Political Philosophy of B.R. Ambedkar: A Critical Understanding (Part 2)


Dr. P. Kesava Kumar

Continued from here.

Assessing the Political Thought of Ambedkar

About Ambedkar there are diverse opinions. Upper caste nationalists has tried to brand him as a 'British agent'. For instance, Arun Shourie, the Hindu nationalist and the "intellectual hero" of the upper castes at the time of the anti-Mandal agitation and the Minister for Disinvestment in one of the BJP-led governments, puts all his efforts to depict him as an anti-national collaborator with British imperialism in his book 'Worshipping False Gods, Ambedkar and the Facts which have been Erased' (1997).13 He charged that in the 1940s, Ambedkar never took part in any freedom movement. Instead, he was collaborating with the British. The motive of the Brahminical Hindu nationalists is quite clear. They want to prove that Ambedkar does not have any political credentials to be worshipped as a god of 'social justice'. This attitude has to be understood in the wake of a strong Dalit movement and its confrontation with Hindu nationalism and caste hegemony. Ambedkar is the symbol and source of philosophy for Dalits in pursuit of their struggles. In response to this, the upper caste Hindu nationalist thinker Arun Shourie, through his writings, consciously tried to neutralize the influence of Ambedkar in post-independent Indian politics in general and among Dalit masses in particular.

The Naxalite party CPI (M-L) [People's War] tries to place him as liberal bourgeoisie/ democrat.14 Ranganayakamma, identified as a Marxian writer, argues in her book that neither Ambedkarism nor Buddhism has the real potential to liberate Dalits. Only Marxism has the capacity to liberate them totally.15 Some would like to see him as a conservative, because of his leanings towards religion, Buddhism. However, there is an immediate emotional response to all the above remarks from the conscious Dalit scholars and masses. On the other side, Dalit parties like Bahujan Samaj Party, or some Dalit scholars, argue that Ambedkar is the only radical thinker of the nation. For liberation of the Dalit masses, Ambedkar is the only solution. They took him to the level of a god. In this regard, Dalit scholar Anand Teltumbde comments, 'in making Ambedkar as a demigod, we are missing his essential message.' One may encounter similar kind of problems in theorizing Ambedkar's philosophy.

K. Raghavendra Rao, well-known political scientist, made an attempt to caricature his social, political and religious philosophy in a Sahitya Academy produced monograph, Babasaheb Ambedkar (1993).17 He characterized his political thought broadly as liberal. In the liberal tradition, he tries to find out Ambedkar's version of liberalism to suit the Indian context. He argues one may find in Ambedkar, a liberalism that has transformed into a version of neo-pluralism in the context of the new liberal theories of modernization and development. According to this, liberal state is conceptualized as a focal point for bargaining and relationship of exchange between associational groups of which a society is supposed to be made up. It is a shift from individualism towards group-based politics and collectivist goals.

Raghavendra Rao identifies that Ambedkar seems to be more inclined towards a neo-pluralistic theory of state, and this is astonishing because he took this position as a liberal even before liberalism itself took a pluralistic turn, especially after the Second World War and under the impact of American capitalist ideology.18 Further he argues, however for Ambedkar this operational notion of state was structurally geared to humanistic ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. His ideal state was one in which all the three values converged under conditions of equilibrium. He is not dogmatic in this venture. In Ambedkar's version, a liberal democratic state is the political system that can best tackle this issue.19 Raghavendra Rao further explains how Ambedkar's liberal democratic state came close to Marxian and Weberian conceptions and how he differs from these conceptions.

The liberal democratic state itself is not an isolated category and it requires an appropriate context of society, culture and religion to become a functioning reality. Ambedkar would argue that state is in fact a superstructure of a more fundamental structure -- society. The economy, too, is a superstructure of this fundamental category. It means society is the base and is primary, State and economy emerges out of it. He is in favour of a normative society. Society rests itself on the foundations of normative order, which is religious order. To argue this way, of course, is to strike the liberal political theory itself at its roots.20 For Ambedkar, as for the Marxists, the State cannot operate independent of society in any significant extent. But while the Marxists foreground society strongly in the economy, Ambedkar evolved a theory of State with culture as its base. This may look like the Weberian notion but it is not. This is for the reason that Ambedkar attaches far greater importance to the economic structure of a society than a Weberian would. To that extent he is closer to Marx than to Weber. However, it has to be recognized that Ambedkar distances himself from both Marxian and Weberian positions in his political theory.21

Gail Omvedt, well known scholar in social movements, assesses his political thought in search of a new vision for India. Her interpretations of Ambedkar's ideas as enunciated in a memorial lecture, "Liberty, Equality, Community: Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar's Vision of a New Social Order"22, will be discussed here. Ambedkar, like Marx, is against exploitation, but not against development and accumulation. At a social level, he believes in progress in history, and at an individual level he gives legitimation to honest and energetic efforts of 'householders' to work and earn. While he doesn't fit clearly into a historical materialist position, his writings show an evolutionary and 'stagist' view of history. This social evolutionary model differed from the more economically based versions offered by Marx or more conventional sociologists. History then, does show progress. What plays the basic role in determining social structure and conditioning human actions? This is the great question of sociological and historical materialism versus idealism (pluralism). Was Ambedkar an idealist because he gave so much importance to the role of religion and ideas in action?

Gail Omvedt finds difficulty in fixing him to a particular political and philosophical position. At the same time she makes an attempt to develop Ambedkar's political thought. She notes that Ambedkar doesn't spend any time developing or explicitly stating his methodology. She identifies different phases in Ambedkar and also tries to provide a comprehensive and coherent thought of Ambedkar as a whole in the concrete situations of India. She observes that in his early essay on Russell, he projects the economic interpretation of history and at the other end of his life he seems to have moved towards idealism. He argued against the basic theses of Marx that the economic interpretation of history is the only explanation of history. In Buddha and his Dhamma, he gives clear priority to 'mind' as a determinant. He recognizes mind as the centre of everything. Mind precedes things, dominates them, creates them.... Mind is the chief of all faculties... The first thing to attend to is the culture of the mind.

His study of Indian past in religious terms can be seen in his 'Revolution and Counter Revolution'. He reads the stages in history as Brahmanism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Gail Omvedt characterizes Ambedkar's view as 'pluralistic'.23 She considers that Ambedkar has a significant sociological theory though he was not a trained sociologist or historian. Ambedkar does show a concern for a logical and a scientific method. Though he stresses 'mind' as primary in his final work, the orientation is very much towards the material world. Ambedkar's philosophy of history is consistent with the pluralistic explanation of history, though not of a purely materialistic one. This would be a Weberian position. 'Even in his rejection of Marx, Ambedkar, who was never one to use words sloppily, rejects the 'economic interpretation' as the 'only explanation'. He never denies the role of material factors and economic impulses as a necessary part of any overall historical and social explanation.'24 'In spite of these shifting phases, there is no doubt that Ambedkar's political-economic philosophy was a form of liberalism. He was an individualist and rationalist, returning always to the basic Enlightenment values linked to Indian tradition.'25 Further, Gail Omvedt elaborates the liberal position of Ambedkar in the light of many shades of liberalism. She considers Ambedkar as representing 'social liberalism'. According to this, the State will intervene in resolving the contradiction between inherited inequality and human rights. In this sense, it is different from classical and neo-liberalisms.

The Naxalite Party (CPI (ML) (Peoples War) locates Ambedkar theoretically as a 'liberal bourgeoise reformer'26 in their document 'Caste Problem in India: Our Point of View' ('Bharat desamlo Kula Samasya- Mana Drukpadham'). Further, it had a critical attitude in understanding or estimating Ambedkar's philosophy and his politics. The Naxalite party considers Ambedkar as anti-Marxist philosophically. Because of his leanings towards liberal bourgeois philosophy, he opposed the Marxist understanding of social change through revolution and development through class struggle. He brings 'non-violent Buddhism parallel to Marxism, to counter the Marxian revolution through violence'.27 The Naxalite party finds problems in fixing his political position. It explains that though essentially Ambedkar is a representative of the petty bourgeoisie, his life may be divided into two phases. The first phase is till 1941 and the second phase is after 1941. Till 1941, all his activities are pro-people and played an active role in consolidating and running the peoples' movement. Initially the struggles are for social and civil rights and later it is for the democratic rights of peasants and labourers. He led the movements of anti-caste that are part of anti-feudal struggles. In the latter phase, he served the British imperialists and Comprador bourgeoisie and feudal classes by involving in the Viceroy's and Nehru's cabinets and drafting committees, he helped forces of anti democratic forces of his times. He limited his struggles to reform and thus indirectly helped the undemocratic forces.

The document marks Ambedkar as an idealist. Philosophically, Ambedkar accepted idealism by rejecting materialism. This ultimately paved the way for his upholding Buddhism as an alternative to Hinduism. This idealism is reflected in the problem of 'Annihilation of Caste'. Under the influence of idealism, he argues that caste came into existence from Hinduism, instead of explaining its origin from the ancient productive relations of India. As a result he believed that reforming Hinduism instead of changing the social system could annihilate caste. He has not realized that without attacking the social and economic foundations, caste could not be annihilated. The same idealism made him depend on the British political machinery in his struggles against caste hegemony. He thought that the British Government could be against caste Hindu ideology, since they belonged to the religion of western Christianity. He didn't consider the British as imperialist. He didn't recognize that the intention of British imperialists is to protect caste rather than waging struggles against caste. The Party believed that the liberal bourgeois thinking of Ambedkar lead him to a wrong conception of the nature and function of State. By believing the State as a neutral agent, he ignored the class character of the State. He created an illusion among the people that law and constitutional reforms could bring changes in the very nature of State. He is unable to find out the anti-democratic attitude of the bourgeoisie dictatorship. In essence though, he got inspired from the bourgeoisie democratic revolutionary principles like equality, liberty and fraternity. He didn't recognize imperialism and its class character. As a result, he was deeply involved in reformism in bringing out social change by depending on law, judiciary, Parliament and constitution. This justifies his position ideologically as a 'liberal bourgeois reformer'28.

Dr. Anand Teltumbde, a Dalit scholar sympathetic to both the struggles of Dalits and Naxalites, considers Ambedkar as a radical thinker. In his monograph 'Ambedkar' In and for the Post-Ambedkar Dalit Movement29 he points out that many students of the Dalit movement are influenced by the post–Ambedkar reflections in characterizing Ambedkar as a bourgeoisie liberal democrat....'The folklore is that 'Ambedkar' needs to be replaced by the radical 'Ambedkar', who would inspire people to claim the whole world as theirs and not to beg for petty favours from robbers.'30 He made an effort to highlight the radical image of Ambedkar from the very implications of his thought. He considers locating Ambedkar's thought in liberal and Marxist traditions. One has to understand him in the social context in which he was operating rather than fixing him in a particular position. He notes that Ambedkar in his first essay on caste, a Marxist orientation inspired by his supervisor Prof. Seligman is visible.

In his later works, Ambedkar is more close to the liberal tradition than Marxism. However, consciously, he never identified himself with liberalism. Being aware of its pitfalls, he needed to declare that he was not a liberal reformist, although while having reservations with the postulations of Marxism he could never hide his attraction towards it. The influence of liberalism on Ambedkar is more pronounced after he accepted the role of the chairman of the drafting committee for the Indian constitution in collaboration with the Congress. Teltumbde explores Ambedkar's thought in the light of failure of the liberal democratic State of India. He felt that liberal democracy might appear better than the decadent Hindu caste system but it is incapable of bringing any real change in favour of Dalits. It muffles the tension of the exploitative system and kills the revolutionary motivation of its victims.31 Further, he argues that Ambedkar was misunderstood as a liberal because of upholding the ideals of equality, liberty and fraternity. In fact, he denies that he had adopted them from the French revolution. He said he had derived them from the teachings of the Buddha. These principles were the clarion call of the French revolution but later became the ideological props of the liberal bourgeoisie in Europe. Since Marx had ridiculed these principles as the fantasy of bourgeoisie society, many people tended to stereotype Ambedkar as a petty-bourgeois liberal democrat. According to Ambedkar, the source of these principles is different from the French revolution. So Marx's ridicules don't apply to him and it is substantially different from that associated with the liberal bourgeoisie.

For Anand Teltumbde the basis for projecting Ambedkar as a radical is that his philosophy of the annihilation of caste is in the direction of the goal of liberty, equality and fraternity. Ambedkar clearly understood that caste stood on multiple props in Indian society. That is, the religio-cultural relations, feudal relations in the village setting of which land relations constituted the crux and the socio-political nexus with the State. Annihilation of caste thus needed destruction of all of them. He rightly diagnosed that caste system is basically sustained by the peculiar economic constitution of the Indian village of which the land relations was the main feature. This kind of understanding of Indian society is unique to him and no others had identified this in the politics of his times. The Reformists, the Congress, Territorial nationalists, Communists and the Muslim League who were active in the politics of his time had not bothered to think in this direction.

Further, Ambedkar realized the necessity of political power for the attack on caste system. Even to bring about residual change in the belief system either through the cultural or religious route, he stressed the necessity of political power. At the same time, in the given situation, he was not prepared to confront the State. As an alternative he proposed, feudal relations in the village could be destroyed only if the private ownership of the land is abolished and co-operativisation of farming is introduced. He thought this structural change could be effected through the constitution.

It is clear that everyone has his/her intentions and motives in attributing particular political positions to Ambedkar. Along with the Brahminical Hindu writers, the nationalist congress also calls him a British agent. With this, it is easy for them to exclude him from the pride of the nationalist movement. The Naxalite party calls him a liberal democrat. Their intention is to show that he is not a radical thinker. As said earlier, they believe that the liberation of Dalits is only possible through a sound philosophy like 'Marxism-Leninism and Maoism'32. According to them, class politics can accommodate more political space than caste. In this country, through democratic means people could not achieve anything, only through armed struggle, the Dalit masses can get real political power. The Naxalite party expects Dalits to be in their fold rather than getting attracted towards existing Dalit political parties based on Ambedkar's philosophy. The party considers only the liberal face of Ambedkar and it doesn't want to see the radical implications of Ambedkar's thought. It would like to consolidate its base by promising the most radical agenda in the context of a large number of Dalits leaning towards Dalit political parties centered around Ambedkar.

The action of Ambedkar embracing Buddhism is a complex act. This gives a chance for the Left-wingers to call him a conservative, since any identification with religion, in any form, is seen to be the opium of the masses by them. In a completely different move, the Hindu political parties may get theoretical advantage by Ambedkar's advocating of religion. They conveniently forget that he proposed Buddhism in place of Hinduism. In fact, this action can be used against the radical spirit of Ambedkar's philosophy by groups like the BJP/Shiv Sena to portray Ambedkar as a conservative and appropriate his philosophy to their ends. They would also have the added advantage of keeping the Dalits away from other radical struggles.

Ambedkar: The Progressive Radical Thinker

Many thinkers and radical political parties made an attempt to project Ambedkar as a liberal thinker. Liberalism, as a political theory developed in the west has a theoretical basis and reflection of modern industrial capitalist society. It implies individual rights as natural and absolute. Ambedkar seems to reject the liberal notion of society as an aggregation of individuals related to each other as individuals in terms of the goal of promoting individual interest. He has given importance to justice than utility. According to him utility is only a secondary criterion for judging right or wrong. That is, primacy of justice over utility is axiomatic for him. By subordinating utility to justice in his philosophical analytical scheme, Ambedkar departs from the very first tenet of utilitarianism in particular and liberal philosophy in general.

Another question that can be raised is whether Ambedkar is an individualist in his social and political philosophy? Does he follow the liberal thought regarding this? The liberal thought maintains that essence of the individual is economic satisfaction, i.e. consumption. For the Marxists (radicals), individual is essentially a producer, and since production is essentially social, the individual evaporates in the realm of social. But for Ambedkar, individualism means transcending one's individuality through the exercise of one's capacity for moral responsibility. The locus of moral responsibility is the recognition of an objectively existing moral law or dharma. It is an ideal which Ambedkar considers central to his version of Buddhist religion.

Ambedkar accepted many of the basic assumptions of Marxism. Its most important aspect is the identification of economic exploitation with private property. His understanding of Marxism was used in an attempt to formulate a historical theory of caste and social struggle in India. Ambedkar criticized Marxism on the basis of ethicality. He questioned the basic tenets of Marxism, like the 'end justifying the means' and 'religion as the opium of the masses'. Ambedkar considers that for both Buddha and Marx the end is common but the only difference is the means that they professed. The means adopted by communists are violence and dictatorship of the proletariat whereas for Buddha, it is love and compassion, conversion of man by changing his moral disposition to follow the path voluntarily. Ambedkar considers Buddha as the first revolutionary since he rejected caste system and social inequality and for his idea of Sangha. He comments on the issue of religion, that communists have carried the hatred of Christianity to Buddhism without waiting to examine the difference between the two.

Ambedkar also believes that humanity does not only want economic values, but also wants spiritual values to be retained. Ambedkar tries to see the similarities between Buddhism and Marxism and also the differences. Ambedkar argues that in India there is not only division of labour but also division of laborers. He also felt that economic interpretation of history is not only the explanation of history. Buddhism for Ambedkar stands for reason. In fact, for both Buddha and Marx the ends remain same but the means differ. For Marx, the means are violent takeover of the State through the dictatorship of proletariat. For Buddha, it is conversion of man by changing his moral disposition to follow the path voluntarily. Ambedkar put the question to Marxists, what will take the place of state when it whithers away. He expressed the doubt that an anarchic situation may take place. Ambedkar proposed Dhamma in place of it. However, Ambedkar developed his own version of socialism. He termed it as state socialism, which emerges from his interpretation of democracy. Ambedkar very much emphasized that caste is not only the division of labor but also the division of laborers in India.

One has to understand the political philosophy of Ambedkar in the context of his life and struggles. For instance, in the initial stages he took up the programme of temple entry. Later, he didn't consider Hinduism as having the potential for inclusion of Dalits. Also, he experimented with the Marxists and organized joint agitational programmes with them. After some time he formed an independent political party for the Dalits. All these phases provide an understanding of the enormous dynamism of Ambedkar. It is wrong to consider him as 'liberal bourgeoisie' or 'social liberal'. All this criticism came from a universe alien to Ambedkar and the community for which he was fighting.

It is very difficult to fit him into dominant political traditions like liberalism, Marxism and conservatism. He himself finds difficulty in explaining his political position. It doesn't mean that there is no consistency in his political thinking. The problem lies only in explaining his thought in existing political vocabulary. He critically engaged with liberalism, Marxism and Gandhism. He describes himself as a progressive radical and occasionally as a 'progressive conservative'. One thing is clear that he would like to be a progressive, and distinguish himself from liberals and communists depending on the case.


Though Ambedkar was nurtured in the liberal tradition, he makes a difference from it. On many issues, he differs from liberal thinkers like Nehru. While embracing Buddhist religion, he seems to be conservative, but it is clearly evidenced that he is not conservative by his attack of Gandhi and the Hindu social order. At certain points, he seems to be radical (Marxist). But, throughout his life, he maintains his differences with Marxist thought, particularly in understanding Indian society. However, the primary concern for Ambedkar is liberation of Dalits, the people of the lower strata of Indian society. He approached any political tradition from this point only. This has implications in providing the principles of reconstruction of Indian society. In other words, one feels that Ambedkar's political thought demands a whole new language and the existing political language falls short in assessing or understanding his philosophy.

Moreover, Ambedkar's political philosophy has a great potential in mediating both liberal and communitarian traditions of the west. He connects the individual and community based on morality. He proposes the democratic, humanistic and rationalistic religion such as Buddhism as the source for morality and associated living. When Ambedkar criticises the Hindu community for its oppressive nature, he does it with a standard of individual liberty and freedom. When he is talking about suffering of individual members of Dalit community he is projecting an ideal moral community based on equality, liberty and fraternity. So it is not correct to call Ambedkar as either a fierce individualist or as a strong communitarian.

Please read the first part of this paper here.



[13] Shourie, Arun. Worshipping False Gods: Ambedkar and the Facts which have been Erased. New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2000.

[14] At present the party is known as CPI (Maoist) Party.

[15] Ranganayakamma. Dalita Samasya Parishkaraniki Budhudu Chaladu! Ambedkaru Chaladu! Marx Kavali! (For Resolving the Dalit problem, Neither Ambedkar nor Buddha are Solutions. A Marx is Required). Hyderabad: Sweet Home Publications, 2000.

[16] Teltumbde, Anand. 'Ambedkar': in and for Post-Ambedkar Dalit Movement. Pune: Sugawa Prakashan, 1997.

[17] Raghavendra Rao, K., Babasaheb Ambedkar. New Delhi: Sahitya Academy, 1998.

[18] Ibid. P.35

[19] Ibid. p.35

[20] Ibid. p.36

[21] Ibid. P.36

[22] Omvedt, Gail. Liberty, Equality, Community: Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar's vision of a New Social Order, 2000. in www.Ambedkar.org/Research

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Bharata Desamlo Kula Samasya-Mana Drukpadham (Peoples War Document), 1996 .p.25

[27] Ibid. p.24

[28] Ibid. p.25

[29] Dr.Anand Teltumbde. 'Ambedkar' In and for the Post-Ambedkar Dalit Movement, Pune: Sugawa Prakashan, 1997.

[30] Ibid. p.40-41

[31] Ibid. p.48

[32] Bharata Desamulo Kula Samasya: Mana Drukpadham (Caste Problem in India: Our Point of View), CPI (ML) People's War Document, 1996.



Dr. P. Kesava Kumar is Asst. Professor (SS), Dept. of Philosophy, Pondicherry University, Puducherry-605014.

Email: pkesav-at-gmail-dot-com

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