publisher colophon
  • Force, Nonviolence, and Communication in the Pragmatism of Bhimrao Ambedkar

This article argues that we should take the philosophical thought of Bhimrao Ambedkar, the Indian politician and advocate for "untouchable" rights, seriously as part of the pragmatist tradition. Doing so will reveal the international impact of pragmatist thought and will contribute to current concerns over how citizens should communicate and pursue advocacy in pluralistic societies. As a student of Dewey's, Ambedkar took pragmatist ideas of democracy and integrated them into his reading of Buddhism. His reconstruction of nonviolence (ahimsa) as love of one's friends and enemies leaves him open to criticisms from those favoring revolutionary means to achieve social justice. The final section considers criticisms stemming from insurrectionist ethics and argues that Ambedkar operates as an important emancipatory counter to this position. Ambedkar's pragmatism holds back from violent means, as they tend to destroy too many people and valued ends that one needs for an ideal democratic community.


India, Bhimrao Ambedkar, nonviolence, caste, social justice

Pragmatism, assumed to be mostly American in its most important forms, is said to be especially focused on issues of community. In the political realm, certain forms of communal interaction are praised under the rubric of "democracy." John Dewey extols free communication in [End Page 112] Experience and Nature and attempts to define democracy "as a way of life" in texts as early as his 1888 "Ethics of Democracy" or as late as his 1939 "Creative Democracy—The Task Before Us." Central to such a deep reading of democracy as more than a periodic decision-making framework are habits of interaction that span a wide range of experiences. Democracy really means how we interact with others at most times, and not simply in a voting booth every four years. As our everyday communities are filled with people who see and value things differently, pragmatism is then forced into the realm of pluralism. As a theory of political life, pragmatism foregrounds the inevitable conflict among partisan agents in a community and strives to find some way that they can get along, now and in the future. This is the problem of pluralism: disagreement is a given, so openness becomes a virtue, but judgment is also a burden that calls for assertion of our views to others. How can one be a pluralist among "wrong" or "unjust" fellow citizens? How can one speak to others, yet remain open to these others sometimes being right on heated issues?

This dynamic of pluralism is not unique to the West, nor should we think of pragmatism as always staying in America. By taking seriously the pragmatist philosophy of the "untouchable" reformer and Indian politician Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891–1956), we can accomplish two important objectives. First, we can expand our notions of pragmatism as a theory of life, politics, and communicative interaction beyond its usual American or Eurocentric parameters. Ambedkar was a student of John Dewey's at Columbia University 1913–16, and he reconstructed a unique version of Deweyan pragmatism through his activism on behalf of lower-caste communities once he returned to India. Ambedkar proves that while pragmatism started in American circles, its interesting forms and permutations are by no means limited to one nation. Second, Ambedkar's pragmatism and its engagement with the problems of force in reform efforts allow us the opportunity to expand what we know about pluralism, democracy, and free habits of interaction. Ambedkar was fascinated with the enduring Indian idea of ahimsa, or nonviolence, but he saw its disabling potential in such conservative Hindu figures as Gandhi, whom he judged as a major impediment to gaining equality for untouchables. By examining Ambedkar's controversial rewriting of Buddhism (a religion he converted to right before his death), we can extract a notion of ahimsa as communicative nonviolence that is democratically useful: it serves, in a pragmatist fashion, as an assertive but caring habit of engaging one's enemies in an effort to attain one's goals [End Page 113] while maintaining social ties of fraternity. Ambedkar reconstructs ahimsa as a pluralistic but pragmatic way to engage disagreeing others with some amount of force, but without doing violence to their interests or the interests of the community. To highlight the uniqueness of Ambedkar's contribution to the pragmatist lexicon of conflict and meliorism, I will close this article by critiquing a recent reaction to forms of pragmatism, such as Dewey's, that are said to irrationally foreclose revolutionary means of change. Ambedkar shows a weakness in these forms of "insurrectionist philosophy"—namely, that they assume a notion of slavery specific to the West and that they show little concern about the complex balancing of values that Ambedkar sees as necessitated by his operationalization of Deweyan democracy: liberty, equality, and fraternity. Ambedkar's concerns with communicative means of persuasion echo and support his Deweyan concern with using sustainable means of creating a just community in the present and in the future.

Caste and Pragmatism at Columbia University

Ambedkar was born into a large family belonging to the "untouchable" castes in Mhow, India, in 1891. Growing up, he was subject to countless instances of humiliation because of his untouchable status. In the Hindu system, at least as it was interpreted in the sociopolitical experiences of everyday life, castes determined what people could do, who could associate with them, and who they could marry. It was not based on skin color or race; instead, it was a religious overlay placed onto the myriad interactions in a Hindu community. The three higher castes (varnas) included priests (brahmins), warriors (kshatriyas), and merchants (vaishyas). The lowest caste, shudras (servants), formed the menial base of this system. Beyond this pale were the outcastes (avarnas), known as "untouchable" because their very shadow or touch was religiously polluting to higher-caste Hindus. Caste was determined by birth, although there was a pernicious logic of merit underlying the system. As one's karma from past actions (or lives) determined one's present state, the status of familial birth was therefore determined by one's past karma—one got the caste one deserved, the system's logic went, and there was no way out of one's birth caste in this lifetime.

Ambedkar, being a Mahar, was clearly an outcaste or untouchable, even if he was not the lowest of the low castes (Jaffrelot 2005). His early [End Page 114] years were suffused by the isolation and oppression untouchables (now relabeled by the Marathi term dalits, meaning "crushed") in India experienced on a daily basis. At his school, classmates feared touching him or having him touch their belongings; in addition, young Ambedkar could not drink from the common water source. Many scholars have recounted Ambedkar's trials as an untouchable from his early years (e.g., Keer 1990; Zelliot 2013), so I will not belabor this historical point. The important point for my current exploration comes in 1913, when Ambedkar was lucky enough to begin his studies at Columbia University. With funding provided by the Gaikwad of Baroda, Ambedkar voraciously studied political science, economics, and a range of other classes at the prestigious New York institution. Beyond the classroom, he spent most of his time in Columbia's library poring through books on a range of subjects. In all of these experiences, he sensed that he was freer in America than he had ever been—despite America's own racial issues, Ambedkar was not an untouchable in New York. He was able to dine with whoever he wanted to dine with, and there were no religious proscriptions on contact or concerning what streets he could walk down (Zelliot 2005).

Ambedkar's most important moment came when he began taking classes from John Dewey, a leading American philosopher and pragmatist. Later in his life Ambedkar would recount that Dewey was an important figure in his life: "The best friends I have had in my life were some of my classmates at Columbia and my great professors, John Dewey, James Shotwell, Edwin Seligman and James Harvey Robinson" (Columbia Alumni News, December 19, 1930, p. 12). Acknowledging the fact that he was influenced by this array of professors, Eleanor Zelliot concludes that "John Dewey seems to have had the greatest influence on Ambedkar" (2013, 69). K. N. Kadam later recounted "that Dr. Ambedkar took down every word uttered by his great teacher [Dewey] in the course of his lectures; and it seems that Ambedkar used to tell his friends that, if unfortunately Dewey died of a sudden, 'I could reproduce every lecture verbatim'" (1997, 1).

How was Ambedkar influenced by Dewey's pragmatism? I have charted two paths of influence in my recent work: some influences come from Dewey's courses that Ambedkar took at Columbia, and others stem from Ambedkar's reading of Dewey's books during and after his studies at Columbia. Using a variety of archival sources, I have determined that we can be certain that Ambedkar took John Dewey's Philosophy 231: Psychological Ethics and Moral and Political Philosophy course in 1914 [End Page 115] and Dewey's yearlong series of two courses, Philosophy 131–32: Moral and Political Philosophy, during 1915–16. It is clear that Dewey's lectures on force, among other topics, in these classes influenced the young Ambedkar's ruminations on how best to achieve reform in India without lapsing into counterproductive violence (Stroud 2017b). Judging from the evidence provided by Ambedkar's annotations and marks that remain in his personal copies of Dewey's books, he also was influenced by the pragmatism contained in Dewey's 1916 Democracy and Education and the 1908 Ethics, authored with James H. Tufts. The former book was acquired in 1917 while Ambedkar was in London and shows evidence that Ambedkar picked up on Dewey's point that pragmatism entails a reconstructive or appropriative method of thought and action (Stroud 2017c); the latter text displays that Ambedkar saw the Deweyan commitments to the relationships between community and individual, as well as principle and rule, in any quest for reform (Stroud 2017a). From all of these lines of influence, Ambedkar absorbed a rich sense of pragmatism—including specific ideas and a general orientation—from John Dewey.

Ambedkar's Pragmatism and the Challenge of Nonviolence

Ambedkar returned to India after his education in New York and then London and commenced on a winding career that always centered on achieving rights and respect for his fellow untouchables. In the early 1930s, Ambedkar was recognized by the British as the leader of the untouchable constituency, a fact that led to conflict with the leader of the Indian independence movement, Gandhi (see Keer 1990). There was a significant development of Ambedkar's pragmatism in concert with his tracing of Dewey's ideas and books in the 1930s, a facet explored by scholars elsewhere (e.g., Mukherjee 2009; Stroud 2016). Later in his life, Ambedkar orchestrated the Indian constitution, an act that others point to as being influenced by Deweyan experimentalism (Maitra 2012).

Throughout all his phases—activist, leader of the untouchables, politician—Ambedkar remained a staunch defender of democracy. I want to concentrate my efforts on the last, and possibly most interesting, phase in this incredible life story: Ambedkar's final years in the 1950s. It was during this period that he retreated from politics because of the failure of the Hindu Code Bill, a legislative attempt by Ambedkar to reform [End Page 116] some of the social practices regarding women and minorities in Indian law. Defeated politically, Ambedkar resigned from Nehru's cabinet and turned toward reconstructing Buddhism in his final years. Beyond the historical significance of this activity lies one of the distinctive features of Ambedkar's pragmatism: its negotiation of the concept of ahimsa, or nonviolence. Ambedkar, in reconstructing Buddhism, brought democracy into conversation with a long-standing Indian idea of nonviolence; in doing so, he can be seen as extending Dewey's notions of democracy as a habitual way of interacting with others.

Let us start with a Deweyan thesis in his 1916 Democracy and Education, one that was noticed by Ambedkar in his reading and echoed in his textual arguments back in India (see Queen 2015). In that famous book, Dewey summarizes much of his thought from his 1888 essay "The Ethics of Democracy" to his last works in one prescient line: "A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience" (1916/1985, 24). Ambedkar underlined this sentence in his personal copy of Democracy and Education and echoes it without direct attribution in his incendiary (and undelivered) speech "Annihilation of Caste" from 1936. Thus, he saw what Dewey sensed: Democracy is more than a periodic decision-making procedure; it is a way of life or a manner of interacting with others in your community. It implicates certain habits of interaction or communication more than an overt political structure; that structure is important only insofar as it reflects or encourages those habits in actual concrete human agents. How did Ambedkar's pragmatist philosophy—committed to reconstructing past resources in his tradition such as Buddhism to address present needs—extend this insight about deep democracy?

In The Buddha and His Dhamma (2011), published after Ambedkar's death in 1957, we see an interesting dialogue developing among Buddhism, nonviolence (ahimsa), and how we are to speak to those in our community. Even though Ambedkar's reconstruction of Buddhism focused on it being a rational and universal faith, one with which to address issues of suffering and social justice, he continued the Buddha's message that mind—or in pragmatist terminology, our mental habits—is vital. He writes in his Buddhist bible that "man is what his mind makes him. The training of the mind to seek the good, is the first step in the path of Righteousness" (2011, 190). Part of this training of the mind, of course, comes in controlling how we talk and address others. In the Buddhist tradition, this is [End Page 117] known as "right speech" (samma vacca). It is by putting Ambedkar's reading of this concept in conversation with his reading of ahimsa that we can see his answer to Dewey's riddle of how to actually instantiate the habits of democratic interaction. In The Buddha and His Dhamma, Ambedkar cashes out right speech as entailing these principles: "that one should speak only that which is true; that one should not speak what is false; that one should not speak evil of others; that one should refrain from slander; that one should not use angry and abusive language towards any fellow man; that one should speak kindly and courteously to all; that one should not indulge in pointless, foolish talk, but let his speech be sensible and to the purpose" (2011, 71). The view of communication contained in these principles is clear—our interactions with others are not to tear them down but, instead, to embody the purity of mind unencumbered by self-building passions such as anger. Indeed, later in The Buddha and His Dhamma, Ambedkar urges Buddhists to "cherish no anger. Forget your enmities. Win your enemies by love. This is the Buddhist Way of Life." The mindset prone to acting on feelings of anger is connected to communication by Ambedkar's pragmatic reading of Buddhism as a religious-philosophical vehicle of melioration:

The fire of anger should be stilled. One who harbours the thought: "He reviled me, maltreated me, overpowered me, robbed me," in him anger is never stilled. He who harbours not such a thought, in him anger is stilled. Enemy works evil to enemy, hater to hater, but whose is the evil. Let a man overcome anger by love, let him overcome evil by good; let him overcome the greedy by liberality, the liar by truth. Speak the truth, do not yield to anger; give, if thou art asked for little. Let a man leave anger, let him forsake pride, let him overcome all bondage; no sufferings befall the man who is not attached to name and form, and who calls nothing his own.

(2011, 189)

Our speech with others is not to inspire and build on emotions such as anger, even when it is directed at or about anger-inspiring targets. These are often conceptualized as "enemies" in our ways of making sense of the world, but we are not to attempt to destroy them or tear them down with our words. Instead, our thoughts and words should not feed the flames of anger and self-righteousness; instead, Ambedkar will suggest that they ought to embody love. [End Page 118]

It is at this point that Ambedkar's pragmatism can make an interesting contribution to fleshing out what Dewey hinted at when he referred to democracy being about how we interact with others in communal settings. Do we do violence to them? A standard answer in the Buddhist and Jaina traditions of India would be that we should not use violence as a means—instead, we should practice nonviolence (ahimsa). Yet the challenge always lies in what nonviolence entails. Does it mean not hurting one's enemies physically? Such a prohibition would preclude causing pain and harm to them through one's positive actions. What of the prevention of harm? Is nonviolence simply a way of saying that I will not harm them but they may still harm themselves through their courses of action? This seems like a quietistic interpretation of nonviolence, but it has some strength given the concern that anything I positively and actively do for the sake of another runs the risk of paternalism and unintended consequences. What if nonviolent passivity allows violence to occur to individuals you care about? Thus, the challenge becomes: What is nonviolence in speech? How would an ideal democratic agent act toward others if he or she wished to uphold the value of nonviolence? Does nonviolence resign one to being an ineffective agent? Operationalizing nonviolence in a community situation that demands interaction—whether it is supportive or critical—with other individuals is a difficult proposition.

Even Gandhi's method of self-focused suffering through nonviolent protest had an extensive force to it, as Ambedkar surely knew when Gandhi undertook a coercive "fast until death" against concessions the British gave Ambedkar and his fellow untouchables in the early 1930s. Having to choose between causing the suicide of an Indian national hero and giving up rights secured for his constituency, Ambedkar chose to sacrifice the latter (Jaffrelot 2005). But he would never forgive Gandhi for this use of force wrapped in the language of nonviolence, and Ambedkar's resulting refiguring of Buddhism in the 1950s brings to light the challenge of nonviolence in effective communication. Another way of putting the fundamental issue is as follows: When is force in communicative interaction wrong? Striving for the absence of force renders one ineffective. Using force in a coercive manner—even if described as a nonviolent hunger strike—seems to only build the problematic aspects of self-focus and passion, as well as emboldening others as your enemy. How should one proceed?

Ambedkar's pragmatist legacy becomes apparent in the path he reconstructs as an answer to this dilemma. Negotiating millennia of South Asian debates over the meaning and extent of ahimsa, he recasts it as a fundamental [End Page 119] part of the Buddha's teachings. He asks in The Buddha and His Dhamma an important query: "The question has been raised, however, whether His Ahimsa was absolute in its obligation, or only relative" (2011, 182). He rephrases this question in terms from Dewey and Tufts's 1908 Ethics, a book he owned and with which he was intimately familiar—"Was it only a principle? Or was it a rule" (Ambedkar 2011, 182)? Ambedkar admits that there is uncertainty about this concept's definition in the Buddha's teachings, but that only supports his idea that nonviolence is not a rigid and specific rule. Instead, he wanted to cast it as a flexible principle. If it is defined as a rule—namely, "do not kill"—then "such a definition of Ahimsa involves the sacrifice of good for evil, the sacrifice of virtue for vice," since many situations may call for action that harms others to save certain innocents. Ambedkar evokes some words of the Buddha—from where, we do not know: "'Love all so that you may not wish to kill any.' This is a positive way of stating the principle of Ahimsa. From this it appears that the doctrine of Ahimsa does not say 'Kill not.' It says 'Love all'" (2011, 183).

What emerges is a classic Deweyan principle. Ahimsa is a flexible guide to a range of situations, even those not involving killing: "It is quite clear that Buddha meant to make a distinction between will to kill and need to kill. He did not ban killing where there was need to kill. What he banned was killing where there was nothing but the will to kill" (Ambedkar 2011, 183). This "will to kill" must be connected to our conceptualization of others as diametrically opposed, perhaps in their very existence, to us and our projects; this conceptualization necessarily entails our harm of these targeted individuals. This stands in clear contrast to cases of self-defense, say, where one's killing of another dangerous being is a clear existential necessity. When is this necessary situation that calls for violence evident? Ambedkar leaves it to individual judgment: "No doubt he leaves it to every individual to decide whether the need to kill is there. But with whom else could it be left. Man has Pradnya [wisdom] and he must use it. A moral man may be trusted to draw the line at the right point." If there is any doubt about this answer, and its pragmatist bearings, Ambedkar concludes his discussion of ahimsa with the Deweyan distinction between rule and principles: "To put it differently the Buddha made a distinction between Principle and Rule. He did not make Ahimsa a matter of Rule. He enunciated it as a matter of Principle or way of life" (2011, 183). As he has indicated, this principle centers on the active love of others, and not simply the violence-justifying love of one's self at the expense of others. [End Page 120]

Nonviolent Communication Among Friends and Enemies

What emerges from this admittedly focused reading of the Buddhist reconstruction offered by Ambedkar is a new way of cashing out the pragmatist idea of deep democracy. If democracy is about forming real communities and sharing commonalities among individuals, then how we interact must instantiate common bonds, not reify divisions between people. This applies to those who use words to express hate for others, but it also applies to those who use language to castigate those who hate. Ambedkar's pragmatism, focusing as it so often does on how we treat our enemies and opponents, fleshes out the real problem for a democracy seeking tolerance and acceptance: Must we accept and tolerate those who do not accept and tolerate us or others that we care about? This is the communicative equivalent to the dilemma of self-defense for a proponent of ahimsa—Do we use words to shame and harm those who use words to harm others that we care about? Ambedkar's answer, at least in the twilight of his life, was that we must rise above practices of enemy-making. Love becomes the command of ahimsa in our interactions with others, and it is difficult to see love in the destruction of others we label as enemies. Surely, love in today's struggle does not entail that we create the conditions for renewed and reinvigorated resistance to us in tomorrow's battles. Ahimsa as love is thus inherently pragmatic—it focuses our efforts on solving problems now without creating fractures in the community that will stymie our goals tomorrow.

How do we put into practice such a pragmatist account of care in and through communication? This is the difficult challenge, since we so often feel that others oppose us with their whole being and that the only way for our noble projects to prevail is for us to destroy those others or at least take any power over others and self away from them. In civil society, such an approach becomes violence through language: we call our enemies names, evoke powerful conversation stoppers such as "racism," "sexism," or even allusions to putative similarities to genocidal maniacs such as Hitler. We use our words to rob our opponents—and those who might show sympathy to them—of the will to resist us. We care little about seeking or creating agreement and more about harming through language those we judge as worthy of such rough treatment. We mock; we shame; we castigate the other as evil and ignorant.

Nonviolence in communication, according to the theory I am extracting from Ambedkar's hybrid pragmatism, values community and the [End Page 121] habits of democratic interaction so much that the demand to love one's opponents is ever present as a guiding principle. What does such a principle incline us toward? It must entail a few commitments. First, it should ensure that equal respect is given in our act of communication to all beings, even those beings who, in previous movements, did not show such respect to us or others we care about. Second, it serves as an active method for countering our natural proclivities toward emotional provincialism. We tend to think our issues and our concerns are the center of all and that others share them. But this latter state is an accomplishment of successful persuasion, not a starting point of objective normative value. Ambedkar the vivacious orator and legal advocate surely knew this; he pushed hard for untouchables' rights in front of higher-caste Hindus, not because he believed that they thought this way or naturally should but because he was convinced that he could make a rational case for them to start thinking this way. This would be an example of what it means to love your opponents—it would be reflected in the reasonable appeals you make to them, as well as the charitable characterization you make of them in and through your act of communicating. This point, still to be fully developed, is the heart of Ambedkar's contribution to Dewey's general account of democracy as a way of living among other individuals.

Revolution, Nonviolence, and Ambedkar

Many will still be unsatisfied with Ambedkar's additions to the pragmatist corpus, insisting instead on a sense of revolutionary change that pragmatism seems to so often lack. Nonviolence reeks of passivity and weakness for such thinkers. Ambedkar's emphasis on love and nonviolence in persuasion would be seen as committing the sin of relying too much on dialogue and excluding violence as a means of change. This sort of critique of pragmatism in general assumes prominence in the work on "insurrectionist ethics," which tends to argue that ethical systems are satisfactory only if they would advise slave revolts or insurrections. Leonard Harris has issued the defining challenge to American philosophies: "A philosophy that offers moral intuitions, reasoning strategies, motivations, and examples of just moral actions but falls short of requiring that we have a moral duty to support or engage in slave insurrections is defective. Moreover, a philosophy that does not make advocacy—that is, representing, defending, or [End Page 122] promoting morally just causes—a seminal, meritorious feature of moral agency is defective" (2002, 192). Part of this critique represents a reaction to what Amir Jaima has called "the character of American philosophy—namely, its whiteness—[which] must be appreciated as an epistemological and ontological achievement" (this issue). Those figures noted as insurrectionists by Harris (2002, 2013) and others (e.g., Kaag 2013; McBride 2013) often challenge the whiteness of the American philosophical tradition and our accounts of its important thinkers.

Doctrinally, many of these figures seem committed to insurrectionist means as a way of revolutionizing social relations implicated in oppression, the most salient one being the oppression of slavery in the North American context. Violence is not excluded—indeed, as Harris puts it, violence seems a duty given the horror that slavery represents. Instead of Dewey's placid solution to social disharmony through dialogue, Harris points out that "the uses of intelligence, dramatic rehearsal, dialogue, and discourse are hardly the sole modes through which institutions fundamentally change" (2002, 203). Instead, there is a range of assertive means that spur conflict oriented toward destroying evil cases of oppression: "The range of sentiments that can work as means for defensible ends is hardly limited to the ones most appealing to Dewey, such as dialogue. Murder, pillage, and destroying the property of democratically supported governments have on occasion produced favorable consequences for some individuals and groups." These acts of insurrection aimed at the "absolute destruction of slaveholders and the bonds of servitude" (Harris 2002, 204). The revolutionary change that is needed and demanded of pragmatist systems must allow room for necessary violence, this critique stipulates. Dotson clarifies the targets of such violence, defining "insurrectionist acts as any action aimed at the absolute destruction of one's oppressor and the bonds of one's oppression" (2013, 75).

A more general reading of insurrectionist ethics de-emphasizes a focus on violent means but still emphasizes conflict as a vital method of social change. McBride indicates that "insurrectionist ethics, on this account, outlines the types of moral intuitions, character traits, and methods required to garner impetus and advocacy to materially and institutionally create communities fundamentally different from the confining and destructive conditions that constrict the freedom of denigrated populations" (2013, 30–31). This account characterizes insurrectionist ethics as less about slave revolts and instead as a philosophy of emancipation: "Insurrectionist [End Page 123] ethics is a corollary of a larger project aimed at universal human liberation. Universal human liberation is concerned with liberating populations from oppressive and debilitating boundaries" (McBride 2013, 31). This involves two actions—redescribing one's self and group and instantiating character traits that lead to conflict oriented toward melioration. As McBride puts the former action, "The descriptions and scripts we inherit through enculturation and tradition affect our comportment. … [N]ew descriptions offer new possibilities. For people who are oppressed, new descriptions could be extremely liberating. … [D]oors can open to modes of agency previously unrecognized, unimagined" (this issue). The latter action involves fostering traits that may not be prized by the oppressive society: for instance, "advocates for oppressed populations should be confident, demanding, uncompromising, and aggressive" (McBride 2013, 31). Harris places these values directly at odds with the type of communicative ethos that I have attributed to Ambedkar's reconstruction of Buddhist nonviolence: "Other character traits associated with authority such as aggressiveness, self-assurance, passion, and enmity are evinced by insurrectionists and are also traits that are valuable and warranted to help escape the brutality mandated by an array of innocuous variables. Analogously, tolerance, a social good, is no more a virtue than irreverence for vicious oppressors under conditions of misery. Slaves are encouraged to practice such traits as pacifism, asceticism, gradualism, love, benevolence, tolerance, and forgiveness—traits that the condition of servitude promotes as a response to socialized brutality" (2013, 108). If language has a force, one could see this as a call for aggressive, or even violent, ways of communicating in the face of one's oppressors. While Deweyans might balk at this advocacy, it forms the central part to the challenge that is issued: "Mainstream pragmatist political theory has almost come to be identified with a certain cast of progressivism that too easily risks losing sight of the manners of contestation whereby pragmatic hope might maintain itself in the face of unceasing conflict" (Koopman 2017, 193). Is there any hope of productively placing Ambedkar's account of pragmatism, ahimsa, and persuasion within pragmatist political theory as challenged by such accounts of social change?

Ambedkar's pluralistic mergings of nonviolence and communicative attempts at persuasion are useful precisely because they complicate the simplicity of the basic demands of insurrectionist sorts of ethics. Instead of the command to "resist oppression by destroying the oppressors," Ambedkar builds on Deweyan and Indian traditions—mediated by [End Page 124] his status as an oppressed "untouchable"—to show us that this is not a universal command. Indeed, Ambedkar shows us the range of notions of slavery that could apply to settings of oppression. Whereas Harris and others tune their critique—and perhaps the use of violent means—to the horrors of chattel slavery in the North American context, Ambedkar comes from and addresses a form of religiously sanctioned slavery that has existed for thousands of years. Caste is a form of slavery, according to many of its critics in India such as Ambedkar. An important influence on Ambedkar, the early Indian caste reformer Jotirao Phule, authored a scathing critique of caste oppression in 1873 that bore the title Gulamgiri (Slavery) and included a dedication to the American people for eliminating slavery at such a high cost of life in the Civil War. We can address more details on the differences between the conditions of oppression in North America and India, but the fact that "slavery" is complex should be evident. Beyond this complexity, we see that leading critics of caste-based slavery and oppression, namely, Phule and Ambedkar, tended not to advocate violence. The fact that they rejected violence should give us pause in any attempts to say that slavery always demands violent means. Both of these figures turned toward advocacy, education, and writing emancipatory redescriptions to fight for their people's self-respect and respect.

Let us go into more detail on one point that emerges from the complexifying of slavery and the responses to it in the Indian context. One conceptually interesting point is why Ambedkar, a leader of millions of devoted untouchables, eschewed violent means, both outside of and within communicative activities. He was as assertive and confrontational as any lawyer or politician could be, as Keer describes his speaking style: "Ambedkar was a powerful speaker both on the platform and in Parliament. Galvanic and embarrassingly brutal to a fault in his speech, he showered a fusillade of pistol shots at his opponents. … Simple, direct and trenchant, his speech had a charm of its own. Its fearlessness was sharpened by a vast confidence and experience which he had attained by his ceaseless study" (1990, 476). Clearly, he did not hold back voicing his displeasure with his people's oppression or his proposed solutions to these woes. But why did he insist on reconstructing Buddhism later in his life as advocating love in our persuasive endeavors, especially when this seems to implicate our most hated enemies?

Part of the answer to this query comes when we look at the tradition Ambedkar saw as the most significant challenge to his version of Deweyan democracy—Marxist communism. Ambedkar had an interesting [End Page 125] and convoluted relationship with the communists and socialists in pre-independence India, but he always seemed worried about their use of violent tactics and demand for revolutionary change (Stroud 2017b). We can therefore see his objections to communist methods of political change as holding his answer to the insurrectionist challenge. Part of this issue relates to the concerns Ambedkar had over the types and uses of force, a worry that he placed in Deweyan terminology in one of his first publications after his time with Dewey: a 1918 review of Bertrand Russell's book Principles of Reconstruction (see Ambedkar 1989). There we see Ambedkar refer to Dewey's distinction between force as violence and force as energy, a distinction that can be traced back to Dewey's class lectures in 1915–16 (Stroud 2017b). Ambedkar argues in this review that violence is bad because it sacrifices too many ends in the pursuit of reform.

What is important for our inquiry is the surfacing of this Deweyan theme in Ambedkar in his final years, the time when he was busy reconstructing Buddhism and reflecting on his political successes and failures. In the 1950s, Ambedkar was constantly comparing Buddhism—as he saw it, at least—with Marxist versions of communism. During this period, he also had planned and partially written a book manuscript entitled Buddha or Karl Marx. This work took communism of the Russian variety seriously and noted many common themes between it and Buddhism as interpreted by Ambedkar. Both valued the reconstruction and improvement of society. Buddhism was said to focus on the challenges of suffering-as-poverty, an interpretative move that would seem alien to most followers of the Buddhist tradition. But Ambedkar wanted a religious orientation that would function as a respect-giving redescription of those humans and groups that Hinduism labeled as "untouchable," and he wanted one that could deal with the oppressions of modern society. Inward-looking readings of Buddhism that privilege meditation were not for Ambedkar; he wanted a social gospel, and seeing none that met his Deweyan proclivities, he constructed one out of the native Indian tradition initiated by the Buddha.

In this unpublished work, Ambedkar directly confronts the issue of what sorts of means we are obligated to use in pursuit of morally demanded ends. Marxism and Buddhism agree on many things, but "the differences are about the means. The end is common to both" (Ambedkar 2014, 450). The means of Buddhism are strongly communicative and emphasize mental change as a precursor to social change: "It is clear that the means adopted by the Buddha were to convert a man by changing his moral disposition [End Page 126] to follow the path voluntarily." This can be seen as a Deweyan influence, dealing as it does with the ideal of mental habits or orientations toward other community members. The communists, on the other hand, placed primacy on the means of "violence. Nothing short of it will suffice to break up the existing system." Displaying his pragmatist leanings, Ambedkar pursues the evaluation of each commitment to means in a nuanced fashion. He indicates that we must not shrink back from all violence, since much violence is implicated in the state punishing deserving criminals and defending its interests through war: "The Buddha is not against all violence, but against violence being anything but a last resort: A man who fights for justice and safety cannot be accused of Ahimsa. If all the means of maintaining peace have failed then the responsibility for Himsa falls on him who starts war. One must never surrender to evil powers. War there may be. But it must not be for selfish ends" (2014, 450).

What underlies this reticence to specify violence as the obligated, preferred, or only reaction to oppression is a thoroughly pragmatist concern with the means and ends involved in social change. Ambedkar avoids deontological appeals to use violence at any cost and instead notes that "Dewey has rightly asked what can justify the means if not the end? It is only the end that can justify the means" (2014, 451). To this pragmatist position, Ambedkar points out that the "Buddha would have probably admitted that it is only the end which would justify the means. What else could? And he would have said that if the end justified violence, violence was a legitimate means for the end in view." He quickly adds a qualification: "As Prof. Dewey has pointed out that violence is only another name for the use of force and although force must be used for creative purposes a distinction between use of force as energy and use of force as violence needs to be made. 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" (2014, 451).

What is wrong with the communist use of violence on this account? It is a matter of effectiveness over the long run: "Whose means are superior and lasting in the long run? Can the Communists say that in achieving their valuable end they have not destroyed other valuable ends? They have destroyed private property. Assuming that this is a valuable end can the Communists say that they have not destroyed other valuable end[s] in the process of achieving it? How many people have they killed for achieving [End Page 127] their end. Has human life no value? Could they not have taken property without taking the life of the owner?" (Ambedkar 2014, 452). Put simply, Ambedkar is worried about the costs of succeeding when using the techniques of force and violence in one's efforts for social change. Be as aggressive or confrontational as you want, but the Ambedkarite question is this: Do you achieve success while maintaining the bonds of community enough such that your enemy can be persuaded to freely see things the way you do? Force as a causal power only works when applied; violent force, once removed, only gives people and conditions time to regroup. Instead of this tactic, Ambedkar argues that "the Buddha's method was different. His method was to change the mind of man: to alter his disposition: so that whatever man does, he does it voluntarily without the use of force or compulsion. His main means to alter the disposition of men was his Dhamma and the constant preaching of his Dhamma. The Buddha's way was not to force people to do what they did not like to do although it was good for them. His way was to alter the disposition of men so that they would do voluntarily what they would not otherwise [want] to do" (2014, 461). Our liberty to assent to and plan courses of action—and the similar powers of our enemies—is respected enough by Ambedkar that his view of social change and persuasion hesitates to say that enemy-making and the violent harming of one's oppressors make for a lasting path to justice. They may be a path to war, one that your group may not win, as Harris (2002) admits about most slave insurrections over the course of history. The challenge of Ambedkar's Indian pragmatism to insurrectional ethics, then, would be this: If we have good reasons to want just situations now and in the future, why should we feel compelled to see violence as a necessary means given its high chance of failure, destruction of other ends, and potential for creating more hardened and determined opponents?

Ambedkar's pragmatism emphasizes love and nonviolence—qualities not exclusive of vigorous advocacy—because they hold the basic level of respect for one's opponents that might allow them to be integrated into a rectified community after justice is achieved. Violence and bald force either eliminate them as members of the community or put them in a position to wish for their own means to exact vengeance or to create their own image of justice. In Ambedkar's terminology imported from Dewey's class in 1915–16, we want a solution that prioritizes the achievement of liberty and equality while not irrevocably sacrificing community or fraternity: "We welcome the Russian Revolution because it aims to produce equality. But it cannot be [End Page 128] too much emphasized that in producing equality society cannot afford to sacrifice fraternity or liberty. Equality will be of no value without fraternity or liberty. It seems that the three can coexist only if one follows the way of the Buddha. Communism can give one but not all" (Ambedkar 2014, 462). This is the implication of Ambedkar's pragmatist view of advocacy, one that coheres with insurrectionist views insofar as it allows for strenuous advocacy and the empowering redescription of oppressed peoples. It falls away from the vague demands of insurrectionist ethics that pragmatism is only useful if it can justify slave insurrections, as Ambedkar saw that conditions of slavery differed and that paths out of its oppressive grasp did not always entail destroying those who oppress. Learning from Dewey that we must live with and among our enemies in social settings, Ambedkar pursued aggressive advocacy tempered by a reenergized Buddhist concept of ahimsa as love. There will always be calls by those committed to revolution, of course, those who see that the real could be changed in one potentially violent and cataclysmic stroke to cohere with what they perceive as the best state of affairs; such individuals perhaps will always find fault with Ambedkar's pragmatist ideal, which leaves room for oppressors and oppressed in a rectified community. But Ambedkar shows us that it is much too simple to overlook the nuances in types of oppression or in the paths available for their rectification now and in the future. Being a pragmatist, Ambedkar saw the best hope for his people and his country lying in persuasion and respectful change, not in the violent destruction of one's enemies or communal neighbors.

Scott R. Stroud
University Of Texas At Austin

works cited

Ambedkar, Bhimrao R. 1989. "Mr. Russell and the Reconstruction of Society." In Writings and Speeches, vol. 1, edited by Vasant Moon, 481–92. Bombay: Government of Maharashtra.
Ambedkar, Bhimrao R. 2011. The Buddha and His Dhamma: A Critical Edition. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Ambedkar, Bhimrao R. 2014. "Buddha or Karl Marx." In Writings and Speeches, vol. 3, edited by Vasant Moon, 441–64. Bombay: Government of Maharashtra.
Dewey, John. 1916/1985. Democracy and Education. The Middle Works of John Dewey, vol. 9, edited by Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Dotson, Kristie. 2013. "Querying Leonard Harris' Insurrectionist Standards." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 49 (1): 74–92. [End Page 129]
Harris, Leonard. 2002. "Insurrectionist Ethics: Advocacy, Moral Psychology, and Pragmatism." In Ethical Issues for a New Millennium, edited by John Howie, 192–210. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Harris, Leonard. 2013. "Walker: Naturalism and Liberation." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 49 (1): 93–111.
Jaffrelot, Christophe. 2005. Dr. Ambedkar and Untouchability: Fighting the Indian Caste System. New York: Columbia University Press.
Kaag, John. 2013. "Transgressing the Silence: Lydia Maria Child and the Philosophy of Subversion." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 49(1): 46–53.
Kadam, K.N. 1997. The Meaning of the Ambedkarite Conversion to Buddhism and Other Essays. New Delhi: Popular Prakashan.
Keer, Dhananjay. 1990. Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission. Bombay: Popular Prakashan.
Koopman, Colin. 2017. "Contesting Injustice: Why Pragmatist Political Thought Needs Du Bois." In Pragmatism and Justice, edited by Susan Dieleman, David Rondel, and Christopher Voparil, 179–96. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Maitra, Keya. 2012. "Ambedkar and the Constitution of India: A Deweyan Experiment." Contemporary Pragmatism 9: 301–20.
McBride, Lee A., III. 2013. "Insurrectionist Ethics and Thoreau." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 49 (1): 29–45.
Mukherjee, Arun P. 2009. "B. R. Ambedkar, John Dewey, and the Meaning of Democracy." New Literary History 40: 345–70.
Queen, Christopher S. 2015. "A Pedagogy of the Dhamma: B. R. Ambedkar and John Dewey on Education." International Journal of Buddhist Thought and Culture 24: 7–21.
Stroud, Scott R. 2016. "Pragmatism and the Pursuit of Social Justice in India: Bhimrao Ambedkar and the Rhetoric of Religious Reorientation." Rhetoric Society Quarterly 46 (1): 5–27.
Stroud, Scott R. 2017a. "The Influence of John Dewey and James Tufts' Ethics on Ambedkar's Quest for Social Justice." In Relevance of Dr. Ambedkar: Today and Tomorrow, edited by Pradeep Aglave, 33–54. Nagpur: Nagpur University Press.
Stroud, Scott R. 2017b. "Pragmatism, Persuasion, and Force in Bhimrao Ambedkar's Reconstruction of Buddhism." Journal of Religion 97 (2): 214–43.
Stroud, Scott R. 2017c. "What Did Bhimrao Ambedkar Learn from John Dewey's Democracy and Education?" Pluralist 12 (2): 78–103.
Zelliot, Eleanor. 2005. From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement. New Delhi: Manohar.
Zelliot, Eleanor. 2013. Ambedkar's World: The Making of Babasaheb and the Dalit Movement. New Delhi: Navayana. [End Page 130]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.