Potrait of a Scholar and Activist: Ambedkar as a Young Man

That’s Life!!!

                                        Ambedkar with professors and friends at LSE 1916-17. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Hemant Devasthali

The years 1913 through 1923 represent a very significant period in B.R. Ambedkar’s life marked by passion for learning and a dawning inclination for activism. The decade can be divided into four segments that reflect these two impulses driving self-definition.

■ New York (July 21, 1913-May 1916)

 Ambedkar went abroad for his education for the first time in July 1913 at the age of twenty two to study at the post-graduate department of Columbia University, New York. A scholarship of £11.50 a month for three years, from 15 June 1913 to 14 June 1916 from the State of Baroda secured through the personal intervention of the then ruler of the princely state, Maharaja Sayajirao Gaikwad made this possible. The scholarship agreement included a proviso that required Ambedkar to serve for 10 years for the State of Baroda on the completion of his studies.

Ambedkar received his MA at Columbia on June 2, 1915 for his thesis, Administration of Finances of the East India Company. Just a year later at the age of twenty six he submitted his PhD dissertation to Columbia titled National Dividend: A Historical and Analytical Study under the guidance of Professor Edwin Seligman. The dissertation was later published as The Evolution of Provincial Finance in British India.

At this juncture an ambitious thought of pursuing fresh academic work at London University crossed Ambedkar’s mind. Since the Baroda scholarship was expiring on 14 June 1916, he applied to the Maharaja of Baroda for a two-year extension that he hoped would enable him to commence new research in London. The Maharaja initially turned down his request but subsequently agreed to a year’s extension after Ambedkar had re-applied, this time with a strong recommendation from Seligman.

Ambedkar’s US sojourn, of close to three years provided him with his first exposure to the Western world and its emphasis on individual liberty, hard work and the power of knowledge. Columbia University gave him an opportunity to be in close contact with prominent American thinkers of the early twentieth century. Of these philosopher John Dewey, anthropologist AA Goldenweiser and Edwin Seligman happened to be his teachers at the university, the last also being his doctoral supervisor. Ambedkar’s years in America may be said to have laid the basis for his unwavering belief in representative democratic institutions and influenced his work in the years to come.

■ London (June 1916- July 27, 1917)

Ambedkar was in no mood to wait for the Maharaja’s response and had already decided to chase his drams on his own if the need arose. He set out for London in the last week of May 1916 and reached Liverpool in June 1916. Two days later he learnt of the one-year extension of his scholarship.

Ambedkar, aged twenty five, got admitted to the London School of Economics and Political Science in October 1916 and to the Bar-at-Law at Grey’s inn in November the same year. In view of his PhD from Columbia and the recommendation from Seligman, Ambedkar was granted special permission to appear directly for MSc without having to first complete BSc courses. The university senate passed a resolution to that effect on 18 December 1916.

No sooner had Ambedkar begun his study in London with gusto than his one-year extension of scholarship was coming to an end once again he had to solicit the Baroda State authorities to grant him another extension. The request this time was firmly turned down by the authorities and by the Maharaja himself; Ambedkar was instructed to return to India and join in the Baroda State administration per the scholarship agreement.

Disturbed and left with no choice but to return to India, Ambedkar applied to the authorities of both the London University and the Grey’s Inn to condone the interruption in his studies and allow him an extended period of time to fulfil the requirements of the respective courses. To his relief, both institutions considered Ambedkar’s request sympathetically and granted him allowance in time with London University permitting him an extension of four years beginning October 1917.

■ India (August 21, 1917- July 5, 1920)

 Ambedkar began his journey home on July 27, 1917, reaching Bombay on August 21, 1917. In keeping with the terms of his scholarship which required him to be in the service of the Baroda State for the following ten years, Ambedkar went to Baroda and joined the state administration as Maharaja’s Military Secretary on 31 Aug 1917.

Despite Ambedkar’s distinguished academic record and a highly respectable position in the administration, the office staff members were far from civil with him. They kept him at a distance and literally flung office files at him to avoid any physical contact. In the officer’s club too, caste Hindu members were less than friendly and resented his participation in any games. Finding a place to bed down became an ordeal. Ambedkar managed to find quarters in a Parsi boarding house but under an assumed name; the relief however was short-lived. A group of Parsis discovered his identity and accosted him with lathis, asking him to leave the place immediately and even threatening to kill him. The hostile atmosphere at Baroda left him no choice but to resign the job and return to Bombay in November 1917.

Following sundry jobs and occupations which somehow helped him to make a living, Ambedkar settled down to a one-year position as Professor of Political Economy at Sydenham College, Mumbai, on a salary of Rs 450 per month. He held this job for over a year from November 11, 1918 to March 11, 1920.

With a relatively comfortable job in hand, Ambedkar now looked forward to completing his academic studies he had embarked upon at the London School of Economics. With no scholarship to support him he had to fall back on his own savings from the college salary. He became a stickler for a frugal way of life and instructed his wife accordingly. Ramabai had only a smattering of education and while proud of her husband’s intellect, she was more of a dedicated home maker. Ambedkar’s unstoppable passion for learning did not enamour her but often led to the arguments and bitterness between the two. It was a sad moment for her when Ambedkar told her that he held a two-year tenure and planned to return to London to complete his studies.

Arranging his finances for London and providing for family expenses back home during his stay abroad proved formidably difficult for Ambedkar. He received Rs 1500 from Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur, whom he had recently come to know, and saved £ 950 from his personal income of which he set aside £ 500 for the trip and stay. He left for London on July 5, 1920.


The intervening stay in India played a very significant role in shaping Ambedkar’s public career in its formative phase. Three important developments during this period provide glimpses of Ambedkar’s potential as a future leader of Dalits and statesman:

  • Testimony before the Southborough Committee (January 27, 1919): The Southborough Franchise Committee was appointed soon after Edwin Montagu’s declaration on August 20, 1917 about the gradual introduction of ‘responsible Government in India’. The Committee toured India and interviewed several prominent public figures representing different community interests during 1918-19 with a view to devising an ‘appropriate’ franchise system for India.

Disillusioned with the position taken by the caste Hindu leaders on matters of representation of untouchables in the proposed legislature, Ambedkar was determined to get the Committee to hear the untouchables’ leadership as well. With this goal in mind, he entered into a correspondence with the Governor, apparently convinced him of this view and earned an invitation to testify to the Committee.1

This incident was Ambedkar’s first foray into the public realm and provides an insight into a political consciousness that was taking shape.

  • Publication of the fortnightly, Mook Nayak (January 31 1920): Ambedkar started this fortnightly explicitly as a platform from which to vent the grievances of the untouchable community, which, he felt, was at once powerless, impoverished and ignorant.2 He ascribed the miserable economic conditions of the untouchables to the iniquitous caste structure of Hindu society. Having realised that none of the journals then existing would ever speak exclusively for the untouchables, Ambedkar hoped the Mook Nayak  ( Leader of the Silent) would become their true voice.[i]
  • Shahu Maharaj’s historic prophecy on Ambedkar as a future leader of Untouchables (March 21, 1920): Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj (1874-1922) who ruled the princely state of Kolhapur from 1900 till his death in 1922 was publicly acknowledged for his efforts at uplifting the untouchables. He probably met Ambedkar around 1919 and became his instant admirer and supporter.3

A speech delivered by Dr Ambedkar on March 21, 1920, as a president of  a conference of untouchables at Mangaon near Kolhapur, impressed Shahu Maharaj to such an extent that he did not hesitate in declaring Ambedkar, then just a year shy of thirty the ‘saviour’ of India’s untouchables. There is little doubt that this was a historic prophecy though the Shahu would not live long enough to see it bear fruits.

■ London (July 1920-April 3, 1923)

From his previous stay in London during 1916-17 Ambedkar was aware of the high cost of living; he had three years to go and he decided to stay as simply as possible. Instead of a costlier full boarding and lodging house, he opted for a semi-boarding facility where he was served with breakfast and dinner.*

Ambedkar does not seem to have pleasant memories of the landlady of the house. She served up a pretty meagre breakfast and dinner to her boarders.4 The breakfast consisted of a piece of fish, a cup of tea, and a piece of bread with a bit of jam. Early in the evening, the dinner comprised of a cup of Bovril** with some biscuits and butter. That left Ambedkar hungry around 10 pm. He would then somehow quell his hunger with some papads which had been given to him by his Indian friends and which he managed to fry on a thin tin plate.5. It seems the landlady’s niggardly behaviour left some rancour in Ambedkar’s mind. Years later Ambedkar remarked that the landlady was a ‘terrible’ woman and while he prayed for her soul, he was sure she would be damned to ‘perdition.’6

Utterly engrossed in research and racing against time to complete it, Ambedkar would not rely only on library resources and kept buying books whenever he chanced upon them. Thus he seems to have purchased all annual reports published by the East India Company from 1700 to 1858 as well as reports published by the British Government thereafter till 1920. Ambedkar paid a whopping price in rupees for these purchases. He had not budgeted for this kind of unforeseen expenditure on books. As a result in the following months the financial distress became even worse and Ambedkar had to further economise on his already very meagre living expenses. A cup of tea and a few bread slices formed his daily meal followed by a normal meal once in two or three days. To save money, he put off buying other things and would walk rather than take a bus. To save money on ironing, he would carefully fold his clothes and place them under the mattress, a secret of his neat appearance he would not share with his mates.7

In a letter to Shri Shahu Maharaj on September 4, 1921, Ambedkar writes to him about the difficult financial condition he was passing through and requests the Maharaja to ‘enable me to tide over my difficulties’.8 Ambedkar said while he was sorry that he was constrained to approach the Maharaja for this purpose, he was doing so since he knew the Maharaja regarded him (Ambedkar) as his friend. Ambedkar further said his financial difficulties arose mainly owing to the fall of the Indian rupee against the pound and requested the Maharaja to spare him £200 by way of a loan, half of which he intended to use for his law fees and the remaining for his return passage to India. He promised the Maharaja to repay the amount with interest on his return to India. For a man who had an unyielding sense of self-respect, this must have been an agonising moment.

In November 1921,  Ramabai , Ambedkar’s wife, wrote to him that the savings he had left her with had all been used up and that she needed money to buy medicines for the children who had taken ill. This was an additional stress on Ambedkar who however managed to send her Rs 100 with a small comforting note about a brighter future to come. Ambedkar’s elder brother, Balaram, who had a stable job at the Municipal Water Works learnt of the stringent conditions of the Ambedkar family and decided to [ii]stay with the family as a support for some time. Ambedkar felt reassured when he came to know about it later.9

Ambedkar did not allow these stresses and strains to affect his studies and research. In fact the arduous financial conditions coupled with limited time at his disposal drove him to undertake his academic pursuits with renewed vigour.

Ambedkar had a frantic daily schedule. The four famous libraries of London- London University General Library, Goldsmith’s Library of Economic Literature, British Museum Library and the India Office Library- became his daily places of visit where he would spend most of his day reading voraciously. He would rise at 6 am and after the breakfast the landlady provided immediately head for one of the libraries where most often he would be the first person to enter and the last to leave. In the evening at 6 pm after the library had closed he would have a short walk and dinner only to start at 8 pm his next reading session which would often continue into the early hours next morning.

As a result, Ambedkar carried a very respectable image as a student in London in the eyes of his landlady, her family and fellow Indian students. Unlike other students, Ambedkar spent little time in mind-distracting activities.  As a married householder with two children, he felt responsible for his behaviour and was completely wedded to his studies.10

Following months of exhausting research, Ambedkar submitted his thesis, entitled, Provincial Decentralisation of Imperial Finance in British India for which he was awarded the degree of Master of Science in June 1921. In October 1922, seventeen months later, he submitted his famous dissertation, The Problem of the Rupee, for the degree of Doctor of Science. Around the same time, he was called to the bar.

These were certainly very momentous accomplishments for Ambedkar but they did not stop him from pushing the envelope. With four to five months required by the required by the University to examine his thesis and award the degree, he decided to undertake a doctoral programme at Bonn University in Germany. Despite the financial stringency and frugality, and mental and physical strain that it had placed on him, his thirst for learning had not been slaked.

In a CV written in German and submitted to the University, Ambedkar seems to have registered for three semesters as a doctoral student through the introduction by Professor Hermann Jacobi, a renowned Indologist of his times. While the topic of his dissertation is not clear, judging from Jacobi’s recommendation and the learned books replete with scriptural references he wrote later in life, he most probably wanted to take up Indology as his area of research.11.

Hardly had Ambedkar begun his research at the university when he received a message from his supervisor Professor Edwin Cannan in March 1923 that the examiners’ panel for his dissertation had raised certain queries regarding his presentation and that they would not approve of the dissertation unless it was modified. Cannan advised Ambedkar to return to London which he did right away.

On his return, Ambedkar found that the panel disapproved of his critical remarks about the policy of the imperial government with regard to the Indian currency system and about the limited framework of thinking of contemporary economists. The panel wanted these remarks deleted which Ambedkar firmly refused to do. The impasse was resolved when at Canaan’s behest, Ambedkar agreed to rewrite the dissertation without changing his conclusions.  However since his finances were fast running out, he decided to return to Bombay and submit the revised version of his thesis from there. Ambedkar submitted the dissertation in a revised form in August 1923. The University approved the revised version and awarded him the doctoral degree (DSc) in November 1923.

The Problem of the Rupee is regarded as Ambedkar’s magnum opus. It offers an excellent exposition of the evolution of India’s currency and deals with the problem of the choice of an appropriate currency for India. He vehemently criticised the proponents of the Gold Exchange Standard in favour of the Gold Standard as the appropriate currency for India. This brought him into a conflict with John Meynard Keynes.  Ambedkar’s dissertation was later published by Messrs. P. S. King & Son, Ltd., London in December 1923, with a foreword by Cannan.

Unlike his first stay abroad in US and UK from July 1913 to July 1917 as a student of the Columbia University and briefly, of the LSE, Ambedkar’s second stay in London was politically more significant. It came on the heels of his foray into India’s public life while he was in India from August 1917 to July 1920. It was during this interlude in his studies that he had testified to the South borough Committee, started the publication of the Mook Nayak and most importantly been hailed by Shahu Maharaj as a ‘saviour’ of Dalits. It was also during this period that Ambedkar faced more blatantly humiliation and caste discrimination at the hands of the caste Hindus despite his high academic distinctions.  These incidents during the intervening period probably hardened Ambedkar’s resolve to take up the Dalit cause and dedicate the rest of his life to building up a strong Dalit movement.


The betterment of Dalits through the agency of a powerful Dalit movement seem to have been at the top of Ambedkar’s mind during the second stay and despite his frantic academic schedule, he did not lose this perspective. In a letter to Shahu Maharaj dated February 3, 1921 – written from his residence at King Henry’s Road, now developed into an Ambedkar Memorial since Maay 2018, Ambedkar informs him about his meeting with Edwin Montagu, the then Secretary of State for India.

In this letter Ambedkar expresses his distress at the lack of a sound non-Brahmin movement to make its case when the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms were open for public discussion. As a result, he says, the non-Brahmin movement was represented as nothing more than an anti-Brahmin movement. Since the Reforms were fait accompli, Ambedkar knew that few people would be bothered about the number or nature of factions in India prevailing then. Yet he takes pains in this letter to state that ‘I take every opportunity possible to put every important English man I meet into a right frame of mind regarding the inter-relations of social and political problems in India’. With regard to his meeting with Montagu, Ambedkar says he had to some extent ‘disillusioned’ the Secretary of State as regards the position of moderates in India and feels that he (Montagu) would not now speak ‘so despisingly’ about the non-Brahmin movement.12

In the same letter, Ambedkar relates an incident which shows his profound love for learning and a total dedication to the work at hand. Ambedkar states the Secretary of State called him again after their first meeting and advised him to return to India as a member of the Bombay Legislative Council. Montagu advised Ambedkar to negotiate with the Viceroy and the Governor of Bombay for the larger representation for the Depressed Classes as a member of the Council. Ambedkar told the Secretary of State that ‘he did not come to him with a personal grievance but that I was representing a cause’.

Ambedkar says that while this was ‘tempting’, he could not leave his studies half-finished for the sake of a place in the Council. He further says,‘ I am not wedded to personal glory and although I have given up a chance of doing social service to my people, I hope…to be better prepared in order that I may do greater service.’ Ambedkar also had plans to be in touch with the Labour Party and suggested the Maharaja meet with Colonel Wedgewood and Ben Spoor, the Labour leaders who were sympathetic to Indian aspirations and were touring India then. Ambedkar also made friends with the editor of the London Times and convinced him to write an article on the education of the Depressed Classes.13

It was during this time,1923, that Mook Nayak, the fortnightly he had started in January 1920, was closed down.14 Mook Nayak was a definite hallmark in Ambedkar’s career. The journal had received help from Shahu Maharaj but needed a sustained spirited leadership to assure its continuity. However Ambedkar left the country in July 1920– just six months after the fortnightly began–entrusting it to his associates. The fragile finances of the journal were a constant cause of worry for him and in one of his letters home he expressed his anguish over his break with the journal. Financial hardships and the absence of an adequately able leadership finally took a toll on the journal and its publication ceased. Its closure hurt Ambedkar deeply. Four years later in 1927, he gave vent to his feelings. He wrote in Bahishkrit Bharat.

‘The present writer (Ambedkar) regrets that his aspirations (expressed in the first issue of Mook Nayak) were not adequately fulfilled. It is not his fault, however. Right since the inception of the journal, the writer had realised that a social venture of this nature could be sustained only through an independent supportive income-yielding activity. For him it was to be his legal practice. He therefore went to England to be called to the bar so as to be duly qualified to practice at home.  He entrusted the charge in the hands of his colleagues during his absence, hoping to return to see a thriving journal. But to his utter misfortune, the hope was shattered even before he had landed on home soil’.15


The decade to 1923 may be considered as foundational for those years laid the basis for his self-perception eer both as leader and scholar. His years abroad during this period not only exposed him to the values of freedom, they offered him the opportunity to read and study at world-known centres of learning and an association with the best of minds. These opportunities could not have come at a better time of his life. He was just twenty-two when he entered the portals of the Columbia University in 1913 and thirty-two when he returned home in 1923 with two doctorates and a barrister’s degree.

These were outstanding qualifications by any standard, and they at once added an aura of erudition to his personality. They instilled in him a confidence that enabled him to confront an array of prominent figures who dominated India’s political scene in the subsequent years.

The interlude in his studies when he spent roughly three years in India must have come as an eye-opener for Ambedkar. The unbelievable humiliation he suffered despite his brilliant academic record at the hands of the caste Hindus whether as an employee of the Baroda State or as a teacher at the Sydenham College or simply as a resident of the Parsi boarding house was something that must have once again rudely awakened him to the hardened and callous nature of the caste system and to the critical importance of building a powerful movement against it. His description of the caste system as a multi-storeyed building without stairs which he famously used in the very first issue of Mook Nayak16 was befitting metaphor for his own life.

And perhaps it helped shape his destiny.

The period saw an ordinary youth that Ambedkar was turn into a scholar of a very high order.17 It is safe to say that the impact of those years was very strong and lingered through the rest of his life in some way or the other.


  1. Changdeo Bhavanrao Khairmode, Da. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (in Marathi) Vol 1, 1992, p. 245.
  2. Mook Nayak, 31 January 1920 (First issue), Da. Babasaheb Ambedkaranche Bahishkrit Bharat ani Mook Nayak, (in Marathi) Vol 2, p. 346
  3. Dr. Jaysinghrao Pawar, (Ed), Rajarshree Shahu Smarak Granth (in Marathi), Maharashtra Itihas Prabodhini, Kolhapur, 2001, p. 96.
  4. Dhananjay Keer, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Popular Prakashan, Mumbai, 2009, p. 45.
  5. Narendra Jadhav, Ambedkar: Awakening India’s Social Conscience, Konark Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2014 p 49.
  6. As quoted by Keer, p. 45.
  7. Khairmode, p. 270.
  8. Pawar, p. 925.
  9. Khairmode, p. 270.
  10. Khairmode, p. 267.
  11. Maren Bellwinkel-Schempp, Dr. Ambedkar Studies in Heidelberg in A Timeline of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s Life by Frances W. Prichett (www.columbia.edu)
  12. Pawar, p. 922.
  13. Pawar, p. 923.
  14. Dr. Gangadhar Pantavne, Patrakar Da. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Pratima Prakashan, Pune, 1996, p. 64.
  15. Bahishkrit Bharat, p. 4. Translation author’s.
  16. Mooknayak, 31 January 1920 (First issue), p. 345
  17. As quoted by Khairmode, vol. 1, p. 59.
  18. Eleanor Zelliot, From Untouchable to Dalit, Manohar, New Delhi, 1996.
  19. Jayashree Gokhale, From Concessions to Confrontation, Popular Prakashan,Mumbai, 1993.

*This is presumably the house on King Henry’s Road, North West London where Ambedkar seems to have shifted on his arrival in London. If true, a correction in the years of Ambedkar’s stay in the house on the plaque on the house (1920-23 instead of 1921-22) is due since Ambedkar arrived in London in July 1920. It is possible that the plaque makers based their information about the years of Ambedkar’s stay in the house on the dates of the submission of his dissertations (M.Sc., June 1921 and D.Sc., October 1922).
The three-storey 2,050 sq ft house was acquired in August 2015 by the State Government of Maharashtra at an estimated cost of £ 4 million. A memorial to Dr. Ambedkar now being developed in the six rooms of the house was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on November 14, 2015. A part of the house will be reportedly used for accommodating the Indian students at the London School. Additionally the memorial is expected to include a library, a conference room and a multi-media facility for projecting archival audios and videos from Ambedkar’s life.
The memorial was declared open to the public on 7 May 2018
**a thick and salty meat extract paste made into a drink by diluting with hot water or milk.
Beacon Notes:
©Hemant Devasthali. 2018
Pic courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Hemant Devasthali Pune, picHemant Devasthali,taught Business Economics at Ness Wadia College of Commerce, Savitribai Phule Pune University. He retired as its Principal of the college in 2010. He has written on socio-economic issues. IN 2008 he founded Anand Yatra a support group for the elderly widowed, separated or unmarried in 2008. He is honorary advisor, to Maher, well-known institution in Pune for destitute women, men and children.

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