The Agonistic Engagement Between Ambedkar and Gandhi with Dr Valerian Rodrigues

February 20, 2019

Valerian Rodrigues

Wednesday, February 20, 6:00PM–8:00PM, Room 2600, SFU Surrey 

The Department of Humanities is very pleased to host a talk by Dr. Valerian Rodrigues who is visiting our department this semester as the 2019 Hari and Madhu Varshney Visiting Scholar in Indian Studies, and Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) Visiting Scholar.

Mohandas Karamchand GANDHI, popularly known as Mahatma Gandhi, and Bhimrao Ramji AMBEDKAR, were the two tallest leaders of India’s national movement and instrumental in laying down the framework of Indian democracy. While Gandhi made non-violence central to public dissent and protest, Ambedkar too sought social and political transformation through non-violent mass action. While Gandhi invoked a strong notion of participatory democracy through his concept of swaraj, Ambedkar sought constitutional democracy as the basis for expansive democracy. But Ambedkar and Gandhi also took strong adversarial positions on a range of issues – modernity and reason, Hinduism and Buddhism, Hindu-Muslim conflict, texts and traditions, morality and law and so on. They strongly disagreed on approaches to the caste question in India and mode of eliminating the social practice of untouchability. While the social background they hailed from – Gandhi an upper caste Hindu, and Ambedkar a member of an untouchable caste – are important to understand the epistemic and political stances they embraced, the issues and concerns they are entwined in are far more complex, and do not lend themselves to be reduced to their respective backgrounds. The adversarial legacy between Gandhi and Ambedkar is a recurrent theme in Indian democratic discourse today, and scholarly debate on this relation remains deeply divided.

In his lecture, Dr. Rodrigues will argue that, while not ignoring the contention between Ambedkar and Gandhi on a range of significant issues with regard to knowledge and social practice, there is much overlap between them not merely on several concerns but also on categories of understanding social reality. He will explore this overlap with regard to their understanding of the human and human agency, and the kind of transformative action they proposed to nurture them. Dr. Rodrigues suggests that an epistemic non-positivism that informs their approach to texts and traditions makes their forays into history and culture refreshingly new. At the same time, there were contentions galore between them not merely on the substantive reach of these concerns and approaches, but also the frames they employed to mark off which of them are significant.


Valerian Rodrigues taught at Mangalore University, Karnataka, India (1982-2003), and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India (2003-2015). He was Ambedkar Chair, Ambedkar University Delhi (2017-2018). His recent books include The Essential Writings of B. R. Ambedkar (2002), The Indian Parliament: A Democracy at Work (2011) (co-authored with B. L. Shankar), Speaking for Karnataka ( 2018) (co-authored with Rajendra Chenni, Nataraj Huliyar and S. Japhet). He has edited Conversations with Ambedkar: 10 Ambedkar Memorial Lectures (2019). He was Senior Visiting Professor at Julius Maximilians University, Würzburg, Germany (2011–15) and Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) Chair in Contemporary Indian Studies at Erfurt University and Fellow of Max Weber Kolleg, Erfurt, Germany (2012). He was Agatha Harrison Fellow, St Antony’s College, Oxford University (1989-1991). He received the University Grants Commission National Swami Pranavananda Saraswati Award for Political Science in 2011, and was National Fellow of Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) (2015–17). He served as a member of the Advisory Committee for the international conference, Quest for Equity: Reclaiming Social Justice, Revisiting Ambedkar, held in Bangalore during 21–23 July 2017. He is currently a visiting Professor in the Department of Humanities at SFU.