Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956) has long been a source of inspiration for India’s Dalits, formerly called ‘untouchables’. He was himself the first Dalit to earn a PhD (Columbia University, 1927), and he rose to serve as independent India’s first Law Minister, and one of the primary shapers of its Constitution. In recent years, Ambedkar has become noted also for the depth of his domestic legal and political thought. Some of his most important works have been re-issued by Indian and international publishers, and his ideas have been central to numerous academic articles and the subject of several edited volumes.

In an article forthcoming in the journal Political Studies, Luis Cabrera, Associate Professor of Political Science at Griffith Asia Institute, shows that Ambedkar also has much to contribute to international political thought. His work connects in particular to the cosmopolitan tradition, which is skeptical that shared nationality itself has fundamental moral significance.

Ambedkar is often contrasted with Mohandas Gandhi, the revered Indian independence and spiritual leader whose image still appears on every denomination of Indian currency. Ambedkar was determined to create a strong central government able to back firmly constitutionalized protections for Dalits, who faced endemic workplace and housing discrimination, exploitation and violence. Gandhi sought to change the attitudes of upper-caste Hindus towards Dalits, and he wanted the focus in post-independence India to be on promoting shared rule at the village level.

Ambedkar also should be considered, Cabrera argues, alongside Nobel Prize-winning poet and novelist Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), whose work has informed some notable recent treatments of cosmopolitanism. Ambedkar problematizes uncritical loyalty to nation or state. He also goes beyond Tagore in demanding, based in the experiences of India’s Dalits, that institutions and practices – even whole religions — be assessed solely by how far they uphold universal standards of equality and human rights.

Another significant international move Ambedkar makes is in warning sympathetic outsiders that they risked simply reinforcing oppression in advocating independence and self-determination for an ‘Indian people’, while failing to interrogate pervasive domestic injustice. This argument, Cabrera argues, offers an important objection to those moderate cosmopolitans and nationalists who cite respect for diversity among states as reason to reject the promotion of universal human rights.

Cabrera then considers insights Ambedkar can offer, in his works on democracy amid deep linguistic and cultural diversity, for promoting accountability and participation beyond the state. Ambedkar emphasizes ‘fluid’ equal citizenship under common central institutions, along with a common second language, as factors making possible genuinely shared rule across diverse political units. He also gives some emphasis to the importance of being able to make rights-based appeals to international bodies such as the United Nations. Overall, Cabrera argues, such an ‘Ambedkarian’ approach offers important guidance for promoting democratic accountability and participation in multi-national and trans-state contexts.

A pre-publication version of the article is available on the Griffith University Academia website.

Article by Luis Cabrera, Associate Professor of Political Science, Griffith Asia Institute.