In the row of brick semi-detached villas on King Henry’s Road near London’s Primrose Hill, No 10 is set apart by a London Blue Plaque and its open door. “Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, 1891-1956, Indian Crusader of Social Justice lived here 1921-22,” reads the plaque, one of many installed by the charity English Heritage to mark historic residences and workplaces of famous Londoners.
In comparison to the detailed accounts of Mohandas Gandhi’s time in UK, knowledge of Ambedkar’s experience in London is sparse. However, in his work, one can detect the lingering presence of his engagement with public and intellectual life in 1920s Britain, which was marked by high unemployment, rapid urbanisation and the Irish struggle for independence.
“Democracy is essentially an attitude of reverence towards our fellow men,” reads a quote on a wall in Ambedkar House, which was bought by the government of Maharashtra in 2015 for £3.1 million. After two years of refurbishment, the spacious and welcoming house opened to public on April 19 but awaits a formal inauguration. Of the four floors, the basement serves as a meeting room, and a photo exhibition showcasing Ambedkar’s life and achievements are spread across the ground, first and second floors. The first floor also has a library with a collection of Ambedkar’s writings and a comfortable reading space overlooking the garden.
Curated by art consultant Caterina Corni, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Research and Training Institute in Pune, and the Department of Social Justice and Special Assistance, government of Maharashtra, the house has no other exhibits and the photo exhibition, which relies heavily on scanned photographs and descriptions, provide a succinct outline of Ambedkar’s life, but with little specific insight into his time in London.
In the manicured backyard is a life-sized statue of Ambedkar with the Indian Constitution in one hand and the other outstretched with a finger directed at the visitor. Unlike its many counterparts in India, this statue is free of cages – a feeling Ambedkar might have shared when he arrived in London in 1916.
Ambedkar’s initial stay in London – during which he read at the British Museum and pursued a Masters at the London School of Economics and Political Science – was cut short in 1917 because World War I broke out and, simultaneously, his scholarship from Baroda State was terminated. But he returned to the UK in 1920 to finish his research after the first draft was destroyed when the steamer carrying his luggage to India was torpedoed in 1917. He also enrolled for a PhD in Economics at LSE and a degree in Law at Gray’s Inn. It is at this time that he made No 10, King Henry’s Road his home.
In the 1920s, Ambedkar witnessed London’s expansion into the suburbs as the city’s infrastructure creaked under the weight of over seven million people. At Primrose Hill, as wealthy owners converted their houses to flats or for institutions, No 10 became a modest lodging space that Ambedkar shared with another Indian and a housekeeper. The space and conditions of his stay here were in stark contrast to his struggles in finding accommodation in Baroda and Bombay upon his return to India in 1917. His two years were spent living freely in a neighbourhood of middle-class and upper middle-class artists, thinkers and musicians. In his autobiography Waiting for a Visa, Ambedkar wrote:
“My five years of staying in Europe and America had completely wiped out of my mind any consciousness that I was an untouchable, and that an untouchable wherever he went in India was a problem to himself and to others. But when I came out of the station, my mind was considerably disturbed by a question, ‘Where to go? Who will take me?’ I felt deeply agitated.”
This is perhaps the only direct reference Ambedkar ever made in writing to his time in London. Away from India, he could sever his caste identity, become one among equals and truly understand the spatial dimensions of how caste is performed in Indian public spaces.
“The key thing for me is, he was spared from the perniciousness of untouchability in London,” said Santosh Dass, president of the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations, UK, who was instrumental in the renovation of Ambedkar House. “Instead, he was exposed to western liberalism, history and philosophy. This conducive environment helped cultivate his mind.” She sees No 10 as a symbol of his intellectual journey. To her, it represents the hope and possibility of making Ambedkar’s ideals, life and work global.
Ambedkar was “a subaltern twice over” from a British colony, but in New York and London he reinvented himself as a scholar. He was a man of cities – having lived in Bombay and studied at Columbia University in New York before moving to London in June 1916. While Mohandas Gandhi romanticised villages as the bedrock of Indian civilisation and nationalisation, for Ambedkar they were “ghettos” where caste sustained and thrived. He had grown up in a village where his siblings were denied services – even if they could afford them – and stripped of their dignity. In contrast, cities allowed opportunities for social advancement, access to educational institutions and a chance to engage in occupations that were not limited on the basis of caste.
Freed from the shackles of his caste identity, Ambedkar left no stone unturned to arm himself with more degrees than was the norm in order to become a leader of the “untouchables” and secure his seat at the political high table in a fast-changing India.
His academic achievements earned him praise from economist and LSE Professor Herbert Foxwell in 1920: “[...] there are no more worlds here for him to conquer.” Sue Donnelly, archivist at LSE, explains that Foxwell felt this way because it was highly uncommon for people to earn multiple higher degrees.
In 1923, Ambedkar became the first Indian to finish a doctorate in economics from LSE for his slightly controversial doctoral thesis, The Problem of the Indian Rupee. In the same year, he completed his legal training and became a member of Gray’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court in England and Wales to which all barristers must belong.
Donnelly added, “There is no record of his wider student life, but given his background and funding he probably worked very hard.” He lived a frugal and disciplined life, spending time and money mostly on books.
During his stay at King Henry’s Road, he would rise early and walk to one of the libraries in Central London. From the serenity of Primrose Hill and through Regent’s Park, he would enter the overcrowded and areas of Chalk Farm and Euston, before reaching the British Museum or the LSE campus in Holborn.
A hundred years later, while the garden and Royal Park are untouched, there are more gentrified neighbourhoods along this route. The British Museum Reading Room – which was also used by Karl Marx, Gandhi and George Bernard Shaw, among others – is now closed. The LSE campus, too, is completely transformed. Of LSE’s Passmore Edwards Hall, the building which would have been familiar to Ambedkar, only the door remains. The campus stands a stone’s throw away from the High Commission of India at the India House, where a bust of Ambedkar and an original of the illustrated Constitution of India are kept.
For many years now, a walk along this route has become the central feature of Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations in London, during which members of Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations, UK, and Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance, UK, trace his steps and end with garlanding his bust at LSE.
It was at LSE that Ambedkar came in contact with Fabian ideas, which became a part of the socialist movement in the UK. The Fabian Society believed in propagating socialism – mainly ideas of collective responsibility in social welfare and extension of public control in industry – through “permeation” targeted at collectivist liberal politicians and social activists. Some of Ambedkar’s work and ideas showed a leaning towards Fabian ideas – especially the role of the State in industries, economic affairs and welfare of the poor – and he is known to have followed the work of Fabian thinker William Dale Morris and labour politics in the UK.
During the interwar years, the UK was battling unemployment and Ireland. Ambedkar found inspiration in both. For instance, in Annihilation of Caste, he used the example of the struggles of the English working class and the weight of feudalism. Dass feels in his comparison of caste with a social apartheid, we not only see the influence of his stay in London but also the potential for “transferability” of Ambedkar’s ideas.
Ambedkar found similar transferability in the Indian and Irish struggles for independence. In 1922, the Constitution of the Irish Free State was adopted, to be later replaced by the Constitution of Ireland in 1937. The Directive Principles – especially Articles 37, 38 and 46 – of the Indian Constitution are only a slightly adapted import from Article 45 of Directive Principles of the Irish Constitution, which aim to uplift oppressed people. Its Indian counterpart was, among other purposes, included for the upliftment of lower castes and tribal groups in India. In fact, by including a reservation system for the oppressed classes, Ambedkar, as the chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly, succeeded to ascertain affirmative action, which the Irish constitution has struggled with.
While the impact of the wider socio-economic and political situations on Ambedkar’s education can only be gleaned tangentially from his work and speeches, the dichotomy of his public life as a scholar and the leader of the “untouchables” is apparent from his visit to London for the 1932 Roundtable Conference. He was invited to his alma mater for lunch with leading professors and academics but it was his dinner with the Maharaja of Baroda at Hyde Park Hotel that captured headlines. The New York Times, in an article titled, “Prince and outcast at dinner in London end age-old barrier”, noted the irony that “[...] at the end of all this study abroad he [Dr. Ambedkar] returned to India as an ‘untouchable,’ as when he left.”
Mahima A. Jain is a freelance journalist based in London, and co-editor of the South Asia blog at LSE.