- Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi, and the Risk of Democracy by Aishwary Kumar
I came to read and think about Ambedkar and Gandhi out of a particular social context. Growing up in apartheid South Africa, the name Gandhi was a household word. His presence lived in the Gandhi library in central Durban, a block away from where I lived, and at the Phoenix Settlement, which was a venue for political discussion in the late 1960s and 1970s. Ambedkar was barely known. This is ironic given that South Africa is a country in which anti-apartheid intellectuals often compared race and caste as systems of oppression. In recent times, as criticisms of Gandhi have emerged in relation to how he viewed Africans and Dalits (those whom [End Page 571] the Varna system considers to be "untouchable"), interest in Ambedkar has grown. Kumar's book is a welcome contribution to the Gandhi-Ambedkar debate.
Dr B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi are widely regarded as the foremost intellectual and political figures of twentieth century India. Ambedkar, a Dalit lawyer and social reformer, is relatively unknown outside of India while Gandhi is universally recognized as one of the greatest advocates of peace and nonviolent resistance. Ambedkar's legacy is also contested within India. Millions of Indians view him as a messiah who took up the cause of the Dalits while many caste-Indians detest him for India's policy of "reservations" aimed at uplifting the underclasses through affirmative action policies.
Like Gandhi, Ambedkar was a passionate and prolific writer. He stated, "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" (310). Radical Equality interrogates the ideas of Ambedkar and Gandhi and their incommensurable paths to "radical equality." The book takes the form of a conversation between Gandhi and Ambedkar around concepts like satya (truth), agraha (force), ahimsa (nonviolence), samata (equality), and swaraj (self-rule). Kumar examines how their ideas were interrelated, and the ways in which they challenged or accentuated each other as they took up struggles against colonial rule and various forms of inequality in their societies.
Kumar believes that the lack of appreciation of Ambedkar outside of India 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" (22). Kumar considers 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" (25). For him Annihilation of Caste belongs to the great texts of anti-colonialism, given its focus on alienation, and its "reclamation of liberty as the freedom to 'reason,' its braiding of civic virtue with the firmness of faith" (22).
Both Gandhi and Ambedkar were striving for an egalitarian India. Both held that the "nationalist demand for freedom from empire… was inconceivable without an unconditional equality in moral and social relations" (2). Ambedkar was insistent that without the eradication of caste, "Swaraj for Hindus may turn out to be only a step towards slavery" (10). Ambedkar employed the term samata for equality. This was not an abstract equality but one "grounded in a person's inalienable right of being and becoming" (48). By the mid-1930s, Gandhi and Ambedkar parted ways permanently over caste equality. Ambedkar saw untouchability as "a nonviolent act of physical and cognitive enslavement… perfected over millennia" (48). [End Page 572]
Gandhi termed the untouchables "Harijans," which literally translates as "children of God," and saw untouchability as a transitory but necessary aspect of society. Ambedkar objected to the term as it "invited pity from their tyrants by pointing out their helplessness and their dependent condition" (234). Ambedkar declared in 1948 that while he could not change the "misfortune" of being born a Hindu, he would not die one (48). Ambedkar did not reject religion or reduce it to rituals but sought eternal justice...