Ambedkar’s Framing of the ‘Political’ within Ethical Practice

Published date01 December 2016
Date01 December 2016
Subject MatterArticles
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Ambedkar’s Framing of the
Studies in Indian Politics
4(2) 143–158
‘Political’ within Ethical Practice
© 2016 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2321023016665476
Rajeev Kadambi1
This article advances Ambedkar’s recasting of pure politics and the political within an ethical frame-
work. It explores Ambedkar’s ethos of radical action grounded in the limitation of the state, law and
institutional structures to transform society. In foregrounding Ambedkar’s idea of transformation and
change through practices of the self, the essay locates self-transformation as going beyond a critique
of existing social and economic frameworks. In furtherance, this view captures an ethics of internal
transformation resulting from the change in moral conduct achieved through voluntary conversion.
Dhamma was based on techniques of self-restraint that stressed on an unremitting duty owed to the
other including an adversary and stranger. It inaugurated an inclusive and ecological notion of kinship
based on empathy and friendship whose aim was to break down all barriers and create a compassionate
society. Ambedkar furnishes us with an original formulation to think through a notion of compassionate
justice from the moral lexicon of the broken men.
Ambedkar, politics, ethical practice, Buddha, transformation
My Final Prayer: O my body, always make me a man who questions! (Fanon, 2008, p. 206)
A central investigation of Babasaheb Ambedkar was an ethos of caring for oneself and others by undergoing
self-transformation. Baudhha dhamma for Ambedkar encapsulated an ethical way of life that stressed on
everyday practices depicting the limitation of ‘pure politics’ and law to transform social life. In Buddha
and His Dhamma (1957) (hereinafter BD), Ambedkar diagnosed the root cause of every social conflict
to moral lapses. As a result, it was necessary to train the mind and body through rigorous practices of
self-restraint in order to cultivate harmonious living. A good moral order did not rest on theological
norms, but on self-mastery, responsibility and action. ‘Dhamma’ was a preparatory virtue, or an art of
living (askēsis or ‘exercise of self on self’) that aimed at a revolution through transformative conversion.
The subject was reconstituted within the generative practices specifically grounded in the struggles and
vulnerability of the subaltern life.
In this essay, I offer a careful reading of Ambedkar’s ethical turn anchored in his generative and politi-
cally transformative ideas recorded in his writings on Buddhism. The preliminary question that arises
1 Doctoral Candidate in Political Theory, Brown University, USA.
Corresponding author:
Rajeev Kadambi, Doctoral Candidate in Political Theory, Brown University, USA.


Studies in Indian Politics 4(2)
is does such a reading of Ambedkar forfeit politics and the arena of the political and its struggles? The
essay advances the argument that Ambedkar was not ceding the political for a utopic moralism for what
is dubbed pre-political, or even anti-political. Despite the exact scope and meaning of the ‘political’ being
a problem of nominalism, we could take that for Ambedkar the precise meaning and potential of the
political too enlarged from just a struggle for greater representation to a struggle for a community. It is
the conflictual and paradoxical nature of pure politics that Ambedkar always maintained had the capacity
to reify the structures of power and divisions it was contesting through democracy, legislation and moral
standards. So it was necessary to turn against the norms that constituted subjects from the power of laws
and institutions, which were the command of the dominant. Seen in this light, the ethical subject emerged
precisely when it was threatened disappearance. Thus, Ambedkar saw the possibility of the subject to
cultivate a praxis that was ethical and at the same time politically radical.
In order to advance the understanding of Ambedkar’s exposition on truth seeking and its relation to the
self, it is pertinent to turn to what Foucault sets out as ‘techniques of the self’ in his later works before his
death. I invoke Foucault here to a limited extent alongside Ambedkar in order to highlight the relation of
the self and self-formation apropos politics. Foucault here discusses notions of truth and subject in rela-
tion to the modern Western break between philosophy and spirituality claiming that truth in the practice
of spirituality is not given to the subject in codified knowledge, as in the ‘Cartesian moment’, but in order
to have access to or experience the truth, the subject undergoes a conversion or transformation in his/her
being as a subject (Foucault, 2001). Stressing on the theme of ‘care of the self’, Foucault found access-
ing truth and self-transformation were complementary. It is in the discourse of self-craft enunciated by
Foucault that I situate Ambedkar’s politics, ingrained in formative ethical practices of self-formation, to
underscore precisely a political notion of the subject undergoing a conversion.2
This essay expounds key moments of departure in Ambedkar’s ethical turn. The first section sketches
out in broad strokes Ambedkar’s thinking of the social problem as essentially an ethical one, and further
claims that ethics was not merely the end of politics, but its very origin. It advances that the redefinition
brought a new ethics of action that was inherently political. The second section asks foremost why the
comparison between the Buddha and Karl Marx was significant in order to show the starting point of
Ambedkar’s thinking for a language of the downtrodden and oppressed sections. The comparison revealed
the spiritual and moral deficit in the Marxist theory of change. The final section narrates and expounds
the ethical practices of the self that recognized the importance of self-training in order to create just
social relations. The aim of the Buddha qua Ambedkar was a compassionate society that removed borders
between man, nature and the non-human.
Instituting Politics within the Socio-ethical
The kernel of Ambedkar’s radicalism is derived from his rejection of the framework of Hindu social order
that he experienced rooted in Chaturvarnya or the fourfold ranking of castes based on birth. Caste was
fundamentally not racial nor was it occupational; it was ‘a notion, it is a state of mind’ (Ambedkar, 1989b,
p. 68). Caste according to Ambedkar was an invention that did not reside in a single group but a mode
of conduct defining relations between groups. In his seminal paper presented as part of an anthropology
2 James Tully grounds the idea of care of the self in the language of global citizenship, seeing civic education as a way for children
and adults to cultivate empathy and compassion to alleviate suffering (Tully, 2016, p. 303). The implication of this is that citizen-
ship is not derived from legality, but from practices of reflexive participation and transformation.

Kadambi 145
seminar at Columbia University in May 1916, he argued that caste was an unnatural system of hierarchy
introduced and maintained through endogamy (Ambedkar, 1989a). A part of his pre-Buddhist writings
mapped the construction of Shudras and Untouchables as a social category. The genealogy was not aimed
only at a rejection of Brahminism as a class: it was to trace the flow of social power and domination that
he saw ordered in our everyday interactions.
Ambedkar redescribed the political in terms of the social and culminated this through an ethical turn.3
The fundamental problem of a classificatory system based on birth as practiced by Hindu society was
that it lacked a ‘unified life and a consciousness of its own being’ (Ambedkar, 1989b, p. 51). A Society
is anti-social when sections within it obstruct communication with others. In the same vein, common-
ness was not about fitting society along a flat curve. Ambedkar recognized the plurality of human society
everywhere. Nowhere did he conceive of abolishing groups. Rather it was an evaluation about the kinds
of ‘points of contact’ between the various forms of associations in a society. Commonness (sanghatan)
from this optic removed intermediate disalienating arrangements, which became parasitic, in this way
reconciling at a higher level the uniqueness of individuals. So while it was a critique of separateness, it
was very much about the incommensurability of each individual (Ambedkar, 1989b, pp. 57–58).4
Ambedkar laid bare the social stagnation caused by heteronomy and mechanical conduct. Hinduism
lacked a moral order grounded in responsibility. He attributed the distinction between rules and principles
to underscore that principles unlike rules are not habitual and unreflective and instead provide individuals
with an intelligent way of judging a course of action (Ambedkar, 1989b, p. 75). The rigidity and immu-
tability attached to Hinduism attenuated any freedom and responsibility to act. He relied on his mentor
John Dewey’s analogy on removing the ‘dead wood from the past’ as a way to postulate that religion—in
what he analogized as law-like—must be constant and evolving (Ambedkar, 1989b, p. 79).
Ambedkar’s incipient dialogues on the ethics of practical action reveal a concern for the constructive

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