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Ambedkar Abroad: A Tale of Opportunity, Brilliance and Grit

B.R. Ambedkar was given a rare opportunity which most Indian students depend on, even today a scholarship to study abroad. He went on to make the most of it, excelling at the best universities in the US and the UK. Here is a brief account of his student life and how it made him the man he became.
BY Skendha Singh |   14-04-2016

Father of the Indian Constitution, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, was born on 14th April 1891 to Ramji and Bhimabai Sakpal in Mhow. Although the family belonged to the low ranking Mahar caste, his father was employed as a Subedar in the army. The father enrolled young Ambedkar and his brothers in a local school. While this was a great opportunity, social prejudice kept them from deriving the full benefit of education. Ambedkar has reminisced about his school days – where he could not sit, learn, or even drink with other boys. It is a fitting testament to his brilliance and spirit that the young boy persisted through school and entered Elphinstone college in 1907. He was the first of an untouchable caste to do so.

The Maharaja of Gaekwad funded Ambedkar’s college education. After he received his degrees in Economics and Political Science, Ambedkar was awarded a Baroda State Scholarship of 11.50 GBP a month for three years to study in the Graduate School of Columbia University. Ambedkar arrived in New York in July 1913. He first stayed at Hartley Hall where he could not stand the food. Eventually he settled in a dormitory, Livingston (now Wallach) Hall.

Columbia’s list of Professors from that time reads like a veritable who’s who of 20th century thinkers. As a post graduate student, Ambedkar worked under the likes of Professors Seligman, Dewey, Clark, Seager, Giddings, and Goldenweiser. Aged 23, Ambedkar was already intellectually mature, and his research interests were well-established. He audited several classes, even the ones which would not contribute to his credit – such as American Railways, American History, and so on, to get a vast exposure to diverse intellectual traditions.

His coursework, too, was enormous, with classes in Economics, Sociology, Philosophy, Anthropology, Politics as well as elementary French and German.

As is evident, Ambedkar experienced the best of American liberal-political-economic education. But, what is most interesting is that he turned this education to analyzing and deconstructing Indian problems. He was especially capable, given his personal experience and penetrative intellect.

His M.A. Economics thesis was “Ancient Indian Commerce.” The students and faculty held a special dinner to honour his achievement. In 1916, he submitted a second M.A. thesis on “National Dividend of India – A Historic and Analytical Study.” This paper contained the seed of his post-doctoral thesis. Under the supervision of Prof Edwin Seligman, Ambedkar wrote his PhD dissertation on “The Evolution of Personal Finance in British India.”

Undoubtedly, these studies developed and reinforced Ambedkar’s understanding of the practical fall-out of British rule in India, and enabled him, as Chairman of the Constitution’s Drafting Committee, to draft a constitution which mandates a large role for the state while simultaneously instating counter-checks to ensure individual freedom and welfare.

At Columbia, Ambedkar also read his paper “Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development” in a famous seminar, in which he argued two major points. One was for the cultural unity of India, and the other was the social origin of the caste system as opposed to a racial one. Both these conclusions were undoubtedly seminal in his future life. He never wavered from his belief that caste-riddled and colonized as India was, it was one nation. And secondly that casteism, having no authentic foundation in philosophy or race, ought not to hold people back from achieving their full potential.

In 1917, Ambedkar also went on to enroll himself for a course in Law at Gray’s Inn and the London School of Economics for a Doctoral thesis. He had to return to India mid-way because his scholarship ended. When he set sail for India, he shipped his books separately. Unfortunately, the ship that was carrying his books was torpedoed by a German submarine. Thankfully, he was given permission to return and submit his thesis within four years. In 1921, he completed his Master’s degree. His thesis was on ‘The problem of the rupee: Its origin and its solution.” Two years later, he was called to the Bar. He also received a Doctorate in Economics.

In India, Ambedkar returned to circumstances he had almost forgotten after breathing the free air of the western hemisphere. He struggled to find lodgings in Baroda, his first place of appointment. He tried other professions. Even as a Professor at Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics, he was an untouchable to other members of staff.

But his years in American and Europe had changed him. He had experienced a real meritocracy – been recognized and rewarded. No other Indian had so far matched his academic feats, let alone one from the underprivileged classes. Distance had given him a keen perspective on Indian society, and knowing freedom had given him a lack of tolerance for ignorance. Most importantly, Ambedkar’s education had made him the man who was to create a political structure for India, which the world would come to admire.



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