By Monjib Mochahari . The Password . 06.12.2015
About Dr. Ambedkar Study Tour to New York and Washington, USA
Unlike other academic programme or trips, the Study Tour to the United States of America (USA) organised by Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, GOI, was uniquely designed to give a much needed exposure to researchers, academics and students on the life and works of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar who is celebrated widely as the architect of Modern India. The trip was organised by Dr. Ambedkar Foundation in the month of October- November 2015 to commemorate the 125th Birth Anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. The purpose of the programme was expected by the Union Government from the Indian researchers for advancement of the knowledge on Dr. Ambedkar and his education career from abroad especially Columbia University, New York where he pursued his masters degree and doctoral of philosophy.
As per the schedule, the Study Tour Group – I, comprising of 27 dynamic participants, including the three team leaders – Smt. Aindiri Anurag, Mr. Sandeeep Gupta and Smt. Sunita Siwach, boarded the Air India direct flight at Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi on 12 October (01.45AM). After more than fifteen hours of non-stop flying, we reached the JFK International Airport, New York at 6.30 am (American time) on 12 October 2015. It was a pleasant morning, although a bit breezy and cold. It wasn’t difficult for us to get acclimatised. Soon after the immigration clearance at the airport, we rushed to the hotel which is about forty-minute drive from the airport. Our accommodation was arranged at Hotel Park Lane, 36 Central Park S, New York from 12 to 15 October. The quality of services in the hotel was to everyone’s satisfaction. It enabled us to enjoy some leisurely movements in the Central Park and Times Square – two most popular public space that crystallize America’s everyday interactions and networks of people, ideas, cosmopolitan cultures, lifestyles and values. Moreover, the United Nations Headquarters was also only three kilometres away from the hotel. In Washington DC, we were lodged at Le Meridian Hotel in Arlington from 15 to 18 October. It was exquisite as well, although the climax was pretty colder there. We returned on 18 October and reached Delhi at 2.30 pm on 19 November 2015. Prior to departure to USA, we were provided with the necessary documents such Visa Note, Political Clearance from the Ministry of External Affairs, itinerary, programme schedule, travel insurance and details of accommodation in New York and Washington. A document containing Code of Conduct was also given to the participants. And, our Visa fees were reimbursed by the Foundation before to our journey with ease.
Why I Chose to Participate?
I belong to Bodoland, a region in Northeast India, which has been witnessing a strong agitation for realization of democratic rights, including the demand for a separate homeland by Bodo indigenous community since the past five decades. The region has experienced several tumultous ethnic congrontation in the past three decades. Consequently, insecurity among people has become a common currency here. People’s everyday experiences, including their political experiences have often been tragic. Ironicall, the intervention of the state apparatus in fulfilling socio-economic and development aspirations of people is quite unheard of even today. What I see as a result which is that some of the beautiful constitutional provisions are hardly being practised here. Like other people in my immediate neighborhood villages, towns and districts, I am witness to this heartbreaking social phenomenon since my early childhood days. Frankly, I have seen it, felt it and have been constantly questioning what could be the possible and sustainable solution to end this debacle in this tiny political geography on the foothills of the great Himalayas.
In the past years, although in a smaller way, I have been writing on such issues in various media trying to highlight the key concerns of the region. I would say, these unpredictable fragile socio-political situations in Bodoland and other parts of Northeast significanlty cultivated my thoughts to engage in a doctoral research on Bodo movement, state intervention and public sphere in India’s prestigious Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. In past three years, as part of intellectual engagement, I participated in several regional, national and international seminars, conferences and workshops organized on various themes such – ethnicity, identity, social movements, human rights, tribal unrests, insurgency, conflict and media, ethnic violence, social justice, trans-border migration, across Northeast, India and Europe.
My selection for the Study Tour to Columbia University from in October 2015 was another solid brick on my academic engagement and search for answer to problems confronting the Northeast India. I firmly believed, this would provide me a thorough understanding on Dr. Ambedkar’s work, life and thoughts, and enrich my knowledge while finding answers to key concerns of the people who live at the periphery of underdevelopment and conflict situations. A revisit to institutions and political systems, both in UK and USA, which either directly or remotely shaped Dr. Amebedkar’s thoughts, life and works, was even more significant and relevant in this context. Moreover, visit to countries like the United States of America, or any other developed nation, can truly be an enriching experience in many aspects. Its dynamic socioeconomic, cultural and political landscape can have a long term impact on the lives of individuals, especially those who are at the disadvantaged situations, which are often the product of our failing government institutions, primitive social structure and traditions. The study tour to Columbia University, New York and London School of Economics, London for about 100 academics scholars from various Universities and Institutions from across India, who are either working on or are interested in making interventions into the issues of social justice in India and Dr. Ambedkar’s social, political and economic thought, is a much needed step at the time when India is failing to hold on to its true democratic principles laid by Dr. BR. Ambedkar. That’s it.
I express my heartfelt gratitude to Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (SJ&E), New Delhi for giving me this opportunity to be part of the Study Tour to prestigious Columbia University, and other institutions of significance in New York and Washington, USA. Particularly, I extend my gratefulness to Mr. G.K. Dwivedi, Director (DAF), Smt. Aindiri Anurag, Joint Secretary, SJ&E), Sunita Siwach, Deputy Secretary, UGC, Ambassadors and Bureaucrats in the Consular General of India, New York and Indian Embassy in Washington DC, and B.L. Meena, Joint Secretary, BC & SCD-A for making all possible efforts to make this programme intellectually productive and meaningful. Without their help and sustained cooperation, perhaps, I wouldn’t have been witnessed to institution that shape the life and works of Dr. BR and experience American life. Thank you all for giving me a chance to experience the American social, cultural, political and historical life.
Who was Dr. B.R. Ambedkar?
Dr. BR Amebdekar, popularly called as Babasaheb, is celebrated as the Father of the Indian Constitution, a great social thinker, political reformer and a valiant upholder of human rights who continues to inspire people worldwide. He was born on 14 April 1891 in the town and military cantonment of Mhow in the Central Provinces (now Madhya Pradesh). I wish to describe him as one the finest and greatest intellectuals of the twentieth century whose ideas for social reformation have global relevance even today. He was the chief architect of the Indian Constitution, a living document that continues to drive the engine of India democracy. He was an Indian nationalist, jurist, Dalit political leader and a Buddhist revivalist, who wanted complete liberation of the Untouchables from the Caste hierarchy and unequal social structures and perennial social discrimination. Dr. Ambedkar’s contribution in social, political and economic sectors is enormous rightly recognised one of the key founders of Modern India. Even today, Dr. Ambedkar is an inspiration to millions of people worldwide.
Grown up in very challenging environments and having faced many difficulties in childhood, Dr. Ambedkar completed higher education in some of the best of the universities in the world, only due to sheer determination, tremendous hard work and humility – a rare achievement of humanity. Dr. Ambedkar was also known to be a prolific student, earning a law degree and doctorates from prestigious Columbia University and the London School of Economics, and gain reputation as a scholar for his research in law, economics and political science. In his early career, unlike many, he was an economist, professor and lawyer. However, it didn’t end here. His later life, or what is usually described as political life, was marked by his aggressive political activities. He became deeply involved in India’s negotiations for Independence from the colonial masters, simultaneously publishing journals in order to advocate human rights, political freedom, social justice and liberation of the Dalits from Hindu Caste System. His charismatic leadership while the drafting of Indian Constitution and make it a powerful living document for emancipation of the downtrodden people is phenomenal. He ensured that there are appropriate checks and balances in the democratic system of Govt. and ensured that the three wings of executive, legislature and judiciary function independently with accountability to one another.
Dr. Ambedkar’s legacy as a socio-political reformer had a deep impact on modern India. His socio-political thought is respected across the political spectrum although there are some contradictions. His initiatives have influenced various spheres of life and transformed the way India looks at socio-economic policies, education and affirmative action through socio-economic and legal incentives. His reputation as a scholar led to his appointment as India’s first law minister, and chairman of the committee for drafting the constitution. He passionately believed in individual freedom, equality and criticised caste system. He passed away on 6 December 1956. Dr. Ambedkar was honoured posthumously with the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award for his contribution to the nation building and its people in 1990.
Understanding Dr. Ambedkar: Life at Columbia University and his Experiences of Socioeconomic, Cultural and Political Life
As conceived by the aforementioned Foundation, this programme has fulfilled the dreams of the researchers, students and academia to see Dr. Ambedkar’s academic and revolutionary roots where he pursued his higher studies, developed and built up an intellectual capital and how he was shaped by the American society, socio-political and cultural values. I wish to summarise the major issues observed and discussed by intelligentsia during the interactive sessions organised at different institutions in New York and Washington in the following words:
What Ambedkar learnt from Columbia University?
As discussed beautifully by Prof. Sudir Krishnaswamy during an interactive session on 13 October 2015, who currently holds the Ambedkar Chair at Columbia University, there are three major issues need to be critically examined while understanding Dr. Amebedkar’s intellectual capital and academic influence in the United States. These are:
- Influence of Academia: Krishnaswamy asserted that Dr. Ambedkar was immensely influenced by a number of academics at Columbia University namely economist Edwin Seligman, Educationist John Dewey, James Stotwell and James Robinson. Their writings, thoughts and mentorship he received there contributed to his intellectual emersion and engagement in social emancipation process after his return to India. Particularly Prof. Edwin Seligman’s thesis –“The Problems of India Rupee” had a far impact on Ambedkar’s thought on Indian economy. At Columbia, Dr. Ambedkar studied under John Dewey, who inspired many of his ideas about equality and social justice. Dewey’s theories/models of education such as – democracy in education influenced him.
- US Constitution and his American Experiences: Careful readings of the American Constitutions and everyday constitutional practices also contributed to Dr. Ambedkar’s thoughts and his contribution to India. His key readings on fundamental rights, federalism, constitutional practices, and exceptions to fundamental rights, among many, played a crucial role in giving a final shape to Indian Constitution. This suggests that Dr. Ambedkar was a critical consumer of knowledge during his academic life at Columbia, which he later converted into one of the most beautiful historical documents – the Constitution of India.
- Influence of Black Movement in US and other immigrant movements by different social group such as Italian, Spanish, and Irish and their upsurge politics in 1920s-30s.
Celebrating the Man or Advancing His Legacy?
Another insightful interactive session on Dr. Ambedkar’s Life and Philosophy was organised at the Consulate General of India, New York on 14 October 2014. The dignitaries participated in the programme include – Sri Dnyaneswhar M. Mulay, Consul General of India, New York, Prof. Christopher Queens, Harvard University and Prof.Gary Michael Tartakov, IOWA State University, USA.
The themese of discussion include – Dr. Ambedkar as a global scholar, day of Dr. Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism, people’s selective view on Dr. Ambedkar’s life and works, dalit art and visual imaginary. Through his lecture titled – “Celebrating the Man or Advancing his Legacy,” Prof Christopher Queens critically looked at Dr. Ambedkar’s vision for equality, fraternity and justice, and his religious conversion to Buddhism, which he said was not politically motivated. It was rather envisioned to emancipate the downtrodden people who are still stigmatised as Untouchables in India’s caste system.
This scientific session particularly enlightened us on the greatness of Dr. Ambedkar as a global scholar/thinker, his religious conversion into Buddhism, and dilemma of India’s selective silence and views on his life and works. It is deeply perplexing to know that how artificial conflict of interests in postcolonial India, including the political ideas, amorously contributed to marginalisation of this great personality to a Dalit leader. It partly reflects the problematic of India’s collective psyche and agencies who constantly engage in creating artificial boundaries. Such conflicting projection of Dr. Ambedkar seriously called for further and critical research and intellectual engagement in bringing him back into limelight particularly his philosophy, thoughts, contributions and works for the marginalised sections whose development aspirations have been denied due to cruel caste system, failing government institutions and uninspired political and administrative leadership. What is even more tangible is the huge gap between people’s knowledge of Dr. Amebdkar and how he has been projected over the years by certain agencies that have tangible and intangible and narrowly defined conflict of interests.
Dr. Ambedkar, Global Context, Complex Struggle for Justice Worldwide
Similarly the panel discussion moderated by Vishakha Desai, Special Advisor to President for Global Affairs and Professor of Professional Practice in the Faculty of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, could also engaged us on different but important issues. According to Prof. Desai there is necessity to understand Dr. Ambedkar on the global context while engaging on socio-political issues, civil rights and justice. His intense struggle for social justice has global relevance even today. And, there is necessity for global networks among agencies of the state, academic and those who fight for human dignity to address these pertinent issues. In another context, Prof. Anupama Rao, who is known for her expertise on South Asian history and anthropology, gender issues, social theory and intellectual history, comparative urbanism, was made an insightful discussion on the issue of true and substantive representation in democratic societies and its relationship with the type of knowledge and value system produced in the society.
The other panelists who interacted with us include – Prof.Yasmine Ergas, Prof. Kendal Thomas and Prof. Elsa Stamatopoulou and Prof. Sandra Navali. Prof. Thomas extensively discussed on the nature of disadvantages associated with caste and racial discrimination in the Indian and American situation respectively. He also delved into urgency for more pragmatic and affirmative policies for the inclusion of disadvantaged blacks in the higher educational institutions and struggles for it. The key highlights of the discussion on Dr. Ambedkar and others interrelated global concerns are:
- Ambedkar’s life and thoughts, Annihilation of Caste, social and political democracy, Ambedkar and Hindu Bill and his resignation as result of failure to pass the Hindu Bill in Parliament.
- Whether social policy can produce equality, economic inequality and injustice, attitude and problematic of legislating change, caste distinction among India migrants in the West, changing dimension of caste, claims to castism, presence of inequality based on income, gender, race etc in American society.
- Gender and human rights, the question of intersectionality, question of relations of state, the need for collective consciousness in fight for justice, global production of norms/local production of norms and intersectionality between the two, whether legislating consciousness can achieve desire social norms etc.
- Indigenous people’s human rights, value of human rights, how should indigenous movements behave, what is the angle of human rights movement across the globe, who are subject of international laws, international laws and their conflict with nation-states, how do we break the conventional knowledge environment, etc.
- Rights of the indigenous people, UN Declarations on rights of the indigenous people, recognition of indigenous contributions to human rights, etc.
- Complex global struggle for justice, racial discrimination, constitution as a colour blind, meaning of constitutional law across the globe, protection of human rights and deprivation, USA and recognition of individuals, etc.
- US citizenship and rights of individuals, Problematic of defining individuals and society, equality before laws, individual rights, society and individual in India, etc.
- Conceptual difference in US Constitution and Recognition and Indian Constitution as regards to recognition of individuals and society. US Constitution difference recognises individuals rather than society/community. Whereas in India, it society is recognised but not individuals
National Science Foundation (NSF), Washington DC and Its Intervention in Social Inclusion Project
This programme was held at National Science Foundation, Washington on 16 October 2015. The key presenters were – Elizabeth E. Lyons, Programme Coordinator, NSF, Jessie DeAro (NSF), ADVANCE Programme Director (NSF), Patricia E. White, Programme Director (Sociology), and Sylvia M. James, Division Director (NSF). The NSF is an independent federal agency formed in 1950 to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare of American citizens.
The presenters threw lights on the working of the Foundation in providing quality science programmes across institutions and action plans designed to implement for more inclusive higher education in US. Some specific programmes are intended for historically black colleges or minority social groups. Such specific schemes are usually not being heard in India. The primary domains of NSF’s operations and projects include: timely research projects, support to people both technical and non-technical, liking research to industry, research centres, curriculum development, technical support to institutions and collaborative programmes, networking among institutes of learning, infrastructures development, advancing science, engineering research and education through discovery, learning and innovations across disciplines. It finances the higher education by government and philanthropy as well. All these programmes, as narrated by the members of the Foundation are intended to provide equality of opportunities to all groups in US.
Understanding Contemporary America: Demographic Change and Discrimination
This programme was organised at Embassy of India, Washington DC on 16 October. The three dignitaries from George Washington University and Office of Civil Rights, US Dept of Education, who delivered lectures, include – Prof. Melani Alister, Dr. Calvin Warren and Dr. Krishna Banaudh. The domains of discussions focused on the following areas:
- Demographic changes in the US and the question of discrimination
- Path to development of inclusive society through state intervention and access to information.
- Experiences of the African Americans and their continued exploited and marginalisation
Heroes and Histories: Understanding America through Memorials, Museums and Libraries in New York and Washington, USA
Apart from the aforementioned programmes, our visits to important historical landscapes, memorials, museums and libraries gave us ample opportunities to learn more about American heroes, histories and political trajectory. We visited the Statue of Liberty in Ellis Island, New York. A guided tour to Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building was also arranged by US Dept of State where we were exposed to some of the early historical documents, materials and publications. We were also taken to Martin Luther King Memorial Park, Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Vietnam War Veterans Memorial, World War II Memorial, Reflecting Pool, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, the National Museums of the American India and the White House, Washington DC. Obviously, numerous inscriptions on the historical sites were templates of learning for everyone. I liked it.
The GutenbergBible: The Gutenberg Bible is currently being preserved at the Library of Congress, Washington and other museums across US. Written in Latin, the Gutenberg Bible is an edition of the Vulgate, printed by Johannes Gutenberg, in Mainz, in present-day Germany, in the 1450s. It marked the start of the “Gutenberg Revolution” and the age of the printed book in the West. Out of some 180 original printed copies of the Gutenberg Bible, 49 still exist in library, university and museum collections across the globe. Less than half are complete, and some only consist of a single volume or even a few scattered pages. Germany stakes the claim to the most Gutenberg Bibles with 14, while the United States has 10, three of which are owned by the Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan. The last sale of a complete Gutenberg Bible took place in 1978, when a copy went for a cool $2.2 million. A lone volume later sold for $5.4 million in 1987, and experts now estimate a complete copy could fetch upwards of $35 million at auction.
This trip was beneficial to me in diverse ways. I am delighted that I made a right choice by participating in the programme designed for further scholarship on Dr. Ambedkar’s life and works. Among others, I summarize my personal learning experiences briefly in the following words:
- Prior to this visit, my knowledge on Dr. Ambedkar was limited. This trip has given me much needed understanding on this great personality, his ideas, philosophy, works.
- Ambedkar’s charismatic leadership, political commitment and his active participation in social reconstruction process which will enable me to build up my confidence in service to the underprivileged groups and communities.
- Institutions and situations that shaped Dr. Ambedkar’s life and course of action in India.
- His contribution to Modern India and his sustained fight for emancipation of the Untouchables (Dalits) from the clutches of Hinduism.
- Selective Silence on Ambedkar and how he has been projected across social and political life of India over the years.
- Absence of more rigorous intellectual engagement on the life of Ambedkar and its requirement for further research.
- Ambedkar’s radical writing such as Annihilation of Caste, his thoughts on India Economy, etc.
- Ambedkar and global understanding and relevance of his thoughts in addressing global concerns.
- Discrimination and exploitation of minorities in contemporary American society.
- Global struggle for human rights and networking among agencies who fight for human dignity.
- It has also given me exposure to different landscape, economic and cultural economic life of USA. It helped me understand the political concepts of rights, democracy and pluralism as practiced in the USA and its failure in India.
- It gave me opportunity to experience the lifestyles of people and interactions with native citizens were delightful and enriching, etc.
What I wish to do in the future
- Learn more about Dr Ambedkar and spread his philosophy, thoughts and works through my research, writings and participation in Ambedkar discourse across social and political sphere.
- Make effort to organise seminar on Ambedkar’s life and works and issues he fought for.
- Produce more knowledge on Dr. Ambedkar.
- Spread Dr Ambedkar’s life and works through media, including social media and language press.
- Increase my collection of books on Dr. Ambedkar and make them accessible to people.
- Participate in programmes, seminars or workshops on issues related to Dr.Ambedkar and others which will contribute further scholarships.
- Strengthen social and political movements of the marginalised communities.
- Help institutions in realising the dreams of Dr. Ambedkar.
- Disseminate information on the necessity to fight against social and political inequality, discrimination and exploitation.
What is next?
I personally feel the entire programme has opened a window of learning to individuals who wish to contribute to welfare of humanity at any cost. Technical sessions with expertise from across USA Universities and institutes, although a few in numbers, widened our understanding of Dr. Ambedkar and issues such notion of social justice, equality, human rights, caste and Indian society, gender, social movement etc. This will obviously help us to provoke more questions in the future to issues Dr. Ambedkar fought for and ideas he wanted to spread through his works. The programmes were very hectic, but not engaging intellectually. There was less time for networking and exchanges of ideas between the participants and the experts who came to deliver lectures on diverse subjects. Perhaps more time and better arrangement was needed for scholarly interactions with faculties or students at Columbia University. Aspiring individuals, academia and students must be give sufficient space to engage in producing scholarships and Ambedkar discourse. In order to generate more scholarships, more programmes may be organised on issues that are intended to be achieved through this programme. There should be continuity of this noble initiative. Let it take us beyond borders. Perhaps I won’t hesitate to take part in the future. Seriously!
Key Resource Persons:
Sudhir Krishnaswamy, Ambedkar Visiting Professor of Indian Constitutional Law, Columbia University
Prof. Vishakha Desai, Special Advisor for Global Affairs, Professor of Professional Practice in the Faculty of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University
Prof. Kendal Thoma, Nash Professor of Law; Director of the Centre for the Study of Law and Culture, Columbia University.
Prof. Anupama P. Rao, Associate Professor, Dept of History, Columbia University.
Prof. Yasmine Ergas, International and Public Affairs; Director, Gender and Public Policy Specialization, Columbia University.
Prof. Elsa Stamatopoulou, Director of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University and Adjunct Professor with the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the Department of Anthropology, and former Chief of the Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII).
Prof. Sandra Navalli, Senior Director, The Tamer Center for Social Enterprise, Senior Director, Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics, Columbia University
Prof. Christopher Queens, Harvard University,
Dr. Calvin Warren, George Washington University
D.r Krishna Banaudh, George Washington University
Prof. McAlister Milan, George Washington University