A hundred years ago, the hallowed halls of Columbia University and
the roiling streets of Harlem gave B.R. Ambedkar a unique perspective
into the struggles of his community in India.
In 1913, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, then only 22 years old,
set sail to pursue higher education in the United States — a deviation
from the natural choice of England for the predominantly upper caste
Hindu Indian elite of that time. Ambedkar was, of course, neither upper
caste nor elite. But that journey and the time spent at Columbia
University and the upper Manhattan area of New York was to prove as
monumental for the shaping of India’s future as Mahatma Gandhi’s voyage
of self-discovery in South Africa.
Ambedkar was the
first ever ‘untouchable’ to study in a foreign land — a Ph.D. from
Columbia University and a D.Sc. at the London School of Economics. For
him, it amounted to leaving the land of untouchability for a country yet
to shrug off its past as a land of slavery.
was only a few blocks away from Harlem, the melting pot of Black
America and the site of a great cultural reawakening movement that came
to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. That movement was still in its
incipient stages when Ambedkar was in Columbia.
creation of the African-American real estate entrepreneur, Philip A.
Payton, who took over unsold apartments for filling them up with Black
tenants, Harlem symbolised the denial of the republican values that
Ambedkar admired. The mass migration of thousands of Blacks from the
Southern States — where they had worked predominantly as slaves in
cotton and sugarcane plantations — to the more liberating city
environments created a new cosmopolitan sophistication and sense of
For Ambedkar, living next to Harlem in
these culturally turbulent times provided a unique window into the
deprivations and struggles of his own community back home.
May 9, 1916, Ambedkar presented a paper ‘Castes in India; Their
Mechanism, Genesis and Development’ at an anthropology seminar in
Columbia University. It was the first of his many works into the origins
of a “hoary institution” that defined Indian society and continues to
do so even today.
While the fact that “there is so
much similarity between the untouchables in India and the position of
Negros in America” did not escape Ambedkar’s attention, he was, at the
same time, convinced that untouchability was “far worse than slavery”.
While the latter could be abolished by statute, “it will take more than a
law to remove this stigma from the people of India.”
significant was Ambedkar’s belief in the superiority of the basic
American model of individual rights and representative government,
notwithstanding the exclusion of the ‘colored’ people from this
framework. In his testimony before the Southborough Committee on
Franchise appointed by the British Government on January 27, 1919,
Ambedkar — who was not even 28 then — made a vivid comparison between
the U.S. and India: “Englishmen have all along insisted that India is
unfit for representative Government because of the division of her
population into castes and creeds. This does not carry conviction…The
social divisions of India are equalled, if not outdone, in a country
like the United States of America...If with all the social divisions,
the United States of America is fit for representative Government, why
Ambedkar’s genius, though, lay in his
racing ahead of America in winning rights for the untouchables of India.
While racial segregation in the U.S. ended only in 1964, Ambedkar
secured the right to representation for untouchables through reservation
of seats in the provisional legislative bodies in 1932. Ambedkar also
used the Poona Pact to also introduce reservation in the services for
untouchables, by making it a part of 1935 Government of India Act.
1950, Ambedkar had gone much further as the principal author of the
Constitution of India that legally abolished untouchability, provided
safeguards to the Scheduled Castes from discrimination, and provided
them representation in government services through reservations.
was the pioneer in pushing forward the idea of universal adult
franchise and one man-one vote.In his 1919 submission to the
Southborough Committee, Ambedkar argued: “No person…should be denied the
opportunity of actively participating in the process of Government.
That is to say popular Government is not only Government for the people
but by the people”. Not surprisingly, he encountered resistance from
most political conservatives. Sardar Vallabhai Patel, who headed the
Constituent Assembly’s Committee on Fundamental Rights, expressed
apprehension that the States may not agree and may even view it as
encroaching upon their rights. A distinct feature of Ambedkar’s approach
was his preference for constitutional methods and seeking of legal
safeguards, whether against untouchability or in fighting patriarchy
through the Hindu Code Bill that he pushed, albeit without success. He
abhorred resort to both “bloody methods of revolution” as well as
Gandhian tools such as Satyagraha, civil disobedience and
As he stated while presenting the
Draft Constitution on November 25, 1949: “Where constitutional methods
(for achieving economic and social objectives) are open, there can be no
justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are
nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned,
the better for us”.
No doubt, American republican
values had a profound influence in all these thoughts. The idea of every
person having the right to life, liberty, free speech and pursuit of
happiness — and the duty of the State to guarantee these freedoms to its
subjects — is something that appealed to Ambedkar. For him, “the
individual is an end in himself” and has certain “inalienable rights” to
be protected through Constitution. From these followed the most
important premise for a political democracy: “The State shall not
delegate power to private persons to govern others.”
was important for Ambedkar even from a personal standpoint. As he was
to write later, five years of staying outside India completely wiped out
of his mind any consciousness of being an untouchable. But when he
returned to work in the State of Baroda, nothing had changed. Hostels
there wouldn’t take him. The only way of seeking accommodation was by
impersonation, for which he wasn’t prepared, knowing the dire
consequences if his identity were discovered.
In an article published on November 30, 1930, a correspondent of the New York Times described
Ambedkar as the “most unusual ‘untouchable’, having the degrees of
Doctor of Philosophy from Columbia University, New York, and Doctor of
Science from the University of London.” At the end of all this study
abroad, he “returned to India as an ‘untouchable’, as when he left. He
could not enter a temple or drink at a public well.”
Harlem, cradle of the Black intellectual awakening, Ambedkar believed
that the untouchables of India needed to be pulled out of villages to
escape the tyranny and oppression of the caste system.
nation owes it to Ambedkar for making India a much better place to live
in after Independence, with a most forward-looking rights-based model
of Constitution. For this, Columbia can take credit: It was the starting
point after all!