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  • Writer's pictureMutant: The Democracy Podcast


Below is an unedited transcript of this conversation. It was originally held in front of a live audience and has been lightly corrected for transcription accuracy

Payal Before we come to your work itself, Aishwary, I wanted to ask what in your life, or what in your growing years inclined you to scholarship?

Aishwary I did not consciously begin by thinking I would be a scholar, and I think that that sort of ambition to becoming a scholar defeats its very purpose. True scholarship should thrive in a certain sort of contingency...we come to a certain question, something bothers us, something troubles us, and we then start to strive and answer that question. And for me, growing up in the late 90s and doing my doctoral work in the early 2000s, it was clear that the time for some true conceptual struggles had arrived. And by conceptual, I don't mean simply academic struggles. These were struggles that were real, these were struggles that were political, and these were struggles on which perhaps hinged the very future of our political life. And it troubled, I think, not just me but a generation of scholars around whom I grew up, that the frameworks we had been taught and we had inherited, such as, you know, the idea of India, and so on were breaking and ripping apart at the seams. Something had to be rethought in order to preserve what we had inherited after a considerable struggle itself.

And to answer those questions required a kind of...both academic rigour in the boring sense of the term, but it also required a sustained political commitment. I think it's the unity of moral puzzle or moral impasse and political future that scholarship helps us unpack.

Payal Will you articulate for us what were the questions from which emerged your book, Radical Equality? We'll the come to the book, but first, what was the seeking to which that book was the answer?

Aishwary Simply put in a word, it was inequality. It was inequality all around us. But more importantly or more precisely, it's our growing acceptance of that inequality, that violence around us. We feel absolutely numb to social and political cruelty around us. And increasingly so. It used to be the fact that violence or cruelty were extraordinary events in our social lives, in political life, in democracy as such. But now it has become an ordinary vice. It's the most ordinary thing we witness...when we go out to meet people, go out to vote, and so on. So the relationship between inequality and violence drew me to the problem that the book poses...and I could not...if there is a better thinker of human indignity and inequality than Ambedkar, I do not know of him or her.

Payal Aishwary, till Radical Equality, till your book, all scholarship around Gandhi and Ambedkar has tended to hinge on their supposedly combative relationship, the frame of antagonism. Your work placed them — or maybe removes them — from a certain context. How did you arrive at...could you walk us through this...first, your relationship with both these thinkers, and then your approach to the work itself?

Aishwary That's a big question. Let me begin by saying what the fundamental problem is that these two address in their own very singular, if incommensurable, ways. The problem is simply this: can there be a democratic politics that is dependent on notions of moral, political and biological purity? That is to say, can purity be a truly political notion? And if you look at Ambedkar, one of the two thinkers, what fascinates me about Ambedkar is that for him, the very origin of inequality begins with notions of purity around our thinking. Purity of blood — he writes a lot on endogamy — purity of sexes, purity of nationalities and so on. And one of the things he proposes is that no constitution...he's celebrated as this father of the Constitution but Ambedkar is very clear that no constitution will save us if we do not have the moral fibre to actually stand for that Constitution. And we cannot stand for that Constitution as long as we are mired in this language of purity.

Payal What did he do to up-end that language of purity?

Aishwary I think the hallmark of Ambedkar as a thinker, which is how I treat him first and foremost, as a thinker...the guy lost pretty much every election he fought, he was bad at politics... and Gandhi, who is celebrated as this apostle of non-violence indifferent to political fortune, actually commanded the single largest anti-colonial party in his time. So there I flip the mirrors through which we have come to understand these two thinkers. And the stakes are very high. I think, for Ambedkar, every modern problem that seems irresolvable or insoluble has a certain ancient or  classical remnant. There is absolutely no modern thinker — in India at least — who goes back to those classical traditions, to the Manusmriti and so on, with that degree of intellectual rigour. And I use rigour in a very serious sense of the word, because there are times when Ambedkar would declare... I mean he's the guy who burns the Manusmriti in Mahad in Maharashtra...he is the first to concede that this is a work of genius. There is rarely a text that achieves that level of calibrated use of power that the Manumsmriti achieves. So, he's someone who's first and foremost a thinker of concepts. And before he goes on to deface or ruin these concepts, he has the ability to see how robust and how enduring they are in their very toxicity.

Payal He had a singular reading I think of the seemed to occupy a special place in his reading of the scriptures. Would you talk us a little through that?

Aishwary The Gita is, we all know, almost an unavoidable classical text in modern India and this has been the case for a while....for a very long time, almost every seminal or important thinker wrote extensive commentaries on it. There are commentaries on the Gita by Tilak in Maharashtra, Gandhi in Gujarat and so on. And it was Ambedkar who was the first to say, why is it that as a society of readers of these texts we sometimes tend to miss the most important dimension of these texts?Why is it that there is this political or social reality right in front of us, with all its textual evidence, with all its sanction for routine violence and yet we are unable to grasp this violence in such a distilled form? And he goes to the Gita, like others around him and he says that it is striking that almost no nationalist thinker of the time, among whom we credit some with formulating what we today call the ‘Idea of India’ has actually stated the obvious, that the Gita is actually a text of fratricide. It is a text on killing brothers if the desire and ambition for political power requires you to do so. And from there, from that singular if perhaps deceptively obvious insight, Ambedkar mounts his profound criticism of the idea of India.

Payal We'll come back to Ambedkar and the idea of India but to the second part of my original Gandhi, your reading of Gandhi, and then, to how you view their relationship.

Aishwary Gandhi, of course, is more widely read. When I started working on Radical Equality or reading Ambedkar seriously, I did not know that this would become a 400 page book. There was absolutely no book-length study of Ambedkar as a moral philosopher at that time.

Payal That's incredible.

Aishwary Yeah. I remember being at international workshops on the Gita, for example, and almost invariably you would be the last speaker.

Payal You're not the last speaker today...

Aishwary No, but I saw it as a great chance, because finally, I thought, Ambedkar was having the last word. And that itself spoke to the moral power, but also the philological heft of his thinking. Gandhi, on the other hand, is more celebrated; and for that reason alone, no less widely misunderstood. And that's the underside of Gandhian thought that pulled me most strongly.

Payal What are the fundamental ways in which you believe Gandhi is misunderstood?

Aishwary The most important insight you glean from Gandhi is his ability to formulate a kind of political Hinduism — or let's say for the lack of a better term, political religion — that is resistant to extreme forms of nationalism, religious nationalism. But in making that case, we have to be extremely careful, because I think some of the fundamental problems of Indian nationalism that today take on such fundamentalist forms have some bearing on or some resemblance to certain practises that were very close to Gandhi. This is what we call in an academic sense the impasse or the aporia. Gandhi is an aporia.

Payal How did you look at their relationship, what was the lens you brought to that relationship? I think, would it be correct to paraphrase that they had very different politics, a possibly shared intent? What was common to their intent and where were the fundamental differences that caused there to be such a public schism in their worldviews?

Aishwary The most fundamental difference is, again, on this particular statement that Gandhi makes somewhere in his journal Harijan... that he says the problem does not lie in the four-fold division of society, the varnashrama dharma, as we know it. The problem lies in our faulty conception of inequality. So Gandhi is committed to a certain form of moral inequality. He embraces that inequality. And this is what makes him a radical. He believes that the notion of political equality is a modern ruse for mastery of all sorts. Of course, it is, Ambedkar says. Of course, giving a person, every person, one vote is important for that form of formal equality, but what will change our horizon is our ability to rethink what inequality really is. And inequality stems not from my commitment to treating someone as help, or a servant or a domestic labourer or bonded labour... Inequality stems from the fact that we are willing to see our social life in terms of irreducible or insoluble antagonisms. That somewhere we believe — and this we see, in our own time — you know, there's a line we draw, right? Even liberals draw that line. When they say I'm a completely secular liberal but when it comes to women entering certain temples, I draw the line. There are liberals who will say I'm against the death penalty but when it comes to Afzal Guru, I draw the line. This line drawing... I think this propensity to line drawing is what Ambedkar excavates from our moral impasses.

Payal And you're saying Gandhi was more... is it just that Gandhi was a better realist?

Aishwary That's a great point. There is a case to be made for Gandhi's realism, except that it is him who is seen as this apostle who breaks from the realities of political life, and it is Ambedkar who is seen as somehow pragmatic, you know; a realist who somehow tries to solve social problems through constitutional legislation. He's not interested in that. I mean, we do not have another constitutional thinker in the annals of constitutionalism globally, who, after spending the most painstaking years of his life on the Constitution, is willing to say, I will burn this thing down, because Constitutions will not save us. It is our ability to get past these insoluble antagonisms, this hostility in everyday life, that will.

Payal Caste played, obviously, a big role in both their thought but also in centering the conversation around inequality. And it seems like they had very different approaches to caste. If I understand correctly, Gandhi did not believe caste per se needed abolishing... he thought abolishing untouchability would solve the caste problem. Ambedkar's understanding and experience of caste seems wholly different. Will you walk us through this... and again, was Gandhi merely being realistic about what could be achieved? Did Ambedkar represent an ideal that was not attainable?

Aishwary In the strongest and most idealistic sense the question you asked, yes. Because one of the things he clearly says is that you can either have one or the other: you can have a constitutional democracy grounded in principles of moral life and moral equality — or you can have Hinduism. Choose. That's the stark choice. And Ambedkar does not take religion lightly. Remember, this is another thing that gets lost in the debates around reservations in our own time, that he converts to Buddhism, to another religion with close to half a million people in an event that has completely been blacked out for the most part even from our school curriculums. It is difficult not only to speak about Ambedkar in an intellectual sense, it is actually difficult for us to conceive of him as a thinker. There is a reason for that. Because he undermines the civilizational idea of India...what he says is, all civilizational ideas of India are Hindu ideas of India. You cannot eradicate that inequality which Hinduism brings with it without annihilating caste, and vice versa.

Payal Will you then, and I know this is a big ask, distil the core of what Ambedkar stood against and what he proposed...and I don't mean constitutionally, I mean with regard to did he propose Hinduism be recast and how did he propose the choice between a constitutional state and Hinduism be navigated.

Aishwary One of the things that is difficult for us in the way we are trained to think about politics on TV or in school or the way we read and understand things…one of the missing lessons of our political thought… is that counterintuitive formulations are difficult to arrive at. And Ambedkar is a master of counterintuitive formulation. He does not say that the Hindu is unreasonable or that the Manusmriti is totally toxic or violent. He asks, does the Hindu have the freedom to use reason? I quote him here: that's the formulation he uses, which can mean two things. That the Hindu has no reason, or that the Hindu does not have the freedom to use the reason he already has. And he begins counterintuitively by looking at the problem of human freedom. Hinduism is a second order problem for him. It is fundamental to Indian life, but it is not fundamental to political life per se because there can be, according to him, a political life in which we can live — and live well — without Hinduism. But the notion of freedom will be crucial.

Payal How have we come to occupy a place where a sort of spiritual responsibility as a Hindu stands in for your political duty?

Aishwary That has a very long and not a very celebrated genealogy. I'm sure there are people in the audience who know more about that genealogy. If you look at someone like Gandhi...and this is what, again, attracts me to Gandhi, because he offers the most heterodox interpretation of Hinduism. There is an episode in which, in the 20s, the Garhwali Rifles are ordered to shoot at a crowd of unarmed satyagrahis, and the Garhwali Rifles soldiers refuse to open fire…they disobey orders because this would be a massacre. Gandhi publishes a piece a few days later, in fact he's asked by someone what he would advise, would he celebrate that act and he says no, I think the Garhwali soldiers have committed a crime by not shooting on unarmed protestors. And in that moment, you see a certain unity being achieved not in Gandhi only, or Gandhi alone, but in Indian political thought, where political life has become completely inseparable from the oppressive duty of the office... And it is that commitment, that almost juridical commitment to office, that we have come to...this love for the office.

Payal How have we then arrived at a place where both Gandhi and Ambedkar — because if they stand for one thing, however differently, they seem to stand for an examination of Hinduism as it has been cast. How have both been so comprehensively, if not appropriated then at least attempted to be appropriated by the Hindu right? In what way of seeing Gandhi and Ambedkar does the Hindu right find resonance?

Aishwary The Hindu right is extremely sophisticated in being shallow. They do it very well. And they really encash it. So something like Swachh Bharat is a good example... it will make our everyday life better, we will have smart cities, and so Gandhian is that? And so, you know, it's very easy to appropriate strands in certain thinkers, especially after you've assassinated them. Once the difficult part is done, all that remains is consecration. And that is what has happened with Gandhi. That has happened again in a more troubling form with Sardar Patel, who now has the dubious distinction of being the highest man on the planet. Ambedkar’s politics is way more inappropriable. You just can't really appropriate him.

Payal Why do you say so?

Aishwary I think one simple reason is you read a line of him and the raw intensity with which he critiques...not even just critiques, he forces us to look inwards, is absolutely incompatible with the idea of Hindu nationalism. Hindu nationalism is...I mean introspection does not come easily to them, and Ambedkar forces us to turn our lens inwards. He never says don't be a Hindu. What he says is, understand what being free means and it is likely you will cease to be a Hindu. So that's the counterintuitive turn. He comes first to freedom and then to Hinduism, and it is for that reason I think, substantively, that Hindu nationalism finds him very difficult to...they don't know what to do with him, to be honest. They could build a statue, that's one thing they do very well, but I'm not sure that will help.

Payal The term Radical Equality is yours... why do you call this equality radical? We have enshrined equality as an ideal — and, say, in this audience here, no-one would argue against equality. What then makes equality radical? Or rather, what is this radical idea of equality?

Aishwary The radicality of this equality stems from this one very significant break that Ambedkar and Gandhi make, and this is what I try to capture in the subtitle of my book, The Risk of Democracy. Democracy for them is a risk. It's not a normative certainly that we will have a good democracy. It needs to be perfected. It needs to be honed, it needs to be refined. And it's a process. Democracy is something that is always yet to come. And they both take a certain risk. Here is the risk in the simplest terms: they are both willing to see a democracy in which majority decision...which is, you know, it's an invincible proposition. It's an arbitrary one. Remember, in the entire history of democratic or non-democratic political thought — Europe, American, Indian and so on — there has never been a sustained attempt to understand why the majority principle should actually function like this. Why should the majority decide for the entire body politic? And Ambedkar and Gandhi, to me, share this scepticism — and that's a polite word here — towards the majority decision. Not because it can be completely renounced, but because there has never been a democracy in which at some point majority decision has not mutated into majority rule. And it is that tyranny of the majority that they critique. What makes this equality radical is their desire or their sustained attempt to formulate a democratic form of equality that does not depend on the majoritarian consensus, but actually breaks from the very logic of the majority. We won't be more equal if more of us raise our hands in this audience if we want equality. On the contrary, we would be more equal if we never felt compelled to actually make that vote in the first place.

Payal Is there a way to distil the Ambedkar vision of politics into a practisable one?

Aishwary I believe absolutely, and I think Ambedkar's moral vision is very simple: it's that we will have to undo the long history of purist politics, the idea of purity, the idea that we are Indian, the idea that if we come to power again, we will send everyone packing except, you know, these two groups...

Payal The original pure...

Aishwary The original pure. If we are willing to renounce our love of our origins and instead anchor our moral vision or our everyday life in something that is based in friendship. Ambedkar...I mean we lose some of these great ethical insights into Ambedkar...he writes on issues like friendship in politics for example; he writes on finitude, or our mortality, or our pain. He writes about exile and homelessness. In 1931, he very famously declared, Gandhiji, I have no homeland. How does a man who has no homeland end up writing the world's longest written national constitution? It's a great irony that the world's longest written constitution — not national — actually is the state of Alabama, which still has to learn some lessons in racial equality. And that proves Ambedkar's point about constitutional scepticism…

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