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Ambedkar’s Non-violence

Sreejith Sugunan (sreejith.sugunan@gmail.com) is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

It is very tempting to reduce Buddhism to a religion that propagates non-violence. And, it needs to be made clear at the outset that it is not the moralistic non-violent tenets underpinning Buddhism that attracted B R Ambedkar to it. Rather, the arguments put forth by Ambedkar for his conversion to Buddhism are much more nuanced. If we contemplate on these nuances and provide room for a creative reading of his need to embrace Buddhism, it opens up some interesting questions for our study of political theory, particularly concerning our understanding of violence and non-violence in politics.

This article specifically focuses on Ambedkar’s arguments regarding his preference for Buddhism over other religious or political projects as outlined in his short text “Buddha or Karl Marx” (1956; Round Table India 2010). Though this article is less concerned with Ambedkar’s justification for religious conversion, the reasons for which were both strategic and moral, it nevertheless serves as a good starting point to begin our discussion.

Conversion as Collective Praxis

Ambedkar believed that religious conversion is a mode of collective political action. In his May 1936 speech in Dadar, Mumbai elaborating his decision to denounce his Hindu identity, Ambedkar remarked that the question of conversion is intertwined with questions of emancipation and advancement for a section of humanity in India, referring to the Dalits (Round Table India 2012). Ambedkar told those who had gathered to hear him that the matter of conversion needs to be viewed through both the material and spiritual lenses. In his material analysis, Ambedkar understood the act of conversion of individuals in the Dalit community to another religion as an intervention to the problem of class struggle in India. In the same speech, Ambedkar pointed out that he understood the problem of untouchability as one of class struggle, as one between caste Hindus and the untouchables. As it is a question of class struggle, in a move that is reminiscent of Marx, one can see Ambedkar highlighting the tactics through which the oppressed can deal with the oppressor. A pragmatic Ambedkar pointed out to the crowd that the Dalit community was in fact a minority in this struggle. This was further compounded by the fact that the community was unorganised and scattered, and Ambedkar concluded that they were not a fighting force to face the tyranny of casteism. Ambedkar saw religious conversion as a mode of enhancing the support base, relying on existing support or strength from the outside community to the fold to which the Dalit community would attach.

Since his speech calling for conversion in 1936, it took Ambedkar over 20 years to finally complete his conversion to Buddhism in 1956. During this period, Ambedkar not only investigated other religions he could possibly convert to, but it was also during these years that he engaged in party politics in India. Ambedkar’s first political party, the Independent Labour Party, fought the elections in 1937. As Eleanor Zelliot (1986) pointed out in her writings on Ambedkar, the party was founded on a “socialistic centrist ethos” and was not only formed to meet the needs of the untouchables, but to also advance the welfare of the working class. Five years later, in 1942, Ambedkar also founded the Scheduled Castes Federation with an aim of uniting untouchables all over India, which again aligned with socialists. Ambedkar’s last organised intervention in party politics was the formation of the Republican Party of India, which he formed in 1956.

And it was only about two months before his death that he finally set in motion the religious conversion movement, when he converted to Buddhism in 1956. Following this, Ambedkar gave a speech titled “Buddha or Karl Marx” at the Fourth Conference of the Buddhist World Fellowship on 20 November 1956. It is interesting to note here that Ambedkar felt it necessary to compare Marx, the architect of a political ideology, alongside Buddha, a religious figure; seemingly two incommensurable figures at the outset. However, Ambedkar did not feel anything odd about this comparison. This was because, for Ambedkar, both Buddhism and Marxism were representing “just social ends” and entailed a political project within themselves that is concerned with the emancipation of the exploited (Round Table India 2010).

In Ambedkar’s interpretation, emancipation from poverty and exploitation was at the root of both Buddhism and Marxism. And, both these ideas concerned themselves with formulating the “means” to end this exploitation or poverty of humans. For Marx, it was private property that was the root cause of all poverty and exploitation. Buddha used a different vocabulary to interpret the world and saw the world as one filled with dukkha, that is, poverty and suffering. In Ambedkar’s reading, Buddha is someone whose ideas maintain a close affinity with those of Marx’s, primarily in their understanding of “possessions” as being at the heart of exploitation or dukkha. In Ambedkar’s reading, it is because of this understanding of suffering that Buddha told the Buddhist sangha to never own property, and live as a paribrajak or a displaced person. Thus, for Ambedkar, both Buddhism and Marxism held the universal truth about the world being ridden with conflicts, and both these ideas aimed to bring about a just society, one devoid of exploitation or dukkha. In order to choose one over the other, it was important to consider which among the two ideas relied on better means to bring about these just ends. And, it is through an evaluation of the means employed in these ideas that Ambedkar rejected Marxism for Buddhism.

Evaluating the Means

For Ambedkar, Marxism prescribed two strategies to bring about its desired ends: violence and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Buddhism, on the other hand, prescribed means that aimed at changing people’s moral disposition to move away from an existential plane of living a life riddled with exploitation of others. It was not that Ambedkar preferred a moral solution to this problem, but his pragmatism convinced him about the dangers of embracing a Marxist vision. This danger had less to do with an absolute rejection of violence and more to do with Ambedkar’s lack of confidence in a dictatorship society, one bound by a top-down enforcement of norms and shrouded by unwritten rules of wielding power.

It needs to be qualified here that though Ambedkar’s preference for Buddhism over Marxism may come across as a partiality for a moral non-violent means over a violent one, his method of analysis points us towards another reasoning. For Ambedkar, there is no need to abhor violence as a form of political action. In fact, Ambedkar reads violence as being a constitutive element of any secure social order. Ambedkar writes that no society can dispense violence altogether as enforcing justice requires some force, something that even Buddha would have agreed to, in his reading. Such violence is not an expression of himsa as it is concerned with bringing justice, security, or safety. Rather, in Ambedkar’s understanding, it is the selfish reliance on violence as a means to further one’s ambitions or make gains that must be shunned. For example, an act of vengeance is a selfish use of violence in Ambedkar’s interpretation. Thus, in his framework, violence can be seen to be at times legitimate as well as illegitimate. Hence, there can be no absolutes in the use of violence in politics. Violence, for Ambedkar, is an expression of force. And, to judge the legitimacy of violence, one needs to look at the process involved in wielding this force as well as attempt to understand its effects. And, for such assessments, Ambedkar suggests that the best way to evaluate the use of force is in terms of it “not denigrating the available possibilities” (Round Table India 2010). He calls such use of force as “creative” and called it “force as energy.” To quote Ambedkar,

the achievement of an end involves the destruction of many other ends, which are integral with the one that is sought to be destroyed. Use of force must be so regulated that it should save as many ends as possible in destroying the evil one (Round Table India 2010).

Buddhism over Marxism

Political theory is fraught with the problem of violence and the whole discipline can be considered as an attempt to think about securing the conditions for establishing a safe social order. The solution has been to constitute a sovereign that wields legitimate authority and maintains a monopoly over the use of violence, through which it maintains order and brings into force just ends. Both Marxist and liberal ideologies would agree with the necessity of establishing such a political authority. Ambedkar agrees too. In fact, Ambedkar appears to be most supportive of a liberal argument of having a sovereign constituted through parliamentary and constitutional procedures.

It is this belief in constitutional morality and parliamentary politics that Ambedkar found in Buddhism, and which, in his opinion, Marxism lacks. Ambedkar finds this democratic ethos etched in the ancient Buddhist practice of bhikshu sanghas and realised that the process of settling differences in a Buddhist vision concerned less with the decisions of the enlightened leader and more with the codification of procedures and practices which the partaking stakeholders would abide by in order to settle differences. This is what Ambedkar was most attracted to in Buddhism. The Buddhist “means,” in Ambedkar’s reading, had to do with the codification of the rules of engagement between the ruler and the ruled. The establishment of such terms and conditions, this article argues, is sacrosanct for Ambedkar. This set of codified terms and conditions, which is the Constitution, not only establishes the legitimacy and longevity of the ruling regime, but also prescribes the conditions that allow for the use of violence. Ambedkar saw the Marxist mode of political action lacking both. It was ambiguous on how long the dictatorship of the proletariat was to go on, and hence became ambiguous on how long or in what ways it tends to use violence. Ambedkar appears to be of the opinion that a government that tends to use violence to stay in power because it is capable of carrying out the enforcement of good ends is not by itself an argument that legitimated the use of violence.

Thus, it appears that Ambedkar rejected Marxism because he realised that a Marxist regime is less concerned with codifying rules of political practice, which he feels is the lynchpin for engagements in the political. Ambedkar shares with the liberals a scepticism of the ambiguity expressed in the Marxist reliance on violence, dictatorship of the proletariat, and the fascination with a strong leader, which borders on a fan following that often may lead to dictatorships. Ambedkar shares a deep scepticism for the Marxist project of revolution itself.

Constitutional Morality

The idea of non-violence has been central to the practice of politics in modern India. In fact, the Indian national movement under the leadership of Gandhi is often considered to be a non-violent movement. But, if we are to recall our earlier discussions, one can sense here the problem Ambedkar finds with Gandhian non-violence. If violence is about denigrating the available possibilities, and if non-violence can be interpreted as preserving these possibilities, Ambedkar would have sensed violence in Gandhi’s non-violence. In Ambedkar’s reading, Gandhi’s non-violent tactics entail some form of psychological coercion, the best example involving Ambedkar being Gandhi’s fast unto death that led to the signing of the Poona Pact in 1932. And, the consequence of such psychological coercion is that it results in minimising the available possibilities, just like violence would have. In this vein, Ambedkar would argue that Gandhi’s methods destroyed the good ends along with the evil ones through an act of psychological coercion. This is because, in Gandhi’s non-violence, there is less of a differentiation between means and ends unlike in Ambedkar’s. For Gandhi, means justify everything. For Ambedkar, there is room for ends justifying the means employed.

In his last speech at the Constituent Assembly in 1949, after framing the Constitution, Ambedkar said the following,

The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. (Round Table India 2016)

Ambedkar termed these unconstitutional methods the “grammar of anarchy” in this speech. This may be because Ambedkar sensed in this grammar of anarchy an illegitimate expression of violence or psychological coercion.

As Pratap Bhanu Mehta pointed out in one of his essays, Ambedkar sensed in constitutional satyagraha a form of violence, which Mehta termed a “narcissistic belief in one’s own truth without acknowledging the reality of difference” (Mehta 2016). One can locate this unwavering belief in truth in a metaphysics of morality that this truth seeker or satyagrahi is supposed to uphold at all times. In this sense, Mehta is right in reading Ambedkar expressing a radical mode of non-violence, which is different from and in disagreement with Gandhian non-violence rooted in the idea of truth. Ambedkar’s non-violence, in Mehta’s reading, stems from “a courage not to convert the experience of the deepest forms of exploitation in to a call for cathartic violence,” and thus establishing the possibility of committing all modes of revolution or political action in modern India to constitutional modes of engagement (Mehta 2016). Thus, for Ambedkar, non-violent political action should be grounded in constitutional morality and not in personal integrity. This is because, in Ambedkar’s understanding, political conduct should acknowledge the plurality of opinions. Non-violent political conduct is, then, about working together despite fundamental differences, negotiating and coming to a decision that requires compromises from all parties, and nurturing and participating in institutions and traditions that will establish an enabling framework for making new possibilities. One can read in this an echoing of what Ambedkar earlier called the creative use of force, or “force as energy,” as a mode of action that does not denigrate any possibilities. Constitutional morality, for Ambedkar, is this creative and energetic use of non-violent force to create conditions for all possibilities.

References

Mehta, Pratap Bhanu (2016): “B R Ambedkar: The Slayer of All Gods,” Open, 8 April, http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/people/br-ambedkar-slayer-of-all-gods.

Round Table India (2010): “Ambedkar’s 1956 Speech: Buddha or Karl Marx,” http://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content &view=article&id=1174:buddha-or-karl-marxdr-b-r-ambedkar&catid=116&Itemid=128.

— (2012): “Ambedkar’s 1936 Speech: What Path to Salvation?,” http://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=6020:what-path-to-salvation&catid=116 &Itemid=128.

— (2016): “Ambedkar’s Speech in the Constituent Assembly on 25 November 1949,” http://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=8876:babasaheb-dr-b-r-ambedkar-s-speech-in-the-constituent-a; ssembly-on-25th-november-1949&catid=116: dr-ambedkar&Itemid=128.

Zelliot, Eleanor (1986): “The Social and Political Thought of B R Ambedkar,” Political Thought in Modern India, Thomas Pantham and Kenneth Deutsch (eds), New Delhi: Sage Publications.

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