A hundred years ago, the hallowed halls of Columbia University and the roiling streets of Harlem gave B.R. Ambedkar a unique perspective into the struggles of his community in India.

In 1913, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, then only 22 years old, set sail to pursue higher education in the United States — a deviation from the natural choice of England for the predominantly upper caste Hindu Indian elite of that time. Ambedkar was, of course, neither upper caste nor elite. But that journey and the time spent at Columbia University and the upper Manhattan area of New York was to prove as monumental for the shaping of India’s future as Mahatma Gandhi’s voyage of self-discovery in South Africa.

Ambedkar was the first ever ‘untouchable’ to study in a foreign land — a Ph.D. from Columbia University and a D.Sc. at the London School of Economics. For him, it amounted to leaving the land of untouchability for a country yet to shrug off its past as a land of slavery.

Columbia was only a few blocks away from Harlem, the melting pot of Black America and the site of a great cultural reawakening movement that came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. That movement was still in its incipient stages when Ambedkar was in Columbia.

A creation of the African-American real estate entrepreneur, Philip A. Payton, who took over unsold apartments for filling them up with Black tenants, Harlem symbolised the denial of the republican values that Ambedkar admired. The mass migration of thousands of Blacks from the Southern States — where they had worked predominantly as slaves in cotton and sugarcane plantations — to the more liberating city environments created a new cosmopolitan sophistication and sense of identity.

For Ambedkar, living next to Harlem in these culturally turbulent times provided a unique window into the deprivations and struggles of his own community back home.

On May 9, 1916, Ambedkar presented a paper ‘Castes in India; Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development’ at an anthropology seminar in Columbia University. It was the first of his many works into the origins of a “hoary institution” that defined Indian society and continues to do so even today.

While the fact that “there is so much similarity between the untouchables in India and the position of Negros in America” did not escape Ambedkar’s attention, he was, at the same time, convinced that untouchability was “far worse than slavery”. While the latter could be abolished by statute, “it will take more than a law to remove this stigma from the people of India.”

Equally significant was Ambedkar’s belief in the superiority of the basic American model of individual rights and representative government, notwithstanding the exclusion of the ‘colored’ people from this framework. In his testimony before the Southborough Committee on Franchise appointed by the British Government on January 27, 1919, Ambedkar — who was not even 28 then — made a vivid comparison between the U.S. and India: “Englishmen have all along insisted that India is unfit for representative Government because of the division of her population into castes and creeds. This does not carry conviction…The social divisions of India are equalled, if not outdone, in a country like the United States of America...If with all the social divisions, the United States of America is fit for representative Government, why not India?”

Ambedkar’s genius, though, lay in his racing ahead of America in winning rights for the untouchables of India. While racial segregation in the U.S. ended only in 1964, Ambedkar secured the right to representation for untouchables through reservation of seats in the provisional legislative bodies in 1932. Ambedkar also used the Poona Pact to also introduce reservation in the services for untouchables, by making it a part of 1935 Government of India Act.

By 1950, Ambedkar had gone much further as the principal author of the Constitution of India that legally abolished untouchability, provided safeguards to the Scheduled Castes from discrimination, and provided them representation in government services through reservations.

Ambedkar was the pioneer in pushing forward the idea of universal adult franchise and one man-one vote.In his 1919 submission to the Southborough Committee, Ambedkar argued: “No person…should be denied the opportunity of actively participating in the process of Government. That is to say popular Government is not only Government for the people but by the people”. Not surprisingly, he encountered resistance from most political conservatives. Sardar Vallabhai Patel, who headed the Constituent Assembly’s Committee on Fundamental Rights, expressed apprehension that the States may not agree and may even view it as encroaching upon their rights. A distinct feature of Ambedkar’s approach was his preference for constitutional methods and seeking of legal safeguards, whether against untouchability or in fighting patriarchy through the Hindu Code Bill that he pushed, albeit without success. He abhorred resort to both “bloody methods of revolution” as well as Gandhian tools such as Satyagraha, civil disobedience and non-cooperation.

As he stated while presenting the Draft Constitution on November 25, 1949: “Where constitutional methods (for achieving economic and social objectives) are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us”.

No doubt, American republican values had a profound influence in all these thoughts. The idea of every person having the right to life, liberty, free speech and pursuit of happiness — and the duty of the State to guarantee these freedoms to its subjects — is something that appealed to Ambedkar. For him, “the individual is an end in himself” and has certain “inalienable rights” to be protected through Constitution. From these followed the most important premise for a political democracy: “The State shall not delegate power to private persons to govern others.”

America was important for Ambedkar even from a personal standpoint. As he was to write later, five years of staying outside India completely wiped out of his mind any consciousness of being an untouchable. But when he returned to work in the State of Baroda, nothing had changed. Hostels there wouldn’t take him. The only way of seeking accommodation was by impersonation, for which he wasn’t prepared, knowing the dire consequences if his identity were discovered.

In an article published on November 30, 1930, a correspondent of the New York Times described Ambedkar as the “most unusual ‘untouchable’, having the degrees of Doctor of Philosophy from Columbia University, New York, and Doctor of Science from the University of London.” At the end of all this study abroad, he “returned to India as an ‘untouchable’, as when he left. He could not enter a temple or drink at a public well.”

Observing Harlem, cradle of the Black intellectual awakening, Ambedkar believed that the untouchables of India needed to be pulled out of villages to escape the tyranny and oppression of the caste system.

The nation owes it to Ambedkar for making India a much better place to live in after Independence, with a most forward-looking rights-based model of Constitution. For this, Columbia can take credit: It was the starting point after all!