Radical Equality
Ambedkar, Gandhi, and the Risk of Democracy
Aishwary Kumar



Of Faith in Equality

Toward a Global Measure

“Modern India,” apart from naming a time and place, has come to stand in for an interminable struggle with history—the struggle to formulate, despite the violence of its antiquity, an ethics of justice for the present; the struggle to affirm, in spite of the exclusions of its modernity, a belief in democracy that is still to come. This book examines the intellectual and political history of the encounter between Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956) and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948), two of the most formidable non-Western thinkers of the twentieth century, whose visions of moral and political life have left the deepest imprints on that struggle and the paradox that sustains it. One was a prodigious “untouchable” who, lifting himself against the exclusion and violence that surrounded him, became a revolutionary constitutionalist, a thinker whose laborious draftsmanship and exegetical rigor produced a new constitution for the free republic in 1950. The other, born in a community of Hindu Vaishnava merchants, was an inept lawyer who galvanized through the sheer force of his convictions and prose—and often through his commitment to the virtues of such quotidian and solitary practices as spinning and weaving—an as-yet-unformed people against the most powerful empire of his time. Never had the colonial world’s right to justice been formulated in such proximity by two thinkers who had otherwise struggled so ceaselessly, with such scruple and hostility, against each other. But perhaps more crucially, never had this right to justice been sought in the shadows of a religion known to be so persistently oppressive and violent toward those it claimed as its very own. Ambedkar’s and Gandhi’s struggle was waged as much over the modern and secularist “faith in equality” as it was around the place and boundaries of faith in secularist notions of equality itself.1 Radical Equality reconstructs the morals and methods of that formidable struggle for justice and its consequences for a global genealogy of democratic ethics.

The struggle for an egalitarian India, even in their own time, was not reducible to the impasse between Ambedkar and Gandhi alone. Yet the complexity of their kinship anticipated and amplified the paradoxes of the “mentality of democracy,” as Akeel Bilgrami calls it, in the colonial world in a manner few other relationships did.2 With the arrival of Gandhi and Ambedkar within the first two decades of the twentieth century, the nationalist demand for freedom from empire, which had until then driven liberal and revolutionary anticolonialisms of various hues, was for the first time integrated into a rigorous pursuit of equality. For both Gandhi and Ambedkar, political life—the sense of belonging to a community and constituting a people—was inconceivable without an unconditional equality in moral and social relations. The right to live equally, even and especially in the shadows of imperial unfreedom, was the indispensable mediating force between the otherwise sequestered existences of the colonized and colonizer, Shudra and Brahmin, “untouchable” and “touchable.” It was this egalitarian commitment, which was never afraid of embracing a certain hierarchy (of suffering, skills, traditions, and faiths), never shy of expounding the virtues of sovereignty and force, even segregation, which would bring Gandhi and Ambedkar together and pull them apart in a remarkable kinship forged during the three most decisive decades of India’s anticolonial struggle.

A distinctive notion of equality was thereby placed at the moral center of India’s incipient democracy. This was not the seed of an imperfect and faltering democracy, as liberal proponents of the empire since the nineteenth century had often predicted the rule of the people in the non-Western world might be. Such people’s ruling themselves without adequate institutional and psychological preparation, the colonizers had warned, would lead to a democracy bound by a morally corruptible and socially unequal structure whose idioms, imported from the language of European political thought, would be deployed in the colonies for mere rhetorical effect, even as democracy’s substantive essence, its European spirit, would be compromised beyond recognition.3 A sustained attention to Ambedkar’s and Gandhi’s ethics and politics—their attempt to imagine a people bound together not as much by institutions and the law as grounded in shared moral and fraternal commitments—reveals, however, that anticolonial political thought came to be rooted not so much in the compromised democracy that metropolitan intellectuals such as John Stuart Mill had feared that the colonized, in the absence of the tutelage of their masters, might end up with. What emerged instead is a democracy of antinomies, a democracy whose matrices reflect an unremitting and radically original approach to the modern egalitarian imperative. And yet beneath its great striving for a community of equals, this approach also nourished a self-oriented, self-conserving—indeed, conservative—“spirit of democracy” peculiar to the history of twentieth-century anticolonialism,4 one in which the concern with sovereignty (whether of the self or of the collective), the essence of being free and human, came to be articulated just as often without a commitment to inclusion and equality. No two thinkers in the modern non-West would struggle with this risk of an inegalitarian democracy, this sacrifice of equality in the very name of an ethical and political community, more productively than Ambedkar and Gandhi.

In this chapter, covering a wider and deeper ground than a conventional introduction, I turn toward the political and philosophical conditions, the complex set of interwar moral, theological, and republican attitudes, under which this sacrificial politics took its originary form. I do not intend to recuperate the lives of Ambedkar and Gandhi in the mode of intellectual biography, each of them either placed on the terrain of his own moral psychology and convictions or rehabilitated into a world of argument where the entire sum of his thought might be seen merely as response to the other’s claims and maneuvers. Instead, I trace their conceptual innovations and linguistic choices to delineate the symptoms of what otherwise looks like an irreparable disjuncture in the colonial world’s attempt to fashion a society of equals.5 For many, I accept, the claim of a discursive and structural disjuncture between European and anticolonial formulations of the political (and almost as a corollary, the seeming irreparability of the relationship between Ambedkar and Gandhi) might well be tenable, even ideologically necessary. But such a claim still leaves untouched the task of explaining why and in what forms equality, in the wake of twentieth-century struggles waged for the emancipation of society (national and international), became at once global in its rhetorical and moral reach and hierarchical in its institutional and political form. Conceived as an archeology of this egalitarian commitment, Radical Equality seeks to shed light on the conjoined ethics of justice and exclusion that has given global democratic thought its paradoxical form.

But a study of the global life of democracy—the tension between popular sovereignty and civic virtue, the struggle for balance between insurrection and constitution—entails not simply an inquiry into the processes by which the meanings, values, and practices of “the political” (or theologico-political) came to acquire their ambiguous universality (spreading outward from Europe since the late eighteenth century until they were rendered at different moments and under varying conditions into a universal language of political ideas and ideals). Such a study also requires an archeology of the limits—conceptual, rhetorical, material, and symbolic—lodged at the center of the political as such, limits at which the founding norms of democracy exclude its most insurrectionary practitioners, just as, in a moment of striking unity between force and justice, the excluded turn against those norms and rules of democracy that structure their oppressive existence.

It is at this limit, in a moment of risk at once classical and radical, even constitutive of democracy, that I mine the depths of what Gandhi, in his response to Ambedkar’s 1936 treatise Annihilation of Caste, had called his aloneness—indeed, attributed a political and ethical singularity to it.6 As a way to put Ambedkar’s aloneness in its time and place, one that he would steadily, deliberately, and sensitively transform into a political and philosophical attitude singular to him, I begin with two texts and a history—a history because I am interested not so much in the insurmountable discontinuities between the texts and their authors as I am in those practices of reading and reception that betray, despite the history of mutual hostility that surrounds Gandhi and Ambedkar, their ambivalent and silent affirmations. This is less a history of enunciations and universality of meaning, then, than it is a history of rarity and exception, a history of depths.

Two Strikes at Freedom

In December 1935, the Jat Pat Todak Mandal, an organization dedicated to the abolition of caste and untouchability, invited forty-five-year-old Bhimrao Ambedkar to deliver its annual keynote lecture in the northern Indian city of Lahore. Born in Mhow, a cantonment in Madhya Pradesh, into the family of a military schoolteacher, Bhimrao began his public life in the 1920s as an anticaste crusader in Bombay Presidency. By the 1930s he had emerged, in the wake of his galvanizing and widely publicized speeches at the Round Table Conferences in London in 1930–1931, as one of the leading authorities on colonial franchise and republican constitutions—an authority, however, who would develop a rather conflicted relationship with the norms and rationales of interwar nationalist and republican thought. Ambedkar would in many ways mature into a republican thinker in the classical sense of the term, condensing in his thought all the rigor and tension that constitute that formidable tradition in Europe and elsewhere. He would, despite his affinities for republican ethics and ideals of citizen virtue, remain uncompromisingly resistant to the oppressive national-spiritual rhetoric in which anticolonial thinkers couched their own struggle for sovereignty. His decision in December 1927 to publicly burn a copy of the Manusmriti, the ancient work of Indic jurisprudence considered unimpeachable in Hindu moral and political culture, had endeared him neither to liberal social reformers nor conservative nationalists of his time. As the Jat Pat Todak Mandal would soon realize, once they were confronted by Ambedkar’s uncompromising faith in equality, an encounter with sacrilege was always round the corner.

Despite serious misgivings about the Mandal’s liberal reformist methods and susceptibility to conservative Hindu opinion, Ambedkar accepted their invitation. Having by now freed himself decisively from the fundamental impasse of his time—the claim of abstract equality between India and Europe on which nationalists of various persuasions had mounted their demand for freedom from the empire for more than two generations—Ambedkar envisioned the lecture giving him a proper stage to formulate the conditions of another freedom, another equality, perhaps another politics for colonial India altogether. As news of his imminent visit to the Punjab spread, however, office bearers of majoritarian and extremist organizations such as the Arya Samaj and Hindu Mahasabha mounted pressure, rebuking the Mandal for having chosen Ambedkar as the speaker for their annual event and asking it to withdraw the invitation. The Mandal initially resisted the reactionary offensive. But by April 1936, it began to insist that Ambedkar allow copies of his lecture to be printed in Lahore, where they could potentially limit its impact and distribution, rather than in Bombay, where they would have no control over the text’s circulation. Ambedkar, already put off by a series of ambiguous messages from the Mandal, refused to concede ground.7 By May 1936, his presidential lecture had been successfully killed. Its theme would have been the annihilation of caste.

The death of the lecture in the British Punjab marked the birth in Bombay of a treatise unparalleled in the history of anticolonial emancipation, a treatise that promised to emancipate not simply politics but the moral psychology of freedom itself from the dialectic of nation and empire. As soon as the invitation to lecture was rescinded, Ambedkar went ahead and published the text of his speech as a slim volume of less than hundred pages, composed in a fashion that defied all standards of genre, dissent, and circulation. Within the first two months of its publication, Annihilation of Caste sold more than 1,500 copies. By the end of its first year, translations into Gujarati, Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam, and Punjabi were under way or already published. The second edition of the English original was published in 1937, and a third edition in 1944. Like much of Ambedkar’s prolific writing spread over four decades of public life (including the republican constitution of free India, which he helped author between 1947 and 1950 as the elected chairman of its drafting committee), Annihilation of Caste drew disengaged criticism and sometimes deafening silence in nationalist and reformist circles. Much of the response, when it came, was predictably derogatory and hostile.8 But foremost among those who responded to it with any degree of rigor and reserve was Ambedkar’s political antagonist and philosophical peer, M. K. Gandhi.

Annihilation of Caste was published just a year before the general elections of 1937 and a year after the Government of India Act of 1935. It came, then, at the crest of a democratic wave swelled with dreams of Indian franchise. Yet for millions of religious minorities and outcastes, justice and even freedom still looked like a receding horizon. It was this receding tide of freedom (in both its moral and political sense) that Ambedkar perhaps sought to stem. The work must therefore be approached, first and foremost, as a conceptual event in the philosophical history of Indian democracy. It certainly facilitated the most potent and decisive philosophical encounter between Ambedkar and Gandhi, an encounter that amplified in as clear a manner as possible the kinship and difference between the two. In fact, Annihilation of Caste revealed those impulses in their thinking of transformative action, those elements in their critique of force, which would remain unbridgeable. And if nationalists would henceforth refuse to associate Ambedkar with their good conscience and pursuit of freedom, it was not because he had renounced his commitment to freedom but rather because he alone had thought courageously of the possibility of such sovereignty in the most egalitarian and forceful fashion—a sovereignty whose earliest expression could be traced back to Gandhi’s own masterwork composed earlier in the century, Hind Swaraj (1909).

Annihilation of Caste and Hind Swaraj are discordant constituents of a shared moral psychology that had begun to coalesce in early twentieth-century India. Although the two texts attempt to think anew the conditions of resistance and truth in the ineradicable shadows of force, they were equally out of joint with their times. For neither simply poses questions about the efficacy of abstract ends such as freedom, to which nationalists of their time were so fervently and blindly committed. On the contrary, they both shift nationalism’s obsessive interest in ends and seek to reformulate the means and force proper to justice. What kind of force—routine, infinitesimal, even invisible—constitutes a free and equal life? Could the people’s commitment to civic duty and practical knowledges alone—say, the art of spinning, spending time on cleaning up public spaces, or forging a weapon—retrieve such life? What might such minutiae of practices—which Gandhi often assembled under the term “sacrifice,” thereby investing in routine activities the power to acquire a state indifferent to the inequities of everyday life—prepare one for? Could death, at war or through self-sacrifice, be the ground of equality? Could suffering, especially when mandated by religious injunctions and inflicted by the involuntary force of law, be transformed into ameliorative acts of justice through a voluntary embrace of pain, even mortality? Might the return in any simple sense to religion—and there has never been a religion (or state) that has not demanded sacrifice—restore the irreducible dignity of life?9 Could sacrifice, in other words, bring justice to those who were already most poor, most untouchable, and irreparably violated by the law? And what form, if vulnerability and death might be construed as the ground of equality at all, might the sacrifice of the already sacrificed take?

As figure, metaphor, ritual, and skill, “sacrifice,” for both Ambedkar and Gandhi, referred to the art of offering one’s own life before taking another’s. It entailed the disciplinary rigor and method of self-dissolution, one that could be cultivated only in a firm and fearless knowledge of life’s inevitable and incurable mortality. But this understanding, when translated into the idiom of mass politics, could not have been immune to ethical regressions. In fact, “sacrifice,” which frequently appears in Ambedkar’s and Gandhi’s speeches and writings in one form or another, in terms such as “fearless sacrifice” or “limitless sacrifice,” only accentuates the difficulty of this moral and political ontology. Few classical concepts, after all, have been as essential to the practices and aspirations of modern politics and as elusive in their connotations and meanings. Its origins rooted in ancient religion and myth and its logic grounded in the fears and trepidations of an enchanted and even “broken world,” sacrifice has long been replaced by those exigencies of modern politics that now extract life (and demand death) from citizens and strangers under other names and for causes other than the pacification of divine wrath: security, liberty, democracy, civic duty, protection and prolongation of life, even freedom of the republic.10 The burden of Ambedkar’s political philosophical struggle was precisely to reveal how profoundly sacrifice, whether ordinary or spectacular, ancient or modern, demanded in segregated towns or offered at war, continues to shape—and yet possesses the capacity to transform nonviolently, bloodlessly, and if need be, by force—the moral reflexes and material exclusions of modern democratic politics. “My definition of democracy is,” Ambedkar would argue in an address delivered at the district law library in Pune, “a form and a method of Government whereby revolutionary changes in the economic and social life of the people are brought about without bloodshed.”11

If sacrifice of life is the price of freedom that a people must pay, if sacrifice of self and family is the metaphysical foundation of social citizenship that might be safely secured only by the sovereign state (as has been argued since the seventeenth century, when modern political thought began to acquire its identifiable form, one strand within it culminating in Hegel’s 1821 treatise Philosophy of Right), then something is profoundly unjust, untruthful, even cruel, in the way freedom has been conceptualized since Europe’s first modernity. Freedom itself, then, must be reconceived, and with it “martyrdom,” which, Ambedkar would insist in 1943, nationalists had appropriated and trivialized, confusing it with their willingness to simply go to prison.12

Yet Ambedkar, who would scrupulously pursue the logic of exclusion that inhered in the juridical construction of freedom-as-sacrifice down to its classical origins (while himself mobilizing it, against the nationalist ethos of his time, as a figure of responsibility and justice), is rarely seen to be a thinker of what Thomas Nagel has called “mortal questions.”13 The relationship between finitude, force, and justice—which is to say, the relationship between action and death—has never been seen as clearly belonging to the province of his moral imagination. Such a reservation is all the more striking because the mode of theologico-political thinking of which Ambedkar became a formidable twentieth-century practitioner and rhetorician has had a distinctive genealogy within dissident social and religious traditions of precolonial South Asia. In fact, the dialectic of passivity and resistance, death and justice, were part of the lower caste “idea of the social” even before the advent of colonialism.14 These mentalities and practices have since the nineteenth century given lower caste protest both a remarkable ability to cross-pollinate with other traditions of the Indic and Indo-Islamic millennium and a ceaseless—at once strategic and critical—energy driven toward entering the electoral spaces of postcolonial democracy. If there was one impulse among these that was discernible in Annihilation of Caste, it was Ambedkar’s insistence on reclaiming politics as the shared space of belief, which is to say, the right to hold something just as being true. Justice is the only irreducible truth, the only indivisible ground of faith whose expanse exceeds the theater of electoral interest and calculation. It was perhaps appropriate, then, that the more electoral ground Ambedkar lost, the more unavoidable the force of his revolutionary critique appeared; the more difficult his electoral survival seemed, the more indispensable the rigor of his constitutional imagination for the new republic became.

This constitutional imagination had never been never separate from Ambedkar’s belief in the insurrectionary duties of the citizen, one that he begins to articulate with unprecedented clarity in Annihilation of Caste. Indeed, the treatise forges a galvanizing (and at times poignant) relationship between the ethics of revolutionary annihilation and the creative energies of the people, between a people’s immeasurable, destructive force and their spiritual capacity to constitute themselves anew. “Annihilation,” the gesture, concept, and metaphor for force, signals this range and depth of Ambedkar’s rhetorical and conceptual ambitions. In fact, with its creative energies in ceaseless struggle with its origins in nihilism and Indo-European negative theology, the term renders Ambedkar’s resistance against the caste order as a graded and gendered servitude of faculties (which, he insisted, needed to be annihilated without any love for its juridical and material rules) inseparable from his affinity for religion as such (which had to be destroyed precisely to be created anew). Always aware of those who are left behind and cast out, always a gleaner of semblances and essences, Annihilation of Caste thus sets in motion two dueling impulses. On the one hand, there was the imperative to recuperate the materiality and practice of an ethical religion through the act of individual and collective heresy. On the other hand, there was the need to posit a revolutionary subject through the “general mobilization” of the multitude. The reclamation of authentic belief, the right to truth, and the ability to mobilize a shared and general will, Ambedkar insists, are inseparable from one another; together they constitute a people’s movement toward a free and revolutionary democracy. This freedom to believe, which underwrites the right to a just religion, not only exceeds the organized, hierarchical, and ecclesiastical limits on faith, it exceeds even the practice of mysticism that had lent lower caste protest in the precolonial period its emancipatory charge. It is in this rupture from premodern genealogies of emancipatory mysticism and humanistic pieties of modern nationalism alike that Ambedkar would emerge as the thinker of the theologico-political in its classical and insurrectionary sense.

When I invoke “the classical,” I do not intend to refer to a mode of argument and thought that is classical simply because it adheres to the paradigms and languages of politics that were gradually set in place and consolidated worldwide, beginning at least since the late eighteenth century, by Europe’s global ascendancy. Rather, whenever I discern in an argument and thought a classical bent, I have in mind the tension that arose from an acute awareness among dissident thinkers across a range of religious and humanistic traditions in India, Europe, Africa, and elsewhere—the awareness that the recovery of freedom anywhere, whether from its ancient or modern loss, in its religious or republican dimension, in the capital or the colony, demands an engagement with the incurable universality of human suffering everywhere. This was no vicarious universalism of the European liberal type, which would often postulate an abstract equivalence between popular struggles for justice in Europe and the colonies, struggles that were otherwise waged in the shadows of immiscibly different and often insurmountable forces and conditions. When I refer to “the classical,” then, I have in mind a tradition of grappling with the inextricable relationship between force and justice, a tradition whose lineage Ambedkar would himself trace to the Rousseauist strand within modern revolutionary thought.

But why do I insist on Ambedkar’s struggle for an ethical and political religion? And what does the “theologico-political,” that intractable concept-figure constituted by the triad of faith, force, and sovereignty, have to do with this insistence? As a brief illustration of what might be gained by placing Ambedkar within the theologico-political problem, let me turn to the final pages from Annihilation of Caste. This is where Ambedkar argues, most decisively, that the right to have justice requires the multitude, caste Hindus and those designated “untouchable,” to cultivate a fidelity to force. Justice always demands a religious resistance. It calls for violence against violence of the scripture. In such moments, Ambedkar is never far from predilection for security and sovereignty, force and sacrifice. “In my opinion,” he states near the end of Annihilation of Caste, “only when the Hindu Society becomes a casteless society . . . can hope to have strength enough to defend itself.” Then, in the final sentences of the first edition, comes an unequivocal warning from a thinker who, just a moment later, would cease to think of himself as a Hindu: “Without such internal strength, Swaraj for Hindus may turn out to be only a step towards slavery.”15

To affirm religion not for its own sake but to affirm it in order to make what was just strong and what was strong just; to acquire the “means of defense” for the weak without lapsing into hostility and militarism;16 to refuse, above all, the nationalist bait of freedom that came without justice, for the simple reason that such freedom was enslavement by merely another name—this was the moral logic at work in Annihilation of Caste. Ambedkar had no interest in the various “species of reform” in its liberal sense, he claimed.17 His was a treatise on the taking the difficult path to reform, one that involved the purity of means and force alone. And this belief in force, which sustained his formulations on the egalitarian sovereignty of the people, was never far from a certain religiosity. “The moment it degenerates into rules it ceases to be Religion, as it kills responsibility, which is the essence of a truly religious act,” Ambedkar declares in a pivotal passage in Annihilation of Caste. “I have, therefore, no hesitation in saying that such a religion must be destroyed and I say, there is nothing irreligious in working for the destruction of such a religion.”18

I will return more than once to this search for a pure means, this immeasurable freedom of force whose essence Ambedkar is able to grasp in terms only of a “truly religious act,” and which he calls “annihilation” (ucched). My point here simply pertains to the place this work occupies in Ambedkar’s moral and political convictions. In fact, Annihilation of Caste can be regarded as the Archimedean point at which Ambedkar’s politics acquires its exemplary and precarious balance, the moment of revolutionary action when force is rendered most unconditional, immeasurable, and egalitarian. Religion, he argues, has to be destroyed so that a faith without intermediaries and mediation by the law, freed from ecclesiastical and juridical injunctions, might be reclaimed by the multitude for itself. Indeed, to not destroy a religion bound by rules, to not resist the historic alliance between theology and the majoritarian will to domination (to which any unvigilant love of democracy might easily lapse), to not revolt against the mystical permanence of the theologico-political bond, becomes in Ambedkar’s schema the most irreligious instance of the multitude’s complicity with its own subjugation and defeat. And it is in this willingness to see the complicity of the colonized in their oppression where others had seen their innocence that Ambedkar and Gandhi would remain most intimate and irreconcilable.

In November 1909, almost three decades before Annihilation of Caste, Gandhi, onboard a ship sailing from London to Cape Town, composed his own masterwork in a fit of spiritual possession. Published originally in December 1909 in Indian Opinion, a Gujarati newspaper he had established in 1903 in Johannesburg, the English translation of Hind Swaraj, or Indian Home Rule appeared on 20 March 1910. It generated among imperial officials an anxiety similar to that later generated among nationalists by Annihilation of Caste. The British Government in Bombay confiscated copies of the work almost immediately after they hit Indian shores.19 Hind Swaraj is written in deceptively simple style, constructed as a dialogue between a “reader” and an “editor.” The Reader in that dialogue ventriloquizes the standard extremist rhetoric of the day. He repeatedly dismisses, at various points in the dialogue, the liberal method of petitioning the British parliament, as if, he observes, Indians were ever going to be treated as equal citizens of the empire even if they were to remain its most loyal subjects. He argues instead for the overthrow of the British rule in India by “force of arms.”20 The Editor, in response, ventriloquizes Gandhi’s arguments, equally averse to the forceless petitioning of the liberals, yet committed to and elaborating on the virtues of nonviolent passive resistance, or “truth-force” (satyagraha).

The distinctive gesture Gandhi makes in Hind Swaraj, one that places the work within the classical discourse of politics, is its institution of force as the principal category of moral and political action. The expression “force of arms” alone, for example, appears in the second part of Hind Swaraj eight times, an indication of the struggle that had, by the turn of the century, ensued between satyagrahic and extremist thought, on the one hand, and within satyagraha itself, on the other.21 Like Annihilation of Caste, Hind Swaraj is written partly as a moral treatise on responsibility, partly as a political essay on sovereignty. Both works were equally untimely, addressed to an audience that was yet to be born, galvanizing in less than a hundred pages each the existing languages of moral and political action in the colonial world. Trying to bring into existence a new political community whose time and space had yet to be rendered determinate by a triumphant nationalism, each speaks in the language of a universal praxis that had to be imagined afresh. Breaking from the dichotomy between violence and nonviolence that had plagued the early twentieth-century debate between Indian liberals and extremists over the tactics proper to their battle for national sovereignty, both treatises, above all, transform the language of anticolonial emancipatory struggles.

Force would become the fulcrum of this transformative gesture, the site of a moral, interpretive, and performative (but not always nonviolent) coup de force. In its simplest theoretical sense, the figure and category of force condenses the most decisive departure from an ends-bound politics to a means-oriented one. About the need to formulate a new ethics of means and responsibility, Ambedkar is unequivocal: “I have emphasized this question of the ways and means of destroying caste,” he argues, “because I think that knowing the proper ways and means is more important that knowing the ideal.”22 Three years later, Gandhi echoes the point: “If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself. Nonviolence is the means, the end for every nation is complete independence.”23

Despite, or perhaps especially because of, their attempt to reposit the relations between means and ends (while rendering their political struggle against Britain secondary to that task), both Hind Swaraj and Annihilation of Caste were actively ignored or dismissed by the leading nationalists and reformers of their times. In fact, Hind Swaraj was read with greater interest in Europe among the continent’s anarchists, socialists, pacifists, and animal rights activists than it was by Gandhi’s early followers in India. Latter-day Congress nationalists, among them Gandhi’s chosen heir Jawaharlal Nehru, found it a distraction from the more important task of creating a sovereign and modern republic.24 Indeed, few would read Hind Swaraj as carefully as Ambedkar, who kept returning to it well until the 1940s. He detected in the text a mercantile and usurious impulse that would show itself in Gandhi’s irrefutable bias toward big business, which in the 1940s began to look even more ironic in light of the unequivocal denunciation of machinery and railways that a younger Gandhi had launched in Hind Swaraj. For Ambedkar, Hind Swaraj bore the seeds of Gandhi’s cognitive inability to understand the insidious operations of national ideology, his lasting failure to grasp the alliance between private property and exclusion of entire communities from civic spaces and rights, his unwillingness to examine the religious foundations of everyday violence. A pernicious extension of which was the ancient, caste-based division of labor on which modern industrial and finance capital in India had come to thrive, and which no degree of friendship and trust between the oppressor and oppressed might ameliorate. Gandhi’s profound prejudice against labor and caste reform, Ambedkar insisted, emerged from this refusal to appreciate the nature of “interest” in both its social and financial dimension that had come to structure the civic norms and practices of nationalist politics. But interest also had a moral dimension, one that involved a slow, insidious, and willful exclusion of the poor and untouchable from the political realm of civil disobedience. “Interest, interest on interest, he adds on and on, and thereby draws millions of families perpetually into his net,” Ambedkar writes in 1945 of the usurious Bania, the moneylender caste to which Gandhi belonged.25

There were resonances too, echoes of which would reverberate with varying intensity through the first half of the twentieth century. Both Hind Swaraj and Annihilation of Caste formulate a theory of action in which resistance is considered political and just only inasmuch as it is also grounded in the sovereignty of the people. Both are discourses, in the final instance, on (and against) the theologico-political foundations of nationalist and republican sovereignty in its classical sense. By the time the second edition of Annihilation of Caste was published, it began to bear a striking resemblance, even in its architecture, to Hind Swaraj. Composed as a revolutionary monologue on justice and force (what is “annihilation,” we might ask again, if not a radicalization of the concept of force?), Annihilation of Caste soon turned into a dialogue between Ambedkar and Gandhi. Only now, in an ironic reversal, Ambedkar seems like the editor and Gandhi, the fanatical reader. By 1944, then in its third edition, Annihilation of Caste began to appear with an appendix containing Gandhi’s criticisms of the treatise culled from his newspaper Harijan and another appendix carrying Ambedkar’s counterresponses to Gandhi. Resolutely averse to reducing the price of his massively circulating newspapers, Young India and Harijan, in the midst of the mass movements of the 1920s and 1930s (on the ground that readers must also bear the responsibility for what they get to read26), Gandhi, in a dramatic opening moment in his dialogue with Ambedkar, betrays the worst, most unequal, perhaps most banal among satyagraha’s moralizing impulses. “He has priced it at 8 annas,” he writes of Ambedkar’s pricing of Annihilation of Caste. “I would suggest a reduction to 2 annas or at least 4 annas.”27

Is Gandhi putting a price on Ambedkar’s critique? Is he insinuating that this critique is irresponsible, unnecessary, perhaps worthless, even if it is unavoidable? Or is he, in some peculiar way often known only to him, trying to ensure that his antagonist’s treatise reaches more people? If that is the case, why might the upper caste Hindu not be expected to pay for a copy of Annihilation of Caste, why would the reader not be responsible for its ideas and material in the same manner that such a reader might be for Gandhi’s newspapers? Is Gandhi reducing Ambedkar’s call for justice to that which it was not, that is, a certain calculation, a utilitarian quibble? Why this strange lapse into calculability at the very moment when Annihilation of Caste has lodged a demand for a justice, a force, a truth beyond measure?28 Seeking a higher moral sense and ground of judgment, Gandhi here begins increasingly to sound like the Reader, that archetypal conservative nationalist of Hind Swaraj that he had battled with such temerity earlier in the century. In fact, the argument between Ambedkar and Gandhi around Annihilation of Caste reveals a radical conservatism, a war against equality, which undercuts anticolonialism’s emancipatory promise. For Ambedkar’s undelivered lecture had not simply challenged the foundations of anticolonial ethics. It had imparted the relationship between ethics and politics itself an unprecedented insurrectionary tenor—an insurrection detached from abstractions of national sovereignty and grounded, for the first time, in the complexities of colonial India’s social relations. There was a vision of democracy that had existed before Annihilation of Caste, and there was one that came after it. Radical Equality is an archeology of that interminable tension between two visions of democracy, two ways of grasping at sovereignty, in the colonial world.


1. On Ambedkar’s use of the expression “faith in equality,” see his “Presidential Address at Second Conference of Untouchables from Berar Province,” in Ambedkar Speaks: 301 Seminal Speeches, 3 vols., ed. Narendra Jadhav (Seattle: Konark Publishers, 2013); hereafter cited as 301 Seminal Speeches; 1:84; originally published in Bahishkrit Bharat, 25 November 1927. I return to this formulation in Chapter 3.

2. For an incisive discussion of what such a mentality might mean, one whose substantive elements and genealogies might be common to a host of post-Enlightenment traditions of dissent in Europe and India, see Akeel Bilgrami, “Value, Enchantment, and the Mentality of Democracy: Distant Perspectives from Gandhi,” Economic and Political Weekly 44, no. 51 (2009), 47–61.

3. The argument has a distinguished pedigree that goes back to the nineteenth-century metropolitan thought, coalescing around a set of philosophical attitudes and apparatuses that Uday S. Mehta calls “liberal strategies of exclusion.” See Mehta, Liberalism and Empire: A Study of Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

4. The term “spirit of democracy” is Gandhi’s. See, for one instance, his speech on reforms resolution at Amritsar Congress, 1 January 1920, in CWMG 19:201.

5. I draw the expression from Pierre Rosanvallon’s The Society of Equals, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

6. “Thank God, in the front rank of the leaders, he is singularly alone and as yet but a representative of a very small minority.” Gandhi, “Dr. Ambedkar’s Indictment,” in CWMG 69:206; originally published in Harijan, 11 July 1936.

7. See Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste: Speech Prepared for the 1936 Annual Conference of the Jat Pat Todak Mandal of Lahore But Not Delivered, 3rd ed. (1944; Jalandhar: Bheem Patrika Publications, 1968), 1–15; hereafter cited as Annihilation of Caste.

8. “Annihilation of Caste,” wrote Dhananjay Keer, one of Ambedkar’s earliest biographers in English, “was logic on fire, pinching and pungent, piercing and fiery, provocative and explosive. It was to the minds of the caste Hindu leaders what silver nitrate is to gangrene.” Keer, Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission (Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1954), 269.

9. On the relationship between sacrifice, family, and the state, see Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, trans. T. M. Knox (1821; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967).

10. I draw this expression from J. C. Heesterman, The Broken World of Sacrifice: An Essay in Ancient Indian Ritual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

11. See Ambedkar, “Conditions Precedent for the Successful Working of Modern Democracy,” Pune, 22 December 1952, in 301 Seminal Speeches 1:287 (emphasis in original).

12. Ambedkar, “Ranade, Gandhi, and Jinnah,” in BAWS 1:209–212

13. Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

14. See Milind Wakankar, Subalternity and Religion: The Prehistory of Dalit Empowerment in South Asia (New York: Routledge, 2010), 4.

15. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste, 97.

16. Ibid., 63.

17. Ibid., 76.

18. Ibid., 87–88.

19. See Gandhi, Hind Swaraj, or Indian Home Rule, in CWMG 10:245n1 (originally published in 1910) hereafter cited as Hind Swaraj-CW.

20. Gandhi, Ibid., 283.

21. See ibid., 270–306.

22. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste, 76.

23. Gandhi, “Working of Nonviolence,” in CWMG 75:48; originally published in Harijan, 11 February 1939.

24. See Nehru to Mahatma Gandhi, Allahabad, 4 October 1945, in Gandhiji’s “Hind Swaraj” and Select Views of Others (New Delhi: National Gandhi Museum, 2009), 241–245. Fewer outside the Congress engaged seriously with Hind Swaraj, with the exception of the socialist Rammanohar Lohia, who later wrote Marx, Gandhi, and Socialism (Hyderabad: Samata Vidyalaya Nyasa, 1963).

25. Ambedkar, What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to Untouchables (1945; Lahore: Classic, 1977), 230; hereafter cited as Congress and Gandhi.

26. See Isabel Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 132–133.

27. Gandhi, “Dr. Ambedkar’s Indictment,” in CWMG 69:206; originally published in Harijan, 11 July 1936.

28. Gandhi’s propensity to measure, his susceptibility around Ambedkar to betray the worst form of calculation—fiscal prudence—was revealed in 1931 during their first ever meeting. “I have been thinking over the problem of Untouchables ever since my school days—when you were not even born,” Gandhi pointed out to Ambedkar. And as if the question was merely of calculable effort, he persisted: “The Congress has spent not less than rupees twenty lakhs [2,000,000 rupees] on [their] uplift.” See Keer, Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission, 165.