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Response to 'From Ambedkar to Thakkar and Beyond'

Response to 'From Ambedkar to Thakkar and Beyond'

R Srivatsan's article on Ambedkar and dalit activism (27 September 2008) lacks a much needed broad conceptual framework.


Response to ‘From Ambedkar to Thakkar and Beyond’

Arnab Chatterjee

mode where incarnation and virtuous personal conduct reigned; departure in favour of improving upon the oppressive social environment of the dalits. This could be won purportedly by “rights of entry to schools, public transport, etc” (p 97) which Srivatsan thinks are the paramount

R Srivatsan’s article on Ambedkar and dalit activism (27 September 2008) lacks a much needed broad conceptual framework.

Arnab Chatterjee ( is with Centre for Equity, Social Justice and Human Development at Yashwantrao Chavan Academy of Development Administration, Pune.

Economic & Political Weekly

december 20, 2008

ny engagement with the signs and times of nationalism is welcome if we are to understand and interpret the predicament and the perplexity that haunts us today. Readers will agree that the EPW has done a timely job by publishing the article by R Srivatsan, which drawing on a not so unknown letter of B R Ambedkar tries to reflect on dalit (or the erstwhile depressed class) acti vism and its specificity even in such fields of welfare, oppression, community, etc, and situates the present of dalit praxis of contemporary India in the context of an ethno-nationalist “critique of the Gandhian programme”.

All this is welcome and undoubtedly acceptable but my response is based on a mourning that the article lacks a consistent theoretical framework and is oblivious

– deliberately or not – of the relevant literature that could foreground the article and cast a shadow on some of its major matrices. (Srivatsan seems to be not aware of the differences of specificity between and among charity, welfare, reform, social service and social work: he uses them inter changeably.) The article confesses that “more primary and secondary scholarship” (p 101)1 is needed. But this awareness itself is lost and “Dewey, Foucault, Hegelian-Marxian dialectic, personal conduct, virtue” (pp 96-102), etc, are expan ded on. The author has undermined his own capability by remaining blind to the implications that such loaded technicalities make and the consequences that they generate. While imputing to Ambedkar “a broader conceptual framework” (p 100), Srivatsan himself must be alert to his own conceptual framework – present or absent.

Evaluating Ambedkarite Claim

Let me start first with the author’s second claim that Ambedkar’s will for the dalits to “secure ‘civil rights’’’ (p 97) was an antagonistic departure from the Gandhian descriptions of Ambedkar’s “shift from politics of civil society to a specific kind of revolutionary politics” (p 97). Let me clarify, that the problem is with Srivatsan’s claim for Ambedkar and not with the description itself that he gives.

Rights of passage, freedom of movement including entry and exit from institutions are predominant categories by which bourgeois civil society is defined; one is hard-pressed to understand how the Ambedka rite vision departs from it. Even any notion of non-violent civil strife could be easily located within the vast literature of civil disobedience available within the liberal discourse. And here I think it is impossible to go without mentioning Partha Chatterjee who has established that the site of all sorts of ameliorative, interventionist practices during colonial times was finally civil society, and I am sure the Ambedkarite vision in this context is not a departure in the terms that Srivatsan stipulates. Partha Chatterjee, transforming a vision of T H Marshall, showed how the journey for equal citizenship has been one within the operative extent of modern governmental technologies, in brief, governmentality (a population group becomes the target or makes govern ment the target of strategic mani pulation for provisions). The Ambedkarite trajectory – if Chatterjee is not wrong (and I think he is not) – is not an exceptional moment in the same journey. (The turn is elsewhere.) It might be for this reason it has become improbable to think of today’s dalit activism without referring to the electoral calculus; is not this also an Ambedkarian inheritance? I think so. The political society of partial illegal or paralegal practices that Chatterjee denominates for postcolonial India is distinctly missing here.

Ambedkarite Objection to Gandhi

Now, to the second claim of Srivatsan which is put before the first claim (the problems in the first claim I had already


enumerated above). The Ambedkarian ob mode of helping endorses the same. The
jection to the Gandhian mode is offered in Gandhian mode is not as simple as this.
these words: The suffering of the de- Neither is the huge, and vast literature on
pressed classes is not due to their separate virtue ethics. I request Srivatsan to have a
personal conduct or sinful reincarnation. look at that literature and argue the same
Not because of lack of virtue, viciousness again. (There is nothing so dangerous as a
and sinfulness but because of the oppre personalised politics compared to the sup
ssive, “adverse environment”. The “task posedly impersonal, social environmental
would be to change the environment in political principle and a number of works
which the depressed classes lived in exist on this.4)
society” (p 97). A path-breaking vision in- So far as Gandhi is concerned, in our
deed. But even a cursory look at the exist context, the works of Ashis Nandy are em
ing inventory of relevant literature will blems of the complex arguments that are
inform Srivatsan that this distinction goes at stake here as against the simple moder
back to Elizabethean England if not nist Ambedkarite vision or as that has
earlier. The transition from “poor persons” been offered to us. But could even that be
to “poverty” has been inscribed long ago sustained? Srivatsan’s own work belies
within this thematic. Weberian sociology such an attempt. “Respect, sympathy,
is based on the personal to impersonal love” (p 99) – all parade as virtues in this
transition. The switchover from charity to text; “the experience of the oppressed”
welfare spanning the vast fields of western (p 99) – is it just a matter of the environ
and even colonial forms of experience is ment? If it is then oppression should be
based on this shift. This debunking there addressed as an objective entity, why is
fore is neither new nor peculiar with “punishing the oppressor” (p 99) re-
Ambedkar. In India, in the context of help quired? Is the environment without a
ing, the first signs of this debate have personality? Without a character? Only in
been traced to the 19th century and how savage, fully natural nature the environ
this bloated modernist attempt had ment is without an attribute: this is
failed is also available.2 Further, how the Rousseau restated. But yes, not only
personal (so castigated by Ambedkar) Rousseau or Hegel, all EPW readers even
could lead us way beyond the private/ in 2008 will disagree with the vision
public liberal thematic that exists with available in the article that the environ
us in published forms as well as on the ment is impersonal.
web.3 Should the readers assume that The result is somewhat disastrous. Pre-
Srivatsan is unaware of these works? If viously Srivatsan has told us how the
he is, then he has not taken the trouble Ambedkarite debunking of virtuous char
to secure for himself an evaluative acter vs sinfulness in Gandhi is a way for
framework for the distinctions that he is ward in nationalist activist efforts giving
documenting and the past and present of rise to a different kind of dalit activism,
them. This is not justice to the wisdom of but in the next section while he recovers
the readers or even scholars. This might Ambedkar’s choice of civic instead of
make Ambedkar look better than Laclau, civil rights, he mentions “the attribute of
but at the cost of severe blindness. Srivatsan a citizen that pertains to his character”
is bound to negotiate with (i e, reject or (p 97). The readers might see inadvert
adopt) these debates and proposed sche ently perhaps that the much maligned
mas and then chart his trajectory – if virtue theory crops up. Second, while
there is one. praising this precise lexical choice as
Lastly, I will be cryptic and come to “the shift from a politics of civil society
Srivatsan’s strong point to make the same to a specific kind of revolutionary poli
argument. Personal virtue to impersonal tics” (p 97), Srivatsan comes to delineate
social virtues was first charted by Hegel the content of these “civic” rights: “the
(note, virtue was not abandoned) to make rights of entry to schools, public places,
the transition possible from charity to public transport, etc” (p 97) which are, as
welfare in civil society: Ambedkar is dis- I have pointed out in the beginning, clas
tinctly repeating it and Srivatsan in order sical registers of civil society (as citizen
to show his difference with the Gandhian ship rights) and this time locked in

governmental mechanisms and strategies of choice.

The Civic

Let me state the case clearly. While debunking the virtue theory of Gandhi, and Ambedkar’s advance over the former, it was not anticipated that civic or citizen’s virtues could be essential pointers in another tradition of thought dedicated to citizenship: the civic republican tradition. This will not be provided by the Shorter Oxford Dictionary (p 97). Srivatsan derives from the Oxford that the Ambedkarian use of the word civic instead of civil steers away dalit activism from civil society to a revolutionary politics ending in accruing the “rights to enter schools” (which I will argue, collapses in civil social or social movement argument). What is peculiar to Ambedkar here in regard to citizenship is the way he combines the liberal individualist tradition with the civic republican tradition.

In the liberal conception, citizenship is nearly given as a status protected by civil law and has no relation to whether s/he actually enjoys that status or not. In the civic republican tradition, citizenship is an “activity” won through toil and struggle and has to undergo disciplinary forms of thinking, practice and struggle to retain the “political community of fellow citizens”. Beginning with military service, various forms of public service activities and public education programmes are there in this tradition to foster the list of such civic virtues (or habits of the heart), which run from loyalty and service to civility and participation. (One of the major theorists of civic virtues is Michael Walzer and the country where this has had the most kindred career is, well, the United States.) Again my point is that loyalty or military service is attached to the world of

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civic virtues and hard won-hard maintained citizenship could have been well explored if Srivatsan, instead of the Oxford dictionary, had gone to the theorists of the civic republican tradition. The use of the word civic, virtue, etc, nothing would have appeared to him then as a novelty.

As stated, the interesting dimension is not a social revolution but how Ambedkar while going for the equal citizenship status and dignity (in the liberal tradition) for the “depressed class” goes for struggle and education in the civic republican tradition. And this is no mean feat and I think awaits no exaggeration even if it is a well meant one. What I am arguing may be seen to have been endorsed by one of the most perceptive political thinkers of our time in our post-colonial context, Partha Chatterjee while he specifically speaks on Ambedkar whom he describes as the “staunch advocate of the interventionist modernising state and of the legal protection of the modern virtues of equal citizenship and secularism” (Chatterjee 2006: 8).5 But even if he was that, Chatterjee credits him for introducing “nasty” ethnic politics in the domains of the civil social dream sustained by his other half. Like putting together liberalism and civic republi canism, in fact here is where Ambedkar is perhaps once more at his best. Regrettably again, the landmark article that offers this vision does not find reference in Srivatsan’s endnotes. And with this, I think I have come full circle.

Finally then let me state the most interesting and positive dimension of Srivatsan’s argument which holds a real possi bility and perhaps would not be let down by any digging. It is the way he describes Ambedkar’s vision for a diverse, differentiated, at times even self-contradictory movement of the dalits for the dalits. Given the career of the movement before us and Mayawati before the dalits, I think this could be a theme which, if Srivatsan “genea lo gically” pursues, will open many a window before all of us where we are perplexed as to what is really happening, where the movement is going. But even before he pursues this fully, consulting relevant and exi sting literature will help him navigate his own way with an interesting and honest bent.


1 All quotations from the above article unless otherwise stated.

2 See SARAI-CSDS [Reader-list] “Perso nalism, Helping & Hegel in the Colonial Night”, SARAI-CSDS Independent Fellowship post 6, URL: https://mail.sarai. net/pipermail/reader-list/2007-August /009831.html.

3 Since it is impossible to document the vast inventory of situated literature, I am taking a shortcut by self-referring – as a part of the inventory though; a look at the references, endnotes or bibliography of these works is enough to convince anybody about the considerable labour that awaits the competent and the curious:

Kathleen Woodroofe, From Charity to Social Work: In England and the United States (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1962); Arnab Chatterjee “Public/Private dwander baire: Personal/byaktigato niye notun kichoo”, Ababhas, September-December 2005 (in Bengali); Arnab Chatterjee, “Beyond Private and Public: New Perspectives on Personal and Personalist Social Work”, The Indian Journal of Social Work, 67 (3), July 2006; Review Note on Derrida and the Personal in Political Studies Review, 5 (1), January 2007 (Blackwell Publication).

4 Starting with an edit page article on personal in personal attacks in politics in Aananda bazar Patrika (15 July 1999) to treating the same in “Tongue Tactics” (29 December 2002) in The Statesman and finally culminating in “Personal Attacks, Assaultive Speech and Indian Politics: Towards a Pure Political Imaginary” talk delivered at The Global Quest for Participatory Democracy seminar at Jawa harlal Nehru University, New Delhi, summary published by the Centre for studies in Social Systems, JNU, February 2004, the work is now available on the web as [Reader-list] IF-Post 2.5: Revisiting “pure politics” and the personal transformation of the public sphere, URL:http:// reader-list-if-post-2-5-revisiting-pure-politics-and-thepersonal-transformation-of-the-public-sphere.html.

5 See Partha Chatterjee, “The Nation in Hetero geneous Time” in Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World (Delhi: Permanent Black 2006), pp 3-25.

November 29, 2008
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