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  • What Did Bhimrao Ambedkar Learn from John Dewey's Democracy and Education?
  • Scott R. Stroud

Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891–1956) is well-known as the architect of the Indian constitution, the document that created the world's largest democracy when it came into effect in 1950. Ambedkar is also famous, or infamous according to some religious partisans, in the Indian political context for his unflagging and often bombastic advocacy on behalf of India's so-called "untouchables." Being a Mahar, an untouchable caste in the Indian state of Maharashtra, Ambedkar knew of the struggles and the religiously underwritten violence that was foisted upon these swaths of Indian society. His struggles in and against the caste system, and the Hindu religious-philosophical system that frequently enabled it, are well documented by scholars of South Asian politics and religion. Accounts such as those of Christophe Jaffrelot and Eleanor Zelliot do an admirable job of sorting out Ambedkar's political development from a committed reformer within the Hindu system, allied with Gandhi's methods and aims in the 1920s, to a renunciant of Hinduism and vocal opponent of Gandhi's intra-Hindu reform efforts starting in the 1930s.1 As they aptly note, Ambedkar pulls away from Hinduism in 1935, largely spurred on by Gandhi's coercive fast-until-death against the concessions awarded to Ambedkar and the untouchables after the Round Table Conferences in London. Other accounts analyze what occurs at the end of Ambedkar's life, namely his exploration of religious options for conversion and his ultimate selection of Buddhism as an emancipatory path for untouchables. Scholars such as Christopher Queen, Adele Fiske, and Christoph Emmrich have undertaken admirable work on the parameters of the sort of Buddhism Ambedkar reconstructs as an answer to caste oppression in India.2 Others, such as Valerian Rodrigues, analyze Ambedkar's posthumous "Buddhist Bible" that he wrote to power his movement with a socially responsive Buddhist faith.3 Others place Ambedkar the political leader in the context of a larger movement [End Page 78] for Dalit (literally, "crushed") rights, both before and after his death. For instance, Gail Omvedt examines this extensive political movement and concludes that "Ambedkar was the creation of the movement he led as much as its creator."4

All of these studies are aware of the backstory of Ambedkar, of course. His pedigree as the first Western-educated untouchable leader of modern India is well known. As oppressed as he was in daily life, Ambedkar was extremely fortunate to fall under the protection of the ruler of a nearby princely state. Born in 1891, Ambedkar was placed into a caste system in India that put his very presence and existence as a religiously polluting variable. Even though his fellow classmates feared his touch or proximity, he managed to complete his early education in Bombay, graduating in 1907. Soon after, his enlightened benefactor, the Gaikwad of Baroda, supported Ambedkar's education at Elphinstone College in Bombay, where Ambedkar studied the important languages of Persian and English. He was forbidden to study Sanskrit, however, since it was considered too sacred for untouchables to hear, speak, or read. As fate would have it, the Gaikwad funded Ambedkar's education in America during the years of 1913–1916 at Columbia University. It was here that Ambedkar met and learned from an array of top scholars. Among these teachers was the American pragmatist John Dewey. Ambedkar would recount that Dewey was an important figure in his life: "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."5

Dewey was not one among many, however. He appeared to have had an incredible impact on young Ambedkar. Eleanor Zelliot, in analyzing Ambedkar's development at Columbia, concludes that "John Dewey seems to have had the greatest influence on Ambedkar."6 Arun Mukherjee, emphasizing the centrality of pragmatism to Ambedkar's later political work in the 1930s, cautions scholars against examining it "in isolation, without paying attention to his dialogue with Dewey."7 The Deweyan ethos seems to have seeped deeply into Ambedkar; as K. N. Kadam recounts, "[i...


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