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Ambedkar, cosmopolitan political humility, and national belonging

Statue of B. R. Ambedkar, Vidhana Soudha gardens, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India. Image: Moheen Reeyad/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Those who espouse universal (global) values must at some point explain why their proposed values should be affirmed in principle by all persons – even when they conflict with some dominant local values. Those who advocate democracy beyond the state face in some ways a much greater challenge. They must explain why certain principles should be accepted for shared political institutions and laws which would bind all persons in regional or ultimately global jurisdictions.

As a longtime advocate of regional and global democracy who wanted to systematically address such challenges, I turned to the work of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956). Ambedkar, champion of India’s Dalits (formerly called ‘untouchables’) and chief architect of the country’s 1950 Constitution, invoked universal principles of equality and human rights against dominant social mores which dictated deep exclusion for Dalits. He sought to situate all persons domestically in relations of equal democratic citizenship, and to enable more robust challenges to what he called the “arrogance” of caste hierarchies in India.

Ambedkar invoked universal principles

In my recent book, The Humble Cosmopolitan: Rights, Diversity and Trans-State Democracy, I argue that the development of more-democratic political institutions beyond the state would similarly enable challenges to the political arrogance of a sovereign states system. This essay responds in part to Hans Leander’s insightful review of the book here on Democracy Without Borders’ blog, while giving details on how an ethos of cosmopolitan humility could relate to more local attachments, including national sentiment.

The book first draws on Ambedkar’s detailed arguments for equal status in developing a conception of political humility. A commitment to political humility entails an acknowledgment of others’ equal standing, and an openness to input and challenges from them within political institutions. Political arrogance entails a rejection of each. I argue that the current global system is structurally oriented to political arrogance, in affirming individual rights globally but enabling individual states to simply dismiss rights-based challenges from members of their own populations or outsiders. The development of regional and global democratic institutions would give individuals greater resources to challenge the arrogance of states and over time help to orient the system more toward political humility.

The current global system is oriented to political arrogance

Leander in his review takes Ambedkar to exemplify the ‘humble cosmopolitan.’ This raises concerns for him, in that he takes one of Ambedkar’s most provocative critiques of localized injustices to be a rejection of all attachment to community or nation. He ascribes to the book a similar rejection of any and all national sentiment.

Ambedkar made the statement in response to those who criticized the relatively strongly empowered central government established in the Constitution. They advocated instead the village-centric vision of Indian democracy that had been espoused by Mohandas Gandhi. In rejecting the critique, Ambedkar famously called the village “a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism…” For him, the Indian village represented not Gandhi’s ideal of local belonging and participation, but the site of Dalits’ most intensive abuse and exclusion. He described it as a “little empire” wholly dominated by higher-caste Hindus.

Ambedkar did not in fact reject national attachment. He maintained in part that the nation, like political institutions more generally, should be viewed as instrumental to the advancement of individual well-being. As he said in a 1942 radio address given as head of the Independent Labour Party in India: “Labour is interested in nationalism only because the wheels of democracy— such as representative Parliaments, responsible Executive, constitutional conventions, etc.— work better in a community united by national sentiments. Nationalism to Labour is only a means to an end.”

The campaign for Dalit rights and cosmopolitan humility

More centrally, however, for me Ambedkar represents not ‘the humble cosmopolitan,’ but an exemplar agent of political humility. He worked to advance the recognition of all persons’ equal moral and political status, and to promote openness to and the inclusion of all persons in political and social institutions. A more specific ethos of cosmopolitan political humility seems to me to be better exemplified in the views and actions of some of the principal figures in the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR). For the book, I conducted some 50 interviews around India with members of the Campaign, which has served as a vital umbrella organization for Dalit advocacy groups. It also has engaged in highly systematic outreach to United Nations human rights bodies and other organizations and states, aimed at pressing the Indian government to do more against caste discrimination.

Because of the global outreach, NCDHR activists have faced claims of disloyalty to nation – of seeking to aid neo-imperialist Western forces and ‘Break India.’ In Chapter 1 of the book, I note the following response from Paul Divakar, former NCHDR convenor and a principal figure in the outreach:

“You [must] ground us in the country as people who are from the soil … and you must also introduce us as nation builders, building the democracy, be¬cause without democracy, caste cannot be abolished. … Then what you have done is, you have exposed our real emergence from the soil, from the community, from the toil that we do. They want to portray us as people who are being propped up by Westerners … They want to create us as ghosts, when we are asking for democracy, when we are asking for access to justice, when we are asking for equality.”

Here and elsewhere in the book, Divakar is shown to defend the use of global institutions to advance Dalits’ equal status and universal rights in their own society, but he also highlights their connections and attachments to that society. Several other NCDHR activists offered similar views. Again, these statements have seemed to me to exemplify a significant ethos of cosmopolitan political humility. In Chapter 7 of the book, I discuss in some detail an approach, partly informed by Divakar and others in NCDHR, to developing rights standards which would reflect a commitment to universal equal status but also sensitivity to local attachments.

Finally, Leander rightly notes that The Humble Cosmopolitan doesn’t give any detailed attention to proposals for a UN Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA). I have written at some length elsewhere about the UNPA idea, the Campaign for a UNPA, and some of the strongest arguments for it. I will return to the UNPA for my current book in progress, which looks at some practical means of developing more-cosmopolitan political institutions at the state, regional and global levels. Overall, UNPA proposals provide near-term exemplars of ways in which relatively minor institutional changes might pay some significant dividends in enabling broader challenges to political arrogance and advancing elements of global citizenship.

Luis Cabrera
Luis Cabrera is Associate Professor of Political Science at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. He has written widely on democratic theory and practice, migration ethics, cosmopolitanism and the development of more democratically accountable regional and global institutions.
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