B.R. Ambedkar’s educational journey began in impossibly challenging conditions. With the help of a modest scholarship granted by the Maharaja of Baroda, he joined Columbia University, New York, in July 1913. After completing his M.A., he went on to write a thesis that ultimately led to the conferment of a PhD degree. In mid-1916, he was admitted to Grays’ Inn in London to appear for the bar. When his scholarship ended in 1917, he was forced to return to India.
All this has been well documented by his biographer Dhananjay Keer. But several details remain incomplete. What was the exact date on which he left India? When did he arrive in America? How did he travel to London? Based on documents newly accessed in the British Library, we can now fill in the gaps.
The First World War which was raging at the time forms the backdrop for the paper trail. On May 17, 1916, Ambedkar addressed two letters to the British Consul in New York, from Livingston Hall, Columbia University. He wanted a passport to go to London. Apparently, he had made enquiries at the British consulate, through a friend, regarding the requirements. New war-time regulations were in force and a passport could not be issued without permission from the India Office in London. Ambedkar indicated that he intended to leave America on June 3, 1917 by S.S. St. Paul. This gave him barely two weeks time to complete the formalities. He was in a hurry because he wanted “to meet certain professors of the English Universities before they disperse[d] for the summer vacation”. To this letter he added a postscript: if the time was too short for processing his application he was willing to pay for a cabled reply from London.
Ambedkar appended a letter of application giving “the required personal information”: “My full name is Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, son of Ramji Maloji Ambedkar.” This statement was followed by the touching sentence, “I am sorry I do not know either the date or place of birth of my father.” He was “born at Mahow (Malwa, India) on the 14th April 1891” but “had lived and been educated in the city of Bombay”. Stating that he had come to America on a scholarship from the State of Baroda, he provided details of his first travels overseas. Ambedkar had taken S.S. Sardinia on the Rubattino Line from Bombay on June 15, 1913. At Naples he had boarded S.S. Ancona and arrived at New York on July 22, 1913. Ambedkar further stated that he had been a post-graduate student at Columbia University and that he would be finishing “all requirements for the Ph.D. degree except my thesis which is a very essential part thereof” by the end of June 1916. He had to visit the British Museum and other libraries in England “as the source materials for the completion of [his] thesis were to be found only in England”, and added that the Baroda State had provided him both the means and permission to study in London for a year.
This letter, written in a steady hand and in the impeccable English that we have come to associate with Ambedkar, may probably be the earliest surviving autobiographical note penned by him. At the time of writing these letters he was barely 25.
How these letters came to the British Library is happenstance.
It was the war that occasioned such correspondence in the first place. The British Consul General, after making enquiries with the embassy in Washington, had promptly forwarded Ambedkar’s application to the Foreign Office in London on May 22. It went with a copy of his certificate of identity issued at the time of Ambedkar’s departure to America, by the British Resident at Baroda on June 4, 1913. The certificate gave his name as “Bhimrao alias Brimvran Ambedkar” and other details that we are familiar with now.
Evidently, the consular office did not cable London, as requested by Ambedkar. Therefore, it was not until June 8 that the Under Secretary of State of the Foreign Office in turn forwarded it to the India Office in London. On June 11, the India Office was still deliberating whether there was “any objection to the Consul giving him a passport endorsed for the journey to England” or if only an emergency certificate could be issued. By this time, however, it had come to the notice of another official that “this man sailed from New York by SS New York on 11/6” and he asked to “keep these papers pending till I find out from him how he got his passport.” Even by the first week of July the India Office was still wondering how Ambedkar had arrived in England “when his case was still under discussion here.”
Where it ends
Whatever the circumstances, Ambedkar had arrived at Liverpool where he had been instructed to call at Scotland Yard to collect his papers. As of June 24, he had still not done that. The paper trail ends here with a final note in the file: “I am directed to inform you that the Indian in question has since arrived in England and no action in the matter appears now to be called for.”
When the Consul General in New York had forwarded Ambedkar’s application and in turn the Foreign Office had forwarded it to the India Office, a specific request had been made for the “eventual return” of the originals. Given how his application had been processed, the papers were never sent back. If they had, Ambedkar’s letters are not likely to have survived, for consular offices do not preserve passport applications for long. After Independence, the India Office was abolished and all its records were transferred to the British Library, now located adjacent to St. Pancras railway station in the heart of London.
A.R. Venkatachalapathy is a historian and Tamil writer