Gramsci and Ambedkar were contemporaries – both born in 1891 – and although operating in very different environments, the similarities of their strategies and political philosophy to empower subalterns / Dalits are indeed striking. Their activity as leaders, always combined with solid theoretical reflection, springs out of their own and others’ lived experience of subalternity. Both found inspiration in Marxism, both were critical of religion, but considered religion culturally and politically relevant; both assessed the presence of subalterns through social, cultural and historical critical analysis, and sought to negotiate a rightful place within the state, society and history / historiography for these ‘excluded’ individuals. For both of them, the solution would come from the effort of the subalterns themselves, as active protagonists of their own destiny, to achieve ‘consciousness’, and ‘collective will’ aided by the role of leaders / intellectuals.
« Gramsci et Ambedkar furent contemporains – tous deux nés en 1891 – et bien qu’opérant dans des environnements très différents, les similitudes de leurs stratégies et de leur philosophie politique pour donner du pouvoir aux subalternes / Dalits sont en effet frappantes. Leur activité comme leaders, toujours combinée à une solide réflexion théorique, découle de leur propre expérience vécue de la subalternité et de celle des autres. Tous deux trouvèrent de l’inspiration dans le marxisme, tous deux étaient critiques de la religion, mais considéraient la religion culturellement et politiquement pertinente ; tous deux appréhendèrent la présence des subalternes à travers une analyse critique sociale, culturelle et historique, et cherchèrent à négocier une juste place au sein de l’Etat, de la société et de l’histoire / historiographie pour ces individus ‘exclus’. Pour tous deux, la solution viendrait de l’effort des subalternes eux-mêmes, en tant que protagonistes actifs de leur propre destin, pour parvenir à la ‘conscience’ et à la ‘volonté collective’, aidés par le rôle des dirigeants / intellectuels. »
Femme dalit de Bombay, Inde (1942) (oldindianphotos.in)
… the Gramscian concept of ‘subalternity’, as a holistic approach involving a socio-cultural critique of subalternity, clearly points towards the ‘ex-Untouchables’ as the epitome of the ‘subaltern’, and more precisely towards the movement/journey of the Dalits from self-pity to self-consciousness…
1. the historical and political dimensions of subalternity, and the function of leaders/intellectuals were signiﬁcant to both Gramsci and Ambedkar;
2. the position of Untouchables/Dalits in South Asian societies largely reﬂects the historical, social and cultural characteristics of subalterns as described by Gramsci, including different levels/degrees of subalternity (Q25);
3. Ambedkar’s reading of the ‘History and Experience of Untouchability’ provided a clear example of ‘traces’ left in history by subalterns and considered of paramount relevance for the Gramscian ‘integral historian’;
4. we felt that the inﬂuence of Gramsci’s thought in South Asia, though inspiring to the Subaltern Studies project, had not reached its full potential, precisely because it lacked the contribution of a substantial local reﬂection, such as the one provided by Ambedkar and other Dalit leaders, as the best expression of mediated self-reﬂexive thinking on subalternity;
5. both Gramsci and Ambedkar, being contemporaries, developed their political thought in similar international, critical circumstances – the interwar period – and they took into account a wider scenario (the development of international law and democracy) in the solutions they put forward;
6. they both sought a holistic response to subalternity and Untouchability, involving a combination of theoretical reﬂection and practical, political commitment;
7. the solution of the crisis experienced within the formulation of ‘international concepts’ – equality, citizenship, legitimacy, democracy, the law, etc. – cannot be reached, according to them, without taking into account the presence of subalterns/Dalits at the centre of this crisis, since their exclusion reveals the essential character of the crisis itself;
8. for both Ambedkar and Gramsci, religion is a crucial dimension of politics, and a decisive factor for the self-emancipation of the subalterns. Moreover, compared to the progressive thought of their time, both Marxist and liberal, the ‘national’ dimension plays a vital role and one not in opposition to the universalistic perspective of the ‘liberation’ of subalterns.
My own research among ex-Untouchables in Bengal and Bangladesh during the late 1980s motivated me to re-read Gramsci and, tentatively, I sought to apply his thought to this milieu (Zene 2002, 2007). While I found inspiration in the experiment of the Subaltern Studies Collective, I remained critical of it for ‘domesticating Gramsci’s revolutionary thought’ (Ahmad 1993: 46), and for failing to deal with ‘deep-rooted subalternity’, thus not engaging more directly with Untouchability and the caste-class problem. This inability to see ‘caste’ (or gender) by Subaltern Studies still remains unanswered, and one very simple reason might be the unattended dialogue with other disciplines and areas dealing with history-in-the-making and everyday life, in which many traces of subalternity, often hidden in revealing metaphors, can be found. In my view, the Gramscian concept of ‘subalternity’, as a holistic approach involving a socio-cultural critique of subalternity, clearly points towards the ‘ex-Untouchables’ as the epitome of the ‘subaltern’, and more precisely towards the movement/journey of the Dalits from self-pity to self-consciousness, most forcefully expressed in the experience of Dalit women (Rao 2003; Rege 2003, 2006; Narayan 2006). In the concluding remarks to a recent article (Zene 2011:102), while discussing the process from the awareness of oppression towards the mobilization of Dalit consciousness, I refer to the Dalit historic leaders as instrumental in this development. In particular, I underline there the vigilant role of Ambedkar as inspiring organizer, while prompting the Dalits to publically burn the Laws of Manu (1927), and to defy the injunction not to enter Hindu temples (1930), thus challenging an age-long tradition concerning the religious and human discrimination of the Dalits from the rest of the community. Even at that very early stage of not solely religious but ‘civil disobedience’, Ambedkar had clear in his mind that the road to liberation and salvation (mukti) – political, social, legal, constitutional, religious and economic – was to be a long and painful journey ahead.
All these elements joined together: my direct involvement with Dalits in South Asia, the inﬂuence I received from Gramsci and a closer approach to Ambedkar’s thought, prompted me not only to approach both Gramsci and Ambedkar in conjunction, but also to involve other colleagues to reﬂect together upon their political philosophy and lived experience of subalternity and Dalithood. With this in mind, I invited them to gather together and to share their ideas and ﬁndings, thus promoting a common debate among experts, both Gramscian and South Asianists, coming from a variety of disciplinary ﬁelds including history, philosophy, anthropology, feminist and cultural studies, politics and development studies, philology and literary criticism. […]
Although the ﬁnalising of every book seems to signal the end of a journey, at times this feeling has the potential to spark the beginning of new itineraries, and of this here I feel optimistic. Taking the cue from Pasolini’s poetry in Gramsci’s Ashes, I like to believe that different itineraries are destined to meet and that even the most desperate of experiences can emit a hopeful ray of light:
Poor as the poor, I cling
like them to humiliating hopes
like them, I ﬁght each day
to stay alive . . .
But just as I own history,
history owns me; it enlightens me . . .
Gramsci and Ambedkar were contemporaries – both born in 1891 – and although operating in very different environments, the similarities of their strategies and political philosophy to empower subalterns/Dalits are indeed striking. Their activity as leaders, always combined with solid theoretical reflection, springs out of their own and others’ lived experience of subalternity. Both found inspiration in Marxism, both were critical of religion, but considered religion culturally and politically relevant; both assessed the presence of subalterns through social, cultural and historical critical analysis, and sought to negotiate a rightful place within the state, society and history/historiography for these ‘excluded’ individuals. For both of them, the solution would come from the effort of the subalterns themselves, as active protagonists of their own destiny, to achieve ‘consciousness’, and ‘collective will’ aided by the role of leaders/ intellectuals. Their ‘holistic’ approach – which is a global critique to culture and to the structures of subalternity – enlightens the present-day ‘Dalit Question’ as a challenge posited not simply to Dalits and concerned scholars, but to societies/states and to the international community.
Cosimo Zene – The Political Philosophies of Antonio Gramsci and B. R. Ambedkar. Itineraries of Dalits and Subalterns