After his time at Columbia ran its course, Ambedkar travelled to London in May 1916 to begin what he thought would be another extended period of graduate work. After a year of intense work in a range of programs, Ambedkar’s money and luck ran out, and the Gaikwad summoned him back to India to repay his debts through service to the state of Baroda. Leaving Europe in July 1917, Ambedkar arrived back in Bombay on August 21, 1917. It was on this trip that he was fortunately separated from most of his luggage; the steamer containing his possessions was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sunk.

The Great War that Dewey and his professors had argued about had finally come home for Ambedkar. Trunks of his beloved books, and presumably class notes, from his New York and London experiences sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean, a loss that the ever-studious Ambedkar must have felt deeply. Yet he was surely enlivened by the chaotic but promising situation he returned to in India.

The British were being beaten down by the increasing costs of the war, and even the secretary of state for India, Edwin Montagu, was broaching the idea in the House of Commons of gradual self-rule for India within the British Empire. When Montagu visited India in 1917, he witnessed firsthand the increasing assertiveness of the Indian home rule movement, along with the germination of a handful of groups asserting concerns of India’s Dalits and tribal groups. Gandhi had reentered the Indian scene, stepping ashore in Bombay in 1915 and bringing his developing method of satyagraha with him. He would employ this method of passive resistance (a term he used with some reluctance, since he was in the process of discarding it) with noted success in Champaran, Bihar, in April 1917 to assist indigo sharecroppers in their struggles with local planters. As Dennis Dalton notes, this campaign propelled Gandhi into “a position of national leadership.”

Ambedkar entered into this scene, as Keer puts it, a “mere nobody in Indian politics.” He had been well educated in the West but was virtually unknown in the circles of power in India. He gradually would rectify this public image over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, but his low profile (and power) around 1917–19 is surely one of the reasons he was in no position to invite, or host, an international visitor like Dewey. Even if he wanted to follow the course of Hu Shih and his colleagues, Ambedkar lacked the time, connections, and clout around the time of Dewey’s travels to Asia to pull such a visit together for his former professor.

As his biographers recount, Ambedkar was simply struggling to create a viable financial situation for himself and his family around his arrival back in India in 1917. This is the time period of Ambedkar’s humiliating and scarring encounter with the clashing features of his education and his “untouchability”: even though the state of Baroda had called him back to a high-ranking government position, Ambedkar had trouble interacting with his subordinates and even finding housing.

After failing to acquire shelter – he lodged under a fake name at a Parsi boarding house for a while, but he was eventually chased out by armed men – he returned to Bombay and variously worked as an investment consultant and as a professor at Sydenham College. All of these endeavors became unbearable once the reality of his caste status overwhelmed his intellectual qualifications. Caste always caught up with young Ambedkar in India.

Amid all of this struggle for gainful employment and his family’s sheer survival, the educated Ambedkar decided to publish a short work in the Journal of the Indian Economic Society in its very first volume in March 1918. This was not his first publication – that honour rested with his “Castes in India” seminar paper, prepared in 1916 and published in the Indian Antiquary in May 1917. The work that Ambedkar published in 1918 was a review article – effectively a book review – titled “Mr Russell and the Reconstruction of Society.” It was an account of a recent book authored by Bertrand Russell, a leading British philosopher active in the antiwar movement. Most accounts of Ambedkar’s thought skip over this work; biographical accounts, driven by urges for completeness, note and summarise it, then move on.

These approaches leave something important out of our stories of Ambedkar, however, since it is in this first review that Ambedkar’s program of meliorism starts to be developed and worked out. In his early economic essays and his sociological work, “Castes in India,” we do not see the fully developed normative or critical edge of the fiery Ambedkar as revealed in his 1936 Annihilation of Caste text. In “Castes in India,” we see him diagnosing problematic customs and social arrangements, but he holds back from addressing readers forcefully about what should be done and what they can or should do. In this short review of a book that has so little to do, ostensibly, with India and its quest for self-rule, we see Ambedkar wade into the waters of normative advocacy: what Indians attentive to his arguments should do and think now. As we shall see, his review of Russell’s book offers suggestions for constructive reactions to choices involving force and, I suggest, showcases an ever-evolving pragmatism that grows from – and sometimes resists – elements of Dewey’s thought that he had heard and read. In other words, this review article in 1918 marks the most evident start of Ambedkar’s project of reconstructive rhetoric, or his attempt to fashion and refashion problematic habits, customs, and institutions in readers or publics through acts of persuasive speech and writing.

Excerpted with permission from The Evolution of Pragmatism in India: An Intellectual Biography of BR Ambedkar, Scott R Stroud, HarperCollins India.