That BR Ambedkar was a bright student is known, but what did American and British academics say about his credentials? Archival documents released by the London School of Economics (LSE) cast new light on the iconic leader’s student days here.
After completing a doctorate at Columbia University, Ambedkar wanted to research and study in Britain. His professor, Edwin R Seligman from Columbia, wrote to economist Herbert Foxwell at LSE on September 23, 1920, recommending his star student.
“He writes me that he is desirous of utilising certain research facilities in both London and in Edinburgh and has asked for a letter of introduction to you. This I am very glad to give him, as he is not only a very able, but an exceedingly pleasant fellow, and I am sure that you will do for him what you can,” Seligman wrote.
Foxwell wrote to LSE’s secretary, Mair, in November 1920, “I find he (Ambedkar) has already taken his doctor’s degree & has only come here to finish a research. I had forgotten this. I am sorry we cannot identify him with the School but there are no more worlds here for him to conquer.”
This was Ambedkar’s second attempt to study at LSE after having enrolled for a Masters degree in 1916, when he took courses in geography with Halford Mackinder, political ideas with G Lowes Dickinson, and social evolution and social theory with LT Hobhouse.
The fee for the course was £10 and 10 shillings. At the same time, Ambedkar enrolled for the bar course at Gray’s Inn. His 1916 application form in his handwriting has also been released by LSE, which mentions his permanent address as ‘Bombay, India’.
Ambedkar’s studies at LSE were interrupted as he was recalled to India to serve as a military secretary in Baroda, but in July 1917 the University of London gave him leave of absence of up to four years.
In 1920, Ambedkar returned to LSE after working as a professor of political economy at Sydenham College in Mumbai and giving evidence to the Scarborough Committee preparing the 1919 Government of India Act on the position and representation of “untouchable” communities.
Initially, he applied to complete his masters degree and write a thesis on ‘The Provincial Decentralisation of Imperial Finance in India’. His fees had gone up by a guinea, to £11 pounds and 11 shillings.
College archives show there was a slight glitch in his LSE career in April 1921 when he failed to send in his form for the summer examinations. The school secretary, Mair, had to write to University of London’s Academic Registrar for permission to submit the form late.
In economics, Ambedkar’s tutors included Edwin Cannan and Foxwell. Ambedkar submitted his doctoral thesis, ‘The Problem of the Rupee’, in March 1923 but it was not recommended for acceptance. There were reports the thesis was too revolutionary and anti-British for the examiners. However, there is no indication of this in Ambedkar’s student file. The thesis was resubmitted in August 1923 and accepted in November 1923.
It was published almost immediately and in the preface Ambedkar noted “my deep sense of gratitude to my teacher, Cannan “noting that Cannan’s “severe examination of my theoretical discussions has saved me from many an error”.
Cannan repaid the complement by writing the Foreword to the thesis in which he found “a stimulating freshness” even if he disagreed with some of the arguments.