, is put into the spotlight, and the author develops on the symbolic, semantic, and semiotic facets of the concept. The term was coined by Gandhi in 1907, and through it, he invoked pacificism along with “passive resistance”.

However, the concentration of the author is more on the latter part of the word, i.e. “agraha”, basically meaning “resistance”, and which was tied to the idea of “Bal” (force), than on the first part “satya”, which basically means “truth”.  According to Mr Kumar, the agraha, the force, is the most intrinsic and fundamental element of the spirit of satyagraha, and by critically paying attention to the political, spiritual, social, and physical aspects of the conception of Satyagraha, his attempt is to show the readers how the concept of force as embodied in Satyagraha, is extremely fundamental to the way Gandhi understood politics and ethics.

By favouring the forceful term “civil resistance” over “civil disobedience”, the chapter attempts to understand and showcase Gandhi’s “ontology of force”, a force whose laws, according to Gandhi, were both proper and natural to human beings, and the relationship between this understanding of force by Gandhi and the spirit of law as such.

Ambedkar: Culturally Subjagted

The third chapter, titled “Laws of Force: Ambedkar and the Mystical Foundation of Authority”, is a parallel to the previous chapter and talks about the element of force in Ambedkar’s writings. It neatly studies the multivalence in the various understandings, meanings, and definitions of the notions of “freedom”, “autonomy”, and “social justice” for the oppressed, subjugated, and broken Dalit, as seen in Ambedkar’s writings, and proposes “a new history of the beginnings of Ambedkar’s revolutionary philosophy”.

Ambedkar’s struggle began when he was in New York, but it took a radical approach from the 1920s, the two most prominent instances being that of the Mahad Satyagraha in 1927, where a copy of the Manu smriti was burned publicly for the first time for the advent of a “new equality”, and the publication of Annihilation of Caste in 1936, which also criticised Plato’s ‘Republic.’

It was Ambedkar, who raised the question, “whether the resistance against religion is not the core of every religious responsibility worthy of the name”.  The chapter develops a theoretical understanding of Ambedkar’s unique approach to the “problem of constituent power” of the people, which gives them the right to “revolutionary force”, even in a sovereign and democratic society.

The second part of the book has been titled “Interwar: Sovereignties in Question” and it focuses on our country’s various experiments with questions and ideals related to constitutionality and franchise.

Harijan

The fourth chapter, named “Apotheosis of the Unequal: Gandhi’s Harijan” explores Gandhi’s Maryada Dharma (discipline and limit), which talks about how Gandhi saw untouchability. It was in 1931 that Gandhi coined the term “Harijan”, which stood for “Children of God”, for the “untouchables” of the country, who, at that time, counted to almost fifty million people.

The author proposes that this decision demonstrates a radical shift in Gandhi’s understanding of phenomenology of the spirit, who now propounded that equality of spirit is extremely fundamental, and without it, no other kind of equality would be possible.

The chapter is devoted to exploring the consequences of the decision of introducing that term, and the author puts forward the argument that the term “Harijan” was not merely another rhetoric term or a “sacred force”- it was an embodiment of Gandhi’s “ontological and phenomenological partitions”.

It represented Gandhi’s desire to touch the untouchable, which however could not be separated from his Maryada Dharma ethics, which, according to Gandhi, stood for, “limit at the heart of religion, touching within the calculus of reason alone”.

The fifth chapter again showcases Ambedkar’s ideas regarding untouchability as a parallel to Gandhi’s, and has been titled “The Freedom of Others: Annihilation of Caste and Republican Virtue”. Here, the author explores how Ambedkar’s failure with the 1932 Poona Pact, altered his focus from caste to its “complete and total annihilation”. Relying on Annihilation of Caste (1936) and Thoughts on Pakistan (1941), the focus of the chapter is on Ambedkar’s ambivalent attitude for the “classical republican tradition”, from which he had picked up his own notions on ideas of sovereignty, insurrection, and force.

Though these two interwar works seem to be wedged in an unsafe and extreme balance, with one supporting, in an unwavering manner, unconditional equality, and the other, a “rhetoric of republican security”, they have in common between them “methodological commitments” that is repeatedly seen in Ambedkar’s works when he visualises freedom. The chapter traces the temper of these commitments of Ambedkar’s until the Constituent Assembly Debates in the 1940s, and sheds light on Ambedkar’s vision of a “Republic”- “a republic of resistance, fearlessness, virtue, and truth”.

This chapter redevelops and restructures Ambedkar’s morals and ideas about this revolutionary force, which is at the heart of the concept of citizenship, and “resistance against the over-constitutionalisation of the political”. Here, Mr Kumar argues that Ambedkar rebuffed the idea of the general differentiation and separation between notions of freedom and equality, the social and the political, and the constitution and revolution.

This refusal of his enabled him to develop an exceptional and unique notion of how political freedom should exist in a nation-state, and should be based on the foundations of “egalitarian sovereignty” of the masses. By concurrently studying how this understanding was indivisible from the issue of mixing religion and politics, Mr Kumar shows how Ambedkar was able to give an extremely able and powerful criticism of the “the collusion between theology and government, scripture and office, in Indic traditions” (page 36).

Even then, Ambedkar’s aversion to religion did not influence his relationship with theology. Ambedkar’s “nondialectal” and “non-negative negation of religion”, to quote Mr Kumar, actually highlighted Ambedkar’s credence in a religion which was both ethical and political in nature and would be a faith which is just and does justice to the Dalits, the marginalised, and the impoverished communities of India.

Ambedkar’s final decision to convert to Buddhism a couple of months before his demise, in October 1956, is a fragment of this very struggle.

It is important to understand that these viewpoints of Ambedkar’s ideology developed at a time when the nationalist and anti-colonial movement in India was principally, and in a way almost compulsively focused on freedom of the nation, and the concepts and issues of equality and justice had been completely side-lined.

During this time, many upper-caste Hindus saw nationalism in a way which mostly revolved around their own understanding and construction of the relationship between religion and politics, which “called for political sovereignty” and it became increasingly challenging “to separate from the rhetoric of religious renewal and the spiritual force of the majority” (page 18).

It was these theological and political exclusions that formed Ambedkar’s alternate, unconventional, and kind of subaltern understanding of democracy and sovereignty.

By the mid-1930s, Ambedkar and Gandhi had permanently parted ways with respect to issues of caste inequality. For Ambedkar, while untouchability was a “a nonviolent act of physical and cognitive enslavement… perfected over millennia”, Gandhi had resorted to coining the term Harijans and considered untouchability to be “a transitory, but necessary aspect of society”.

Ambedkar raised his objections to the term on the grounds that “the term invited pity from their tyrants by pointing out their helplessness and their dependent condition” and in 1948, declared that “while he could not change the “misfortune” of being born a Hindu, he would not die one” (page 234). Thus, by refusing to reduce religion to mere customary rituals, Ambedkar sought a kind of eternal justice.

Equality and Freedom

The aim of Mr Kumar thus, in this chapter, becomes to study this relationship between equality and freedom by engaging with both the similarities and dissimilarities of Ambedkar and Gandhi’s ideologies. Though the aim of both was egalitarian in nature, yet the noticeable absence of the Dalit in Gandhi’s work Hind Swaraj, was, for Ambedkar, a sign of Gandhi’s hesitation to acknowledge the relationship of trust and friendship that was possible to be developed between an untouchable and a touchable Caste Hindu, and therefore, according to Ambedkar, Gandhi could never completely solve the evil that were brought about by the inequalities in the society as a result of the caste system that was followed by the Hindus.

The third part of ‘Radical Equality’ has been titled “Reconstitution: Of Belief and Justice” deals with questions related to justice and autonomy, and how they are viewed in a political sense, especially when religion and sacrifice also come into the mix. It deals with thought-provoking questions, such as how does Gandhi respond to the conception of force and sacrifice as propounded by Ambedkar in the Annihilation of Caste, how does one measure Gandhi’s response to this seminal work, and so on.

Chapter six, named “Gandhi, the Reader” focuses on Gandhi’s response and relationship to ‘Annihilation of Caste’, which made the rightful demand to review how we see the concept of freedom as a society. By bringing to fore the real reason behind the existence of the caste system, i.e. religion and caste, Ambedkar was in a way directly questioning and confronting Gandhi, the ontology of his politics, and the kind of politics which was spreading and gaining popularity at the time and later proved to be extremely lethal.

The chapter discusses the “Gandhian Respite” to ‘Annihilation of Caste’ and how Gandhi’s vision of ‘Truth’ is deeply affected by the mass politics and intercedes the beliefs and opinions of Gandhi, the Reader. When Ambedkar used the word uchhed (Annihilation), it envisioned a “new religion of responsibility”, and it talked about an unchallengeable, absolute, and colossal “freedom of force”.

The chapter, while re-examining the phenomenology of sacrifice, which was something fundamental and essential to Gandhi’s relationship with the spirit of the law, outlines the relationship between Gandhi’s moral and ethical religion, i.e. Dharma, and Ambedkar’s religion without religion, i.e. Dhamma.

The seventh chapter has been titled “Responding Justly: Ambedkar, Sunyata, and Finitude” explores Ambedkar’s understanding of religious politics, which was both radical and reconciliatory in nature. It sheds light on how Ambedkar devised the concept of Maitri, and the struggles he faced while doing so.

It engages with Ambedkar’s dilemma between the public and the private, the inherent and the divine, the ethical and the political, and how he envisions the existence of justice, brotherhood, and fraternity beyond the moral law, especially in the socio-political situation the nation was in after Gandhi’s assassination in 1948.

The chapter essentially compares Ambedkar’s views on the constitutional versus the ethical, where Ambedkar comes forward as a “critic of mastery and sacrifice”, who envisions a new and fresh possibility of justice, where the concept of maitri, or justice, is prevalent and it transcends the distinction of “man and woman, major and minor, citizen and non-citizen, and human and non-human”.

Sunnyata symbolised the sensitivity Ambedkar had towards the vulnerability of citizens, which had now transformed into something more radical and was the vacuum where justice and force united and became indivisible.

The Epilogue: Citizenship and Insurrection puts forward the argument that it is extremely important in the current narrative to see the encounter between Ambedkar and Gandhi within a broader global material and theological traditions, because only by doing so will our eyes be open to the immense freeing opportunities that will be available to us when we measure incorporation of faith in a democracy against the risk of politicising religion.

This becomes especially true with the current popular wave that the Hindu Right, something which Ambedkar had called “gangsterism”, is riding, and the void which Ambedkar talked about becomes visible. However, the author earnestly urges the readers not to disavow this void, as this void showcases the spirit of revolution, citizenship, and the existence of a force at its most egalitarian.

My response to the book

Ambedkar and Gandhi have generally been projected and understood to be political adversaries and ideological antagonists, with both passionately striving, and in a way competing with each other, to shape the course of our country’s political, social, democratic, and moral space.

Through ‘Radical Equality’, Mr Kumar contributes his part to this discussion by proffering fresh and innovative understandings of the similarities and differences between the ideology and visions of the two great revolutionary thinkers, and by engaging with the convoluted, but ironically at the same time also harmonised, relationship the two shared in relation to influencing the discourse on equality, justice, and democracy, not just in India, but globally as well.

By focussing on the ontology of democracy, insurrection, justice, and equality as seen in the anti-colonial literature and struggles of Ambedkar and Gandhi, the book attempts to bring to fore the paradoxes which make up the so-called equal, just, and egalitarian Indian political, social, and democratic system.

The book emphasises not only the importance of Ambedkar and Gandhi in the universe of various other anti-colonial philosophies propounded by other well-known leaders of the time, such as Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Mahadev Govind Ranade, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and so on, but it also places an equally important focus on how Dalit politics have faced exclusion in the social, religious, and judicial sense, and how this exclusion has affected the course that India’s political modernity has taken.

With its praiseworthy and admirable academic meticulousness, ‘Radical Equality’ rises above being a mere socio-political biography to “become a history of an antinomy in anticolonial political thought that considers both Gandhi and Ambedkar together as exemplars of a shared philosophical conviction”[3] by focusing on the friction between what the two leaders considered to be just and unjust and their views on “politics of exclusion and inclusion” rather than being on simple postmodern narratives of anti-colonial struggles.

The book is exceptional in the sense that it has proved, once again, that when historicising is done by keeping certain specific hypothesis and concepts in mind, the outcome is much more sharp, unambiguous, and interesting to read, than when a simple, plain descriptive strategy to describe the historical narrative is adopted by the author.

The author also deserves appreciation for focussing beyond the legislative and constitutional achievements of Ambedkar, and instead choosing to emphasise his yet-neglected contributions to the political philosophy, morality, psychology, and anti-colonial thought, beliefs, and vision. He states, quite specifically and explicitly, that when Ambedkar is treated merely as the Architect or the Father of the Constitution of the modern, free, independent, republic India, it is something which is a “profoundly delimiting” thing to do.

No doubt, the constitutional achievements of Ambedkar are important in their own standing, but when the focus is put only on them and not on his other achievement, it reduces Ambedkar to a mere “rights theorist”, someone for whom the citizenship and existence of and in a democracy,  can survive only when there are the conventional institutions and frameworks of a nation-state, and not otherwise, which is not true.

Mr Kumar makes a very successful attempt in re-establishing Ambedkar as the radical leader and thinker who aspired for the kind of freedom which was theological, spiritual, and political in its nature, was undividable from equality, and was not at all limited to or by the constraints of the law, the Constitution, franchise, and representation.

While Gandhi enjoyed global recognition as one of the most celebrated and notable supporter and promoter of “peace and non-violent resistance”, Ambedkar was comparatively unknown and not so famous outside India. The legacy left behind by Ambedkar is also a subject matter of hot debate within India itself, with the masses seeing him as both the “Messiah of the Dalits” who fought for the rights of the Dalits in India and as the father of the Constitution of India.

With many caste-believing Indians despising him for the “Reservation Policy”, introduced with the goal of empowering the impoverished and underprivileged classes of the country through policies of affirmative action, he continues to reinstate the idea of egalitarian equality.

Mr Kumar discusses this “lack of appreciation” for Ambedkar, and says that it is “a result perhaps of the generalized aversion toward Enlightenment categories within the field of postcolonial inquiry, his trajectory perceived neither universal enough nor national-spiritual in the anti-colonial sense of the term”.[4]

As pointed out before, Mr Kumar finds it “profoundly delimiting that the focus is on Ambedkar as the architect of the Indian constitution as opposed to the transformative realm of revolutionary action”[5], and makes it clear in absolute and explicit terms that Annihilation of Caste is one of the “greatest texts of anti-colonialism, given its focus on alienation, and its reclamation of liberty as the freedom to reason, it’s braiding of civic virtue with the firmness of faith”.[6]

Rather than focussing on the disjointedness between thinkers and their texts, Mr Kumar is more interested in their systems of reading, theorising, and responding. He engages with the various connotations of concepts such as sacrifice, justice, equality, insurrection, and so on as they are understood, and even rejected by Ambedkar and Gandhi.

This concentration on the characteristic ways in which the two great thinkers wrote and translated, the inadequacies of linguistics, especially when being translated from local Indian languages to English, and transcription provide a fruitful space for discussing this intellectual history from a philological point of view.

However, Mr Kumar has made use primarily of traditionally English sources and translations and has ignored, to a major extent, local vernacular sources and materials. This creates a gap, in the sense that though he is exploring how the two leaders understood and propounded various vernacular concepts, such as Satya (truth), agraha (force), samata (equality), ucched (annihilation), and so on, and is trying to reconstruct their rhetoric, this linguistic attempt of the author is constrained by his favouring English materials rather than Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s writings in Gujarati and Marathi respectively.

Translations from local languages to English were often inadequate in themselves, a problem which the leaders also faced, and the researcher feels that if authentic vernacular sources had been used, it would have made for a better discussion, as it is by engaging with the vernacular that one can understand the social and philosophical history as ideologies do not appear out of the thin air in abstract but are instead shaped in particular political and social contexts and cannot, and should not, be separated from their contexts.

Relatedly, the researcher also feels that the author has failed to place Gandhi and Ambedkar in the “local intellectual context”. Mr Kumar’s analyses make it seem as if these two great leaders were working in a void in isolation with each other, and somehow fail to address the fact that the two, apart from being philosophers and intellectuals, were also political leaders.

It seems as if the fact that different political and historical situations demanded different reactions from the two leaders, has been ignored, i.e. the relationship between the thoughts of the leaders and the context has not been given much importance as it is quite apparent that the views and understandings of both Ambedkar and Gandhi evolved and changed over time.

The relationship between the theological views and the political practices of the two leaders, and historical shifts in this relationship have also not been addressed by the author. While for Gandhi, this relationship starts from religion and is then used in the political sphere, for Ambedkar it is the opposite as he starts working from the state and the politics and then goes on the road of Buddhism and its reason and belief.

While for Gandhi, politics cannot exist without religion, for Ambedkar this is not true as for him religion is not fundamental or intrinsic to politics. The associates and followers of the two played an important role in developing these vernacular understandings of the various concepts- however, their contribution has been completely ignored in the book. Though Mr Kumar does mention at one-point Gandhi’s “constructed dialogue with his reader” (page 11), he fails to do even this for Ambedkar.

At certain places, it also feels that the author is reading too much into the thoughts and ideas of the two leaders. For example, with respect to citizenship, Ambedkar’s conceptions have been discussed as “a citizen who might be governed but not mastered” (page 225). However, this is not how Ambedkar envisaged citizenship, it is instead the understanding as given in from Martin van Gelderen and Quentin Skinner’s book, ‘Republicanism and Constitutionalism in Early Modern Europe‘ that has been applied to Ambedkar.[7]

This important concept is also not given much thought by the author, who moves on to the next concept, and fails to explore how the idea of citizenship or swaraj for Ambedkar differed from that of Gandhi’s, what freedom and citizenship meant to the socially excluded “untouchables”, how this desire and understanding was expressed in vernacular languages, how did the terms change understandings and meanings for Ambedkar, and their overall importance in the global democratic context.

On a related note, it also seems in some places that Mr Kumar is “thinking for the leaders”. For example, he relies on Machiavelli to discuss Ambedkar’s understanding of Republicanism. However, this is a subject matter of disagreement in the scholarly world as to whether Ambedkar actually read and was really inspired by Machiavelli as there is no direct and conclusive proof for it.

Similarly, while dealing with Gandhi’s views on touchability and untouchability, Mr Kumar says “touchability is the most intimate rendering of maryada” (page 191). However, touchability, which has been translated and constructed by him as sparshyata, is a term which Gandhi barely used, and is actually the misspelling of the original Marathi words sprushyata and asprushyata (untouchability).

With regards to the book’s discussion on ahimsa (non-violence) as given by Gandhi, Mr Kumar labels it as “non-indifference” (page 187). This can be compared to how other authors have seen this concept, such as Ajay Skaria, who has interpreted, in a similar vein, ahimsa as “neighbourliness” and “ethics of compassion”, by relying on both English and Gujarati sources, and has put forward the argument that ahimsa was politics which was to be used to develop neighbourliness, the meaning of which would differ on the basis of the kind of difference that was sought to be addressed.

According to Skaria, such an understanding provides for some common ground between Gandhi and Ambedkar, who agreed with Gandhi regarding his neighbour understanding, and emphasised the importance of communication for equality, with equality being there when one shares his/her failure as justly the success is shared with others. To him, for a true democracy, it is extremely important that the self-sovereignty is balanced with duty towards the neighbour.[8]

Arundhati Roy remarked on Gandhi’s justification of Hinduism and Ambedkar’s aggressive criticism of it, saying, “Gandhi believed that Ambedkar was throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Ambedkar believed the baby and the bathwater were a fused organism”.[9] The book is extremely critical of Gandhi’s defence of religion, his conservatism, and the resultant ambiguities in his ideologies. However, the questions which are raised by Annihilation of Caste regarding the intermixing of religion and politics still remain unanswered.

With regards to untouchability, though Gandhi’s act of coining the term Harijans in 1931 and Ambedkar’s seminal work ‘Annihilation of Caste’ in 1936 present contradictory views in terms of how to deal with the issue and interests of the Dalits, the researcher feels that when the two are looked at together, it presents an opportunity to widen and expand the idea of democracy by including and taking into account the interests and concerns of the hitherto excluded and marginalised.

Devanoora Mahadeva, the acclaimed Kannada writer, offers an understanding of this conflict. He says that fight over the interests of the Dalits is like a fight between parents over deciding what is best for their child. The father wants the child to go to a Kannada medium school, while the mother wants an English medium education.

There is a fight, there is a disagreement, but the fight is ultimately regarding deciding what is best for the child. The fight over the Poona Pact is like that- it is similar to the Dalits saying that though it is true we have significant limitations and weaknesses, but don’t abandon and desert us just because of that reason.[10]

However, it must be recognised that despite this contradiction regarding Dalit interests, it was due to this continuous struggle and discourse by both Gandhi and Ambedkar that ensured that Dalit issues remain important when it comes to the discourse on freedom, and while for Gandhi, the Dalit issue relates significantly to his “construction” of religion, for Ambedkar, it becomes fundamental for his views regarding “destruction” of religion.

Conclusion

However, all said and done, there is no doubt that the book is extremely well-timed and relevant, especially in the current political climate, where parties are fighting elections on the basis of communal non-issues, and religious-political hostile forces are clamping down on secular voices of dissent and rationality.

The book shows that the need of the hour is to harmonise the assets of the ideologies put forward by Gandhi and Ambedkar and utilise them to jointly resist the extremism and fundamentalism that is plaguing our society and politics.

As Rajmohan Gandhi puts it, the relationship and the conversations between Ambedkar and Gandhi, be they amiable or unfriendly, help us in understanding not only these two great leaders, but also the inconsistencies between the political goals of social equality and justice, and independence and democracy, which the Indian society desired to achieve in their anti-colonial struggles.[11]

The book emphasises that for both Ambedkar and Gandhi, the social, political, and ethical question have always remained indivisible and it contrasts their expressions of ideas of justice, both of which had revolutionary potential.

Thus, the book binds these two visions of democracy that are so similar, yet so different, and tells it, readers, how they have traced modern Indian understandings of polity and society, the fundamentals of which are based on the radical relationship between independence and equality, democracy and justice, citizenship and freedom, but most importantly the principles of the constitution and the power which is exercised.

By doing so, it becomes an accomplishment in itself as it discards the cliched tendency to see Ambedkar and Gandhi in exclusive and complete footings, while at the same time it rejects attempts to combine the two’s ideologies as a fragment of some integrated vision of modern India.

By accurately encapsulating the intricacy of these two great non-Western thinkers and leaders on their own standings and conditions, which were extremely erudite in the philosophical sense but at the same time also general and applicable universally in the radical sense, ‘Radical Equality’ leaves its reader contemplative, the various meanings, shades, and connotations of the universal ideas of equality, justice, force, insurrection, non-violence, and freedom, in the larger sense, and such contemplation is extremely important and pertinent in our current tumultuous times.

Therefore, it would not be incorrect to say that ‘Radical Equality’ is a book which demands to be read.


[1] Lichtenberg- Kolleg- The Gottingen Institute of Advanced Study, Available Here

[2] Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Turning Back the Page: The stand-out books of the year 2015, Indian Express, December 26, 2015, Available Here

[3] Aishwary Kumar, Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi, and the Risk of Democracy 26 (2015).

[4] Id at 22.

[5] Id at 25.

[6] Id at 23.

[7] Martin van Gelderen & Quentin Skinner, Republicanism and Constitutionalism in Early Modern Europe (2005).

[8] Ajay Skaria, Gandhi’s Politics: Liberalism and the Question of the Ashram 101 South Atlantic Quarterly 957 (2002).

[9] Arundhati Roy, The Doctor and the Saint [Introduction], Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar (2014).

[10] Devanoora Mahadeva, Edege Bidda Akshara (2013).

[11] Rajmohan Gandhi, Independence and Social Justice: The Ambedkar–Gandhi Debate 50 Economic and Political Weekly 35, 44 (2015).


  1. Book Review: The Cases that India Forgot
Author: Nitya Bansal

She is a B.A.LLB (H) student at National Law University Delhi. She enjoys legal research and drafting, and is currently associated with the Centre for Communication Governance as a Research Assistant.