Baba Saheb Ambedkar may not be someone most Americans are familiar with, but close to 90 years after the architect of the Indian constitution left Columbia University, from where he earned a Ph.D in economics for his native India, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar continues to draw attention of American academics and scholars.
Ambedkar’s political philosophy and many books, including “Annihilation of Caste,” an undelivered speech written in 1936, “Buddha Or Karl Marx” published in 1956 and his autobiography “Waiting for a Visa,” which is used as a textbook by Columbia University’s South Asia Institute, are known to scholars and are an inspiration for many of them in the U.S.
“Waiting for a Visa” has been edited for classroom use by Prof. Frances W. Pritchett, Professor Emerita of Modern Indic Languages in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University.
Universities with courses on history or South Asian studies have focused on Ambedkar and have done extensive research on various aspects of his philosophy. Some experts say his writings have resonated well with American academics and intellectuals, including Black Americans like Runoko Rashidi, a historian, essayist, author and public lecturer.
Rashidi, who was once under the impression that Dalits, the ‘untouchable’ community Ambedkar came from, were the “Blacks of India,” visited Mumbai in 1987 as part of his project named “Looking At India Through African Eyes.” He later wrote that “the Dalits of India are one of the largest and most brutalized communities on earth.”
It is not that average Americans have heard a lot about Ambedkar or are familiar with his work, but academics across U.S. colleges and universities, including in Columbia, UC Berkeley, UPenn, Harvard and other educational institutions, have done studies on Ambedkar. Many of these institutions have Ambedkar’s work on their syllabi as part of history and sociology curricula. At the Department of International and Global Studies at Brandeis University, a course, on caste, “Unequal Histories: Caste, Religion, and Dissent in India” was launched last year.
Professor Laurence Simon, the founding director of the Graduate Programs in Sustainable International Development from 1993 in Brandeis, told this correspondent that he is coming out with an academic journal christened “Caste: A Global Journal on Social Exclusion,” the first such periodical to be published in the United States.
Experts say there have been both pioneering Black, White as well as indigenous scholars in the American academia who have done research on Ambedkar’s work as part of study on casteism and untouchability in India, including Eleanor Zelliot, a retired professor of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and specialist on the history of India, and Comer Vann Woodward, a Pulitzer-prize winning American historian as well as retired professor Christopher Quinn who taught Buddhism and religion at Harvard University and is considered an expert on Ambedkar, who was a Buddhist.
Zelliot has written over 80 articles and edited three books on the movement among untouchables in India led by Dr. Ambedkar. Others like professors Andres Lamas of UPENN, Kevin Brown of Indiana University and David Blundell of the University of UCLA have done research on various aspects of Ambedkar’s philosophy.
“If you are interested in the issues of solidarity, equality and social justice across geographical boundaries, it is only natural that you would take inspiration from Ambedkar’s philosophy and his writings,” Suraj Yengde, an academic activist and post-doctoral Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, told this correspondent.
Pritchett at Columbia has compiled South Asia study sources and created a timeline of Ambedkar’s life, which is part of Columbia’s web project on Ambedkar that includes e-text of “Annihilation of Caste” as its centerpiece.
“She has done really sort of seminal work in creating public history and public outreach for Ambedkar material and also situating him in the broader context of colonial India. That work has been very important,” Anupama Rao, an associate professor of History at Barnard College, who has done a lot of work on the prehistory of the Ambedkar movement and also on contemporary Dalit politics in India, observed.
“The tradition of study and research on Ambedkar in the U.S. has been there for a long time, at least since the 1960s and he has attracted attention of both the academia and the American media with the New York Times, New York Amsterdam News, Pittsburg Courier and other newspapers featuring him and his work from time to time because they were interested in Ambedkar’s activities as he was someone they could relate to,” Yengde said.
He noted that even in 1943 and 1944, Du Bois, a historian, civil rights activist and Pan-Africanist, wrote in his column in The New York Amsterdam News that “the greatest color problem in the world is that of India,” adding that the American Negroes are the “bound colony of the United States just as India is of England.”
Du Bois, a black American, noted that this creates a parallel between the African American experience within the U.S. and the Indian experience within colonized India, raising the possibility of solidarity building between these two communities, since both of them face similar types of oppression.
A measure of the renewed interest in Ambedkar was the inaugural lecture organized last year on Ambedkar, arguably one of Columbia University’s most illustrious alumni, by the Columbia University in association with Bernard College to explore the continued relevance of Ambedkar for discussions of social justice, affirmative action, and democratic thinking in a global frame.
The two-day lecture event,
which is expected to continue in future, was primarily aimed at commemorating Ambedkar and also to connect Ambedkar with the university which, according to some academics, is long overdue.
“The idea was to expose people in the university community and people who are political theorists, historians doing global history and people interested in questions about democracy and inequality, and also to think of Ambedkar as a global figure, to think about his thought and activism as having a lot of consequence for the global movement for social justice and movements for post-colonial democracy,” Rao, also the associate professor of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia, who addressed the two-day lecture titled “Global Ambedkar,” told India Abroad.
The event drew full house with a number of people from the academia, film studies and media and included attendees from both the South Asian and the mainstream communities.
Over the years, interest in Ambedkar has also spread to other campuses and states in the U.S.
The Boston Study Group that was started by a small group of Ambedkarites of South Asian lineage around Boston and Heller school of Social Policy at Brandeis university a few years ago, has now grown in strength in the past three years as a nonprofit, drawing not only members from the diaspora but also patrons from the non-South Asian academic community.
The popularity of the group was manifest when Lisa Lynch, the Provost and chief academic officer of Brandeis University, unveiled the bust of Ambedkar on April 29, 2017 to mark Ambedkar’s 126th birth anniversary in front of the main library of the Heller School of the University.
Speaking after the inauguration, Lynch said, “As an alumnus of London School of Economics (LSE), I am particularly pleased to see that we too will have bust of Dr. Ambedkar like London School of Economics has.”
She noted that the impact of the legacy of Ambedkar “on the entire world and particularly his focus on education after coming out of oppression is a source of inspiration.”
Incidentally, President Barack Obama mentioned about Baba Saheb Ambedkar in his speech to the Indian Parliament in November 2010, recalling how the Indian from the “untouchable” background “lifted himself up” to become the father of the Indian Constitution.
The unveiling of the Ambedkar bust at Brandeis was the second such bust of Ambedkar in a U.S. university, the first one having been installed in 2000 at Columbia University, which has declared Ambedkar as its most intelligent student — the only Indian to have featured in the list of top 100 students.
Lynch hoped, according to a report in The Citizen, that the bust at Brandeis will not only inspire those who know about him but will inspire those who do not know about him to help them learn more and be inspired.
Ambedkar spent many years in the early part of the last century at Columbia and formed many of his ideas about equality and social justice studying under John Dewey, whose ideas on democracy and education helped shape America’s education system. Ambedkar earned his master’s degree in 1915, and his Ph.D. in economics in 1928. In 1952, Columbia presented him with an honorary Doctor of Law, according to a Columbia News report.
Ramnarayan Rawat, a professor at the University of Delaware and a historian of the Indian subcontinent, who also has appointments at the University of Pennsylvania and University of Washington, feels Dalit history illustrates and enables connections with global histories of racism and social exclusion.
“Scholars (and students) will find remarkable parallels on policies and practices that sustain exclusion of Dalits (similar to black people and Burakumins in Japan), and their struggles to seek access to public spaces,” he said during the 2016 California textbook controversy on the issue of the portrayal of the South Asian subcontinent in history textbooks. Among the disputed points was whether schools in California should teach Dalit history and the history of the caste system to students.
“For these reasons, courses on race and ethnic studies, Africana studies, black studies, history, anthropology, English/postcolonial studies, literary studies, and area studies can benefit from Dalit histories,” Rawat wrote in an article on American racism and Indian casteism published in “Perspectives on History,” the news magazine of the American Historical Association.
Rao said there has been a lot of interest in Ambedkar in recent years both in India and the U.S., noting that Berkeley is doing a whole lot or work on Ambedkar and also “probably the University of Chicago” and Brandeis, and UMass Amherst have taken interest in Ambedkar. I think now reading ‘Annihilation of Caste’ is really on every Indian, South Asian history course in universities as also reading on Ambedkar. I think that is increasingly the case,” Rao said.
“I think there has been a lot of interest in Ambedkar and people are beginning to think of him as one of the most , perhaps the most crucial figure, for understanding modern India and so there has been a kind of sea change in the academia overall,” Rao added.
Despite such trends in the U.S., the situation in India does not seem to be as encouraging for followers of Ambedkar although the country celebrates its first law minister’s birth anniversary on April 14 with much fanfare.
This April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid tributes to Ambedkar on his 124th birth anniversary, and said, “Let us pledge to dedicate ourselves to creating India that Ambedkar dreamt of...an India that will make him proud,” he said in a message. “I bow to Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar on his birth anniversary — Jai Bhim,” he said.
Political analysts, however, say that Modi’s compliments to Ambedkar was prompted more by the compulsions of 2019 general elections to gain support of Dalits and other lower castes than by purely altruistic motives.
The Economic and Political Weekly, in an article by Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee, a poet, writer, and political science scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University, observed in May this year that Indian sociologists and historians have retained a certain foundational bias and blindness regarding caste.
“The neglect of B. R. Ambedkar has been part of a strange refusal to acknowledge the political in caste,” the article said.