- In America, he experienced freedom and equality like never before. His interactions with fellow students, professors and even mundane interactions with ordinary Americans sowed the seeds of future self-respect.
Last month on my visit to Mumbai, I experienced the celebration of the birth anniversary of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar on April 14. This encouraged me to read the book “Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Life and Mission,” by Dhananjay Keer, which is the only authentic biography read and approved by Dr. Ambedkar himself. The book inspired me to write this article about this great person, whom I consider one of my philosophic ancestors.
Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, (affectionately called Babasaheb), the exalted guru to many who fight against social injustice and inequality in India, played a pivotal role in shaping the country’s constitution, championing the rights of marginalized communities, and female empowerment. While his contributions to Indian society are widely recognized, it is essential to appreciate the profound influence that America had on his life and ideologies. His education, exposure to social movements, and philosophical insights gained during his time in the United States shaped his fight against caste discrimination and his quest for social justice in India.
Dr. Ambedkar’s transformative journey began when he was awarded a scholarship at age 22, by Maharaja Sayajirao Gaikwad, the erstwhile nationalist ruler of Baroda to pursue higher education at Columbia University in New York in 1913. In America, Babasaheb experienced freedom and equality like never before. His interactions with his fellow students and professors as well as seemingly mundane interactions with ordinary Americans sowed the seeds of future self-respect, self-reliance, and his fight against the attitude of the marginalized community of helplessness and accepting their situation at that time as unalterable providence. Dr. Ambedkar wrote: ‘The best friends I have had in life were some of my classmates at Columbia and my great professors, John Dewey, James Shotwell, Edwin Seligman, and James Harvey Robinson.’”
After working hard for two long years he obtained his MA degree in 1915 for his thesis “Ancient Indian Commerce.” In 1916, he read a paper on “Castes in India, their Mechanism, Genesis, and Development,” before the anthropology seminar of Dr. Goldenweiser. He simultaneously worked on another thesis, “National Dividend of India: A Historic and Analytical Study” which was accepted by Columbia University in June 1916. This thesis was published as the book titled, “The Evolution of Provisional Finance in British India.” This famous book became a companion to the members of the Indian legislative council and the central assembly at the time of budget discussions during the British regime. He completed his M.A. and Ph.D. in Economics and Sociology at Columbia University and later went on to earn a D.Sc. in Economics from the University of London.
During his time in America, Dr. Ambedkar had the opportunity to witness and engage with various social movements that advocated for equality and civil rights. He was exposed to the works of prominent African American leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois and the ideas of the suffragette movement. He drew parallels between the discrimination faced by African Americans and the caste-based discrimination prevalent in India. He witnessed firsthand the fight for the principles of liberty, equality, and justice, during his time in America. Another American personality whose work influenced Dr. Ambedkar was Booker T. Washington, who was the president of the Tuskegee Institute and advocated for the progress of Black people through education and entrepreneurship. Drawing upon the strategies employed by African American activists, after his return Dr. Ambedkar initiated peaceful protests, organized mass movements, and advocated for legal reforms to secure the rights of the oppressed Dalit community.
These achievements were possible due to his superhuman efforts. Babasaheb studied for 18 hours a day during his stay in America. At the same time, he saved money from his scholarship by subsisting on a cup of coffee, two muffins, and a single meat or fish dish costing him $1.10. A portion of the saved money was remitted back home to support his family. During his stay in New York, he purchased 2,000 old books. Unfortunately, many were lost in their transit to India. These educational experiences in America not only broadened his horizons but also deepened his understanding of social issues and the struggle for civil rights.
America’s influence on Dr. Ambedkar extended beyond social and political movements. It significantly impacted his philosophical outlook on life and social justice. He adopted the ideals of democracy, individual freedom, and egalitarianism from American thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and John Dewey. The concept of “one person, one vote” resonated deeply with Dr. Ambedkar, who sought to empower the marginalized communities in India and ensure their representation in democratic processes.
Among Dr. Ambedkar’s many contributions to modern India was his instrumental role as the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution in 1947. His exposure to the American Constitution and its emphasis on civil liberties and equality influenced his vision for an inclusive and just society. Dr. Ambedkar incorporated several provisions in the Indian Constitution to safeguard the rights of the marginalized, including affirmative action policies, reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and the abolition of untouchability.
Dr. Ambedkar’s legacy stands as a testament to the transformative power of cross-cultural exchanges on fertile minds and hearts. His enduring impact on anyone seeking the pursuit of a more equitable and inclusive world transcends the borders of India. A proposed Ambedkar statue as a part of a memorial is in the process of being built in the town of Accokeek, Maryland which will serve as a center-point for his legacy in the USA.
Mandar Pattekar is a radiologist by profession. His service interest is in the education of children in underserved urban areas of America as well as improving urban food deserts. He likes to share the universally applicable Hindu Dharma principles with interested people.