Bust of Ambedkar Given to Columbia

Photograph: Ainslie Embree and Savita Ambedkar with the bust of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar on display in Lehman Library. Photo Credit: Joe Pineiro.

India scholars and members of the India communities from as far away as London and Toronto met at Columbia Tues., Oct. 24, to remember Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the political and religious leader and father of India's constitution.

One of Columbia's most remarkable international alumni, Ambedkar (1891-1956) was born into the "untouchables," the pariahs of Indian society whose very touch was considered defiling to persons of caste. He overcame constant rebuff and prejudice to acquire an education. A brilliant student, he graduated from Elphinstone College in Bombay and, through the patronage of an enlightened maharajah, went on to earn the M.A. (1915) and Ph.D. (1928) at Columbia and another doctorate at the London School of Economics. Columbia also awarded him and an honorary doctor of law degree in 1952.

Ambedkar told The New York Times in 1932 that "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."

As Minister of Law in India's first post-independence government, Ambedkar drafted the constitution of India, adopted in 1949, which provided the legal framework for the abolition of many oppressive features of Indian society and gained rights for India's 60,000,000 untouchables. His statue stands today before India's parliament building in New Delhi.

The occasion for Tuesday's gathering in the Kellogg Center of the School of International and Public Affairs was the presentation to Columbia of a bronze bust of Ambedkar by the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organizations, United Kingdom. Ambedkar in his later years led a revival of Buddhism in India.

The bust, which will be on display in Lehman Library, will serve "as a memorial to remind future generations of the struggle for human rights waged at great cost in the past," said the Federation General Secretary, G. Gautam.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, U.N. Secretary-General and also a Columbia alumnus, sent a message saying that "Ambedkar personified many of the qualities of spirit, mind and heart which animate the ideals and work of the United Nations. He was a fervent believer, and example, of the innate right of human beings to aspirations and the means to their fulfillment."

The presentation of the bust followed a meeting of the University Seminar on Tradition and Change in South and Southeast Asia, which discussed "Ambedkar's Dhamma: Source and Method in The Construction of an Engaged Buddhism," led by Christopher Queen of Harvard.

Hosted by the Southern Asian Institute and the University Seminars, the ceremony was infused with a sense of family--playful children sounding a counterpoint to the speeches.

Ambedkar's widow, Savita Ambedkar, traveled from India to be present. The Brahmin-born octogenarian said in her remarks: "There cannot be two opinions about Ambedkar being the greatest man. I am very happy and proud that I could get a man like that for my husband."

Ainslie Embree, Columbia professor emeritus of history and a leading scholar of India, told the lively gathering of some 75 persons that he "had known of Ambedkar before most of you," and recalled being present at an enthusiastic gathering of followers of Ambedkar in 1949 in Mhow, India, Ambedkar's birthplace.

Other speakers at the event included Barnard Professor John S. Hawley and NYUProfessor Owen Lynch.

Columbia University Record -- November 3, 1995 -- Vol. 21, No. 9