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Indian Academia's Shunning Of Ambedkar The Philosopher Reeks Of Social Exclusion

Why is he untouchable by the standards of philosophy departments?

04/04/2017 4:06 PM IST | Updated 06/04/2017 8:50 AM IST
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About 15 years ago, Columbia University professor of philosophy, Akeel Bilgrami, published a splendid and widely read article that served to justify viewing Gandhi as a philosopher. Bilgrami suggested that Gandhi's political strategies were so integrated with abstract epistemological and methodological commitments that his thought took on the quality of bonafide philosophy, albeit not, obviously, academic philosophy.

Bilgrami's efforts met with seemingly universal approbation. There has been no shortage of torch-bearers on the topic, an endless schedule of seminars devoted to reading Gandhi as a philosopher, and numerous research theses and doctoral dissertations composed on Gandhi's thought within academic philosophy programs both in Indian universities and abroad.

I have encountered over and over again a profound resistance against introducing Ambedkar not only into the curriculum, but even across the thresholds of the doorways to philosophy departments.

As influential as Bilgrami's article was, there is a sense in which it was also supererogatory, at least in the Indian context. After all, very few—if indeed any—academic philosophy programs in India would hinder a student from conducting research on Gandhi. And this despite of that fact that Gandhi was not just not an academic philosopher, he was not even an academic. Still, that gate pass is quite freely granted to those academic philosophers and students wishing to write on Gandhi. And of course rightly so.

Things stand completely otherwise, however, with Ambedkar. Ambedkar the academic, Ambedkar the scholar. But not, never, Ambedkar the philosopher.

Over the last dozen years of engagement with academic philosophers in India, I have encountered over and over again a profound resistance against introducing Ambedkar not only into the curriculum, but even across the thresholds of the doorways to philosophy departments. Keep in mind that there is nothing at all wrong with healthy debate about what material fits into the syllabus of a program with limited space and time. But this is not a healthy debate I am speaking of. It is, rather, indicative of a social sickness.

For, a good deal of the resistance is completely irrelevant to the legitimate institutional constraints upon the curriculum of any time-bound program. Here I am speaking only of students who wish to conduct research and writing on Ambedkar within philosophy departments. From my experience, these students are routinely forced to redirect their attention and energy to first establishing that Ambedkar's ideas even merit attention by philosophers. Many of these students get demoralised in the initial viva voce, and never get passed the proposal stage. Forget Ambedkar, they are told, work on a serious philosopher. Hence is born yet another mediocre thesis on Padma Bhushan Wittgenstein.

A thesis on Gandhi? Fine, carry on. Bilgrami said it's ok. A thesis on Ambedkar? The committee erupts in chorus: "but he is not even a philosopher!"

Why should this laborious burden be placed upon the shoulders of students who wish to research topics such as Ambedkar as a feminist, or on traces of Deweyian pragmatism in Ambedkarite thought?A thesis on Gandhi? Fine, carry on. Bilgrami said it's ok. A thesis on Ambedkar? The committee erupts in chorus: "but he is not even a philosopher!"

While I do not delight in saying it, I am forced to draw the conclusion that, in the guise of protecting the integrity of their discipline, academic philosophers in India are practicing social exclusion.

There is statistical evidence. Have a quick look at the major forums for philosophical research in India: the Indian Council for Philosophical Research has published around 130 books to date. Not a single one is devoted to the social or political thought of Ambedkar. The pages of its prestigious journal, the Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research, are also curiously silent on this. (I myself have had three papers on Ambedkar rejected by JICPR over the years, each of which was subsequently published in high-ranking journals outside of India. One of them, ironically, being the US-based International Journal of Gandhi Studies.)

Of the approximately 1000 journal articles published between 1973 and 2004 in the other main philosophical journal of India, the Indian Philosophical Quarterly, how many papers were devoted to Ambedkar's ideas? Only one. One out of 1000. I have conducted similar scrutiny of the philosophical literature published by the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, by Sage, by Oxford University Press, and by Routledge, and the numbers do not get very much better. (It is only fair to mention that the latter two publishers, and to some extent the newly revived IPQ, have lately been working to correct this deficiency.)

Of the approximately 1000 journal articles published between 1973 and 2004 in the Indian Philosophical Quarterly, how many papers were devoted to Ambedkar's ideas? Only one.

In a recent talk, leading Ambedkarite political philosopher Valerian Rodrigues enumerated with remarkable succinctness the range of areas within philosophy proper—i.e., explicit themes of academic philosophy—that Ambedkar's voluminous writings intersect. Within the core field of metaphysics, Ambedkar has written extensively about the nature of the self, about the relation of the self to the other, about the question of what it is to be human, on the question of nature versus consciousness, on causality, on the idea of human telos, and on human agency. Relevant to epistemology, we find in Ambedkar's works discussions of the subject versus object, on inter-subjectivity, and on truth. And then of course there is moral and political philosophy, where the discerning thinker has written in dizzying detail on the nature of rights, of freedom, on justice, liberty, democracy, and so on. Finally, we cannot fail to mention his significant body of writing falling within the philosophy of religion; specifically, intersecting the crucial and very contemporary questions surrounding the scope and limitations of religion within a constitutional democracy.

Ambedkar, the philosopher: this is not a problem deriving from a lack of source material; this is not a problem deriving from limited resources—temporal, financial, administrative—within the discipline of academic philosophy; it is at bottom a social problem. And it is endemic.

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