Also Watch – Tribute to Dr Ambedkar at Columbia University (USA)
Also Watch – Tribute to Dr Ambedkar at Columbia University (USA)
In recent years, Dr. Ambedkar (1891-1956), India’s great Dalit leader, social reformer and first law minister after independence has gained increasing recognition in academic and political circles in Germany. Within the realm of scholarship at the South Asia Institute, his mediating role in the framing of the Indian Constitution has been adequately recognized (Kulke, Rothermund 1998: 394) as well as the implementation of constitutional safeguards for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Conrad 1995: 419) through so-called reservation of seats in politics, education and administration. His political role, especially the social movement initiated by him, has been subject to a dissertation in political sciences (Hust 2000) as well as part of a more elaborate discourse on the part of Dalits in social movements in India (Fuchs 1999; 2003).
In the fields of German Indology and History of Religion, Dr. Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism at the end of his life caught considerable academic attention. His cast of Buddhism was understood as theology of liberation (Gensichen 1995: 197) as well as an original development under the heading of civil religion (Fuchs 2001: 205). In addition, fieldwork among Mahars in Maharashtra focussed on the social relevance of Dr. Ambedkar’s Navayana Buddhism (Beltz 2001). Textual studies focussed on a comparison of Buddhist sources with Dr. Ambedkar’s “The Buddha and His Dhamma” (Buss 1998; Fiske/Emmrich forthcoming), projecting Dr. Ambedkar’s cast of Buddhism as an effort to reconstruct the world (Beltz/ Jondhale forthcoming).
Ambedkar studies apart, the concern with Dalits has been the focus of a number of studies in social anthroplogy in the urban (Bellwinkel 1980) as well as the rural setting (Randeria 1993) setting. The most comprehensive project in this respect was an interdisciplinary research project, financed by the Volkswagen Foundation and linked with the Department of Modern Indology, South Asia Institute and the Department of Sociology, Delhi University. Under the heading of “Memory, Violence and the Agency”, the topic was the role of Dalits as victims and perpetrators in Bombay and Kanpur (Fuchs forthcoming).This project set an example for the Memorandum of Understanding between Heidelberg University and Delhi University in common fieldwork for the exchange of scholars and students.
During my fieldwork among Dalits in Kanpur (Bellwinkel-Schempp 1998), I was often asked to give a speech, which I used to do with the introductory words, that I was born at Bonn in Germany, the town where Dr. Ambedkar studied Sanskrit. I had found the reference of a short, three months stay in 1923 in Dhananjay Keer’s Dr. Ambedkar biography (Keer 1995: 49). My projection of benevolent German indology, transgressing the Hindu norms of reserving Sanskritic knowledge to the upper castes and caring for the Dalits, was highly appreciated by my Dalit audience. It made me even think of a Dr. Ambedkar Jayanti in 2003 in Bonn, why not, perhaps with the German “Dalit Plattform” and concerned scholars and Dalit activists.
This idea made me visit the University Archives at Bonn on the 14th of January 2003 to find out more about Dr. Ambedkar’s studies at Bonn university. Within no time I found * Dr. Ambedkars application for registration with the Prussian Ministry of Science, Fine Arts and Public Education, a CV in German (!) and his registration into the university ledger on 29 April 1921, which reads as follows:
Father’s profession: General; religion: Hindu; previous universities: Bombay, Columbia, London; number of semesters: 18; school leaving certificate: yes; subject: Economics; date of birth: 14.4.1891; place of birth: Mhow; home town: Bombay; district: Bombay. So he delightfully upgraded his father’s military rank. Noteworthy is also his religious affiliation- at the early stage of his life- certainly before he was contemplating on the question of conversion, he wrote Hindu under the heading of religion. Amazingly, Dr. Ambedkar registered for Economics and not for Indology.
In his handwritten CV he stated that he knew German well, because he had taken it as a minor at Columbia University: He continued: “I would like to mention that the University of Bonn through the kind help of Prof. Dr. H. Jacobi granted me to submit a Ph.D. thesis in case I show adequate performance and I am enrolled for three semesters there.” It is not clear in which subject he intended to submit his dissertation, or how he got in touch with Professor Hermann Jacobi (1850-1937), who was the leading German Indologist of his times.
By Prof. Eleanor Zelliot
A talk at the Columbia University Ambedkar Centenary, 1991
Dr. Ambedkar was one of the first (and one of the few) Indian leaders to be educated in the United States. I am not sure what influence his years at Columbia University in New York City had on his life, but I know we can be proud to claim some part of this remarkable man’s early development. Two of the qualities which mark his life and career – optimism and pragmatism – may have been enhanced by his contact with this country, which prides itself on its charactersitics of hope and practicality.
The three years Ambedkar spent at Columbia, 1913-1916, awakened, in his own words, his potential. Columbia was in its golden age, and a list of Ambedkar’s professors reads like a catalog of early 20th-century American educators. The transcript of Ambedkar’s work at Columbia reveals that he audited many classes, more than he could have taken for grades, including such subjects as “railroad economics.” Later, Ambedkar wrote, “The best friends I have had in my life were some of my classmates at Columbia and my great professors, John Dewey, James Shotwell, Edwin Seligman and James Harvey Robinson. II (Columbia Alumni News, December 19, 1930).
Although it was Edwin Seligman, Professor of Economics, with whom Ambedkar kept in touch after he left Columbia and to whom he sent students when he taught at Sydenham college in Bombay, John Dewey seems to have had the greatest influence on him. Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy, his theories associated with optimistic, pragmatic American democracy, which preached (although it did not always practice) equality, no barriers to upward mobility, the use of machinery to produce leisure, and an attitude of respect for every individual.
Ambedkar’s first political party, the Independent Labour Party founded in 1936, took its name from British politics. But two things lessened the importance of Britain for Ambedkar: the colonial presence of the British in India, and the preference of British liberals for Gandhi and his non-violent direct action campaigns for independence over Ambedkar and the slow parliamentary path. And it also seems likely that American optimism, and the lack of an obvious class system in America, met a natural response in Ambedkar.
Ambedkar’s American contacts did not end when he left Columbia University in June, 1916, although one must admit they became minimal. He continued to correspond with Edwin Seligman, his mentor in Economics at Columbia, and occasionally recommended Indian students to Seligman. In 1930, Ambedkar wrote an article for the Columbia alumni magazine which reveals quite a sentimental attachment: “The best friends I have had in my life were some of my classmates at Columbia and my great professors, John Dewey, James Shotwell, Edwin Seligman and James Harvey Robinson.” In 1952, Ambedkar went back to Columbia to receive an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws and it is clear that this recognition of his work meant much to him. It was in this period of the early 1950’s that Ambedkar was publicly critical of India’s foreign policy of non-alignment, which seemed to him to cut India off from American contacts.
Also Watch – Tribute to Dr Ambedkar at Columbia University (USA)
I shall end this introduction with two stories, since this is not so much a scholarly tract as an essay which attempts to explore an American-Indian cultural interaction in a personal way. Mrs. Savita Ambedkar tells a touching story of Ambedkar’s happily imitating John Dewey’s distinctive classroom mannerisms – thirty years after Ambedkar sat in Dewey’s classes. It is impossible to find in Ambedkar’s life story any hint of a guru or a personality which dominated him, but here at least is a suggestion that he was fond of both Dewey the philosopher and Dewey the man.
The other story concerns a letter of recommendation written about Ambedkar by Edward Cannon, Professor of Political Economy in the University of London, to the head of Sydenham College, where Ambedkar applied for a teaching position in 1918. Professor Cannon wrote: “I don’t know anything about Ambedkar except that he came to do a thesis and attacked it and me in a way which showed he had quite extraordinary practical ability…. I rather wonder if he is a pure Indian; his character is rather Scotch-American.” There is absolutely no doubt that Ambedkar was pure Indian, and no one who knew his background and the history of his caste would assign any other nationality to him. But this depiction of his character as “Scotch-American” rather delights me. Ambedkar’s pragmatism, his wide-ranging intellectual interests, his realistic approach to social matters, his uncompromising attitude toward those he felt were his opponents – all these factors make his character and work very understandable to an American. Even his bitterness can be understood by an American who has seen social injustice at work in the midst of American democracy. I am tempted to end this introduction to my essay with the thought that American influence on Ambedkar really counted for very little. It is more likely that in those early years in America his own natural proclivities and interests found a healthy soil for growth, and the experience served chiefly to strengthen him in his life-long battle for dignity and equality for his people.
The American Experience of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar
Very few of India’s leaders have been educated in America. In the British period, England and to a lesser extent France and Germany were the focal points for overseas study. Even today, when Indian students flock to America, their education is generally in the field of technology or science, and they do not enter politics. As far as I have been able to find out, only three men well known in public life have been thoroughly exposed to an American experience: Jay Prakash Narayan; the late Chief Minister of the Punjab, S. Pratap Singh Kairon; and Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. An American inevitably wonders what effect his country has had on the lives and thinking of these men.
It is clear that J. P. Narayan’s direct contact with Amecican poverty during the Depression era and with American radical thinkers somewhat influenced the development of his socialist attitudes. It is possible that Kairon learned some of his expertise with mass politics from his interval in America. In the case of Dr. Ambedkar, the influence seems to be chiefly in developing his commitment to a pragmatic, flexible democratic system. Ambedkar spent the years from 1913 to 1916 at Columbia University in New York City. There is little material on his political thought from the pre-1913 period with which to compare his post-1916 writings, but even so I would like to suggest that the American experience did influence the thought and action of this unusually gifted and innovative son of Bharat.
Few days’ back, as I wrote on the Jai Bhim Network (Hungary) and new church law prohibiting Jai Bhim Network from its activities. Jai Bhim Network has launched new website http://www.refuge.hu/ to appeal Buddhists, well-wishers and guards of freedom around the world to support Jai Bhim Network, Hungary.
Please visit the link http://www.refuge.hu/ and support Jai Bhim Network.
Dr Ambedkar in Hungary – Activities of Jai Bhim Network, Hungary
The Romas, a discriminated minority in Hungary, turn to Ambedkar and Buddhism in their quest for dignity and equality. Pardeep Attri journeys to Sajókaza and Budapest to find out how the Dalits and Romas connect.
Lost rights are never regained by appeals to the conscience of the usurpers, but by relentless struggle.
— Dr B. R. Ambedkar
On 14 April 2008, when Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s birthday was being commemorated across India, I got an email from an unknown person – Derdák Tibor from Hungary – appreciating my article, “Schools, Toilets or Temples?”which he had read on an e-group. My article had lamented that “at every street corner we have built temples, but not toilets or schools.” Tibor said he was a sociologist, and a former member of the Hungarian Parliament now working for the Roma community (derogatorily referred to as Gypsies across Europe). This was the beginning of endless emails we exchanged. While I gradually learnt about the lives of and the problems faced by the Roma community in Hungary, I explained to him the conditions of Dalits in India.
What intrigued me was Derdák Tibor said that he and another Roma leader, Orsós János, had been inspired by the philosophy of social transformation of Dr Ambedkar and his work among the Dalits, and that they were now trying to deploy Ambedkarite ideas in their struggle for equal rights for the Roma community. How and why Ambedkar? Tibor had chanced upon a book on Babasaheb in Paris and a new world opened up. He immediately could see the similarities between the discrimination faced by Dalits in India and Romas in Europe.
Romas/‘Gypsies’ are normally considered to be “members of nomadic people of Europe with dark skin” with a worldwide population of about 12 million, originally from North India. With their 8 million population in Europe, they constitute one of the biggest minority blocks in European countries and have a history of being constantly opposed, refused, discriminated, persecuted and stigmatized by white Europeans. Constituting about 7 per cent of the total population, they are Hungary’s biggest minority group.
After discovering Ambedkar, Tibor and other Roma activists interacted with Friends of World Buddhist Order (FWBO), a group that has been working with Ambedkarite Buddhists in India for years now. This resulted in a visit to Maharashtra by Tibor and János in 2005 and 2007. They felt a deep connection with the Dalits of India and with Dr Ambedkar’s emancipatory agenda. After returning to Hungary, they made sustained efforts to bond with the Dalit movement. In 2007, they founded the Jai Bhim Network, embraced Buddhism and opened three high schools named after Dr Ambedkar in Sajókaza, Ózd and Hegymeg for Roma children in Hungary.
The Jai Bhim Network believes that “even a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” One of the activities of the Network is to invite young Dalit activists to Hungary and provide them with opportunities to interact with the Roma community. Recently, I was part of one such three-member delegation and lived with the Roma community in the village Sajókaza for almost a month.
Life in Sajókaza
On 24 September 2009, I reached Budapest and we were quite nervous, as this was our first ever visit abroad. Szabolcs Vicze from Jai Bhim Netwrok received us at the airport and in no time, we felt completely at ease and started interacting as if we had known each other for years. We bonded instantly though we lived thousands of miles apart.
One the same night, we reached village Sajókaza, where the Jai Bhim Network carries out most of its activities such as educating the Romas and bringing them into the mainstream. Sajókaza is a beautiful village about 30 km northeast of Miskolc. The big fields around the village reminded me of the villages of Punjab. It has a population of about 3,300 people, half of them Romas. The majority of the Romas live on the outskirts of the village in ghettos, forced into a lifestyle entirely different from the other Hungarians of the village. In their neighbourhood, there is no tap water, no street lighting and no sewage disposal. A few meters away, in the adjoining non-Roma streets, all these basic amenities are provided.
There was a time when all the Romas of the village were employed in the nearby mines but now almost all of them are unemployed and live on a monthly dole from the government. During our stay, it became evident that the Romas suffer as much everyday discrimination as Dalits do. There are three churches in Sajókaza, but not even a single Roma visits them. It immediately reminded me of the Hindu temples in India where our entry, though guaranteed in law, is prohibited in practice.
The foremost hurdle in the education of Romas in Hungary is the segregation of Roma children, who are forced to sit in separate classes. They attend different schools/classes in dilapidated buildings without basic amenities, whereas Hungarian children attend regular, fully equipped schools. Tibor says there were separate cups and plates for Roma students till ten years ago. Roma children grow up constantly dehumanized, humiliated, persecuted and rejected. Roma children are declared ‘mentally challenged’ and are sent to special schools; so much that about 90 per cent of special school students in Hungary are said to be from this community. Segregation is not limited to schools. In 2003, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) conducted field research in Hungary and documented 44 cases of so-called “Gypsy rooms”—segregated maternity wards.
Stereotypes are potent tools of hatred. And the Romas suffer form the worst kind of stereotyping by the whites. The ‘Gypsies’, for the average white European, are necessarily cheaters, beggars, thieves, pickpockets, nomads, people who live in dirty conditions and don’t like to work. It is believed by non-Romas that the Romas cut their forefingers so that they could easily pick pockets. It is also believed that ‘Roma’ children wear long clothes so that they could hide the chickens they steal from white farmers’ homes. These prejudices are thriving today.
Most websites that promote tourism in Europe today offer gratuitous advice to be wary of ‘Gypsies’. One site, under the heading ‘Personal security in Rome’, says: “Gypsy children could surround you, and shamelessly start robbing your belongings, taking advantage of your surprise. They would then pass the belongings to older gypsy women…” Here’s Leif Pettersen, who describes himself as a Lonely Planet author: “Pickpockets are to certain parts of Romania like a wino is to a Bartles and James tanker accident. Unfortunately, more often than not, the offenders are gypsies. Many locals in Romania and Moldova will tell you that gypsies are all beggars and criminals.”
The image of ‘Romas’ being thieves is so strong that they are the first to be rounded up by the police if there is a crime in the neighborhood. Most often they become easy victims of police inefficiency and are brutalized just for being Roma. Despite the odds – with only 0.3% of Romas holding a college or university degree – many Romas have excelled, such as the painter Mara Oláh; the second Roma member of European Union, Lívia Járóka; author Menyhért Lakatos; and the 1972 Olympic boxing champion Gyorgy Gedo.
One of the most horrific stories I heard white Hungarians cook up was about pregnant ‘Gypsy’ women. A 3 September 2009 report from the website, http://www.hungarianambiance.com, claims “Gypsy families induce oxygen deficiency in their newborns to make them mentally retarded; this is to get more child support payments.” In September, Oszkar Molnar, the Mayor of Edeleny in Northeast Hungary, accused Roma women in his town of intentionally harming their unborn babies in order to secure extra child benefits. The Equal Opportunity Authority issued sanctions against Oszkar Molnar, a representative of main opposition party Fidesz, but he has vowed to launch a legal appeal against the Authority.
On 11 October 2009, about 1,500 Romas gathered at Heroes Square in Budapest to protest Mayor Molnar’s views, and to demonstrate against segregation in schools and discrimination in everyday life. One slogan caught my attention: “A child’s head is not a pot that has to be filled, but a torch that needs to be ignited.” Says Orsós János, president of Jai Bhim Network, “There are many people who are deeply critical of us, even hate us. After our turn to Ambedkarite Buddhism, people ask, ‘Are these gypsies real Buddhists? How can you teach Buddhism to gypsies?’ What we are doing is quite strange in Europe, where Buddhism is largely the leisure hobby of the middle classes. But it is easy to answer them: they don’t offer effective secondary education for Gypsies, and we do! Whatever people say, we just carry on with our work.”