Parv Tyagi and Dhawal M.*
About Varta: Dialogues on India’s Constitutional Democracy
Indian constitutionalism is in a perilous state. Its ability to guarantee democratic governance and citizens’ rights are under deep stress. This democratic backsliding is not just on account of authoritarian and populist politics alone but is also manifesting itself through sophisticated autocratic legalism and abusive constitutional politics. In such times, it becomes important to evaluate various facets of sociological and political legitimacy and resilience of the Constitution, without giving in to idolatry, defeatism or obscurantism. Through the Varta podcast, Law School Policy Review aims to do the same.
Episode 2: Excavating an Untouchable (Constitutional) Research Program
In the second episode, Prannv Dhawan speaks with accomplished author and eminent academician, Professor Soumyabrata Choudhary. Dr. Choudhury is Associate Professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His book Ambedkar and Other Immortals: An Untouchable Research Programme examines Ambedkar’s thinking through the highly academic and sophisticated lens that it deserves. It brings into focus the axiomatic declaration of equality by Ambedkar and its worldwide socio-politico-legal consequences which the Brahmanical ruling elite have tried to neutralise.
Through an Untouchable Research Program, Prannv and Professor Choudhary discuss reclaiming the academic, legal and political spaces that the ostracised minorities have been kept out of. The episode discusses the revolutionary effects of a reimagining of any system through the lens of Ambedkar. As Professor Choudhary mentions in his book while quoting Ambedkar, “Every counter-revolution owes a debt to the revolution for its existence,” the time has come to reclaim that debt from the ruling oppressor caste and rediscover the revolutionary thinking of Ambedkar. But what does this spotlight on Ambedkar mean for the future of Indian constitutionalism? The podcast answers this question and also tries to understand Dr. Choudhury’s claim that Ambedkar as a research program remains untouchable, and that Dalit research program has not really won its actual victory.
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Prannv– Greetings to all our listeners. Thanks for joining in, for the second episode of Law School Policy Review’s flagship podcast series on the Indian Constitutional Democracy. Today our guest is eminent philosopher, Professor Soumyabrata Choudhury. Prof. Choudhury is an associate professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He did his PhD on the pragmatics of death and modes of individuation, in the figures of Socrates, Pentagon, and Jesus Christ. Dr. Choudhury has previously been an associate professor at the Center for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta and is a visiting fellow at CSDS, New Delhi. He has written many books, including Theater, Number and Event- Three studies on the relationship between sovereignty, power and truth and The weight of violence. His most important work has been on Ambedkar and other immortals and the Untouchable Research Program. He has also come out with a book on Shaheen Bagh and Coronavirus and how that is leading to new forms of association in isolation. It is titiled Now It’s Come to Distances : Notes on Shaheen Bagh and Coronavirus, Association and Isolation. Thank you professor for taking the time to talk to us and for giving us this opportunity.
The theme for today’s discussion is excavating an Untouchable Constitutional Research Programme. As we all know, the Indian Constitution is in a perilous state. Its ability to guarantee democratic governance and liberal rights to citizens is reduced. Not only is this due to extra legal and undemocratic forces but also due to the use and weaponization of legal tools by majoritarian politics. In such times, it is important to evaluate the facets of philosophical foundations of the Constitution, to understand how we can engage with the present moment in a constructive sense. Today is also a time when we see a struggle to idolize and appropriate Dr. Ambedkar to legitimize this sort of hegemonic nationalism and to co-opt the marginalized communities, within the majoritarian consensus. How does one put a spotlight on Ambedkar? But also do it in a political principle sense? And how does his ideological corpus help us reclaim the Republic from the entrapment that it finds itself in the present moment? We want to ask all those questions to Prof. Choudhary today so that we can understand how the legal research and constitutional research can do a better job at understanding our founding dilemmas and to be in the quest of justice that we were supposed to be. So, thanks again, Professor Chaudhury. If there are any preliminary thoughts on the theme, we’d be happy to hear them.
Prof. Soumyabrata– Thank you so much. I like the imagery and the connotation of the metaphor of ‘excavation’ of an Untouchable Research Program because it also brings out a certain kind of depth to the suppression of this research program over a long period of time in Indian society. It is something which is very pertinent and important historically and is almost a kind of genealogical inquiry against the grain, against the sort of violent oppression that has taken place over thousands of years. I like what you’re doing here with the word excavation and the metaphor of archaeology by taking out something which is pushed deep down. I like it very much. As far as my own coinage or my own attempt to create a kind of phrase, which is an Untouchable Research Program, there are a couple of things that I might say about that. The first is that the word untouchable itself in the present moment is clearly a proscribed word, a criminal and an obscene word, something which is not to be admitted. So, to use that word in a certain way that is right out there, by speaking of an Untouchable Research Program is also already to bring in the question of law because untouchability is a crime by law. To speak of an untouchable research program is to say that real social life is not completely captured by law. It is somewhere where law is not. Hence, an Untouchable Research Program is a research program or an intellectual project itself.
I’ll come to the second part which is the question of the research program. Now, of course, someone could say that if there is a research program, which is an intellectual project that is also a collective project and a project about excavating a certain counter history or a suppressed part of the historical lives of a whole set of marginalized social groups including the erstwhile untouchable castes, then why should such an intellectual project become untouchable? For instance, why can’t it be called Dalit? Dalit obviously has a different sort of force and meaning in terms of Modern Indian history. So the reason to speak of untouchable is clearly ironic. It brings in the movement from the actual practice of untouchability as a socially sanctioned and legally admissible practice in the old days, to a certain time in the colonial period to the modern Indian epoch, when it progressively became criminalized and something which was not to be accepted by any kind of jurisprudence or any kind of legal principles and was to be treated as a punishable, punitive offense. To speak in terms of an Untouchable Research Program is clearly to ironically say that such a research program, or such an intellectual project, or such an intellectuality in a larger sense, is something which exists through a different kind of legitimation that goes beyond the law. So it is a kind of legitimation which takes place with a certain kind of social sanction which is not untouchability in the physical sense, but untouchability precisely in the intellectual sense. That is the thought or the intellectual position of a certain part of society is by and large, to be kept at the margins. That practice of thinking, and that practice of a certain kind of autonomous intellectual refusal of the dominant presuppositions of certain structures of knowledge, which are to be refused obviously, pertain to what could be called where I’m also located and that’s also a kind of self critical autobiographical note is the space of the university. So in that sense, what I meant to do with this coinage, with this phrase, ‘Untouchable Research Program’ was both to bring up the question of life which is not captured by the law or real social life in its persistent practices of a certain kind of intellectual discrimination or intellectual exclusion, but also precisely locate that kind of a critique within the paradigmatic space of such an intellectuality, which is the university. So these are the two aspects that come to mind with the question of an intellectual research project which you very interestingly want to excavate in this conversation.
Prannv– Thank you so much for laying the groundwork and explaining to us what the meaning of an Untouchable Research Program is. We intend to understand it further, through our questions on what it can entail, and how it can upset the current dogmas around constitutional law, politics, and nationalism in India.
So our first question is slightly personal. How was your journey towards Ambedkar? I think a lot of people always have this personal element to their movement towards Ambedkar, for instance, I had a total Enlightenment moment after I read the Annihilation of Caste. I’d like to understand how you made your journey towards Ambedkar and what inspired you to take the first step towards studying one of India’s finest brains. What other authors, books took you to this subject as you were trying to understand the philosophy behind it and giving it a potent force.
Prof. Soumyabrata – There are broadly three strands that one could probably dis-aggregate or even disentangle from the sort of heterogeneous researches that I have been doing over some time, which pertain to my project in relation to Ambedkar’s thinking and what I call Ambedkarite thoughts.
Probably the first of these three is something that I was doing. It’s a historical point of departure for this study of Ambedkar, which happened through my previous work which the book that I wrote and you cited, my first one called Theater, Number and Event: Studies on Sovereignty, Power and Truth. During my preparation for that book. I was studying the French Revolution to locate historically, in terms of both the development of the historical changes that were taking place around 1789 to 1793 or so and the structural changes in the idea of something like the form of political knowledge that has to be the ground for living a political life to live a civic life in a revolutionary society, in France. This could be broadly called an attempt to locate a kind of constituent moment in French history.
So someone who was very kind to my project, suggested at that time, why don’t I conduct a similar inquiry with the constituent moment in Indian history. Which obviously would, by and large, refer to the period before the Indian independence in the colonial period but everything that was going on; the entire turbulence of that period, not just in terms of the physical or the actual events that were taking place, but also in terms of the turbulence of knowledge in the forms of constitution and political knowledge on which eventually, post-independence civic life was meant to be carried out and conducted. So in that sense, this was the first reason to study Ambedkar and then of course to study or to kind of locate a constituent moment in indian history which is obviously an impossibly ambitious project.
You read Ambedkar. You obviously read Ambedkar. That is almost something which is an obvious scholarly obligation. And that is exactly what I tried- to perform this obligation but that obligation turned out to be such a great pleasure, that in a sense, it took me far beyond, or at least far apart from this very very systematic historical project of locating the constituent moment. It took me into, like you said, the brain of Ambedkar. The brain, as in not just the sort of individual physiological brain, but the political, social brain of Ambedkar. Which means the entire age, not just with the individual person Ambedkar but on a comparative scale with everyone else who was involved in the extremely vivid scenography of that age. So that is the first link.
The second one is very specific. When I was doing my work on sovereignty, it was a historical inquiry of (that is supposed to be my specialization, whatever that means) something like European philosophy and politics. So I was studying the first inaugural period of the onset of European thought which is Greek history or Greek politics. And something very interesting came to my notice, which is that in fifth century Athens, Democracy was finally coming to the scene, and a kind of democratic government was formed, briefly, of course, and also episodically as this was a very unstable period. Nevertheless, a kind of democratic government was formed. But the democratic government constituted a kind of space for civic life, which is the life of citizenship, which in a sense also became the first experiment with citizenship. But what you could see was that the social dimension of that citizenship was not how you would think of a democracy, ordinarily, that it should be as inclusive as possible. It was actually, in principle, not just in practice but in principle, exclusionary. So we had the inauguration of democracy with a clear unrepentant exclusionary principle that democracy was only meant for the citizens or the people of Athens, the men of Athens. Which meant that these men of Athens, the autochthonous ones that were born of Athens, were a social group who surely were a privileged social group. Then a peculiar kind of a thing happens- on the one hand, the men of Athens, are the ones who have the exclusionary or an exclusive privilege of a democratic civic space, democratic government. But at the same time, precisely because it’s democratic, in principle, there is an egalitarianism. Because between the men, evidently, there is a radical principle of equality. Radical, I will talk about that properly later, the radical axiom of equality that exists between all these men. They are, in principle, absolutely equal to each other.
So, some of the practices of civic government in Athens, turned out to be actually peculiarly egalitarian and at the same time being exclusionary. Which of course meant specifically excluding slaves and women and children and immigrants and all of that. So to me theoretically this seems to be a very, very strange paradox. Though an interesting one. You could have a social group, which is constituted as a form of equal participation or citizenship, but at the same time practice deep inequality vis-a-vis the social totality that is society itself. This, to me, was also comparatively very interesting, because it clearly resonated of caste, it’s not exactly the same. Nevertheless, I got a strange sort of intuitive sense of what could be called something which seems contradictory to the present democratic presuppositions but intuitively I seem to see the emergence of a ‘citizen caste’. So that of course brought me to the question of caste in the more rigorous, systematic sense and also in the sociological sense. And for that one had to come back to the Indian society, because that’s where caste is both formed and also created as a peculiar kind of a counter revolutionary knowledge so that’s the second link.
The third is, is something which is again a further detail of Greek civic life in the fifth century BC, where I’ll not go into the material from which I produce my argument. But the the argument of my thesis was that, strangely, the citizen caste, which constituted the exclusionary, at the same time, egalitarian population of ancient Greece, ancient Athens was in the mode of its subjective participation in civic life, for instance in politics, in war, in cultural acts like theater (because theater was very important in Greek civic existence); In all of those things, subjectively the mode of participation was a participation, not just of physical participation, but a kind of spiritual or even a kind of dispositional participation, which was structured by a strange notion of ‘debt’. Where debt was actually the measure of power of the profit of material debt or money debt as physical debt would always be consistent. The more the debt, the less the power – that debt is inversely proportional to the power in the ordinary sense of the word debt. Interestingly, in this period, we found that debt was actually the measure of power- the more the debt to the city, the more the power to determine the fate of the city, to be in power in the government to take part in the government of the city. Because subjectively we were meant to have a debt to the city to participate in activities of the city in a way that the other physical members who were a part of the population in the city like the women, the foreigners and the slaves did not have because they were not obliged to take part in the city’s civic activities. So, this was a very strange phenomenon of debt, actually indicating positively the capacity for participating, which is power. So that paradox actually led me to something.
Since you asked me for authors, I’ll not actually mention a list of authors and obviously there’s a range of authors in whatever I’m saying, but I will mention one author here. The French Indologist Charles Malamoud had worked in his comparative study of different cultures on a notion that he called ‘Ontological debt among the Hindus’, among the upper caste Brahmins. Where he showed that the upper caste, Brahmins, had an ontological debt. For instance, in the rina to guru, in the rina to the pita to the, to the Father. In each of them there is an ontological debt that a Brahmin enjoys in a way which the Lower castes do not enjoy. And of course, we don’t have to talk about this here but the story from the Mahabharata of Eklavya is an absolutely clear and shattering illustration of this kind of ontological debt, and how it works in actual practices of exclusion. So, that is the third link which is not just studying Ambedkar directly, but it made it absolutely imperative that I study the question of caste in the larger sense of a logic, not just as social practice or historial practice which obviously is so vast that I’m not capable of, in any way doing any justice to that field- I’m not a sociologist, but I do try with the limited material that I am able to study, to try to analyze or excavate, to use your metaphor, the logic of caste in different texts, in different contexts, up to the present. So yes, the Ambedkarite Project, the Untouchable Research Project which was kind of an open field that needed to be reconstituted as a field of some kind of counter hegemonic presence in the Indian University. Definitely a kind of Dalit counter hegemony in the university has very much been at the back of my mind. Nevertheless, the first lineaments, the first outline of this project was created from broadly these three linkages.
Prannv– Thank you so much Professor for giving us such an insightful sneak peek into your academic journey towards the question of caste and on the larger corpus of Ambedkarite thought. One thing that was very interesting was the whole idea of scholarly debt to study Ambedkar. And you also mentioned the need for a counter hegemonic Dalit research movement of sorts in the academia to basically foreground this debt or foreground this obligation on any scholar. We asked this question, in light of the imbalance of sorts in the epistemic world where the philosophies and thought worlds of our other founding fathers are very well established and they also have the intellectual scaffolding of other derivative works, but what we see is that at least till the 1990s, the work on Ambedkar was very sparse. So how do you think the system has erased the wisdom of anti-caste intellectuals through a counter revolution, and as you mentioned in Chapter Seven of your book, every counter revolution owes a debt to the revolution for its existence. So how would this debt reclamation look like and what do you think is the future of the academic renaissance of Dalit thought and perspective of equality? I understand that you answered this to an extent in the last question, but do you have any other thoughts on the idea of the debt reclamation project?
Prof. Soumyabrata- So this is a very interesting question of the logic of change. How does change take place? And also what wants to prevent change, resist change in societies? This is a general question of change not just for one society but for all societies. Of course, the logic is not the same, it is actually unfolding in every society, and one has to make very concrete analyses of what is going on in each instance. So first of all, this citation is not mine, it’s a broad sort of re-citation from Ambedkar. In his text on Krishna and Gita, he discusses Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and he speaks of Tilak as a very powerful counter revolutionary thinker. He actually says that while Tilak is a very powerful counter revolutionary thinker, he will still be subject to the truths of the event of the revolution, for only a revolution makes counter revolution possible. Counter-Revolution by its very name can only be possible by owing a debt to a revolution, a revolutionary event. So there’s a logic of event there, and in a way, a counter revolution is doing so much. For instance, the one after the French Revolution, the Hindu counter-revolution against Buddhism, and you can find several other examples. Great counter revolutions are actually extremely productive. In the sense that they produce texts and they produce several kinds of actions, some of which have a great collective amplitude. It’s not as if counter-revolution is only an affair of the aristocrats and the elite. Counter-revolution also, as we know, involves a large section across society. Nevertheless, the logic of a counter revolution is that while doing so much, while creating such sound and fury in the corridors of history, it actually blocks change. It actually speaks in the name of something like eternity- Sanatana, something like changelessness. This is something you’re seeing, even in the present time, we can come back to that later. It will do more than any government, any regime of power does. Yet, ideologically, its motto is something like changelessness. It blocks change, not just individual change but the very idea of change that there can be in principle revolutionary and fundamental change This, it cannot accept. So the paradox is and this is what Ambedkar uncovered in Tilak’s reading of Gita, (and several other readings of Gita are there and it’s a different discussion we can have) it showed that while his reading was dependent on a very modern idea of individualism and karma and all of that, yet, he will not admit that the modern age, with its ideas of individualism, is a new age. He’s actually located in the heart of this contradiction which is something that he has to accept that a kind of new modernist revolution is taking place. In the European context we would call it a Bourgeois revolution. In India it would of course not be classically bourgeois. Nevertheless, a kind of modernist revolution in the larger sense, of which Tilak is a part in the colonial period, is ongoing and Tilak is speaking from that position. But he will not, in principle, ever accept that such an event of fundamental change in histories of societies is possible. So you can also speak of the Gita as the voice of something which is eternal, changeless.
So this is the contradiction which Tilak illustrates in this statement of Ambedkar that counter-revolution owes a debt to revolution and yet, counter-revolution cannot accept that. And if it has accepted it, it accepts it most resentfully and almost violently. So that’s the first point.
You see a revolution must also be a kind of cancellation of debt, it must also be a kind of almost a burning of debt, burning down of structures of debt. We can have several examples of this. One of the very interesting examples of this is pre-French Revolution since I’ve mentioned the French Revolution several times. The thing about the pre French Revolution was that there was a law that time, which was, part of the Christian canon law, the theological law. Through the Church, Christian people notionally had a kind of ownership of the Christian properties, of the Christian land, and so on and so forth. This ownership was both symbolised and maintained by the payment of the Tythes tax to the Church. And the Christian people, in a sense, owed a debt to the very fact that they had that power of holy property and sacred wealth. This kind of sacredness applied to the idea of Christian land or holy land- something like that roughly. Therefore, this tax payment was their power to owe debt to the Church. And before the revolution, one of the slogans of the revolutionaries was that- We refuse to pay the tythes. We forsake our power of property. Our power, not just of this subjective debt, but the power which also makes us creditors. That they can give credit now to the ones who are subject to their power. And they could be creditors, with the power of credit, which is the most oppressive power from the feudal times to modern capital. The power of giving credit. Creditors how? The power to pay the tax was a testament to the people’s association with the church and the Church’s theological backing of the tax-payers, as opposed to the ones excluded from this class. Here of course one means money credit, material credit. So, it was said at that time, before the revolution that we forsake our right of credit, our right to be creditors. This is a radical idea, and not only in a revolution would, the ones who are under the burden of material debt, the burden of physical debt, the oppressed, reclaim their power, which is absolutely a kind of revolt, which happens in all revolutions and so it must be applied to the cases of Indian social history and all the social rebellions, if not revolutions, that have taken place.
But the more fundamental truth of revolution is that the very form of power, which of course, temporally needs to be reversed in a particular time, must be given up. That very logic of power must be forsaken. One must disinherit oneself from the very power to give credit. So that very structure of credit and debt, which produces this tortured perverse kind of a law vanish. In that sense, revolutions are also actually revolutions against power. And, of course law is very much indicated in the logic of power. So it is this idea which I call revolutionary defaulting on debt. This is something Ambedkar actually said about the depressed classes in his time- That we as a community, as a people in society must learn not to be grateful. We must learn not to be grateful because the logic of Brahmanism is not just the logic of subjecting you to the physical and material debt that a powerful baniya or a brahmin or whoever can subject you to, and does subject you too. For which interestingly, subjectively the Dalit, not in the way I understand Dalit, but the Depressed classes, the erstwhile Untouchable classes, the individual untouchable person, she feels obliged to serve. She eventually feels grateful that the Brahman or the Baniya or the upper caste gives you a little bit out of his or her generosity. So a strange and a perverse relationship of love and debt are created. Gandhi in a sense promoted this in his own way. Ambedkar said we must forsake and refuse this. The reclamation of debt is of course the reversal of power, and in the university, this is something which has a very important strategic role to play. So to bring a Dalit Research Program into the very center of intellectual thought, in the specialized professional research of disciplinary transformations is absolutely necessary and relevant. At the same time one must not lose sight of the fundamental reality that the very logic of discourse of the university, the space of the university is still, even in a modern democratic context by and large, predicated on a logic of debt in general and on a logical mastery and hierarchy in general, even if it is not the same mastery and hierarchy, which is inscribed in the feudal field, or in the obvious Brahmanical field. In a sense, the discourse of the university has to be fundamentally, at its core, be the subject to a constant sort of a displacement or not simply counter hegemonic reversal. But to me, the Dalit truth lies in weakening this logic of power, rather than simply reclaiming it. Though the reclamation is absolutely central to the immediate strategic aims.
Prannv– Thank you so much for those very profound thoughts and taking the conversation forward to something that as law students we are more familiar with, which is the idea of equality and the idea of discrimination. Your book on Ambedkar talks about the idea of an axiomatic equality- the assertion that the protest in Mahad was recognized as a historical proclamation of the axiomatic utterance, rather than a demonstrated impact. Wherein you do not look at just the predictive factors of equality. You do not just look at certain markers regulating the behavior of a person, or saying that if you do this or that, or if you behave a certain way, you will be violating equality but subject it to a set of foundational fundamental norm
So how does one make sense of the idea of predicate equality with the formulation of axiomatic equality that you have advanced. And what can it mean for our world where equality is definitely more visible in the quantifiable predicated sense as even the law tends to regulate the predictive markers of behavior in the public spaces and actions in certain circumstances. So, how can the law respond to this challenge of the lack of an axiom of equality in our society?
Prof. Soumyabrata– Exactly what I was speaking of, when I spoke of the double imperative of one, not losing sight of the fundamental axiom, the fundamental truths that you have to, in a sense, gamble on, risk. You have to take a risk on that truth. That such a truth is something that like the mathematical sense of an axiom, you don’t demonstrate, rather you enunciate to draw to its consequences for a field of inquiry- in mathematics that would be theorems. So the axiom that you enunciate and in a sense forsake its truth, in this case, is the axiom of something which is beyond the logic of power and reversal of power. There exists the potential or possibility of thinking of a life of equality as not determined by the predicates of power, because power is of course to be measured. Power is also quantifiable, in terms of inequality, relative inequality, or relative equality, and so on and so forth, changes of who has what kind of power and in what way, in what mode.
The second part is predicate. So I’m saying that the second part of the double imperative is also to intervene in the existing field of power and to try and reverse it in the direction of a certain equalization. Equalization is not the same thing as equality. Here we have a lesson to learn from Ambedkar. When in the Annihilation of Caste, he asks this fundamental, methodological question but also which is a question of something like the ground of thinking. Which is, how can we, in any way, draw out from the field of history, the field of society, any real critique of inequality if we do not already have a notion of equality? So, equality might not exist at all. Ambedkar actually calls it a fiction. Now on one hand, it might look like something which is a bit strange. Surely equality is real. But he means fiction in a very interesting tonality- fiction which must have real effects in society. So, we must start with courage. Fiction requires courage because fiction requires wisdom, vision, like writers and artists- they have to create something which does not exist yet. So, here fiction should be taken in that sense. In the radical sense of the courage of an artist. Equality is the fiction that political thinkers must be able to create with the courage of an artist. Something which is possible in the future of society, but at the same time it was built in the present and they shall enforce it like an action in the present.
Why would you do that? Apart from, of course, committing yourself to such a belief? Ambedkar says one of the reasons is that it makes more sense. Because you see, what inequality basically shows is difference. You choose heterogeneity. It shows something in our field of subjects in the field of people, population within a set of population. For instance, you can do any kind of a test here in education, in the university you do a test of marks- who gets how many marks, grade, or whatever- so you get heterogeneity. Now, either you draw out of this that people are essentially different and then measure the difference in terms of who’s more who’s less- that brings an inequality, but this is of course something which a lot of people believe in, the meritocratic establishment believes in it deeply. A kind of geneticist merit meritocracy, tries to justify this through the apparatus of science that certain kinds of makeup of the brain and some people are more and some people are less of brain, brain capacity and EQ and IQ, which is all quantitative. So that is one side. On the other side there is the kind of political thinking, which asks the question, if you start on the so called the assumption of heterogeneity and inequality and difference as something which is not simply in fact- in fact there is difference, sure -we look different, we have different heights and so on and so forth; so, in everything there’s differences but if you take that not just to be a fact but a principle or as an axiom, then what follows?
Ambedkar immediately said that two things follow. One is, of course, that from such an axiom of inequality not just inequality but injustice follows, atrocity follows. You see the absolutely intolerable exhibitions of inhumanity, savagery. If you think that someone is unequal, you don’t treat him with the same values that you treat yourself. The second is that there is something which is intellectually suspicious. Because people are different with different predicates- that my height is different from yours but, in essence, how does my height, being less or more, my skin colour being different from yours, pertain to my being equal or not equal to you? No one has been quite able to show this. How can predicative difference, which can be measured as unequal through certain means of measurement which come from ideologies, be justified by anything that actually shows or demonstrates that from predicates you can go to something like we are actually different because we have different kinds of bodily structures, skin color, or anything you can think of. No one has been able to quite show this. So peculiarly, Ambedkar says- it is far better to start with the assumption of equality, even if equality is a fiction, in terms of predicative reality. Predicates show that mostly in our societies, we find predicatively that people have more money, or people have less, people have more social privileges or people have less. Educationally, the same and we’ll come to the question of reservation in this course. But Ambedkar says still, one must start with the assumption of equality because equality is more rational. Equality makes it possible to make this field of heterogeneity into something more systematic, thinkable. Despite the fact that we spend so much time measuring inequality and are so eager to show it, especially in the context of education, your examinations which are so much in the news because of the pandemic and so forth. People are really eager to show, see this is just anecdotal, but these examinations have been cancelled in class 12 CBSE, which is great, I think, but we are still very eager to have the results, not just for the obvious practical reasons, but also because we’re eager to know who’s better than whom. But still we seem to be completely unable to find a peaceful night of sleep unless we know whether x is more or less than y. Which means it’s an axiomatic problem. Somewhere down the road you’ve created an axiom, which you can’t quite demonstrate that someone is better than someone else and a presumption of inequality. Ambedkar says no. As opposed to that, axiomatic equality is far more rational apart from being far more emancipatory.
So, this is the question at the level of principle, at the level of thinking. Does that mean that we give up on the question of radical intervention? Of course not. The field of society, the field of the social world is made up of predicative relationships- so in education, there are exams, someone gets a job in the field of the economy, someone does not get a job, interviews are carried out. So, predicatively we try to extend, not merely principles, but also rules, from which we can build relatively egalitarian, relatively more open systems of measurement, in which there will be the chance, the opportunities for eventually, a predicatively more just result. But a predicatively just result does not mean that the axiom is completely actualized or embodied in historical reality because predicatively there is always some deficit, something which remains inconsistent. I don’t have to go into details about this, but that is the nature of all predicative measurable quantitative groupings that there’ll always be some inconsistency. So, you will find that you have opened up a field of say, education and examinations and made gradings, giving marks in the old sense. But even in gradings, you will create a certain field of relative hierarchy, you will, at a certain moment, inconsistently say X stands first and Y is second, that is inconsistent with the idea that everyone is capable. On the one hand you say that everyone is capable of something that he or she is good at. But at the same time inconsistently we do bring in a lot of people and measure them in that one field when apparently someone is naturally good or turns out to be good and someone who’s not that good. And that becomes an absolute judgment.
So, this predicative grouping is bound to be inconsistent at some level. So there will always be the need to intervene. One of the most important fields of intervention – we’ll come to reservations, possibly we’ll discuss that in a moment, but even without reservations when we speak of, for instance, the questions experience that really when you don’t take the experience of a person into account in the thinking of that person, in terms of what he or she studies then aren’t you alienating the student? Aren’t you making the students study something about which he or she has no experience or has no stakes, and has no reason to be interested in it? So you know, when people in colonial countries were made to study literature of the colonizing countries, a question was brought into the field that, predicatively, how does it matter in terms of experience of existence of a colonized person to study the literature of Queen’s England? So these sorts of critical questions will be asked. And in that sense, predicative interventions which will make something like post-colonial transformation of the field of knowledge, which is dominated predicatively by a certain interest group or a power block will need to be changed. So in the case of Brahmanical knowledge what we find is a whole set of presumptions that in the humanities particularly that dominate the field of the university, whether that be in social sciences, in history, or in literature. So a kind of Dalit counter hegemonic project would also want to intervene predicatively in that field and try and bring in the study of Ambedkar as a serious academic pursuit. So all of that is absolutely something which is an ongoing project. But you see, you’re back to the old point that all of this still does not change the fundamental diagnosis that the logic of the university, the discourse of the university will still remain Brahmanical, by and large, insofar as it’s fundamental logic of mastery and debt will be inscribed in the caste society. Counter hegemonic practices have a tendency of strengthening the university and at the same time improving the university. When you improve the university you make it predicatively more egalitarian, when you strengthen the university strangely, you also consolidate the axiom of a certain kind of Brahmanism, or hierarchy of mastery.
Prannv– I think it very neatly segues into the concern about reservations, and you mentioned it a couple of times in your answer as well, about how reservations at one end recognise the historical claim, of those who have been treated unjustly, and those whose axiomatic right to equality has been denied. But at the same time, it is lending legitimacy to a structure that is fundamentally based on stereotypical notions of merit, efficiency of administration, and other claims, and statements that we look at in our judicial discourse. And this is in context of the existing judicial hesitancy as well as an impatience with reservations that we see when reservation is seen as a barrier to some form of equality rather than seen as a pathway to equality. The dominant discourse seems to forget that reservation was a concession made by the marginalized, towards the elite. Like on page 219 of the book you talk about Ambedkar and you quote how dominant castes should feel grateful that minorities have accepted the highly unequal constitutional compromise of reservations. So, how can thinking on these lines change the overall debate on reservations?
Prof. Soumyabrata– So before I talk about that there’s another thing about predictive intervention which we must take very seriously. See predicative interventions are what- interventions in fields which are measured by certain parameters, that yield results. So eventually, there is an economic result, there is an educational result and there are other kinds of results. Then you try to change the parameters so as to make the results more equitable, or more just. Those are predicative interventions and they must go on. But of course, these should not let us lose the fundamental principles of what is it to constitute a just society, which, by and large means a kind of revolutionary vigilance. Having said this, you must also remember that sometimes certain predicative results actually result in great changes in material or historical reality, to the point that you can even call them revolutionary. So predicative interventions are not simply relative to the fundamental limits of society in terms of its good or bad axioms. Sometimes axioms themselves are after all born out of history. One does not think of axioms out of nowhere, axioms don’t fall from the sky. Axioms are also thoughts eventually created from the very materiality, the very fabric of reality within which we are implicated, that’s why experience is so important. Axioms are also part of experience.
So, for instance, I mean you take a quick example, in the predative field of politics, in the world actually but starting with Europe again. In democracy we started on the principle of franchise, but women were not allowed to vote, even though the so-called axiom of equality was tremendously present in revolutionary thinking at that time, French Revolution onwards. But it was only in the late 19th century that the women’s suffrage movements intervened predicatively in the field of politics with tremendous passion. So much so that they had to bear the brunt of the state in its worst kind of violent form, but they still achieved the result that they wanted to achieve, which is suffragette rights, right to voting, an equal adult franchise. This actually had an axiomatic result, why? Not only was revolutionary equality made more real by the fact that women were now part of the people voting in a society, but also a new axiom was born. And not just for one person or one group, but for people in general, as a universal possibility which is the equality of women with men and everyone else in society. Gender Equality and the very thinking of gender was born, not simply by itself, but from the predicative struggle. Now, a further consequence comes out of this which is that only once such a real predicative victory has taken place, that you can axiomatically also do justice retrospectively. Ages have always thought that women are inferior to men. But today, you can say that not only women are equal in the practical sense in a predicative sense that they can vote which they couldn’t earlier, but that women were always equal. See axioms are not predicated to say something obvious, in the sense that they are not temporally specific, they are not empirically bound, but empirical change produces axiomatic revaluation of the past. So then it becomes possible to think that, despite the predicative inequality that women had to go through, they were always equal. We are always equal, Dalits are always equals. Everyone is always equal. So, this kind of a universality is born from real predicative intervention. So predicative thinking is also tactical- thinking concretely in a field is extremely important. So that’s the first introductory thing that I wanted to say.
Now, coming to reservation, you see, you’re right. That’s exactly the point. History is a long history. We by and large know about it. So we don’t have to rehearse it here. Nevertheless, we know that reservations for the Depressed Classes, the Scheduled castes, came out of a historical turmoil, following roundtable conferences where separation of electorates for the Depressed classes, was both accepted and taken back. After Gandhi’s fast in Poona and Ambedkar’s agreement, a very unhappy agreement with him on political reservation. So yes, that is already a historical testament to a certain kind of compromise. Ambedkar later says, apart from the fact, that he was deeply, irreparably damaged by that experience in terms of a sense of betrayal about whatever happened, that once the oppressed classes accepted reservation they’ll try and be more or less consistent with that acceptance. So they will work by the politics of reservation or, by the way politics has to be conducted. If reservation is the rule, it is what has to be followed. But that does not mean they’re not capable of something else. This is very important. Ambedkar was always very sharp on this- something which we’re doing, again, predicatively in a historical empirical practice should not in any way make you think that (he’s talking to the upper castes) or make you say that we are not capable of something else. This is not a threat. This is an ontological declaration that we as people, as beings, as universal beings we’re capable of somebody else. We’re capable of protesting in ways which are not simply necessarily within a given field of certain law or a certain form that you have prescribed for us through the compromise of reservation. So that’s why he would keep taking the example of Ireland, where the consequences of all these efforts of compromise turned out to be extremely violent and turbulent. He said that we are going to live by the rules of reservation and the politics which are governed by these principles and rules, but that does not mean that we are not capable of protesting on a wider scale or at a different level. But we are, in a sense, holding back because you want to go by the new compromise. This is something which Ambedkar was always trying to tell the upper caste and send this message across to them. Now this does not mean that he’s saying that you have to become violent militants necessarily. That is a different question whether violent militancy can also be a result of this kind of a compromise. But what he was saying was that even within the constitutional field, we are going to force the Constitution in directions that you might not like. Even Reservations can be radicalized, in a way that you did not bargain for. It is a question of capacity, which Ambedkar kept saying that dalits have the capacity in so far as they are universal. They have all the universal capacities, including politics of the most radical kind. So this is the point about reservation. Reservation in itself is a historical development. It is what it is, we take it from there, we charted course up to the present and we can have a discussion about that. But reservation neither means that there is something which is totally finished. Ambedkar in his own lifetime, till the end, felt that something was forever lost with losing the separate electorates. I think we have to accept that Ambedkar did feel that damage was done both to him, and to the cause of the dalit emancipation.
Nevertheless, I think we can take this on a slightly more optimistic horizon that even with the compromise of reservation, a new history does open up with new possibilities and it is part of the constitution, a part of constitutional politics. But you see, this is the larger point that I want to put to you for your consideration. The constitution is what- the Constitution is a kind of world. It’s a kind of world of places and laws and functions for society, because society is far more fuzzy and inquate. The Constitution is kind of prescribing or creating a world. But it seems to me that an investigation into the history of constitutions, let’s just take the Indian Constitution, shows that a constitution is not simply one world. Constitution is already a kind of jostling of more than one worlds. In the Indian constitution, there is always, and Ambedkar says this very clearly, there are always at least two worlds- the world of political thinking, which is based on principles of democracy, equality and unconditional equality, and fraternity, unconditional. That’s one world. But there is a second world, which is a social world of deep inequality which itself will express itself in the Constitution. It cannot be bypassed. So reservation, in a way, is also an expression of inequality. It is not simply a corrective for inequality, because it cannot be. It is a compromise. But it is also an expression. It also shows that there is inequality. So people who are deeply dissatisfied with reservation should also then be subjected to the test that can you bear your own society? Reservation in a sense asks you to go through this test. Sure, you’re unhappy, but you better be unhappy because in a way you have to bear that reality of society.
The dominant sections of society are feeling impatient or unhappy, kind of carrying a suppressed violence about reservations- anyway that is exactly how it should be, because reservation is in a way also a challenge. A kind of lived challenge to the upper castes, to the power elites, to the dominant part of society or the majoritarian sections of society, that can you bear equality in its lived reality, in its experience? So reservation is not a solution to inequality. But in a sense it is a kind of an immediate challenge to inequality as a moment negativity- that look here’s a person who apparently is a challenge, to your dominant notions of merit, as well as a certain kind of Brahmanical complacency that a certain part of society is naturally more privileged or more entitled to education or any kind of social benefit. The fact that physically someone else is there, some one ‘other’, it makes you feel all kinds of strange things, and terrible things. In a way, it doesn’t bring equality, but it brings a kind of necessary negativity into the field of this complacency- this complacency of pure homogeneous, self-contained Brahmanical the kumbhakaran sleeping, that there is nothing else. It brings something else. That else is a kind of negativity, so reservations brings, clearly, negativity, but the negativity is an expression of reality. It is not a solution. I’m not saying it’s a solution in the fundamental sense, in the largest sense, but (a) it is an intervention, which is absolutely central to specific situations, and (b) in the more sort of subjectively total sense of reservation as such, it is a challenge, it’s a test for the upper castes, that can you bear the very thought of equality, the very trace? Reservation is a kind of trace between equality and inequality. Even the trace sets off such violent reactions among people of the upper castes. Can you imagine what a so-called revolution would do?
Prannv– So your book also mentions conversions and also the emphasis on the idea of separation. We also know that Ambedkar thought that until you separate, you can’t be liberated. Do you think this emphasis on the idea of separation through separate electorates, or through separate settlements in villages, fundamentally challenges and pluralizes what the axiom of equality should mean? From an idea of accommodation and full citizenship you go to an idea where you need to be separate first to become an equal and full citizen. So, is the idea that you have to first be separate so as to attain that, like, the climax of a full citizenship was an axiom of full citizenship?
Prof. Soumyabrata– Alright, I kind of get the trend of the question. First of all, to me, and I think the book more or less, would be true to that point, the eventual disposition, what you called the climax, or what I call dispositional life of equality (when we live equally with each other an equal life, an equal social life) is not a life of citizenship. Citizenship is always a constituted form. An equal life would be a kind of infinite form. So that is the thing you know when I was speaking of two worlds of the Constitution- one world of the Constitution itself is beyond the Constitution. It is an infinite world, in that sense, a world which is already plural. The constitution, when it speaks of, in the preamble or as such, of equality and freedom and so on and so forth, justice and happiness and fraternity, is already talking about the ideas or principles in an axiomatic spirit, which in themselves are not exhausted by any particular form of constituted law. So in that sense, the infinite, open world of worlds is already a part of a great constitution, and at the same time our constitution is also one world, which is a world of law. So one of these two worlds, is an open, infinite, pluralizing world of worlds, and the other world, is a finite world of law, and we must not miss either of these dimensions of thinking when we think of the Constitution.
So citizenship is part of the second world, that is, the world of law. Of course, a world of law itself predicatively must be made as egalitarian as we can and continue to intervene in that direction. But citizenship by its very definition is already on the side of anyone, one should read Marx for this, The Jewish Question, for instance, very clearly shows that citizenship is the thinking of society and the state on the same side, not on two separate sides. So we might speak, in the immediate sense, of social citizenship as different from state citizenship, and social citizenship has something deeper and that is all very well. But as such the idea of citizenship is always an idea of a form, which tries to make society, that is, civil society and the state in a way, solve their contradictions and create a kind of formal consistency, even harmony in the modern age. For instance, the harmony between religion and secular law is the same thing as between civil society and state. So, this effort to create harmony and citizenship as a kind of embodied lived harmony is something which is only a very limited idea, which in modern society, one is trying out again and again in different ways, including in India.
When I read Ambedkar, I find him working or, like I say in my book, writing with both hands. He writes with one hand about creating as many possibilities through a rule bound jurisprudence and other constitutional writing basically, which is a writing which creates a code for a certain harmonious way of living this life of the state and society together in the most difficult resistant circumstances of Indian history. That is one thing. But he’s also someone who’s writing with the other hand, and with the other hand, he is writing of things infinite, things which belong to a certain kind of world which in itself is a world of worlds, which, like you said, is a pluralizing possibility. Now to do that in real circumstances, of course Ambedkar speaks of very specific interventions, very specific steps. One of them is separation. So there are two examples that you can take from his earlier life, his earlier political work before the separation of electorates and I am slightly confused about the dates now, probably it happened in the 1920s but came back later, which is separate settlements for the depressed classes – creating spatial or kind of colonization of empty lands, lands which were not occupied and live there and create a kind of space of a counter life, the life of people who have been excluded from Brahmanical life, from caste, from caste society. And in that sense also create a space of power, a space of security. You must also collectively resist atrocity. So all these things are part of the question of separate settlements, and of course separate electorates. Separate electorates in a sense give the expression, in politics, to the same power of self defense and security as the Constitution of a political right. The constitution of a political right to vote, as a bloc, as a body, vote as a body for someone who is as much a part of that body. So in that sense one must constitute oneself as a body. A body is necessarily limited, so it belongs to the second world, the world of limited functions, laws and places including bodies, which are always corporations, limited by their own individuality. So in that sense he also wanted a very strict separation but also a separation, which could show one body against the other. The body of the marginal part of society against the body of the dominant part. This, of course, is today called identity. What I’m calling body is also called in the dominant discourse of representation, identity. So limited identities fighting each other. Limited identities opposing each other, limited identities in separate electorates, would also vote against each other, not against each other, really, but vote as a kind of countervailing force to each other. This is something that Ambedkar was very practically trying to do and of course it didn’t work, because of the failure of separation of electorates, but this was the idea. Again to repeat, this does not in any way mean, for Ambedkar, that the separation in itself is the goal or the principle. Separation is not a principle, separation is what I call, again, and this can be seen in reservations, a kind of methodological separation. The physical separation is only the expression of a methodological separation that does not try to homogenize us in the so-called totality of society because we don’t actually belong where we are said to belong. So Ambedkar says, I have no homeland- which means I do not belong to where I am said to belong in the sense of a value, in the sense of experience, in the sense of a certain existential dispositional and harmony of different places and functions. So the function of the depressed class, of the untouchable, is a function, but it’s a function which creates not harmony, but its opposite, not equality but its opposite. So you don’t belong where you belong, you’re a part without being a part, you’re an element, who cannot be counted.
This does not mean that this is the last thing to be said about us. So that’s why Ambedkar is always saying something else, which is I think amazing, which has the extraordinary visionary beauty of an artist who writes fiction, with true effects. He’s saying that because, and Ambedkar is in that sense slightly different from Phule. Ambedkar did not really talk about the separate settlements of the untouchables, as an emblem for their indigeneity. It was not really a question of indigeneity for him, like it was for Phule- that we are a separate people with separate empirical indigenous origins. That is not really his interest. Separate electorates, in a sense, are a challenge. It is also a mode of organization, so he’s also looking for an autonomous organization for the depressed classes, the beginnings of a Dalit organization, which again, is dotted with very mixed results. But, his insistence on an autonomous dalit organization is also in a sense expressed by separate settlements. It’s a mode of organization, but it is not the same thing as indigeneity, it is not nativism. It is not counter-nativism or alternative nativism. In that sense I think he was saying, through this methodological separation, to work for an equal society and equal life, where one would be indiscernible from the other. So a future society where it’s not a question of caste existing or not existing. It is a question also of living indiscernibly from the other.
In reality as we know it, caste is a constant violence of discernment and in this text called Away from the Hindus, this is what Ambedkar writes- every time the untouchable wants to escape the discernment by his or her untouchable name, by creating a new name, the Hindu will always search him out, will discern him. So there are two moves here. Okay, then you discern me, it’s almost like Wole Soyinka’s Negritude or Leopold Senghor and many others, that kind of black life- life discerned by that very word black, life discerned by that very word untouchable. An untouchable life, but not really untouchable, it’s a Dalit life, oppressed life. But at the same time, just life as something which expresses its negativity precisely to emancipate itself from that very condition of negativity, and always trying to do that both in politics and in principle and thought, so that, I don’t think, we should ever miss in Ambedkar.
Prannv– Thank you so much for that discussion of Ambedkar’s thought world. There exists the very specific issue of the religious barriers to affirmative action in India, where the claims of the marginalized within the minorities are not considered as a claim for the marginalised and this is rooted in the whole assimilationist logic of reservation that you will remain Scheduled Caste as long as you remain Hindu, and because you will remain Hindu you will remain Scheduled Caste. So, how does one think of this constitutional bondage of sorts, and look at that sort of emancipation, which also gives a real swaraj of sorts to religious minorities, and the various communities within the religious minorities.
Prof. Soumyabrata– Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah, I really like the way you put it – constitutional bondage. You see this, it seems to me that again, one saw this already happening, though in a different context in the discussions of separation of electorates in the 1930s in the Round Table conference, when it was, by and large accepted that Muslims would have separate electorates, while eventually, the scheduled castes, the depressed classes were prevented from getting separate electorates. Why? Because, everyone seemed to be in agreement that the Muslims are seen as a separate nation, even if Gandhi was deeply opposed to the partition. And he did not actually want Muslims to be seen as a separate people, in practical terms, in certain ways. But in an essentialist sense, it was by and large accepted by everyone concerned that Muslims are a separate nation and what is a nation? Yes, of course, it does not mean a nation is a sovereignty, or a sovereign legal control over one’s life. A nation in the sense of identity, which is a kind of essential oneness of body. Body, of course not just physical body but oneness of passion- Muslims are the same passion. Muslims are the same body. This is by and large accepted and separation of electorates was taken as an expression of that. While in the case of scheduled castes, there was a deep sense of disquiet with the imagination that scheduled castes or depressed classes were the same body as different from their masters, which is the upper caste hindus. So this was not accepted, like you said that they had to be brought back into their identities as hindus. But within Hinduism, they would occupy this contradictory, inconsistent place of being scheduled castes, or untouchables, which is of course spatially expressed, again, in corporate terms as outside the village, outside the settlement, outside the space of social interaction. Both inconsistent, and at the same time, at the very heart of the society. At outside, and at the heart. This is what Ambedkar calls society’s anti-social character. Now, interestingly, with religious minorities, particularly with the Muslims at that time, they were on the one hand thought of by several of these thinkers and political leaders as a separate nation or separate body, but also particularly the Hindu Mahasabha people, including Savarkar, were looked upon with some envy- that they could have a consistent body in their imagination, whether they were or were not is a different question, but as a fantasy, as an imagination. The Muslims were also seen with a certain envy, a certain sense of oh, why can’t we be like that.
Prannv– The envy was also from a very masculine perspective.
Prof. Soumyabrata– Right. And that continues to the present. The genealogy of envy actually can be brought to the very heart of our present. Of this fantasy of the Muslim, the Muslim body. Absolutely, a masculinist fantasy. Whereas for the scheduled caste, it was far more scrambled. So that is that is one point, why in the present anyone who converts to another religion, Muslim, Christian, is immediately seen as someone who has gone into a new body. And insofar as he or she has seamlessly sort of assimilated into the new body, they are absolutely not eligible for reservation, which simply is the extension of the fantasy into law. That’s one.
But at the same time, we know that there are, reservations for Muslim backward classes. And in general, in the field of social knowledge, in the work that has been done by researchers, a lot of caste material has been brought out of Muslim society and Christian society and other societies. Particularly Muslim and Christian and Dalit Sikhs, which are a tremendous area of study. Now, interestingly, this has also resulted in another kind of relativism. From an absolutism of Hindu being Hindu and Muslim being a separate body, we go to the other extreme, which is post colonial relatives. Which is that, oh but why speak of caste only with a Hindu exclusiveness? caste is also among Muslims and other religions. This is also in a sense, very smooth papering over the fact that the paradigm of caste is Hindu. The point is not that, whether there is caste among Muslims or not, or Christians or not, of course there is. But the paradigm of caste is hindu. The constitution of caste (and caste is also a constitution in a sense) is a Hindu constitution. So we should not try to, for our own sort of scholarly convenience, find the way through this paradigmatic thinking into empirical thinking. Empirical research is extremely important, but that does not in any way, excuse us from the task of putting that empirical research data back into the necessary paradigmatic forms. And Hindu paradigmatic form governs caste totally.
So that’s something which is the other point. Specific to the question of Buddhism and Ambedkar’s own intervention, according to my understanding, and my recent studies, it seems to me that Buddhism for Ambedkar was the new mode of organization, it was not only Buddhist philosophy, nor was it religion in the simple sense, but a mode of collective organization of the untouchables as part of the autonomous organization of the oppressed classes to speak in their own voice and yet buddhist. So in that sense he was trying to bring together an old ancient Indian revolutionary thought of Buddhism into something present, which was the struggles of the depressed classes or untouchables, at that time. He was trying to form a kind of ideal totality, which was an effort of organizing resistance, both constitutionally and in the larger social field. But it is more than that. It seems to me that towards the last part of his life, Ambedkar was almost thinking of a kind of Buddhist internationalism. A Dalit Buddhism would be a way into that kind of a New Internationalism as a kind of competitive comparison with Communist Internationalism, which clearly was the paradigm, again the question of paradigm is very important, was the paradigm at that time, in the 1950s when he made the great speech, Marx and Buddha in Nepal.
So all of these are actually efforts at different levels of organization, and his passion for organization lasted till the last day of his life. Whether it had any significant consequence after his death is a different question. The Buddhist part had consequences, but not really in terms of merely political organization but that’s a different discussion. This is something which we must keep in mind. And when reservations are denied to people who convert to other religions, then it is also something which in a way, would have, I don’t know, it wouldn’t have pleased Ambedkar, of course not, but it would have partly, tickled his imagination that- look, they are actually granting us the power of being a new entity, a new identity which is dalit buddhist, which is a new buddhist identity. They feel us to be something which is an identity, and in a sense he was also searching for such an identity. But that does not at all mean that they are not in the dominant Hindu field still, or that they don’t carry the oppressions to the past.
So reservations are absolutely right, and should have been extended and should be extended to minorities, that is people who convert. But I still think this irony should be kept in mind, particularly with regard to Buddhism that Ambedkar was someone who did want a distance from the mainstream constitutional space of Indian politics, to a new Buddhist body, a new body, a new identity but that identity was not simply to be seen in terms of identity as, like I said earlier, to be put into the game of majorities and minorities as counted in the politics of elections and electoral politics, but an identity which is actually not an identity but a possibility, a capacity beyond merely being identity. So that idealist horizon of a Buddhist capacity Ambedkar carried on to the end, but that end came too soon, so we really don’t know what would have happened if he would have carried on this work.
Prannv– That is quite interesting, especially the fact that he continued this organization to the last day and how he was obsessed with building the organizational strength of the marginalised people. On that I have a question about your recent book, Now It’s Come to Distances: Notes on Shaheen Bagh and Coronavirus, Association and Isolation. So I just wanted to understand how does your conception of Ambedkarite emphasis on organization cohere with the present moment of resistance to hegemony that we saw in Shaheen Bagh and farmers protest and, in the context of COVID? The title is very fascinating. It mentions Association, which coheres with the idea of fraternity. So, if you could share some thoughts about the book and about the challenge that we have, that would be wonderful.
Prof. Soumyabrata– Well, first of all, on the question of a particular kind of objectification, and fetishization of the Muslim identity as an other identity, as a threatening body, which also of course like we discussed a little while back, also reflects a certain history of envy, but now that history has resulted in the most intolerable, social and state violence towards Muslims and Shaheen bagh is coming out of that. That is one level at which we must take the situation of Shaheen Bagh and what does it really oppose and what does it resist as a situation of resistance, not just an individual law of citizenship but the larger objectification and fetishization of the Muslim as a body, as a threatening body, as a minoritarian threatening body. Which is a peculiar contradiction, because a majority shouldn’t be threatened by a minoritarian body. They could, of course, feel that the minoritarian body carries values which are anti-majority and oppress, like it happened with the Jews, the Nazis oppressed the Jews, but to see it as a direct threatening body is a peculiar contradiction but then that contradiction, of course, can be explained partly by this history of envy. Because the majority is not a body, and the majority fantasizes the minority to be a body. So, this peculiar schizophrenia is one level at which one sees Shaheen Bagh as a resistance to this kind of fetishization. So that’s Shaheen Bagh, not to be seen as an identitarian emblem but as a kind of assembly of subjects. The question then is, of course, as in my book, I ask- the Association of subjects who subject themselves to the same idea, what is that idea? What kind of an idea is this?
One answer to that could be the idea of a good citizenship, an emancipatory or secular, broad idea of constitutional citizenship. Let’s not even go for the subjective adjectives, we can simply speak in terms of the Constitution, a true constitutional citizenship. In a way, Shaheen Bagh would be an emblem for that desire. Desire for citizenship, true citizenship. But you see, this never really satisfied my sense of the situation, my sort of response to the situation. Because it would make Shaheen Bagh derivative. It would then be derived from something which would be, kind of a book, a law, a set of goals, which apparently has nothing living about them, in the sense of everything living is already, in a historical situation of contestation but everything which is in the image of a consensus. Constitution as a book, as a law, as a code and citizenship as part of it and everything to be simply brought back to that space. This seemed to me to be a tremendous dilution of the association that one sensed in that situation. It was not a derived association. Association must exist, only if it was already speaking in its own voice. At the same time it is true that the Constitution was very much at the heart of the association’s own symbolism. So for instance the preamble to the Constitution was often recited. The great Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah recited it. Now, one would think of this again as the reaffirmation of the Constitution. But to me, the preamble then becomes really interesting, because the preamble is not at all the constitution or law. The preamble is actually a space outside the Constitution and retrospectively inserted into the Constitution. Because in a sense, the preamble is the world which I have already spoken of- the world which opens up to other worlds, the second world, not the world of the Constitution, but the world which in a sense is created at the edge of the Constitution, where it’s difficult to say whether it’s on the inner side of the edge or the outer side of the edge.
The question of citizenship is very much there, of course, because of the CAA, but I still thought, that something like the Constitution and the preamble to the Constitution actually expressed the spirit of something which is not so much citizenship but something, what constitution thinking call constituent power and not simply constituted power, which is the power of law, of citizens belonging to constituted power. But what constitutes that space at all? What constitutes that space is actually not an identity, not an entity, not citizens, but something which is a historical people, a historical set of subjects who exist here and now. In that sense, again, it is always an immigrant question. A constitution is always created with people here and now and here and now is never a homogeneous indigenous situation, it is always mixed. There’s always some emigration, there’s always some migrancy in a situation. All situations are migrant- situations change, people change. Some of them can be seen through the category of citizens. So back to the Greek situation, the Greeks also wanted consistency- only the citizens will remain, everyone else out of democracy. But democracy is a democracy of real situations. Democracy can only be real, if it is practiced in real situations and real situations are always mixed. So, apart from the fact that citizens are citizens, everyone is a citizen Muslim, Hindu whoever, doesn’t matter. There’s also the larger question of people as already a kind of constituent mixture of citizens, non-citizens, quasi-citizens, people looking for citizenship. So, this present government’s whole argument, that we will give citizenship to a certain corporate identity that is Hindus and Buddhists but not Muslims, and Christians but not those who are minorities from Muslim countries is in a sense, saying that citizenship can only come from a real situation. And that is something I accept. Yes, there is no citizenship outside of a situation, but then they say something contradictory, which is that the situation is something that we will master. So we’ll exclude the Muslim. So the Muslim cannot be an immigrant in his or her own country. In the same way that the Hindu cannot be an immigrant in his or her own country. So in that sense citizenship becomes a kind of secular legal mask for reimposing the counter revolutionary dogma of a kind of autochthony, a kind of homogeneity. The real identity politics, not the identity politics of the dalits, which is actually not identity politics but politics of identity and negativity, identity as moving through negativity. But here’s identity politics in the sense of pure autochthonous, homogeneous identity. But even the Hindu majoritarian government has to sort of extract this kind of a homogeneous idea of a people, which is not a people but an identity, a corporation like a Hindu Corporation out of the negativity of a situation. Because the situation is something, which indeed, of course in Muslim countries there is oppression of minorities, but that includes Muslims, of course there is oppression of minorities in India, but that includes Hindus.
So, this kind of a real grasp of the situation is necessary before we can eventually constitute it as a renewed emancipated field of citizenship, of legal citizenship. What the present government does, is exactly the opposite. It uses citizenship only as an alibi, as a constitutional mask to smuggle in. But of course smuggles in, in broad daylight, an identity politics and not politics of identity that I think of very differently. I distinguish between a politics of identity, and an identity/identitarian politics. Politics of identity is constituted by strong negativity. Now, having said this, Shaheen Bagh could easily fall back into the reverse of this kind of an image of an identitarian politics by counter-identitarian politics. Now, it seems to me this is a very interesting twist. One of the students of JNU Sharjeel Imam was one of the first voices to speak as a kind of Muslim activist, as a Muslim voice, but was immediately identified as an Islamist or as a counter-identitarian, you know, fixed, fetishized, objectified fanatic. So in my book I talk about this.
Now, if a Hindu were to do this, and a lot of Hindus are doing this, which is to speak in absolutely Hindu terms, then a certain section of so called hindu liberals, moderates would come out and say that no no no, this person is actually not the true face of hinduism. He or she’s speaking only as a distorted voice– all religion is eventually harmonious, is for the peace and love of humanity. But when it comes to Sharjeel Imam, peculiarly everyone, including the Moderates and the Liberals say that everything is okay but Sharjeel is Islamist. Now, this is a peculiar contradiction, where Sharjeel could very well be speaking as a Muslim voice, but with the strong negativity that is necessary for bringing out the negativity of the situation where the Muslim is already objectified by the majoritarian social forces. So, then just like in the spirit of something like Dalit, like Negritude, like black life, the Muslim speaks in the name of Muslim, not as Muslim identity but Muslim as a force of the negativity, which has been brought in by the majoritarian logic. And it is a social and political force of negativity, which is being exposed in the situation, which is being mobilized in the situation and of course, that mobilization has a strong religious content and of course, that content is subject to a lot of hazards, a lot of problems, but then isn’t liberal content subject to the hazard of participating in capitalist exploitation and capitalist inequality? Who is to say that the Indian Constitution eventually does not participate in bourgeois capitalism, or least is mobilized to participate in bourgeois capitalism? So an orthodox Marxist would simply dismiss the Indian Constitution as a bourgeois constitution, but suppose we say no, it is neither a bourgeois Constitution nor a communist document, it is a historical constitution, which has been mobilized in this direction or that, because this mobilization takes place on both the worlds of the Constitution- one, the world of law, which is used in this case by the majoritarian government through the mask of citizenship, and also mobilized on the grounds of the other world, the world of worlds, the world of plural worlds, which is the world of principles, which I call a democracy of principles as opposed to merely a democracy of laws and elections. So on the grounds of open democracy of principles, I think, a new constituent assembly can be thought.
So to that extent the assembly of the association that I think of in Shaheen Bagh, and there’s a whole story to be told which I don’t want to bring in here. When I went to Shaheen Bagh to speak there, I, in a sense, experienced close at hand that constituent association, where people are not saying this is what it is, they’re asking a question, which is- our thoughts are clear, but what to do now? What is the next step to be taken? Our principles are clear, our desires are clear. But, which is a next step to be taken in the real historical field, here and now. And it is from this kind of an edge, which is the edge of a certain field of all kinds of forms, including the constitutional form, but which is not exhausted, which is not actualized entirely by the Constitution. It is in the edge of this kind of a situation that I find Shaheen Bagh to actually bring up, what I call, the immortal idea of equality, for the infinite, to use a more accessible word, the infinite idea of equality, rather than simply the constituted form of equal citizenship. Now that edge has become a real edge, because what exists on the edge of a city, the edge of a country, the edge of a civic space- the prison, the jail.
The jail by its definition is an edge space, closed space on the edge. And today, a lot of people who are part of the Shaheen Bagh or belong to the idea of Shaheen Bagh are in jail. So, in a sense, they have actually reached the edge. But they were always on edge, but not the edge of this kind of a claustrophobic majoritarian national space, but the edge of something which opens up to, what Ambedkar would call, the infinite ideas of equality, fraternity but also happiness- justice and happiness. So, this is by and large, the framework which I was trying to bring in my book.
Now, the last part, which we can never escape, and we talk about that now for a couple of minutes, which is the COVID moment. And this terrible moment of what is called the second surge. Now I’ll just take a concrete example. Now again, lots of things have been happening. One of the things that has happened in the last couple of months, of course, in my book I wrote about what happened in the first phase of the Coronavirus situation. It’s for the reader to read that in the book. But I’ll speak about what is more or less here and now, today, though, mercifully the cases are countrywide coming down. Now what happened in the last one and a half, two months was also that, among many other things, people were, and this was happening in the first phase also, people were self-organizing and self-managing during a crisis, whether it be oxygen, hospital beds, and other kinds of help. But, in the first phase when this was happening, this kind of helping others, particularly migrants, it was still happening from a distance. The distance of corporate social responsibility, the distance of certain good Samaritans, the distance of good human beings, or distance of, god knows, people who were trying to earn some kind of reputation in society for their own benefit. But people were helping. This time it’s not like that. It is not as if some people who are in a relatively privileged position, or maybe out of guilt, in the first phase a lot of guilt was also at issue, we can’t take that away But this time, it is not out of privileged guilt or privileged distance or the generosity which comes from having privilege of more resources. This time it has been a collective self-management of the situation where fundamental resources were lacking. Not lacking only for the people who anyway lack resources, the proletarianized part of society, the immigrants of society, but lacking for everyone, lacking as such. For instance the oxygen and the beds. Now this is a different kind of self management. This is not a self management which can be now seen in terms of any of the corporate ideologies that we usually use to understand these situations. This is a kind of self management or self organization, which is taking place literally on its feet, society on its feet, the collective on its feet. It is, in a sense, trying to from the farthest corners of the world, extract the resources where probably even there it is not there and yet it is trying to do it.
In this surge, the collective sense is that in a crisis, not as an ideology, not as a project, nothing communistic about this and yet something which is generically collective and equal. Which is universally equal, a kind of universal collective, but in such a crisis that this collective itself is constantly breaking apart, literally, because some of those people in that collective are dying.
You know, this can be seen in the field of art. Earlier singers and actors like Naseerudin Shah and other people were sending out messages, performances to bolster the spirit of the health workers, but now nobody can, because now, not only the health workers are in danger but the singer is herself in nature. Everyone is in danger. So the distance is not there in the second surge. But precisely because the distance is not there, a new kind of collective urgency and collective self organization could be seen. Of course, one cannot at all miss the fact that all of this is being made possible or if not made possible, atleast being catalyzed. The catalyst for this is also the new kind of media, the social media, that has a role to play, but it is not the reason for all this.
Now that’s the first point. Related to this is the nature of this collectivity. It is easy to say that this is a collective of service, a collective which is serving itself, a kind of service to humanity. Humanity at its best as a servicing humanity. So ‘service’ as a notion, as a category has come up a lot between the first and the second surges. To me this is not good enough. In the first surge, it was dissatisfactory and in fact tremendously damaging because service became an alibi for exploiting and excluding labor of migrant populations in cities. In the second surge, service is not good enough, because service brings in an idea of something like obligation or debt. In the first case, service was used like a debt, the safai karamcharis would have to pay the debt of society by doing the work. And of course would be transfigured into martyrs, if they died. But this time, the language of ‘corona warriors’ is very much there, but it is not up to the horror of the situation or the intensity of the crisis. So something like a collective self organization was being created on the spot where it could not be reduced to being merely service. It is happening at the level of existence, which is irreducible to any of these categories- martyr, warrior, fighting a war. Of course these are important categories to use as metaphors, but these are not fundamental categories. Fundamental experience is not captured in these categories. And the last thing I will say is that it is not even captured in the category of citizens. So I think it would be both ridiculous and ignominious/shameful to say that in India, in the second surge when oxygen beds were not there and people were dying, we would be doing this for fellow citizens. That would be quite terrible. Though people are saying it, I think they’re saying it out of habit, the habit of formal constitutional speech, while not being sufficiently plugged in to the thought. Because the thought is not the thought of citizenship, you’re not actually doing it for citizens, you’re not checking papers with the next person who needs a bed to see if he is a citizen or not. In that sense, it is in a crisis that we are both reduced to our sort of basic life, biological life, animal life, but we are also recreated, or even transfigured into our most generic and emancipated selves which is beyond citizenship.
So yes, I think that will be all for today, and thank you for your patience.
Prannv– If you could just answer this one-liner, What gives you the greatest hope and what is your greatest worry in the present moment?
Prof. Soumyabrata– This is exactly what I was talking about right now. Let us hope it is precisely that people in this kind of a crisis are creating, without making an ideology out of it. So I’m saying this is nothing revolutionary or communistic or some kind of a new egalitarianism. But it is something that is happening as we speak, which is a collective self organization. In the face of the failure of the state and such forms.
But the worry is that we are again reducing this self organization to a statist form, like that of being, a citizen, in this case, a statist form. Of course in another context, being a citizen can also be a very important threshold of emancipation, but in this case a statist form, a form of restriction, a form of limitation. So for instance, I mean, people, and this is not what the government did. This is what the opposition party did, at a certain point they spoke of vaccine nationalism. What a dreadful thing to say. What a dreadful thing to say. It’s a different analysis, but in a way that reckless dreadful polemic when indeed vaccines are falling short. Before, just about on edge of the surge, made the government under that kind of a pressure, going for this other kind of dreadful and meaningless slogan of vaccine liberalisation without the vaccines being available. So, on both sides there was recklessness and thoughtlessness, motivated by self interest of some kind, which I do not quite understand, but expressed in categories, which absolutely betray both the reality of the situation and what the situation demands or what the situation, almost begs of us, that is, our most collective, most general, most universalistic, and most, I wouldn’t say the word global, but the old word internationalist, whether Buddhist or Marxist, it doesn’t matter, our most internationalist collective sense. This is what is the hope, and this is the desire, but the worry is that it gets relentlessly reduced back to such dreadful phrases as vaccine nationalism.
Prannv– Thank you so much sir for being so generous with your time and answering our questions. I look forward to reading more of your work, and continuing the conversation.
Prof. Soumyabrata – Thank you very much, thank you very much.
Dhawal M. and Parv Tyagi (Editors, LSPR) edited, and provided scripting assistance and research for this interview.