Convergent Cosmopolitics in the Age of Empire: Gandhi and Ambedkar in World History


Debjani Ganguly
Australian National University

But Gandhi does not belong only to India…. He is…a world figure,
a man who belongs to us all.

—Horace Alexander

The mighty shadow of the Mahatma lay across the world. The mighty man
in Ambedkar was exposing man’s inhumanity to man and the ruthless strokes
of his hammer resounded throughout the world.

—Dhananjay Keer

1. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) led India’s struggle for independence from colonial rule and committed his life to the social reconstruction and regeneration of India. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956) fought to eradicate India’s internal apartheid manifested in the pernicious caste practice of untouchability and was committed to a vision of modernized India free of caste and colonial oppression. Both were champions of untouchables or dalits, both considered untouchability the most shameful smear on the Indian social fabric and both thought that social reform in India ought to precede political freedom. Both were also highly charismatic national leaders who carried the masses with them. Historian Judith Brown’s comment that masses reacted to Gandhi “with a mixture of religious adulation and millenniary anticipation” (Brown, 1972: 345) could apply as well to Ambedkar. They have both been compared reverentially to the Buddha and were hailed as prophets of their times. Further, their respective paternal honorifics—Bapu for Gandhi and Babasaheb for Ambedkar—testify to the affection of their followers.

2. Yet during their lifetimes, as has been well documented, they differed fundamentally on many social and political issues and occasionally even fought bitterly about their respective roles as champions of dalit masses. These quarrels are now part of national lore. D.C Ahir in his book Gandhi and Ambedkar, succinctly sums up the most common nationalist perception of their differences:

Gandhi christened victims of untouchability as Harijans, Children of God. Ambedkar, however, wanted to see his people as full-fledged “Children of the Soil” with equal rights and privileges and not merely as “touchables” under the guise of another name. (Ahir, 1995: 182)

3. Ambedkar’s biographer Dhananjay Keer characterized the differences between them as a clash of titans. As he dramatically put it: “Gandhi and Ambedkar were temperamentally what Vashistha and Vishwamitra or Voltaire and Rousseau were to each other!” (Keer,1962: 182). From the late 1920s to the 1940s, the differences between them were serious enough to be manifested not only at national, but also international forums such as the two Round Table conferences in London in the 1930s and the famous meeting with the King Emperor, where the apocryphal dalit narrative has the King infinitely more impressed with Ambedkar than with Gandhi:

Gandhi, with his ascetic mind and khadi apparel, stood exposed before the August Assembly by a man comparatively younger in age, but full of irreverent audacity, and who spoke with a cultivated ferocity and the fervour of an iconoclast. (Keer, 1962: 182)

4. Other depictions of the same event portray Gandhi in an admirable light and simply make no reference to Ambedkar. For instance, Viscount Templewood’s Nine Troubled Years, gives us this account of Gandhi’s meeting with the King Emperor:

When the conversation was drawing to an end, the King, the most conscientious of monarchs, evidently thought it was his duty to warn Gandhi of the consequences of rebellion. Just, therefore, as Gandhi was taking leave, His Majesty could not refrain from uttering a grave warning. ‘Remember Mr. Gandhi, I won’t have any attacks on my Empire’. I held my breath in fear of an argument between the two. Gandhi’s savoir faire saved the situation with a grave and deferential reply. ‘I must not be drawn into a political argument in Your Majesty’s palace after receiving Your Majesty’s hospitality’. (cited in Alexander, 1969: 82)

Templewoods’ is an eyewitness account for he escorted Gandhi to meet the King Emperor.

5. My aim in this essay is not to create yet another inventory of dissonance—mythic or real—between the two figures or even to compare their respective achievements from a nationalist matrix. It is rather to widen the lens beyond the nationalist framework and cast the two personages, not as two political leaders and social reformers who differed on Indian societal arrangements, but rather as interlocutors of modernity on the world stage. I suggest that histories of the Indian nation-state focus on their differences, while a world-historical approach shows deep points of convergence between them. World history, in other words, provides a different optic on the same set of historical events. As Geoffrey Barraclough put it in his History in a Changing World, “World history cuts into reality at a different angle from other types of history; and because its angle is different, it cuts across the lines they have traced” (cited in Stuchtey and Fuch, 2003: 44). My attempt to place Gandhi and Ambedkar on the stage of world history is based not so much on arguments to do with their respective global legacies after their deaths, as on a mining of their political vocabularies to unearth a critical mass of articulations demonstrating a cosmopolitical sensibility, one that invested deeply in the affective politics of living in and connecting with a larger world.

6. I intend to argue two propositions in the essay. One, the tense relationship between Gandhi and Ambedkar can be recast as a dialogic exchange between two idioms of non-European cosmopolitanism—nonviolence as hybridized Hindu life-practice, and democratic development  as a non-hierarchical Buddhist orientation to life. Two, the sharp differences between them notwithstanding, both Gandhi and Ambedkar, along with other nationalist leaders from Asia and Africa, were engaged in projects of world democratization in the era of the decline of modern European colonialism.

7. In his birds eye view of what he called “the short twentieth century”, Age of Extremes 1914-1991, historian Eric Hobsbawm talks of the importance of the 1930s as a crucial decade in the democratization of not just the third world, but the globe as a whole. The imperial powers—France, Britain—were besieged by both economic and political woes in the form of the Great Depression and the emergence of fascism in Europe. With the globalization of industrial capitalism in the age of Empire, these developments adversely impacted on the already disgruntled colonies:

The Great Slump of 1929-33 shook the entire dependent world. For practically all of it the era of imperialism had been one of continuous growth, unbroken even by the world war from which many of them remained remote…. The Great Slump changed all this. For the first time the interests of dependent and metropolitan economies clashed visibly, if only because the prices of primary products, on which the Third World depended, collapsed so much more dramatically than those of the manufactured goods which they brought from the West. For the first time colonialism and dependency became unacceptable even to those who had hitherto benefited from it…for the first time…the lives of ordinary people [in the colonies] were shaken by earthquakes plainly not of natural origin, and which called for protest rather than prayer. A mass basis for political mobilization came into existence. (Hobsbawm, 1995: 213-4)

8. The mobilization of colonized masses in Asia and Africa under an anti-imperialist umbrella throughout the thirties was paralleled by the mobilization of both liberal and socialist regimes in Europe under an anti-fascist umbrella. These developments had the radical impact of catapulting democratic impulses of various hues onto the world stage and for enabling, perhaps, for the first time in world history, a democratic political vision that was truly global. To paraphrase Hobsbawm, in the 1930s one could see the emerging outlines of a mass politics of the future that would envelop the globe. As modernity’s interlocutors among their mass followers, both Gandhi and Ambedkar were key participants in this emergent global democracy.

Gandhi and Ambedkar in World History

9. Attempts to write about India, especially modern India, from the perspective of a world historical model is bound to attract much skepticism, not least because till recently such a model was scaffolded to a narrative of European imperial formations. India in such a formulation entered “world” history as a British colony and as a “footnote” to the history of Britain. World history was interpreted as the globalization of European domination from the late eighteenth to mid twentieth century. One early expression of this is found in David Thompson’s “What is World History”:

One feature of recent history is the spread of European power and influence throughout the world, and the manifold consequences of this both for Europe and for the other five continents. The result today is a world in which any momentous event anywhere really matters, within a relative short time, to all other parts of the world…a war, breaking out initially between groups of nations in Europe, tends to spread until it entangles nearly every other people on the globe. It seems possible, therefore, for the historian of world history not to write the history of the continents separately.   (Thompson, 1963: 2)

10. In spite of his claims that world historians could now write about all continents together, the structure of Thompson’s book relegates decolonization in Asia and Africa to a chapter in the final stages of his book. Since Thompson there have been many attempts to redress this Eurocentric bias in theorizations of world history   (Pomper, 1998, Stuchtey and Fuchs, 2003). Nevertheless, in the context of India, there is still much skepticism about these efforts. For instance, historian Vinay Lal notes that, while in recent times, there has been a widening of India’s “world” horizon”, not only through the history of the Indian diaspora since World War Two, but also through globalization discourses that see India and China as major global economic and political players in the twenty-first century, world history even today is not much more than “the history of the West energizing the rest of the world”. (Lal, 2003: 287)

11. While one does not doubt his proposition that the West is far from being provincialised even in current attempts to write world history, many recent projects re-imagine colonial histories in a global context by breaking out of the “nations and empire” mould or the “colonizer’s model of the world” and refocussing attention on cultural traffic among imperial centres and colonies. This has had the effect of bringing together the mundane and monumental aspects of imperial systems in intricate networks of not only trade, military power and politics, but also cultural practices, social formations and knowledge-making. Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton use the metaphor, “webs of empire” to describe these networks. As they put it, “the web…conveys something of the double nature of the imperial system. Empires, like webs, were fragile and prone to crises where important threads were broken or structural nodes destroyed, yet also dynamic, being constantly remade and reconfigured through concerted thought and effort”. (Ballantyne and Burton, 2005: 3)

12. While Ballantyne and Burton’s focus on the networked nature of empires does to some extent counter Vinay Lal’s pessimism that world history invariably re-centres the West, there is one aspect of Lal’s analysis that has a bearing on my attempt in this paper to read Gandhi and Ambedkar from a world historical perspective. Lal draws our attention to India’s extensive connections with the world in pre-colonial times and highlights the makings of another kind of world history for India, one that connected her to vast regions in Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean through both trade and cultural-religious enterprises. He cites Janet Abu-Lughod’s monumental work on the pre-European expansion of world systems in the second millennium in which India was part of a vast trading network.   The Coromandel Coast in the south-east, the Malabar Coast in the south west and the ports of Gujarat in western India had active trade connections expanding from south-east Asia to eastern Africa, the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. The Gujarati trading class, to which Gandhi belonged, had a long pre-colonial history of extensive contacts with the world:

Classical sources suggest that Gujarati merchants may have been present in Eygpt in remote antiquity, and their presence in the ports of the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, along the Arab littoral, and on the east coast of Africa, where there seems to be some evidence of Indian settlements from around the tenth century, is well documented. By the late Middle Ages, they appear to have gained dominance in the trade with East Africa, and obtained control over the ports…along the Coromandel coast. (Lal, 2003: 277)

13. Apart from trade, other world historical connections of pre-colonial India included those related to the spread of Buddhism in China, Sri Lanka and south-east Asia much before Christianity and Islam, and what the renowned Indologist, Sheldon Pollock, has called “the Sanskrit Cosmopolis”. The millennium-long temporal stretch of this latter from AD 300 to 1300 had an awesome political and cultural reach from Afghanistan in the West to Vietnam and Central Java in the east. According to Pollock, the cosmopolis was a “new kind of vast zone of cultural interaction, what some might name an ecumene” (Pollock, 1996:199). But since the dominance of empire-led world history, the Sanskrit cosmopolis has remained a little known world cultural formation. Further, India’s pre-colonial links with vast swathes of Asia and Africa are now mediated through an epistemology that foregrounds the history of European colonialism and the rise of the West as normative. In short, the insertion of India into a world history dominated by the making of European empires has had the effect of shrinking the horizon of India’s total historical contact with the world to the history of its relationship with the West.

14. Can then one effectively bypass this conundrum in reading two modern Indian figures against a world historical background? Not wholly perhaps, but the conundrum can be tackled if one argues for the world historical provenance of both Gandhi and Ambedkar not just in terms of British imperialism, but also in terms of traces of India’s pre-colonial links to the world that their respective cosmopolitical projects carry. The rest of my essay will place Gandhi and Ambedkar in world history precisely in these terms. The argument here is that Gandhi’s peripatetic life and work in the context of his genealogy in the old global Gujarati thalassocracy, and Ambedkar’s attempts to revive Buddhism in India and reconnect with the rest of the Buddhist world, when inserted into a narrative of their interventions in global democracy in the age of Empire, unsettle assumptions of modern India being engulfed by an Euro-American dominated world history.

15. In the sections that follow, I trace the “world” orientation of Gandhi and Ambedkar in two ways. First, I delineate their deep engagement with world events during the period of empire and focus on their commitment to global democracy. Second, I briefly trace the vernacular and cosmopolitan idioms of their respective political projects—nonviolenceas a vernacular Hinduised life-practice in Gandhi and democratic development for Ambedkar as a non-hierarchical Buddhist orientation to life. I suggest that these can be read productively in complementary rather than in oppositional terms for both Gandhi and Ambedkar offered resistance to the oppositional way in which the discourse of “normative modernity” (Ganguly, 2005: ix) reads the vernacular in relation to the cosmopolitan, with the later invariably valorized over the former. In doing so, I argue for the provenance of these two thought figures in the domain of a “critical modernity” that bears witness to not just the achievements but the horrors of colonial modernity’s civilizing mission, and that continues to carry traces of pre-colonial modes of connecting with the world. The reading is, in the final analysis, postcolonial in the complex historicist sense of the term, intertwining discrepant temporalities and articulating the pull of the vernacular and the push of the cosmopolitan in one single gesture.

Conversing Democratically in the Age of Empire

16. In an interview with The New York Times on 27 April 1940 Gandhi was asked to comment on the future of India in the context of the Allied struggle in World War Two. In a global democratic gesture linking nationalist struggles in the colonies with the western world’s fight against European fascism, his response categorically connected the democratic future of India to a world free of both fascism and colonialism:

Of what value is freedom to India if Britain and France fail? If these powers fail, the history of Europe and the history of the world will be written in a manner no one can foresee…. [At the same time] by doing justice to India, Britain might ensure victory of the Allies because their cause will then be acclaimed as righteous by the enlightened opinion of the world. (Gandhi, 1987: 309)

Throughout his political career, Gandhi never thought of India’s freedom from colonial rule in isolation from world events. Empire, he believed, needed to be challenged globally, not merely nationally or territorially. As so many Gandhi scholars have noted, his early experience of the colonial race divide in South Africa was the crucible that honed his cosmopolitical vision of a world free of all forms of inequities and bondage. Sifting through his voluminous corpus of books, letters and essays, one finds evidence of a mind constantly at pains to address colonial, communist and fascist excesses in all corners of the globe—Turkey, South Africa, Palestine, Israel, Germany and Russia.

17. One of the earliest manifestations of Gandhi’s commitment to take the fight against imperialism onto the world stage can be seen in his mobilization of Indian masses on behalf of the Caliphate of the defeated Ottoman Empire in World War One. According to the Treaty of Versailles, the British as victors of the War had promised not to abolish the Caliphate claimed at the time by the Ottoman Emperor in Turkey. The Caliphate symbolized for the Muslim world, even if in a tokenistic way, a spiritual and temporal authority uniting the Muslim ummah . So as to ensure that the British kept their promise, an already besieged global Muslim leadership appealed to Indian Muslim leaders to join forces with them and keep up the pressure on colonial authorities. Hence was launched the Khilafat Movement in India to which Gandhi mobilized the masses and provided his wholehearted support, convinced as he was of the necessity to resist the juggernaut of British colonial authority decimating all non-Western political and socio-cultural formations. The Khilafat Movement’s three primary objectives were: to preserve the Turkish Caliphate, to maintain the unity of the Ottoman Empire within its 1914 frontiers and to maintain Islamic protection over the Holy Places of Islam including Palestine   (Minault, 1982). The movement, which did not gain the desired momentum from the very beginning, suffered its fatal blow when, in 1924, Turkey’s new secular republican leader, Kemal Ataturk overthrew the Ottoman Sultan himself and relinquished the Turkish state’s claim to a universal caliphate. In most accounts of this movement Gandhi’s role is seen in strategic terms as a bargain with the Indian Muslims, pledging his support for this pan-Islamic movement in return for their support towards Hindu-Muslim unity in his call forswaraj or total freedom on home ground. This is broadly the thrust of Gail Minault’s argument in her fine and detailed account of the movement, The Khilafat Movement: Religious Symbolism and Political Mobilization in India (1982).

18. However, if one turns from this nationalist focus and places Gandhi’s articulations on Khilafat within the wider ambit of an imperial globalism taking shape in the early years of the twentieth century, one begins to trace a dialogue between Gandhi and the world that has hitherto not been audible in this specific context. Why does Gandhi, for instance, say in his Young India essay of 10 March 1920 that “the Khilafat Question has now become a question of questions”? That, “it has become an imperial question of the first magnitude?” (Gandhi, 1920: 145). Why does he refuse to equate the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre in 1919 with the international importance of the Khilafat Movement, as when he says, “However grievous the wrong done in the Punjab, it is after all a domestic affair…the Punjab grievance does not arise out of the peace [the Versailles Treaty] terms as does the Khilafat question. We must isolate the Khilafat question if we wish to give it its proper value”? (Gandhi, 1919: 140-1) Surely statements such as these cannot be read purely in instrumentalist terms as trying to “win over” Indian Muslims to his nationalist cause. In fact, his relegation of the Amritsar massacre to a “domestic” concern could hardly have endeared him to the masses, either Hindu or Muslim. A clue to Gandhi’s global orientation in the matter of the Caliphate lies in his invocation of a rich Islamic pre-Europe-dominated geopolitical and geocultural space and time that was now under threat of extinction from the modernizing machinations of a colonialist-capitalist enterprise:

The Great Prelates of England and Mahomedan leaders combined have brought the question to the fore. The Prelates threw down the challenge. The Muslim leaders have taken it up. (Gandhi, 1920: 145)

19. In a fascinating recent reading of Gandhi in the context of the Khilafat Movement, Faisal Fatehali Devji notes Gandhi’s resistance to the rhetoric of liberal interest and state arbitration in arguing the case of the Ottoman Empire (Devji, 2005: 86-7). He cites these words of Gandhi to make his case:

Oppose Turkish misrule by all means, but it is wicked to seek to efface the Turk and with him Islam from Europe under the false plea of Turkish misrule…. Was the late war a crusade against Islam, in which the Mussalmans of India were invited to join? (Gandhi, 1921: 190)

20. Devji offers a reading of the Gandhian stance in terms of “prejudice” and a “politics of friendship” towards Islam and Muslims that are not reducible to either the rhetoric of nationalist brotherhood or the rational rhetoric of liberal interest. To that extent he upholds Gandhi as an exemplary articulator of the limits of liberalism in the context of empire, a relationship brilliantly explored by Uday Mehta a few years ago in his book Liberalism and Empire (1999). While such a reading provides another fillip to my attempt to situate Gandhi in a dialogic relationship with the imperial world, it is another comment that Devji makes merely as an aside to his main argument that has a more significant bearing on the way I wish to place Gandhi in a world historical context. It also relates to a point made in an early part of this essay about pre-colonial world historical formations that a Eurocentric world history has all but erased from collective global memory. Devji refers to Gandhi’s “antiquated geographical imaginary”, derived from pre-colonial Indian Ocean trade routes dominated by Arabs and Gujaratis, that ever so often impinged on his readings of British imperial territoriality (Devji, 86). So much so that Gandhi’s rhetoric in his early writing subconsciously linked his passages to London and subsequently South Africa in a continuum with journeys of the old Gujarati thalassocracy rather than in terms of the routes of colonial capital. These old Islamic routes were part of his collective history that he could not orient himself out of simply because the European imperial order charted and controlled them in different ways. It is not an exercise in anachronism or even nostalgia, I submit, to read Gandhi’s conception of his and India’s involvement in the Khilafat movement in terms of his vision of a clash between old Islamic world formations and a new imperial globalism dominated by Europe. The clash may have been decisively settled in favour of the latter, but no historicist account of Europe’s triumph over pre-modern life worlds, can take away from the reality of their survival in some ready-to-hand ways in collective imaginaries across vast swathes of the non-European world. The complexity in worlding Gandhi, however, is not so easily resolved by marking his orientation towards Islamic world formations at a time of their imminent ruin. For Gandhi was as eloquent and forceful in identifying himself as a serious player in the British Empire and in world events as a whole. As he put it famously in 1920, “I serve the Empire by refusing to partake in its wrong” (1920: 192). His critiques of communism with its highhanded statism, of Zionism with its dispossession of Palestinians or of anti-colonial nationalism with its elitist stance towards the masses can certainly be read in this light.

21. The carnage of World War Two evoked in turn exasperation and anguish from him. “Europe seems to be heading for another war. It’s not sufficiently exhausted”, he told Louis Fischer after the atomic Holocaust in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Gandhi, 1987: 581). In his personal correspondence with Mira Behn he expressed sorrow at the bombing of London. On 22 May 1941 he wrote to her:

War news continues to be sensational. The news about the destruction in England is heart-rending. The Houses of Parliament, the Abbey, the Cathedral seemed to be immortal. And yet there is no end…. (1949: 329)

He coped with his anguish by occasionally comparing the War with the epic battle in theMahabharata and drawing on the message of the Bhagvad Gita to be philosophical about victory and defeat. His letter to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur on 25 May 1940 is reminiscent of Krishna’s exhortation to Arjuna not to grieve over the death of his loved ones in the war:

Why should you feel depressed? The Allies seem to be losing everywhere. These are the fortunes of war. You must not grieve over these things. The slaughter is awful but it is part of the game. All parties know what is what. (1961: 181)

22. The War was a prime test of his ethical stance on the non-negotiable nature of nonviolence. The atrocities of Nazi Germany on the one hand and the threat to India’s borders through Japanese invasion on the other demanded more than just a pacifist response. His writings are scattered with his thoughts on the Nazi persecution of Jews. Obviously not able to imagine that the sheer monstrosity of anti-Semitism and the venality of the Nazi bureaucratic machine far exceeded the excesses of British rule in India, Gandhi urged the Jews to resist Germans nonviolently, through Satyagraha, just as the Indians did in South Africa. In 1938 he wrote in the Harijan:

If there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, war against Germany to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race would be completely justified. But I do not believe in any war…. If I were a Jew and were born in Germany and earned my livelihood there, I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German might…. The Jews of Germany can offer satyagraha under infinitely better auspices than the Indians of South Africa. The Jews are a compact homogeneous community in Germany. They are far more gifted than the Indians of South Africa. And they have organized world opinion behind them. I am convinced that if someone with courage and vision can rise among them to lead them to non-violent action…what has today become a degrading manhunt can be turned into a calm and determined stand offered by unarmed men and women possessing the strength of suffering given to them by Jehovah. (cited in Mehta, 1976: 166)

23. In response to the panic among members of the Indian National Congress about an imminent Japanese invasion of the east coast of India, Gandhi pleaded with the INC to exercise restraint and not think in terms of an armed conflict. A troubled Nehru wrote:

The approach of the war to India disturbed Gandhi greatly. It was not easy to fit in his policy and program of non-violence with this new development. Obviously civil disobedience was out of the question in the face of an invading army or between two opposing armies. Passivity or acceptance of invasion was equally out of the question. What then? (Nehru, 1948: 127)

24. In 1942, Gandhi had already dispatched his trusted lieutenant Mira Behn to Orissa to “prepare” as Mira Behn put it, “the masses for non-violent, non-co-operative resistance to the probable Japanese invasion of the east coast” (1949: 335) From Orissa Mira Behn sent a detailed report to Gandhi on The Question of Invasion and Occupation by the Japanese (1949: 336-40). The report outlined nonviolent strategies that the people of Orissa would be persuaded to adopt in the event of an invasion. The course of history did not allow Gandhi to have his way, not only because the Japanese did not get beyond India’s North East, but also because negotiations with Nehru and Congress compelled Gandhi to “swallow the bitter pill” and accept that the “primary function of the provisional government of free India would be to throw all her great resources in the struggle for freedom against aggression and to cooperate fully with the United Nations in the defense of India with all the armed and other forces at her command” (Nehru, 1948: 115)

25. While Gandhi went along temporarily with Nehru’s pragmatic position that India’s cooperation in regard to the Japanese invasion would expedite her freedom from British rule, he remained convinced of the long term efficacy of his nonviolent stance in resisting world wide colonialism and bondage. Tied to this commitment was his very radical vision of democracy that plumbed the very depths of what it was to be human in those fraught times. Calling himself a “born democrat”, he added, “I make that claim, if complete identification with the poorest of mankind, longing to live no better than they, and a corresponding conscious effort to approach that level to the best of one’s ability can entitle one to make it” (cited in Nehru, 1948: 189). It is worth reading this radical Gandhian democratic gloss on the ethicality of being poor retroactively into a recent exposition of the “poor” as “the common denominator of life, the foundation of the multitude” found in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2000: 156). What kind of democracy was Gandhi espousing and why was identifying with the poorest of mankind such a radical gesture that unsettled discourses of liberal democracy then circulating in the colonies? Hardt and Negri’s exposition on the poor helps us answer these to some extent:

In each and every historical period a social subject that is ever-present and everywhere the same is identified, often negatively but nonetheless urgently, around a common living form…. The only non-localizable “common name” of pure difference in all eras is that of the poor. The poor is destitute, excluded, repressed, exploited—and yet living! …. This common name, the poor, is also the foundation of every possibility of humanity (2000: 156).

For Gandhi to live democratically was not merely a matter of reaping the benefits of electoral politics and representative government. It meant putting oneself in touch with the very root or foundation of what made humanity possible—the condition of being poor, bereft, destitute, a condition of pure difference in all eras and yet a common living form.

26. To turn now to Ambedkar’s links with the world in the age of empire, by even the most sympathetic of accounts he did not command the presence that Gandhi did in the global order of things. Nevertheless, over his lifetime he displayed a unique cosmopolitical sensibility, one forged during his graduate study days in New York and London during World War One when he began to imagine perhaps for the first time in the history of India’s untouchable castes, the dalits, the possibility of a genuine global democratic revolution that would link dalit freedom from the shackles of untouchability to the overthrow of racism against coloured and black people across the world. Ambedkar’s intervention on behalf of Indian dalits, in fact, can be inserted in any twentieth century political and legal narrative of the global passage of the notion of rights from “civil rights” to “human rights”. Even though he would later make fine distinctions between caste and race, this aspect of his legacy has remained with the dalit movement and was given global articulation at the UN Conference on Racism in Durban in 2001. Ambedkar’s biographer, Dhananjay Keer, notes the impact on him of the Fourteenth Amendment declaring freedom of African Americans when he was a student of John Dewey and Edwin Seligman from 1913-1916. Keer also notes how affected Ambedkar was by the death in 1915 of the African American reformer and educator, Booker T. Washington. What did not happen, however, was the quick transformation of the student into a revolutionary, and this in spite of the presence of the Indian Gadar Party revolutionary leaders such as Lala Har Dayal and Lala Lajpat Rai in New York at the time. Ambedkar preferred to concentrate on his studies at the time. After three years at Columbia University, he proceeded to the University of London to do his doctorate.

27. But he could not maintain his detachment from colonial politics for long. His doctoral thesis called The Problem of the Rupee , which he submitted to the University of London in 1922, caused a furore for it offended his imperial examiners and they demanded that he rewrite it. In the thesis Ambedkar argued that in the final settlement of the currency problem the exchange rate between the rupee and the pound was manipulated to the greater advantage of the pound and that this would lead to further impoverishment of Indians. While his pragmatism made him revise the thesis to some extent, he refused to modify his conclusions and stood his ground. A few weeks earlier he had spoken passionately to the students’ union at his University about the responsibilities of the colonial government in India. His paper was later circulated among University staff and students and it evoked an alarmed response from Professor Harold Laski who commented on the “revolutionary nature” of Ambedkar’s exposition. (Keer, 1962: 49)

28. Unlike anarchist tendencies in Gandhi’s response to nation-making, Ambedkar’s academic training in law, economics and political science oriented him towards arguing for the importance of the constructionist role of the state. He researched liberal democratic frameworks and aspired to a form of representational governance that spoke the language of identity-based politics. This implied, for him, not just recognition of minoritarianism on the basis of religion, but also of caste. The untouchables, he argued, could never hope to participate in nation-making unless they had special political representation. This was the basis of his disagreement with Gandhi who aspired to a non-fragmented Hindu constituency and who believed that the untouchable cause could be redressed through revolutionary transformations in the domain of civil society. Gandhi could not conceive of a political scenario where the untouchables stood outside Hindu representation, even though the social reality through millennia was precisely that the untouchables were located outside the bounds of Hindi sociality. Gandhi was steadfast in his conviction that his commitment to and identification with the destitute, which constituted the cornerstone of his democratic vision, would be sufficient to transform Hindu society and eradicate untouchability. Ambedkar’s social-scientific and legally trained mind was deeply suspicious of Gandhi’s emotive and sentimental take on the problem of untouchability, especially when Gandhi announced in the same breath that he was and would always remain a Sanatani Hindu. Theirs was a critical dialogue on competing visions of representational democracy and resolution of minoritarian questions—liberalism, socialism Marxism, anarchism—in the era of fledging nation-building in the colonized world. The rest of twentieth century politics would continue to resonate with these meta-themes and agonistically witness radical manifestations of democratic life forms across the postcolonial world.

29. For more than half his life, Ambedkar negotiated the dialectic between nation and the world through conversations on democracy with Indian nationalist leaders, with the colonial government and with the vast tomes of political, social and legal philosophy in which he immersed himself from his early youth. But he eventually found his home in the world by recuperating for India a link with a pre-colonial world historical formation in the form of Buddhism. In the concluding section of this paper, I propose to read his conversion to Buddhism in terms of a vernacular cosmopolitical act that drew on the cosmopolitical genealogies of the non-Christian world while at the same time resisting both antiquarianism and indigenism (Pollock, et.al. 2000: 582). Here I very briefly want to foreground Ambedkar’s renewal of India’s connections with the world through Asia, which, as we saw in early parts of this paper, were severed with the advent of colonial rule. Ambedkar’s determination to lead untouchables out of the Hindu fold and into a more egalitarian religion, Buddhism, was tied to a desire to bring Buddhism back to the land of its birth and make India once again an important node, if not the central one, in Asian Buddhist transnationalism. For this purpose, all through the late 1940s right up to his death in 1956, he travelled to many parts of Buddhist Asia—Sri Lanka, Burma, Tibet and Japan—in order to forge spiritual alliances and bring to life once again an Asian world formation that could converse with modernity in tongues both sacred and secular. His dialogic uptake on Marxism through the teachings of the Buddha was the substance of his intervention at the World Buddhist Conference in Kathmandu in 1949 and again in 1956. He spent many days in Sri Lanka in 1954 to specifically study Sinhalese Buddhist practices. He subsequently attended the Rangoon World Buddhist Conference. In these years, he also frequently conversed with an English monk, Denis Lingwood (Sangharakshita), who was then based in a monastery in north-eastern India. His letters to Sangharakshita exhorted the young English monk to take the message of Buddha to the western world. Sangharakshita subsequently founded the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) in the UK in 1969 which now has branches all over the world. In one of those recursive ironies that so characterize world history, after Ambedkar’s death in 1956, the role of FWBO has been critical in keeping Buddhist religious practices alive among neo-Buddhist dalits in India, especially in Maharashtra, Ambedkar’s home state.

The Precariousness of Vernacular Cosmopolitics

30. In the concluding section of this paper I wish to bring together the various lines that have so far traced the world historical provenance of Gandhi and Ambedkar on to a conceptual matrix that I call after Bhabha, “vernacular cosmopolitanism” While I do draw on Bhabha’s assertion that the phrase best applies to the orientation of embattled leaders and thought figures of the non-White, non-Western world—Du Bois, Gandhi, Ambedkar, Fanon, Morrison—who attempt to “translate between cultures and across them in order to survive, not in order to assert the sovereignty of a civilized class or the spiritual autonomy of a revered ideal” (Bhabha, 2002: 23-24) in my reading of Gandhi and Ambedkar, I wish to explore the phrase a little further both conceptually and historically. The term at first glance is an oxymoron. For “vernacular” connotes an affiliation to a domain that is local, finite, while “cosmopolitan” invokes an orientation to a world larger than one’s own immediate habitus . How then does one yoke them together? What does this oxymoronic adjacency generate? Before I attempt to answer these questions, I would also like to note that the origins of the word “vernacular” lie in the term “verna” which etymologically denotes the language of slaves in Roman Republics. The circulation of the term “varna” in the Indian context further complicates its meaning, for in Sanskritvarna literally means “colour”. A philological reading of “vernacular”, one that traces its embeddedness in historical practice, cannot help carrying signs of subjugation—slavery of course, but also racial subjugation if colour is refracted on to race in the age of Empire. The passage of meaning from subjugation to a finite, local boundedness is not hard to imagine. So, I ask again, what does its yoking together with “cosmopolitanism”—a term that connotes a “world” orientation facilitating a free crossing of boundaries—achieve in the context under discussion?

31. One yokes them together, I submit, in order to mark critical moments of historical conjunction when historically disenfranchised “small” narratives engage in dialogue with firmly entrenched “world-enveloping” ones to generate radical transformations in both. So that, for instance, liberalism when translated or carried over to the domain of the colonized through the lexicon of Gandhian ahimsa or Ambedkarite-Buddhist dhamma, becomes a term loaded with plural histories of the individuating self and its relationship with community and the State. In the domain of Empire, liberalism, as Uday Mehta has shown, repeatedly confronts its limits in other non-European political narratives and is willy-nilly forced to hybridize itself. Again, notwithstanding the “ancient” cultural repertoire from which Gandhi and Ambedkar draw their political lexicon, their own deployment of predominantly “vernacular” Hindu and Buddhist terms is shot through with modern hybrid genealogies that bespeak the historical and cultural permeability of modernity’s multiple practices. Such a reading breaks through the dichotomy of a modernizing cosmopolitanism and a vernacular traditionalism. Let me briefly illustrate this argument with examples from the writings of Gandhi and Ambedkar.

32. In enunciating his principle of nonviolence through terms such as ahimsa,satyagraha and sarvodaya (“nonviolence”, “truth-force” and “welfare of all”), Gandhi is constantly at pains to foreground the “vernacular” connotative force of these concepts, to highlight that they are not exactly recuperable in English through terms such as “passive resistance”. On June 11, 1917, he writes to an English friend, Esther: “You may not know that the Gujarati for passive resistance is truth-force. I have variously defined it as truth-force, love-force or soul-force” (Gandhi, 1987: 23-24). In 1914, he writes about truth-force and soul-force in the Indian Opinion:

It is totally untrue to say that it is a force to be used only by the weak so long as they are not capable of meeting violence by violence. This superstition arises from the incompleteness of theEnglish expression. It is impossible for those who consider themselves weak to apply this force. Only those who realize that there is something in man which is superior to the brute nature in him, and that the latter always yields to it, can effectively be Passive Resisters. This force is to violence and, therefore, to all tyranny, all injustice, what light is to darkness. (1987: 21)

33. Gandhi’s emphasis on the power of the Gujarati term satyagraha which the English translation cannot convey, however, does not prevent him for invoking Socrates, Christ, Tolstoy, Thoreau, Ruskin, Emerson, and many ancient Indian philosophers, to account for its complex etymology. In doing so, I argue, he seeks to distil into his Gujarati use of the term the combined connotative force of global registers of nonviolence available to him as his peripatetic inheritance and training. In this issue of the journal, Leela Gandhi’s paper discusses yet another aspect of the complex etymology of Gandhian nonviolence and locates some early influences on Gandhi in a radical fringe late Victorian animal-welfare and vegetarian movement. During his student days, Gandhi imbibed from this movement a critique of imperial masculinity, a resistance to modern forms of governmentality and a regard for multiple forms of relationality that included strangers in radical ways. Leela’s argument is not only that these can be read as constituting part of the vocabulary of Gandhian nonviolence, but that their very “integrity” and “organicity” can themselves be read under the comprehensive sign of ahimsa. Each gets translated into the other. This resonates strongly with the line of argument I have pursued, that the vernacular cosmopolitics of a Gandhi or an Ambedkar is about generating transformation in the assured global registers of the political through their translations into and from myriad petit registers.

34. Ambedkar’s mining of Buddhist discourse to seek in it points of convergence and dialogue with modern political philosophy, especially Marxism, socialism and liberalism, can be seen precisely in terms of such a vernacular cosmopolitical practice. As an aside I also wish to note that, like Gandhi, he wrote in a register that was truly vernacular, truly accessible to ordinary men and women who invested so much faith in him.   He did not allow his specialist training in legal and political philosophy and his vast erudition to come in the way of writing in an accessible manner. One very good example is his attempt to read the principles of the French Revolution into Buddha’s social message in terms of four rhetorical questions:

Did the Buddha teach justice?

Did the Buddha teach liberty?

Did the Buddha teach equality?

Did the Buddha teach fraternity?

(Ambedkar, 2002: 218)

He then goes on to impatiently mark a lacuna in esoteric traditionalist interpretations of Buddha’s message by adding, “These questions are hardly ever raised in discussing the Buddha’s Dhamma” (2002: 218). His famous ahistoricist comparison of Marx and Buddha, written in a register suspect to academic specialists, was actually delivered at a World Buddhist Conference in 1956 with the express intention of translating a possible dialogue between the two thought figures to the world at large in terms of a truly inclusive ethics of universal humanity. What is significant about this piece of writing is not so much Ambedkar’s successful demonstration through a series of syllogisms that Buddhism has ethically more to offer than Marxism in terms of a democratic world order, but its subtext that the world is that much poorer for not taking into account (or merely dismissing as traditional) other legitimate and ethical ways of dwelling democratically on earth in the present.

35. In an earlier part of this paper, we read Ambedkar’s place in world history not only in terms of his attempt to forge along with Gandhi a democratic vision for India and the world in the age of Empire, but also in terms of his efforts to reestablish India’s links with the Asian world through Buddhism. His translational cosmopolitical efforts were thus, directed, not just westwards towards Euro-American life-worlds, but also towards an aspired Buddhist cosmopolis that would be truly global in its reach and vision. Likewise, Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance to the imperial regime was an effort to globalize the forces of soul, truth and love through acts of active translation in disparate tongues and registers, especially those disenfranchised by the British imperial machine. In spite of drawing deeply from the wellsprings of India’s spiritual heritage, neither was antiquarian, nor indigenist in his response to the horrors of colonialism. In treading the faultlines of seismic political and cultural upheavals in the twentieth century, especially from the side of the vanquished, both were acutely aware of the precariousness of their cosmopolitical vision. But they were equally convinced of the sheer urgency of their moral and political enterprise in an age that stood at the threshold of a global democratic revolution of the kind never witnessed before.

Debjani Ganguly is Director of Research Development and was formerly a Research Fellow at the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research, The Australian National University. She is the author of Caste, Colonialism and Counter-Modernity: Notes on a Postcolonial Hermeneutics of Caste (Routledge, 2005) and is co-editor of this specialBorderlands issue.

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© borderlands ejournal 2005

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