Ambedkar’s Critique of Recognition

Published date01 June 2020
Date01 June 2020
AuthorJadumani Mahanand
Subject MatterArticles
Ambedkar’s Critique of Recognition
Jadumani Mahanand1
Despite the democratic upsurge, the traditional social value system perpetuates oppression, humiliation
and violence against the oppressed communities, groups and individuals. The oppressed community’s
struggle for recognition then becomes necessary in order to be able to live a good life. The various
theories of recognition aim towards establishing human good as a normative ethical ideal. However, the
scope of existing theories of recognition is limited as they propose new values without adequately dis-
placing the old ones. This creates a contradiction or incoherence within the theory. B. R. Ambedkar’s
Annihilation of Caste exposes such a gap and seeks to devise a more capable normative alternative
theory. The first part of this paper tries to problematize the idea of recognition. In the second part,
it interrogates and engages with the different discourses of recognition. Finally, in the third part, it
presents Ambedkar’s theory of recognition as a normative ideal, which encapsulates the project of
Recognition, equality, difference, respect, caste, Ambedkar, Taylor, Honneth, Fraser
This paper makes an attempt to interrogate the different theories of recognition from an Ambedkarite
perspective so as to provide a coherent alternative. The first section of the paper problematizes the con-
cept of recognition. The second section critically examines various discourses on recognition. The third
section lays out Ambedkar’s problematization of the idea of recognition. In doing so, this paper is
1 This paper is part of my M.Phil. dissertation titled, ‘Politics of Recognition and the Issue of Dalits: Reading from Ambedkar’,
submitted to the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad in June 2013. I have further presented these ideas in
multiple seminars. I am thankful to my then supervisor Prakash C. Sarangi and Dr. Ram for their guidance during the course of my
M.Phil. I would also like to thank Vidhu Verma and Aakash Singh Rathore for their continuous encouragement. I am also thankful
to the editor of Studies in Indian Politics, Suhas Palshikar for his valuable comments.
Studies in Indian Politics
8(1) 22–38, 2020
© 2020 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/2321023020918055
1 Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana, India.
Corresponding author:
Jadumani Mahanand, Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, Narela Road, Near Jagdishpur Village,
Sonipat, Haryana 131001, India.
Mahanand 23
attempting to respond to the existing theories of recognition and provide an alternative interpretation.
Firstly, I argue that Ambedkar’s theory of recognition is a revolutionary project, presented in his
Annihilation of Caste. In Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar proposes equality as a moral virtue and an
ethical normative principle, which will lead towards self and social realization required for emancipa-
tion. Secondly, I argue that distribution is embedded in recognition in caste-ridden society like India.
Thirdly, I argue that recognition is possible only when ‘social equality-freedom and respect’ is
In the 1970s, social and political theorists articulated the idea of equality in terms of ‘recognition and
difference’ by taking into consideration the diverse and heterogeneous groups in society.2 The discourse
on recognition was a response to discrimination on the basis of race, class, ethnicity, gender, caste and
sexuality. There is vast scholarly work which frames the question of identity, indicated through criteria
such as caste, gender and race, as a structural problem. The question of identity is debated in order to
identify oneself as a distinctive person from others. Making distinction from others is rational thinking
of oneself. But the inquiry about identity is not merely a quest for the existential realization of one’s self
or just a matter of making a distinction from the other; the construction of identity is a social, historical,
philosophical, cultural and political question, as far as recognition of identities is concerned. In other
words, identities are formed through social and cultural situatedness of the communities or a group. This
attribution of identity may either be an imposition or a choice, based on the distinctive character of the
subject or a group.
It is interesting to ask the following questions: why is there a need for recognition? Can human soci-
ety survive without name or identity? Assigning a name or label becomes indispensable to be able to
distinguish one subject from another. The distinction offered by a name or label serves two functions: (i)
it offers a sense of individuality and (ii) it can be used as a tool to maintain social differences and inequal-
ity. Naming oneself is problematic, but without a name, a person would difficult to identify himself or
herself. Furthermore, a name imposed on a subject can become the means through which stigmatization
and humiliation occur. At the same time, identity is a matter of pride, purity and superiority for some
groups. I call this a ‘puzzle’ in the theories of recognition.
The core debates on recognition and identity draw and developed from Johann Gottlieb Fichte and
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in the later discourse. The debate is on whether human beings are by
their very nature equal, unequal or different. The problem is on what basis humans would be recognized
seem to be an important question. The aforementioned contrast within modern political philosophy acts
as the ground for investigating different conceptions of recognition. In his work Sources of the Self,
Charles Taylor writes, ‘the full definition of someone’s identity thus usually involves not only his stand
on moral and spiritual matters but also some reference to a defining community’ (1989, p. 36).3 In his
Politics of Recognition, Taylor understands the ‘self’ as possessing moral agency, which allows for
communication with the others, in order to define oneself. This idea led him to formulate that human
beings differ in their practices in relation to their particular cultural values, traditions, beliefs, language,
and so on. Therefore, individuals or communities have cultural differences of their own social embedding.
These differences must be equally respected. He called this multiculturalism (Taylor, 1995, pp. 225–
256). In The Politics of the Human, Anne Phillips argues that human beings may be different from a
bodily and cultural point of view. However, she argues that, in essence, all humans are equal (Philips,
2015). For Iris Marion Young, social groups like leftists, gays and Blacks are diverse and different from
one another, possessing different levels of power and privilege. These differences lead to the entrenchment
2 Charles Taylor, Irish Marion Young, Axel Honneth, Nancy Fraser and Anne Phillips have written on recognition and difference.
3 Here, my objective is to mention the earlier work of Taylor, and focus on Politics of Recognition.

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