Round Table India
You Are Reading
Political Philosophy of B.R. Ambedkar: A Critical Understanding
default image


Dr. P. Kesava Kumar

(This is the first part of the paper first published in International Research Journal of Social Sciences, Vol.1 No.2. Pp.193-210, 2008, Pondicherry University, Puducherry)


The political philosophy of Ambedkar may help in renegotiating the crisis of western political theory in particular and leading the struggles of the masses in general. One can see Ambedkar’s association with the grand political streams such as liberal, radical or conservative through his writings. At the same time he differentiates himself with these three dominant political traditions. Ambedkar’s philosophy is essentially ethical and religious. For him, the social precedes the political. Social morality is central to his political philosophy. He is neither a fierce individualist nor a conservative communitarian. His conceptions of democracy internalises the principles of equality, liberty, and fraternity in their true spirit. Though there are many attempts but one may find difficulty in locating him in dominant political traditions. Often this may lead to misunderstanding of the essence of Ambedkar. Ambedkar’s political thought demands a new language to understand the complexity of his thoughts.

Key words: Moral community, Caste system, Democracy, Liberalism, Marxism, Conservatism, Liberal Bourgeoisie, Social Democrat, Progressive Radical, State Socialism


Ambedkar has emerged as a major political philosopher with the rise of the dalit movement in contemporary times. There are several attempts to understand Ambedkar and his philosophy. Confusion prevails among scholars due to the existence of diverse, and sometimes, contradictory theoretical assessments of Ambedkar. The social context of the scholars and their subjective positions play a major role in the assessment of the thinker and very often the opinions of scholars evoke extreme reactions which either elevate or demean Ambedkar. Though he had a great influence on Indian politics from the nationalist movement onwards, till the eighties, there has been not much academic debate on Ambedkar. The communities of knowledge and centres of power either ignored or deliberately marginalized him as a thinker and social scientist. Ambedkar is nowhere mentioned in the contemporary Indian philosophy and the philosophical discourses. This exclusion of Ambedkar has to be understood with the implicit politics of the writers on Indian philosophy. Very interestingly, the masses /communities of the underprivileged of Indian society bring him into the forefront. It is not an exaggeration to say that there is no major village in the country without a statue of Ambedkar. He is the most celebrated symbol of contemporary times in India. Due to the masses/Dalit communities’s symbolic association with Ambedkar, political parties and academics ranging from conservatives to radicals, are forced to look at Ambedkar. The celebration of Ambedkar has the undercurrent of failure of the Indian democratic State to reach the majority of this nation, and the assertion of these ignored communities. In other words, Ambedkar’s philosophy is a search towards the theories of social reconstruction of the Indian society.

Crisis of Western Political Theory

Let us have a brief look at the major philosophical traditions of politics before we proceed into the political philosophy of Ambedkar. Political philosophers sought to explore social phenomena and political behavior, (often in a historical context) as well as to clarify problematic concepts, evaluate existing institutions, and argue for social ideals. Political philosophy is about the critical reflection of politics and its practices. It is about the understanding of the governing principles of a society in a much more critical fashion. It tries to philosophize the values, principles, practices and institutions, which govern the society. Philosophers gave different interpretations about the meaning of public life and governing principles of good society. Morality of the society and the ways of functioning of institutions serve as a source in deriving political theory. Socio-economic developments and the ensuing conflicts in society provide conditions for the emergence of new social and political theories. Political thought seems to spring from the political experience of both the thinker and his society. Political theory is nothing but the systematization of moral and political judgments of our activities.

Historically, Greek thought followed the Christian natural law. In the West, Christian natural law was undermined by the individualism of the seventeenth century. Relationship between individual and god was replaced by the relationship between individual and individual as the foundation of social enquiry. This individualism becomes the basic characteristic of the subsequent liberal tradition. The idea of social initiative and social control surrendered to the idea of individual initiative and individual control. In simple terms, new material conditions gave birth to new social relationships and new philosophy was evolved to afford a rational justification for the new world which had come into being. This new philosophy became known as liberalism. Liberalism acquired different flavors in different national cultures. The difficulties in liberal theory lie in its basic foundations of seventeenth century individualism and its quality of possessiveness. The possessive quality lies in the conception of the individual as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities owing nothing to society. The individual was seen neither as a moral whole, nor as a part of a larger social whole, but as a proprietor of himself. The basic assumption of possessive individualism –that man is free and human by virtue of his sole proprietorship of his own person, and that human society is essentially a series of market relations, were deeply embedded in seventeenth century foundations. The inconsistency lies inherently in the market society itself. Market society automatically brings the class differentiations. The propertied class would like to hold power over the subordinate classes. Men no longer saw themselves fundamentally equal in an inevitable subjection to the determination of market. Alternatives emerged for the market system. Articulation of proletarian politics gave a serious blow to the liberal politics. There are altogether different assumptions about man and society. The community has replaced individual. Marxist theory aims at radical change in society and its human relations. Human society as seen from the perspective of class considers human being as primarily a producer. His relations are determined by his involvement in social production. Other than the Marxist notion there is a conservative political theory that would like to see society from the point of view of community. Conservatism has reverence for tradition, religion and age old custom. Edmund Burke is one of the examples for conservative tradition. Burke, more than any thinker of the eighteenth century, approached the political tradition with a sense of religious reverence. The conservative view of politics is known as politics of tradition. The state in particular and society in general must operate with respect to traditions and customs. The rights of the groups are acknowledged in that particular society. Conservative perspective works within the limits of the given order accepting forms of political action within the structural framework of existing institutions. Conservative theory of politics is known as politics of imperfection. It finds limitations with human beings and believes that human beings will be unable to create a social order through their own spontaneous efforts. People are inherently greedy and selfish. To restrain them there is a need for a state. The power is state. State plays a central role in conservative thought. It is the backbone of social order and authority, the guarantor of social hierarchy. As per the conservative views, the inherent imperfections of human nature make a strong state necessary. It is needed to control the anti-social impulses of the individual. As per the traditional conservative perspective, social order is not and can never be achieved spontaneously by the free play of individual activities as claimed by liberals and anarchists. Social order has to be maintained through the strong leadership of those who hold positions of political responsibility. It does not mean that state is the only agency which maintains social order. Conservatives stress the importance of tradition, custom and of network of longstanding groups and associations, all pre- requisites of social order.

In the late 1970s the political scientist Fred R. Dallmayr reiterated the statement of Peter Laslett, “the great tradition of theoretical literature stretching from Hobbes to Bosanquet had been broken and that for the moment, anyway, political philosophy is dead.”1 The crisis in political philosophy may be understood with the changed socio- economic developments and the unrelatedness of intellectuals to politics. In twentieth century, western political philosophy is marked with its defense of liberal democracy and legacy of civil rights against totalitarian or repressive forces. The economic practices and scientific rationality of the west got different meanings in the developing nations. In recent times, the culmination of western science and economics leading towards dominance over other parts of the world invites competition and confrontation at the global level. This situation has compelled the west to rethink and reformulate the central premises of its philosophy, and its conception of ‘reason’. And at the same time, there is a need to critically understand what constitutes ‘subjectivity’ and its cognitive activity. This dilemma seems to be aptly captured by Fred Dallmayr, ‘In the domain of political thought, the contemporary dilemma can be phrased broadly in terms of the relationship between ‘contract’ and ‘community’.”2 Society is made of collectives which generate political community. Far from involving only the aspect of inter-subjective or inter-individual contracts, a revision or modification of individualism in the light of communal bonds necessitates a general reconsideration of man’s relation to the world and nature – a reconsideration that inevitably conjures up the peril of objectivism and naturalism. Contemporary political theory appears precariously lodged at the crossroads of liberal individualism and post-individualist communalism3. Christian Bay elaborates this in his article ‘From Contract to Community’; he links up the major predicaments of post-industrial society with the basic assumptions and preferences of ‘individualistic contract liberalism’ as inaugurated by Hobbes and Locke and it manifested in different forms. He notes that, liberals have ‘persistently tended to cut the citizen off from the person’, putting on their pedestal ‘a cripple of a man’ without a ‘moral or political nature’ and without ‘moorings in any real community’4. However, the debates of political philosophy in later days tried to articulate from the point of community or individual in relation to community.

Ambedkar : Social precedes political

Ambedkar’s thought, as reflected in his writings and speeches, has great importance in tracing the history and growth of social thought in India. It is necessary to understand the philosophy of Ambedkar which is the theoretical foundation for the Dalit movement. The core of political thinking of Ambedkar is contained in two of his statements- the rights are protected not by law but by social and moral conscience of society, and a democratic form of government presupposes a democratic form of society. He considers democracy essentially as a form of society, or a mode of associated living, and a social conscience is the only safeguard of all rights. The roots of democracy are to be searched in social relationships, in terms of associated life among the people who form a society. For him, social relationships are the key to democracy. Ambedkar is a social democrat in spirit and practice. His special contribution to political thought lies in his linking up liberty, equality and fraternity to the concept of social democracy, which in turn, he relates to democracy as a form of government. He further reminds us of the limitations of social democracy in everyday functioning. As he categorically stated while addressing the constituent assembly (November 25, 1949), ‘Political democracy can not last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy’ which means, a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life.’ In this sense he defined democracy as a form and method of government whereby revolutionary changes in the economic and social life of people are brought about without bloodshed.

In most of the speeches and writings of Ambedkar, the central theme is social reformism. He often debated and confronted the issue of precedence of social over political issues. Politics have to be necessarily connected to social issues. The very foundations of democracy lie in associated living in society. On the issue of giving primacy to social over political, he differs with the Congress and the socialists. This is well reflected in all his writings in general, and ‘Annihilation of caste’ and ‘What Congress and Gandhi have done to Untouchables’ in particular.

In contemporary times, once ‘caste’ got theoretically recognized and established as the Indian social reality, the established political and social theories got new meanings. Ambedkar as a thinker got prominence because of his scholarly conceptualization of the institution of caste and its functioning in Indian society. He interpreted the Indian social world in order to change the lives of the Dalit masses who are the victims of caste system. The situation demands proper assessment of Ambedkar’s political philosophy in relation to other prominent political streams of the time. Ambedkar is a real philosopher in the Marxian sense. He has interpreted the Indian social reality in order to change it.

In estimating Ambedkar’s political philosophy, the study will consider the following questions: What is his conception of the human being and society? What are his conceptions of rights, freedom and justice that flow in both his thought and action? What are the cultural and historical roots of these conceptions in his thought? In what way does he connect democracy and social inequality? How does he resolve the question of individual and community? What kind of theory does he propose in bringing out the relationship between State and religion? How did he perceive the role of Dalit movement (Depressed class) in India’s democratic future?

Political Philosophy of Ambedkar

Ambedkar is influenced by all the major political traditions of his times. His political thought has emerged from the three grand traditions of political thought, i.e. liberal, conservative and radical. The unique feature about him is that he has transcended all these traditions. He was influenced by the ideas of John Dewey, the pragmatic American and his teacher. The Fabian Edwin R. A. Seligman had considerable impact on his thought. He often quoted Edmund Burke, the conservative thinker of British, though we can’t brand Ambedkar as a conservative. Ambedkar’s notion of liberty comes close to T.H. Green.

Ambedkar’s philosophy is primarily ethical and religious. He thoroughly explored the Indian traditions and its philosophical systems in a unique way. He developed political concepts like democracy, justice, state and rights from his understanding of Indian society and the functioning of its institutions on the moral grounds. He is very critical of the institution of caste, which influences all the spheres of individual’s life and the Indian society as a whole. He further discusses how the individual is related to the society and how the individual’s freedom is limited by other social forces. He is critical of authoritarian Hindu social order and argued in favor of a democratic society. He probed into the moral and social foundations of India and gave new meaning to the lives of disadvantaged people. His was a rationale approach. Reason plays a role in his writings and speeches. The methodology he used is very scientific rather than speculative. He was influenced by the assumptions of modernity. He is well informed in many areas of Indian history, polity, culture, anthropology and philosophy. He quotes many thinkers in his writings, those who have influenced him.

The notion of community is central to his thinking. To say that individuals make up society is trivial; society is always composed of classes. It may be an exaggeration to assert the theory of class conflict, but the existence of definite classes in society is a fact… an individual in a society is always a member of a class. A caste is an enclosed class. Brahmins created caste and it is extended to other servile classes. Caste is an endogamous unit and also a communal unit. His political theory was premised on a moral community. It was as an ideal to be realised. He was very much critical about the Hindu social order. He argues that Hinduism is not qualified to be a community. Buddhism was projected as the ideal having the value of community grounding on morality. He considers that Buddhism attempted to found society on the basis of ‘reason’ and ‘morality’.

His conception of community is very novel. He does not confirm to either Hindu ideal community or Marxist conception of community based on participation in production process. His conception of community is moral and ethical. It is not automatically available for participation in common affairs. His idea of community has to be created through hard and torturous process of moral transformation.

On Democracy

Ambedkar had a lengthy discussion on democratic form of government in his writings. His conception of democracy is different from the parliamentary democracy of Western Europe. Democracy came with the principles of liberalism. His conception of democracy is different from parliamentary forms in a significant way. Parliamentary democracy has all the marks of a popular government, a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Ambedkar considered the problems and expressed discontent against the parliamentary democracy in nations like Italy, Germany, Russia, Spain and some other European nations in proposing the parliamentary democracy in India. Ambedkar finds reasons for the failure of parliamentary democracy that ‘parliamentary democracy gives no free hand to dictatorship and that is why it became a discredited institution in the countries like Italy, Spain and Germany which readily welcomed dictatorships’.5 The nations that are opposing dictatorship and pledged to democracy too find their discontent with democracy. First, parliamentary democracy began with equality of political rights in the form of equal suffrage. There are very few countries having parliamentary democracy that have not adopted adult suffrage. It has progressed by expanding the notion of equality of political rights to equality of social and economic opportunity. It has recognized that corporations, which are anti-social in purpose, cannot hold the state at bay. With all this, ‘the reason for discontent is due to the realization that it has failed to assure to the masses the right to liberty, property or the pursuit of happiness. The causes for this failure may be found either in wrong ideology or wrong organization or in both.’6 He elaborated this point by pointing out the fault with both wrong ideologies and bad organization in carrying the ideals of democracy. The idea of freedom of contract is one of the responsible factors for parliamentary democracy in terms of ideology. Parliamentary democracy took no notice of economic inequalities and didn’t care to examine the result of freedom of contract on the parties to the contract, in spite of the fact that they were unequal in bargaining power. It didn’t mind if the freedom of contract gave the strong the opportunity to defraud the weak. The result is that parliamentary democracy in standing out as a protagonist of liberty has continuously added to economic wrongs towards the poor, downtrodden and disinherited class.’7 The second wrong ideology which has vitiated parliamentary democracy is the failure to realize that political democracy can not succeed where there is no social and economic democracy’.8 He illustrated this point by comparing the collapse of parliamentary democracy in the countries of Italy, Germany and Russia with England and USA. He felt that there was a greater degree of economic and social democracy in the latter countries than existed in the former. ‘Social and economic democracy are the tissues and fiber of a political democracy. The tougher the tissue and the fiber, the greater the strength of the body.’9 Democracy is another name for equality. Parliamentary democracy developed a passion for liberty. It never made even nodding acquaintance with equality. It failed to realize the significance of equality and didn’t even strike a balance between liberty and equality, with the result liberty swallowed equality and has made democracy a name and a farce.

More than bad ideology, bad organization is responsible for failure of democracy. All political societies get divided into two classes- the rulers and the ruled. This is almost stratified that rulers are always drawn from the ruling class and the class that is ruled never become the ruling class. This happens because generally people do not see that they govern themselves. They are content to establish a government and leave it to govern them. This explains why parliamentary democracy has never been a government of the people or by the people and why it has been in reality a government of the hereditary subject class by a hereditary ruling class. It is this, a vicious organization of political life which had made parliamentary democracy such a dismal failure.10 It is wrong to believe that democracy and self government automatically became realities of life. In fact, the existing governing class is inconsistent with democracy and self-government and made all its efforts to retain its power to govern. Ambedkar felt that self-government and democracy become real not when the constitution based on adult suffrage comes into existence but when the governing class loses its power to capture the power to govern. In some countries the servile classes may succeed in ousting the governing class from the seat of authority with just by adult suffrage. In some other countries the governing class may be so deeply entrenched that the servile classes will need other safeguards besides adult suffrage to achieve the same end11.

Ambedkar accused the western writers that they were superficial and have not provided the realistic view of democracy. They superficially touched the constitutional morality, adult suffrage and frequent elections as the be-all and end-all of democracy. Ambedkar proposed a written constitution for an effective democracy. The habits of constitutional morality may be essential for the maintenance of a constitutional form of government and he puts more emphasis on the moral society and its customs than the written legal law in governing its people. He heavily invested on social morality for effective functioning of the democratic form of government. He reminds us very often, in devising the constitution one has to keep in mind that the principle aim of the constitution must be to dislodge the governing class from its position and to prevent it from remaining as a governing class forever.12

To be continued.



[1] Dallmayr, Fred R. ‘Political Theory at Cross Roads’ in From Contract to Community, Marcel Dekkar, Inc, New York, 1978. p.1

[2] Ibid.p.9

[3] Ibid p.9

[4] Bay, Christian, “Thoughts on Liberalism and Post- Industrial Society” in From Contract to Community. P.29-45.

[5] Roudrigues, Valerian (Ed.) The Essential Writings of B.R.Ambedkar, New Delhi : Oxford University Press, 2002, p.61

[6] Ibid, p.62

[7] Ibid,p.62

[8] Ibid ,p.62

[9] Ibid,p.62

[10] Ibid, p.63

[11] Ibid, p.63

[12] Ibid. p .64



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

Email: pkesav-at-gmail-dot-com

Leave a Reply