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Ambedkar in London: Return to LSE and a House in Primrose Hill

Book Excerpts: William Gould looks at Dr Ambedkar's days in 1920 when he returned to LSE to continue his education.

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Indian Diaspora
7 min read
Ambedkar in London: Return to LSE and a House in Primrose Hill
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(This excerpt has been taken with permission from ‘Ambedkar in London’, edited by William Gould, Santosh Dass, and Christophe Jaffrelot, published by Hurst Publishers.)

BR Ambedkar arrived in England in the autumn of 1916, and his first admission to LSE took place in October 1916 under the supervision of Edwin Cannan. Sidney Webb, meanwhile, helped Ambedkar to get access to the India Office library. On 11 November of the same year he was admitted to Gray’s Inn. In this year, Ambedkar took courses in political ideas, social evolution, geography and social theory.

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Ambedkar’s application form to study for a Master’s degree at LSE, 1916.

(Photo: LSE)

However, he interrupted his study from August 1917 due to the expiration of his scholarship, and LSE granted him permission to return within a space of four years.

In the period between returning to India in August 1917 and his commencement of study in July 1920, Ambedkar worked as Professor of Political Economy at Sydenham College of Commerce, Bombay (now Mumbai). More important than this employment was his political work, which would also develop into further networks in London from 1920.

As well as providing evidence to the Southborough Committee from late 1918 to January 1919, he established his first periodical, Mooknayak, in January 1920 and the ‘Depressed Classes’ organisation the Bahishkrit Hitkarini Sabha in February 1920.

Ambedkar was a leading figure in two largescale Dalit conferences before his early 1920s stay in London. These took place at Mangaon (Kolhapur), which involved a dinner with the Maharaja, and at Nagpur—the First All-India Depressed Classes Conference—in which Ambedkar was the principal speaker.

Such conferences had begun to develop from the late nineteenth century, with a strong focus on the promotion of ‘Depressed Class’ education, and in western India they were led by the likes of the Gaikwad of Baroda, Karmaveer Bhaurao Patil, Vitthal Ramchandra Shinde, who fell out of favour with the more radical Ambedkar, and the Maharaja of Kolhapur.

The latter helped to finance Ambedkar’s studies and career through his second phase in London (which started in 1920). He considered Ambedkar to be a representative of the non-Brahman cause in England and urged him to speak in that capacity.

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The Maharaja, who probably first met Ambedkar in 1919, was himself a keen advocate of the anti-Brahman cause, following the refusal of local Brahmans to grant Marathas kshatriya status. As such, he viewed Ambedkar as a kind of ambassador, suggesting to his friend Sir Alfred Pease that he might educate British opinion on the Brahmanical bias within the freedom movement in India.

Reference about Ambedkar to Professor Herbert Foxwell at LSE, 1920.

(Photo: LSE)

The three to four years that Ambedkar spent in London in this period appear at first glance to be a relatively insignificant prelude to his later career, and historians have generally passed over his London experiences in brief.

Studying in England was to be treading a similar path to many other nationalists and publicists of his and a younger generation: M K Gandhi, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru and a host of other figures in Indian politics made their way through London or Oxford and Cambridge.

However, Ambedkar was both challenging the notion that such international educational sojourns were the preserve of the privileged and conducting a trip that was more focused and deliberate.

Reply from Professor Herbert Foxwell, 1920.

(Photo: LSE)

The writings and publications that emerged from these early years, although less developed, are nevertheless consistent with (and, as I will argue later, shaped) his later formulations of ‘Depressed Classes’ politics and civil rights, although as Christophe Jaffrelot in Chapter 5 shows, they had not at this point reached their full maturity.

As such, they form a crucial background to his later intellectual moves. These intellectual and academic formulations also took place via a particular range of international experiences, which rooted his thinking—at least from his own perception—in certain notions of its universal applicability.

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There is no doubt either that study in London was part of a larger agenda of preparation for political leadership. Ambedkar’s interlude between his two periods of study in London had occupied him with specific campaigns to further the interests of ‘Depressed Classes’—not just the speeches and programmes of mass meetings and journals, but also the deliberate demand to the Southborough Committee for nine reserved places for Untouchables on the Bombay Legislative Council.

Presentation of portrait of Dr B R Ambedkar by the Dr Ambedkar Memorial Committee, Great Britain, 25 September 1973.

(Photo: LSE)

This direct, constitutional approach to ‘Depressed Classes’ rights also shaped the focus of Ambedkar’s studies. Like previous students, Ambedkar followed the path of the law. But he also deliberately developed his study of specific social science fields—principally, economics and sociology or social anthropology. In this sense, as we will see below, his choice of LSE was also significant.

A House in Primrose Hill

It seems inconceivable that Ambedkar would have enjoyed much time to pursue other interests outside of his studies, political networking and correspondence with contacts in India. Yet it is also quite likely that the events of this formative period in his thinking and writing would have made an impact on what he went on to publish and in how his later career developed.

In 1920, the relationship between Britain and India was changing at an unprecedented rate following the end of the First World War.
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New constitutional arrangements had reorganised India’s provincial and financial governance (discussed more below), and there were new radical challenges to British colonial power both in India and elsewhere: the Khilafat movement protested against Britain’s post-war control of the Muslim holy places following the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and was being connected to an India-based protest led by M K Gandhi; protests were developing against the post-war repressive Rowlatt Bill that extended the wartime security measures of the Raj; and uprisings against Britain were also taking place (or had recently occurred) against British imperial interests in Egypt, Iraq and Ireland.

Portrait of Ambedkar by G S Nagdeve, gifted to LSE by the Dr Ambedkar Memorial Committee, 25 September 1973.

(Photo: LSE)

Ambedkar’s thinking about Indian governance took place, then, in an era of rapid political transformation and rebellion. Britain was also dramatically changed by the war, and Ambedkar would have been reading and hearing about these effects in papers and lecture theatres: the post-war economic crisis, industrial unrest, the effects of Spanish influenza, and the changing patterns of employment as more young women took up vacancies created by the massive number of casualties of the war.

Ambedkar was keenly interested in political representation and the rights of the under-represented.

This was another new preoccupation of Indian governments following the 1919 Government of India Act. But it was also forming part of the political milieu of Britain, following the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which created universal male suffrage, and the more radical transformation of the women’s suffragette movement in post-war Britain.

Certainly, as we will see below, Ambedkar would have experienced first-hand women’s new admission into higher education, the law and professions, and their more direct engagement in the political life of the country.

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But how did this context affect Ambedkar’s everyday experiences in London? The archival record for Ambedkar’s time in the city, especially around his accommodation and personal life, is thin.

Photograph of Ambedkar House, taken 19 June 2021.

(Photo: LSE)

We do know for certain that he stayed at two other addresses before arriving at 10KHR (10 King Henry’s Road in North London), and that in at least one case (if not both) his experience was an unhappy one.

On first arrival in London, he lodged at 21 Cromwell Road for around two weeks. This was student accommodation under the auspices of the Bureau of Information—a body initially set up to gather intelligence and help to divert Indian political extremism in the wake of the ideas that had emerged out of Shyamaji Krishnavarma’s India House radicals.

At the time of Ambedkar’s visit it was subject to a report on conditions for Indian students, set up by an official Committee for Indian Students. Most damning was the suspicion in the minds of residents that the landlady of the house, a Miss Beck, was a spy employed by the British government to monitor Indian students’ political activities. The Committee of Indian Students strenuously denied the allegations.

A second address in 95 Brook Green, Hammersmith provided a room for Ambedkar between July 1920 and toward the end of the year, and it is likely that at this address Ambedkar’s stay was not successful.

He wrote to Prabhakar Padhye that the food was wholly inadequate, with supper often only consisting of a ‘cup of Bovril, biscuits and butter’. According to Ambedkar, ‘The landlady was a terrible woman. I am always praying for her soul; but I am sure she will go to perdition’.

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Dr BR Ambedkar in 1950.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The experiences of Indian students finding accommodation on their first arrival in the UK was not just hindered by financial considerations.

Research just a year prior to Ambedkar’s arrival suggested there was ‘evidence that there is some reluctance on the part of some landladies to admit Indian students’. They were sometimes asked to pay high prices and their food requirements were typically not taken into consideration.

This situation reflected a wider problem of student segregation and racism in interwar Britain that pervaded both universities and wider social interactions among young people.

Ambedkar moved to 10KHR before 5 January 1921, which is the first evidence we have from correspondence with his old PhD supervisor from Columbia, Edwin Seligman, that he was definitely resident at the house.

(William Gould is a Professor of Indian History at the University of Leeds, where he teaches and publishes on the history and politics of South Asia. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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