Chronicling BR Ambedkar’s life in London

The time he spent in London earning his law and second doctorate degrees was among the most important part of the polymath’s life. The interrupted stint shaped his worldview and philosophy, introduced him to new and exacting teachers, and sharpened his legal skills
A portrait of BR Ambedkar. (Source: Ambedkar student file, LSE Library) PREMIUM
A portrait of BR Ambedkar. (Source: Ambedkar student file, LSE Library)
Updated on Aug 19, 2021 05:55 PM IST
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When BR Ambedkar stepped off the boat in London in the summer of 1916, he was already an accomplished man. The 25-year-old had a PhD degree in economics from Columbia University and his dissertation Castes in India: Their mechanism, genesis and development was making waves for its theoretical underpinnings of endogamy.

But he was worried. He was dependent on an endowment from the Gaekwads of Baroda and was likely to be called back soon; World War I had thrown the western world into uncertainty — a ship carrying Ambedkar’s luggage was sunk by Axis torpedoes in the Mediterranean a few months on; his finances were dwindling and friends were back in New York.

Despite the challenges, the time he spent in London earning his law and second doctorate degrees was among the most important part of the polymath’s life. The interrupted stint – he was in London between 1916 and 1917, and again between 1920 and 1923 – shaped his worldview and philosophy, introduced him to new and exacting teachers, and sharpened his legal skills.

Most pivotally, it threw in sharp relief the young Ambedkar’s caste-blighted life in India with his student years abroad. “My five years of staying in Europe and America had completely wiped out of my mind any consciousness that I was an untouchable, and that an untouchable wherever he went in India was a problem to himself and to others,” he later wrote in Waiting for a Visa, narrating how no one would rent him a hotel room when he returned because he was considered untouchable.

BR Ambedkar (second row, right) at LSE. (Ambedkar student file, LSE Library)
BR Ambedkar (second row, right) at LSE. (Ambedkar student file, LSE Library)

A new online exhibition at the London School of Economics (LSE) aims to explore these formative years for Ambedkar through physical papers and records available at the institution.

“Our archives consist of the personal papers of individuals or of organisations. We don’t have the archives of Ambedkar …However, we do have a collection of student files, which record the interactions students have with the LSE during their period of study here. And there is a student file of Ambedkar, which is composed of thing such as his application forms and letters to the secretary. This is what the exhibition is based on,” said Daniel Payne, Curator for Politics and International Relations at the LSE library.

The bulk of the exhibition is an annotated history of Ambedkar’s life and works, with additions on prominent LSE teachers at the time and Indian alumni. The exhibition doesn’t have much on his time at LSE except somewhat charming pieces of university bureaucracy – a misfiled form, handfilled applications for degrees and a partially filled attendance sheet. All of these can be downloaded by the user and hold importance, given that Ambedkar filled most of them himself.

“The principal motivation behind curating this online exhibition is that the several radical (in his time and ours) thoughts and ideas Dr B R Ambedkar — who is by any measure the most famous Indian alumnus of LSE — have remained remarkably unknown to the international academic community,” said Nilanjan Sarkar, deputy director of the LSE South Asia Centre. “Through our limited archival collection in LSE Library, we have tried to highlight this potential for the international community — in short, to globalise the energy and force of Dr Ambedkar’s thought, and to underline its continuing relevance for our times.”

Ambedkar, the economist

Ambedkar’s evolution as an economist occupies a central place in the exhibition.

During his time at LSE, Ambedkar submitted two thesis – one called The evolution of provincial finance in British India : A study in the provincial decentralization of imperial finance for his master’s degree in 1921 and the other, more famous, The Problem of the Rupee, that later influenced the setting up of the Reserve Bank of India, in 1922.

LSE records say that his thesis was not accepted at first, and later notes add that the colonial examiners found his work too “revolutionary”. Ambedkar later revised the work, and successfully obtained a doctorate.

Another important piece of work by him was the 1918 paper Small Holdings In India And Their Remedies where he explored India’s fragmented holdings and called for industrialisation of agriculture to absorb the surplus labour.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha noted in a 2015 Mint column that Ambedkar’s thesis came at a time when there was a clash between the colonial administration and Indian business interests on the value of the rupee. In his work, Ambedkar argued in favour of a gold standard as opposed to the suggestion by John Maynard Keynes that India should embrace a gold exchange standard.

From the late 1920s, Ambedkar largely moved away from economics as he devoted his energies to social and legal reform, but his later stint as the labour minister in the Viceroy’s executive council between 1942-46 was deeply impactful.

“He worked on a diverse set of topics - water policy, electric power planning, labor laws, maternity rights for female factory workers…Babasaheb set up the first employees’ state insurance, a social security and health insurance scheme for workers, in South Asia,” said Aditi Priya, a research associate at Krea University and founder of Bahujan Economics.

In a 1998 publication, Ambedkar’s Role In Economic Planning, Water And Power Policy, Sukhadeo Thorat traces the impact of Ambedkar’s ideas around state planning on post-independence concepts like the adoption of river valley authorities and hydropower development.

“The importance of maternity entitlements has been discussed in both econ and policy circles in improving the welfare of pregnant and lactating women and improving the labor force participation. Babasaheb was the first advocate of the maternity bill. He passed a range of laws protecting female workers including the Women and Child Labour Protection Act, the Maternity Benefits Act, the Mines Maternity Benefits Act, and created the Women Labour Welfare Fund, which was used to safeguard health and safety of working women,” Priya added.

Ambedkar scholars agree that his primary thrust in later life was on social welfare and benefits to marginalised groups – without being an outright socialist.

“For him the idea was that the welfare of the people should primarily be the job of the government. He was a strong advocate of the role of the state in inclusive economic growth and development and at the same time he was also in the favor of industrialization and urbanization. But he was also aware of the ills of capitalism,” said Priya.

Ambedkar, the student

There are two things the exhibition does very well.

One is underlining Ambedkar’s relations with his teachers and the impression he had on them. Plenty has been written on the influence of Edwin Seligman at Columbia University and the writings of John Stuart Mill.

The LSE exhibition shows Ambedkar enrolled in Geography with Halford Mackinder, Political Ideas with G Lowes Dickinson, and Social Evolution and Social Theory with LT Hobhouse. At the time, the fees were £10 10s which increased to £11 11s when he returned in 1920. His attendance records indicate he was not too interested in the political ideas class, which he skipped on all but two occasions during a term.

An application form filled by BR Ambedkar. (Ambedkar student file, LSE Library)
An application form filled by BR Ambedkar. (Ambedkar student file, LSE Library)

The exhibition also spotlights Ambedkar’s relationship with Edwin Cannan, the liberal economist whose lectures are said to have laid the foundation of the LSE Economics course and Herbert Foxwell, who taught at LSE since it started in 1895, and famously said about Ambedkar in London, “There are no more worlds for him to conquer.”

Cannaan guided Ambedkar through the tense submission and re-submission of his doctoral thesis and the young scholar dedicated the work to his professor. The papers have little on their interaction but it appears that the two kept in touch, especially when Ambedkar came back to London for the Round Table Conferences in the early 1930s.

Ambedkar’s student file also contains a letter from Cannan to William Beveridge (then director of the LSE) to encourage him to entertain Ambedkar. “I always said he was by far the ablest Indian we ever had in my time,” Cannan says of Ambedkar.

The letter also references the bitter tussle between Ambedkar and Gandhi over the issue of separate electorates – Gandhi wanted to keep Dalits within the Hindu fold and refused to allow them separate franchise, while Ambedkar believed that caste Hindus would thwart Dalit representatives in a joint electorate.

“When I read in the papers that the Brahmins were hoping to persuade, or that Gandhi was…Dr Ambedkar to modify his demands, I chuckled, remembering the obstinacy with which he used to hold out even when quite wrong,” Cannan noted.

Ambedkar, the political thinker

The second is highlighting the evolution of political thought in Ambedkar – from his days at LSE to when he returned to London for the Round Table Conferences.

To my mind, the most important documents in the entire exhibition are two sets of papers that have nothing to do with LSE.

One is a missive by Ambedkar to George Lansbury, the then leader of the Labour Party, in 1935. At the time, a British joint parliamentary select committee, chaired by Lord Linlithgow, had tabled its recommendations – which would eventually lead to the Government of India Act, 1935.

Ambedkar expressed dissatisfaction in his letter to Lansbury, especially objecting to the proposal for setting up upper houses in provincial assemblies over fears that upper-castes will dominate these chambers and wield influence in governance.

The second is the submission by Ambedkar and Tamil politician Rettamalai Srinivasan – the two depressed class delegates – to the First Round Table Conference, laying out a political and electoral roadmap for Dalit representation in power-sharing.

A Scheme of Political Safeguards for the Protection of the Depressed Classes in the Future Constitution of a self-governing India puts forth a series of conditions for Dalits to agree to majority rule in India – each of which acts as a precursor for rights and provisions that eventually found their way into the Constitution.

Ambedkar and Srinivasan said Dalits needed equal citizenship, fundamental rights, free enjoyment of equal rights, protection from social boycott and other discrimination, adequate representation in services, departments and the Cabinet. The kernel of the landmark abolition of untouchability, affirmative action and fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution are evident in this short 13-page submission. Also evident is the tension between historical inequality and the democratic project – key to understanding the country celebrating 75 years of freedom.

In the words of Ambedkar, “The depressed classes cannot consent to subject themselves to majority rule in their present state of hereditary bondsmen. Before majority rule is established, their emancipation from the system of untouchability must be an accomplished fact. It must not be left to the will of the majority.”

And what we don’t know

Yet, there is so much that’s missing from the exhibition on Ambedkar’s life at London or LSE. We don’t know what sort of a student he was, how his time at London was spent or how a young Dalit scholar enjoyed the first years of freedom from the sub-continental shackles of caste.

Other than the passing references in Ambedkar’s biography by Dhananjay Keer, we don’t know anything about his roommate Asnodkar, his friend Naval who’d send him money or his stern landlady who’d make him subsist on toast.

Edwin Cannaan guided Ambedkar through the tense submission and re-submission of his doctoral thesis and the young scholar dedicated the work to his professor. (Ambedkar student file, LSE Library)
Edwin Cannaan guided Ambedkar through the tense submission and re-submission of his doctoral thesis and the young scholar dedicated the work to his professor. (Ambedkar student file, LSE Library)

We don’t know how he navigated the metropolis, who his British friends were and the stories of the Indian acquaintances who supplied him with papad to eat at night.

Did Asnodkar and Ambedkar talk during the latter’s frequent all-nighters? Did Ambedkar make any friends during his hours-long visits to the British Library? Who took care of him when he fell ill in 1922? We don’t know.

Coming in the 75th year of India’s independence, this is both unfortunate and predictable.

The domination of upper-castes in history, historical research and archiving meant that even otherwise commonplace tasks like publishing Ambedkar’s complete works happened decades after his death, after struggle by anti-caste groups. Dalit writers and intellectuals continue to be marginalised and typecast.

Even in the UK, Ambedkarites have worked for years to establish Ambedkar as a leading figure. “When we started working in 1985, not many knew of Ambedkar; during his birth centenary celebrations (in 1991), we organised events across Europe to highlight his contribution to democracy and human rights,” said Arun Kumar, general secretary of the Federation of Ambedkarite & Buddhist Organisations. Busts donated by the body stand today at LSE and Columbia University.

The exhibition’s organisers are aware of the challenges.

“Even though there is quite a bit in the student file, not much is revealed about Ambedkar’s experiences at LSE,” said Payne.

Sarkar said that the principal motivation behind the exhibition was that the several radical thoughts and ideas of Ambedkar remained remarkably unknown to the international academic community.

“Even though Dr. Ambedkar is one of the most significant alumnus of LSE, and Dr Ambedkar’s scholarship and campaigns are of paramount importance to understand India and beyond, despite the presence of large number of Indian students as well as some faculty research on India, it is almost invisible in this institution,” said Jayaraj Sunderasan, one of the organisers of the event.

Following Babasaheb’s footsteps

A marked void in the exhibition is the absence of any other Dalit names – students, leaders, LSE alumni – or anti-caste work emerging from the institution. I suspect this is the reflection of a broader pattern that excludes marginalised students from pursuing education abroad, struggling for finances, recommendations and survival outside traditional caste networks.

Satish Athawale is one of them. The 24-year-old student is hoping to go the UK this year to secure a master’s degree in engineering after surviving three harrowing years. His parents, Ashok and Rama Athawale, were among the victims of the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence. Rioters torched their shop and home and beat Ashok to an inch of his life – jolting the young Athawale to the realities of caste-based hatred.

The family escaped to Pune where they have been trying to make ends meet since. Athawale hopes to pull the family out of poverty and secure a job after his education, if only he can secure the resources to make good on his admission offers. “Despite the hardships of our family, I want to go abroad and study to secure a better future for us. I hope to follow in the path of Ambedkar.”

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    Dhrubo works as an edit resource and writes at the intersection of caste, gender, sexuality and politics. Formerly trained in Physics, abandoned a study of the stars for the glitter of journalism. Fish out of digital water.

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