CHAPTER FOUR B.R. Ambedkar on Market Domination and Popular Sovereignty .2017-12-22 · B.R. Ambedkar

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  • Parasher



    B.R. Ambedkar on Market Domination and Popular Sovereignty

    Tejas Parasher

    PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science

    University of Chicago

    I. Ambedkar and Rights

    In the emerging literature in political theory and intellectual history on Asian anti-imperialism

    and the founding of the Indian state, the jurist and economist Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-

    1956) occupies an exceptional and slightly anomalous position. Ambedkars contributions to

    Indian independence from the British Empire were profound. As early as 1919, he became one of

    the first leaders anywhere in the empire to demand universal adult franchise and the introduction

    of representative government within non-white colonies. As Member for Labor in Viceroy

    Linlithglows Executive Council between 1942 and 1946, Ambedkar began to outline the general

    architecture for an independent welfare state. Most importantly, more than perhaps any other figure

    in the 1940s he was responsible for drafting Indias postcolonial constitution (1950), with its

    characteristic modernist vision of state centralization and social transformation. But at the same

    time, Ambedkar throughout maintained a skeptical distance from the mainstream of Indian

    anticolonialism. He joined neither the Indian National Congress (INC) nor any regional

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    Communist parties, the main pro-independence organizations after the 1920s. Only at the very end

    of his life did he begin to consider possible electoral alliances with the socialist wings of the INC.

    Ambedkars relationship with both nationalist and Communist leadership was vexed leading up to

    and after independence. He famously disagreed with M.K. Gandhis model of village-based

    democracy and also rejected the kind of centralized, regulatory planning state proposed by both

    Jawaharlal Nehru and more leftist parties.

    Ambedkar thus seems uncannily disconnected from his contextanticolonial but not in any of

    the ways dominant in South Asia in the 1940s. To account for his simultaneous commitment to

    national self-determination and his distance from nationalist mobilization, intellectual historians

    have recently taken Ambedkars politics to be an idiosyncratic version of liberalism. According to

    this now common interpretation, Ambedkars complicated relationship with anti-colonialism was

    driven by his view of the postcolonial state as a means to a very specific end: the protection of

    individual rights and civil liberties. More than any of his contemporaries, Ambedkar was attentive

    to the threats that social norms and practices posed to individual flourishing. He strategically used

    state institutions to overcome and regulate destructive or tyrannical forms of socio-religious

    discipline and was willing to reject any politics that did not take the natural rights-bearing

    individual as its foundational unit. The Ambedkar scholar Gail Omvedt articulated an influential

    version of this interpretation in the early 1990s, arguing that Ambedkars politics were motivated

    by an uncompromising liberal faith in individual freedom and self-determination and a staunch

    opposition to any forms of social or religious life marked by exclusion or discrimination.1 Over

    1 Gail Omvedt, Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in

    Colonial India (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1993).

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    the past two decades, the reading of Ambedkar in terms of individual freedom has greatly expanded

    across scholarship in political theory and South Asian history. For C.A. Bayly, Ambedkar

    represented a deepening and radicalization of the high liberalism of early colonial India, a

    philosophy seeking to protect individuals against social control.2 Rochana Bajpai similarly

    identifies Ambedkar as a radical liberal extending older nineteenth-century ideas about inherent

    rights to self-rule amongst colonial subjects.3 In new works by Bidyut Chakrabarty and Martha

    Nussbaum, Ambedkars core commitment is seen to be the creation of an inclusive civic culture

    with equal opportunities and freedom from discrimination for individual citizens, regardless of

    caste, religion, or birth.4

    2 C. A. Bayly, Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire

    (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 297-307.

    3 Rochana Bajpai, Liberalisms in India: A Sketch, in Liberalism as Ideology: Essays in Honor

    of Michael Freeden, eds. Ben Jackson and Marc Stears (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012),


    4 Bidyut Chakrabarty, "B.R. Ambedkar and the History of Constitutionalizing

    India," Contemporary South Asia, 24.2 (2016): 133-148 and Martha Nussbaum, Ambedkars

    Constitution: Promoting Inclusion, Opposing Majority Tyranny, in Assessing Constitutional

    Performance, eds. Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

    2016), 295-336. For further interpretations of Ambedkar in terms of political liberalism and

    individual rights (and, increasingly, human rights), see K.S. Bharathi, The Political Thought of

    Ambedkar (New Delhi: Concept Publishing, 1998); Upendra Baxi, Emancipation as Justice:

    Legacy and Vision of Dr. Ambedkar, in From Periphery to Center Stage: Ambedkar,

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    This recent scholarship finds in Ambedkars liberalism the key to deciphering his position vis

    a vis anticolonial nationalism. While Ambedkars strategic reliance on political institutions

    departed from classical liberal orthodoxy, it also led him to be involved with projects of state-

    building and social transformation through the 1940s.5 Conversely, an underlying view of

    individual freedom and flourishing as the real goal of all political society, taken from late

    nineteenth-century Millian liberalism, led him to oppose the communal visions of Gandhis

    village-based republicanism on one hand and Communist collectivization on the other. The

    dominant liberal interpretation of B.R. Ambedkar therefore takes his idea of the state to be

    grounded in civil liberties and the rights of the individual. It is the peculiarity of such liberalism in

    the milieu of 1940s South Asiaan intellectual climate dominated by placing the national

    community and prerogatives of state intervention above the rights of the individual citizen

    which, for many commentators, explains Ambedkars unique position during the Indian founding.

    In this paper, I challenge the image of Ambedkar as a liberal constitutionalist. I suggest that

    this image overlooks Ambedkars rejections of liberal understandings of individualist market

    freedom. Reappraising Ambedkars views on the origins and purposes of political society by

    turning to his writings as a labor leader between 1936 and 1946 and his constitutional proposals in

    1947-48, I argue that, in an inversion of one of the core precepts of liberal philosophy, Ambedkar

    Ambedkarism, and Dalit Future (New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 2000), 49-74 and the edited

    volumes Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the Emancipator of the Oppressed: A Centenary Commemoration

    Volume, ed. K.N. Kadam (Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1993) and Socio-Economic and Political

    Vision of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, ed. S.N. Mishra (New Delhi: Concept Publishing, 2010).

    5 See, for instance, Bayly, Recovering Liberties, 302-306.

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    viewed economic individualism as the groundwork for acts of domination and arbitrary violence

    by the powerful. Consequently, his concern was not so much the freedom and autonomy of

    individuals participating in the economy as the empowerment of dominated workers over market

    dynamics. Taken together, Ambedkars writings on labor and his legal proposals for a postcolonial

    constitution illustrate that he saw the transformation of market structures along participatory lines

    as the key task of government. Far from a whole-hearted advocate of liberal individualism (and

    the sort of regime which would defend liberal individualism), Ambedkar was thus preoccupied

    with group-based economic restructuring.

    At stake is not just a revisionist reading of Ambedkar as an important figure in South Asian

    intellectual history, but the larger relationship between his political projectthe transition from

    empire to a self-governing communityand key elements of modern European political

    philosophy. Part of the interpretive strategy of this paper is to suggest that Ambedkar illustrates

    how twentieth-century decolonization was an important moment for the modification and rewriting

    of European notions of popular sovereignty and the nature and purpose of representative,

    participatory government. The interventions that thinkers of decolonization like B.R. Ambedkar

    made into existing accounts of democracy in the 1940s and 1950s are obscured if we assimilate

    their constitutional proposals into universal liberal frameworks of rights. Here, I trace Ambedkars

    unique visions of transformative representative government from his early scholarship on caste

    and kinship in 1917-18 to his final political writings for the Republican Party of India (RPI) in

    1955-56. In the first section of the paper, I