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Ambedkar in London: New Book Looks Into Internationalism of Ambedkarite Politics

The book shows how London became a melting point for intellectual engagements in Ambedkar’s formative experiences.

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In September 1920, a letter arrived at Professor Herbert Foxwell’s office at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). The letter, written by Edwin R Seligam, an economist at Columbia University, was to introduce an exceptionally gifted scholar, Mr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.

The book shows how London became a melting point for intellectual engagements in Ambedkar’s formative experiences.

A recommendation letter from Columbia University asking HS Foxwell, a professor at the London School of Economics, to let BR Ambedkar conduct research in London and Edinburgh.

(Photo: London School of Economics.)

Following this, two months later, Foxwell stated to the school’s secretary that Ambedkar – who had already completed a PhD from Columbia University – would not be able to identify with the school and there were no more worlds for him to conquer.
The book shows how London became a melting point for intellectual engagements in Ambedkar’s formative experiences.

Responding to the letter from Columbia University recommending Ambedkar, LSE Professor Herbert Foxwell replies that there are “no more worlds for him to conquer," referring to Ambedkar having already completed a doctorate.

(Photo: London School of Economics.)

Later on, BR Ambedkar not only conquered but significantly left an impact in the UK. In this sense, his experience of studying and living in London is distinctly different from his time in New York. London remained a key site for his profound period of self-development – and also a political ground that witnessed his serious statesmanship.

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A new book, Ambedkar in London, edited by William Gould, Santosh Dass, and Christophe Jafferlot, and published by Hurst publications, offers interesting insights into how London became a melting point for intellectual engagements in Ambedkar’s formative experiences as a student, as well as their broader and global implications on the Ambedkarite movement.

By inserting “London in Ambedkar’s oeuvre,” it looks at the UK’s largest ethnic minorities with the help of personal experience, testimonies, and archives that “helped him to better set out the importance of space and transnationalism to the problems of social segregation and the inherent subjection of the pariah.”

“What his experiences in London show both in the early 1920s and the early 1930s, when he returned to represent the ‘Depressed classes’ at the RTCs, is his keen spatial contextualisation of the power of caste discrimination,” concludes William Gould, Professor of Indian History at the University of Leeds, in the book.

The Inception of Ambedkarite Movement

BR Ambedkar stepped off the boat in London in the summer of 1916 after his successful admission to LSE, while he was already an accomplished man. After returning to LSE in 1921, he submitted his thesis in 1923.

The book shows how London became a melting point for intellectual engagements in Ambedkar’s formative experiences.

This image shows BR Ambedkar at LSE, pictured middle row far right (c. 1916-17)

(Photo: London School of Economics)

During his time in London, BR Ambedkar engaged and participated in a plethora of discussions related to social justice and equality for all.

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“It was the arrival of BR Ambedkar in London that had a foundation role to play in the Ambedkarite movement in the UK, as it is his impact that had inspired tens of thousands of people across the world to fight against caste oppression, especially in the sub-continent,” Santosh Dass, a seasoned British bureaucrat and one of the editors of the book, tells The Quint.

BR Ambedkar had warned that wherever south Asians would migrate in the world, fighting against caste would become a global problem, as caste identities would invariably become part and parcel of their lives.

Early Ambedkarite Movement in the UK  

Some of the very first Dalit immigrants to the UK arrived as economic migrants in the 1950s, and Punjab remained the most critical region for the Dalit diaspora to the UK. The British Nationality Act 1948 Act, which granted Commonwealth people unfettered access to Britain, made overseas travel of Dalits from Punjab easier and more appealing, at least in the beginning.

“As Dalit populations from India immigrated to Britain and their families followed them, some turned to civic activism and social justice,” remembers Dass, who at the age of eight migrated from Punjab to the UK, along with her Punjabi Dalit family.

“In the early 1960s and 1970s, several Ambedkarite groups and organisations were created in the places where the early migrants resided. Many of these organisations have remained operating in the 21st
Santosh Dass
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In a joint chapter with Arun Kumar, Dass refers to a black-and-white photograph from 1946 on one of the walls of the Ambedkar Museum in London. In the photo, BR Ambedkar is seen seated surrounding sixteen Indian men, out of which fourteen of them were the first two batches of students sent to the UK by BR Ambedkar, as he envisaged would benefit from further education – “a key index for the wider Dalit movement” – in the West. 

The book shows how London became a melting point for intellectual engagements in Ambedkar’s formative experiences.

Shyam Khobragade, the brother of one of his students – Advocate Bhaurao Dewaji – then went on to become an Ambedkarite activist.

“In the 1950s and 1960s, most of the Ravidassia and Valmiki diaspora tended to support India’s Congress Party and in 1960 formed the Indian Welfare Association (IWA) in Birmingham.” writes Dass, who is the Chair of the Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance (ACDA), and President of the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations UK.

A couple of organisations that are creating impact, which has significantly enabled the Ambedkarite movement, include the Indian Welfare Association; the Bhartiya Buddhist Cultural Association; the Babasaheb Dr Ambedkar Buddhist Association; the Ambedkar International Mission the Ambedkar Mission Society, Bedford; the Dr Ambedkar Buddhist Association (now known as Buddha Dhamma Association), and many others.

The movement now is led by a new generation – and young Ambedkarites – to understand the significance and extraordinary achievements behind the brilliance of the man, remarks Santosh.

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The Ambedkarite movement in the UK has not only reached wide but has sustained itself against all odds, amidst a section of society that has always been hostile to people fighting for justice.

Standing for Rights, Protesting Against Atrocities 

When it comes to standing up against an issue and challenging the status quo, the Ambedkarites in the United Kingdom have not been silent. In fact, for decades, they have raised their voices and protested against human rights violations and atrocities against Dalits by organising and supporting protests across the country.

The motto of BR Ambedkar, remembers Dass – echoing the voice of the larger group – is to educate, agitate and organise.

Whether it is demonstrating against former Prime Minister Moraji Desai in 1978 on the issue of the treatment of ‘untouchables’ or candlelit protest outside the India High Commission in London against the death of a young Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula in 2016, or showing solidarity in the aftermath of the Bhima Koregaon arrests of academics, social and human rights campaigns, the Dalit community – and the Ambedkarite organisations in the UK – have always tried to uphold human rights and challenge authority.

Campaign to Outlaw Caste Discrimination in the UK 

“The entrenched caste system within various religions practised in South Asia continues to show the individuals hailing from lower caste their place. Hence, challenging the status quo is always an act of radical understanding of the world in a more nuanced and comprehensive way,” affirms Dass, who is also the founding member of CasteWatchUK.

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The decades-long battle for justice and equality in the face of caste prejudice has seen some success in Britain but against stiff opposition.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has approved a bill that is ready for implementation. Since 2010, three successive governments in the United Kingdom have also acknowledged the reality of caste discrimination.

“Introducing anti-caste discrimination legislation in the UK will not eliminate caste. However, it is one method of dealing with the discrimination that many people continue to endure,” adds Dass.

Lamenting a lack of interest in engaging with Ambedkar, Dass says, "Despite knowing, a large section of influential groups do not want to understand – and acknowledge – his doctrine because of his social background.”

“While India celebrates its Republic Day, let us not forget that the environment under which Ambedkar contributed to the freedom struggle and building a free India post-independence, could not have been possible without the fostering support of the Congress Party and Jawaharlal Nehru,” she goes on to add.

While some politicians in India are trying to appropriate Ambedkar, there is growing disengagement with his thoughts and lopsided willingness to understand the fight for social justice he espoused, concludes Dass.

(Kalrav Joshi is a multimedia journalist based in London. He writes on politics, democracy, culture, and technology. He tweets @kalravjoshi_.)

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Topics:  London   Ambedkar 

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