Conceiving a New Public: Ambedkar on Universities

Asha Singh & Nidhin Donald

asha and nidhinDr. B.R. Ambedkar conceptualizes education as a ‘vital need’ which helps us fight notions of ‘inescapable fate’ or ‘ascriptions of caste or religion’. He counted education as a socially inherited value which defines one’s access to power. Education was always a keyword, an indicator which he applied on issues of political representation and regional imbalance. Thus, beyond the inherent value of education, Babasaheb was keenly aware of its emergent meanings in a socially unequal society. In his writings, Ambedkar engages with the question of education as an educationist, policy maker, institution builder and above all a political philosopher. He generously borrows universal themes on education from philosophers of his times and qualifies them in our contexts. This qualification often translated into specific policy proposals on questions of primary and university education.

The second volume of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s writings and speeches brings together several of his interventions on the idea of education, especially in the context of erstwhile Bombay. The volume is a collection of his deliberations spanning a period of twelve years – starting from his nominated entry into the Bombay Legislature in 1927 where he continued as a nominated (up to 1936) and later an elected member till the prorogation of the Assembly with the commencement of the Second World War. During this time, Ambedkar was actively involved in labour movements (issues of industrial disputes, women workers, maternity benefits were part of his interventions), struggles for land reforms (against Khoti system and Mahar Watan), questions of primary and secondary education and linguistic state. He served as a member of the committee assigned to engage with the Simon Commission. He was also part of a State Committee which looked into the socio-economic and educational conditions of depressed classes in the late 1920s. This period witnessed Ambedkar leading the Mahad Satyagraha in 1927 followed by the Kalaram Satyagraha in Nashik. He formed the Indian Labour Party in the 1930s. He spearheaded Bahiskrit Bharat, a Marathi fortnightly bulletin, and consistently produced reports on matters of socio-economic and political significance in Marathi.[2] One also finds him actively participating in the Round Table Conferences (in 1930) and winning the case for separate electorates for untouchables. Nevertheless, this victory was a still-birth, owing to the Poona Pact of 1932.   This period represents a full circle in Babasaheb’s political life as it witnessed his unsuccessful attempts to reform a hostile social order followed by his emancipatory declaration to ‘not die a Hindu’ in 1935.

Having said that, this essay would focus on his written responses to the Bombay University Reforms Committee of 1924 (among other documents), to underline his defining views on higher education, pedagogy and research. Such an exercise would also highlight the continuing significance of his vision in a changed context.

Education and Representation

Dr. Ambedkar’s entire body of work can be understood as a long encounter with the powerful - be it the colonial administrator or the native elite. These exchanges were not aimed at emotionally transforming their hearts but were well-researched political exercises that challenged and redefined modern values which the former often claimed as their own. As we go through his voluminous writings, we realize that Ambedkar was a researcher par excellence. He considered systematic enquiry as a part and parcel of any socio-political programme. Every time he addressed an audience or agency, he provided them an informed view; where he defined his questions and sought answers to them methodically. In this paper, we underline certain features of Ambedkar’s educational thought. While doing this we also highlight his ‘research process’.

babasaheb illustration by nidhin

Illustration by Nidhin Donald

Let us begin with a slice of Ambedkar’s statement submitted to the Indian Statutory Commission or the Simon Commission in 1927.[3] As we know, the Simon Commission was appointed by the British to recommend constitutional reforms in Colonial India. Ambedkar, in his statement on behalf of Bahishkrut Hitakarini Sabha[4] made pointed recommendations for the education of the depressed classes (sections of present-day OBCs, SCs and STs).[5] He wanted the British to recognize depressed classes as a minority on par with Muslims and not simply an addendum to the Hindu population. However, in order to arrive at these recommendations, he begins the statement with a question - What has been the history and status of education among depressed classes in Bombay Presidency? He answers this question with a chronologically arranged, periodized timeline of British education policy in Bombay Presidency.[6] Based on official documents, he observes that initially the British were not keen on introducing education among the natives. But with time (starting from 1813), they changed their policy and provided modern education largely to the learned native or the higher classes. Babasaheb quotes from the Report of the Board of Education of the Bombay Presidency, 1850-1851 to underline how the British thought it would be appropriate to educate only the learned native (in their words the 'most intelligent of natives') as they have greater influence over the more numerous classes.[7] It was argued that educating the elite would lead to a 'logical' trickle down of education to the masses.

Based on the same report, Ambedkar argues that the British officials identified four classes of learned natives in India. They included - one, landowners, representatives of former feudatories; two, wealthy business/mercantile classes; three, [wards of] higher government employees; four, Brahmins and other higher castes of writers such as Prabhus and Shenvis of Bombay, Kayasthas of Bengal etc. Of the four classes, the government was the most hopeful about the last group as they were the 'easiest to work with' and had the greatest influence on the largest sections. Brahmin and the Brahmannis proxmi (classes in proximity to Brahmins) were identified as the best collaborators to diffuse the seeds of education.[8] This class continues to dominate university education in India.

Commenting on the exclusive nature of the British Education Policy in the early 19th century, Ambedkar argues that the British was playing into the hands of the Hindu elite and thus working against the ‘liberty’ of the masses. He further argues that the British feared that providing education to the lowest castes would mean creating a class of educated men who are hated and despised by all. Certain British officials also claimed that providing education to the masses would create unnecessary expectations and excitements among them.[9] Formation of a disgruntled class of educated men among the masses would threaten the government. This policy of elite education changed after the Despatch (of the Court of Directors) in 1854.[10] The Despatch is perceived as the foundation of mass education in the country. In 1882, the Hunter Commission or the Indian Education Commission was appointed to take stock of the British education policy. Drawing from the investigations of the Commission, Babasaheb observes that even after three decades of mass education, the 'masses were as outside the pale of education as they were before the year 1854' and the lowest and aboriginal classes were absent in High Schools and Colleges of the Presidency.[11]

Ambedkar points out that the first government school for untouchables in Bombay Presidency began only in 1855. Entry into common schools was impossible even after the Charles Wood Despatch. He explains this situation with an examplerecorded in the Report of the Director of Public Instruction for the Bombay Presidency for the year 1856-57, two years after the Despatch - A Mahar boy who was denied admission in Dharwad Government School in 1856, appealed to the concerned authorities.[12] However, the government was of the opinion that they cannot run the risk of making the 'institution practically useless for the great mass of natives' by admitting an individual of the lowest class. Thus, the educational rights of the untouchables were perceived as diametrically opposite to the interest of the majority.

In short, before making concrete recommendations, Ambedkar used archives such as government documents, census records, newspaper reports etc. to make a historical case for the educational demands of the depressed/backward classes. In doing so, he arranges facts in a way that answers his question. One should remember that facts do not self-select or speak for themselves. One has to consciously select and arrange them in a way that tells a coherent, logical story.[13] Furthermore, he exposes the limits of the colonial government’s liberalism and democratic values. Commenting on ‘liberalism and education’ Ambedkar makes the following point in his evidence to the Southborough Committee in the 1918. He writes[14] -

The growth of education if it is confined to one class, will not necessarily lead to liberalism. It may lead to the justification and conservation of class interest; and instead of creating the liberators of the downtrodden, it may create champions of the past and the supporters of the status quo. Isn’t, this the effect of education so far? That it will take a new course in future [ceteris paribus], there is no ground to believe. Therefore, instead of leaving the untouchables to the mercy of the higher castes, the wiser policy would be to give power to the untouchables themselves who are anxious, not like others, to usurp power but only to assert their natural place in society.

Thus, education for Ambedkar was not simply confined to school or college buildings. He links it closely to power and self-determination. One also learns that Ambedkar was acutely aware of the educational history of his constituency. He persistently underlines that education should be a ‘public good’ accessible to everyone. He measures this ‘publicness’ on the basis of representation of different classes in the portals of modern education, especially higher education. A significant aspect of the statement is how Ambedkar conceptualizes representation in relation to the real population of a given class. For example, with the help of tables, he proves how Brahmins and allied castes are represented over and above their population in the presidency. On the other hand, backward classes, though high in population, find themselves at the bottom of the educational pyramid.[15] It should also be noted that Ambedkar divides the Hindu population into three classes - advanced/intermediate/backward to make a case for the minority status of ‘backward classes’ and to treat them on par with established minorities such as Muslims. One realizes that this division is in no way ad hoc or unexplained. Ambedkar arrives at them through numbers and historical facts produced by the colonial state. Thus, he uses a variety of research strategies to highlight his questions and objectives, never once speaking without evidence or shifting from his political programme.

Ambedkar’s Idea of a University

Moving ahead to a different but conjoint example, let us reflect on Ambedkar’s responses to the Bombay University Reforms Committee in the year 1926.[16] What was this committee about? The editorial note reads[17] -

The Bombay Government had appointed a Committee to look into the problem of reform of the Bombay University. This Committee consisted of 13 members with Sir Chimanlal H. Setalvad, Kt. as its Chairman. Dr. Ambedkar was not a member of this committee but he was one of the 321 persons to whom the committee sent its questionnaire of 54 questions. Dr. Ambedkar replied only some of the questions which he considered worth replying.

The questionnaire of the Committee had listed questions which enquired about the definition and function of a university, its relationship to communities and the public in general, relationship between teaching and research, functions of different decision-making bodies so on and so forth. For our purpose, we would go through Dr. Ambedkar’s responses to some of these questions, not only in his written reply but also in his deliberations on the issue in the Bombay Legislative Council. To begin with, what according to Babasaheb was the function of the university? He writes[18]-

University Education should be scientific, detached and impartial in character; that it aims not so much at filling the mind of the student with fact or theories as at calling forth his own individuality, and stimulating him to mental effort; that it accustoms him to the critical study of the leading authorities, with perhaps, occasional reference to first hand sources of information, and that it implants in his mind a standard of thoroughness, and gives him a sense of the difficulty as well as the value of reaching at truth. The student so trained should learn to distinguish between what may fairly be called matter of fact and what is certainly mere matter of opinion. He should be accustomed to distinguish issues, and to look at separate questions each on its own merits and without an eye to their bearing on some cherished theory. He should learn to state fairly, and even sympathetically, the position of those to whose practical conclusions he is most stoutly opposed. He should become able to examine a suggested idea, and see what comes of it, before accepting it or rejecting it. Without necessarily becoming an original student he should gain an insight into the conditions under which original research is carried on. He should be able to weigh evidence, to follow and criticize argument and put his own value on authorities. [Italics ours]

This description on university education needs pertinent attention. The ability to differentiate opinions from matters of fact; judgements from investigated conclusions; issues from cherish theories is crucial for Ambedkar. He argues for a research-driven education where the aim may not always include becoming an original student - but to surely become a student who understands the conditions under which research is carried on. It is only when we become sensitive to these conditions of knowledge production that we begin to appreciate the difficulty and value in arriving at truth. He argues against unconditional reverence for authority figures; in fact, he cherishes student’s ability to criticize and weigh the value of authorities. Further, he also appreciates one’s ability to sympathetically study an idea that we do not necessarily agree with. For him, university education should cultivate the individuality of a student. This focus on individuality is crucial in a caste society, where denigrated community identities overpower our lives in every minute detail. By invoking the ‘individual’ Ambedkar envisions an anti-caste agenda for university education. This description is extremely relevant for our contexts. Our university systems continue to promote rote-learning and endless examinations. It hardly promotes any sense of research or investigation. As children or even as college students, we are always told to worship textbooks and never question their claims. As a result, the ability to form an informed opinion on its content was beyond the scope of schooling at all levels. Similarly, like in any other unequal society, education in India becomes an addendum to communal status and power, hardly ever showing us a way beyond permanent identities.

Does Ambedkar make any suggestions to overcome this condition? He argued that a ‘university cannot succeed in promoting research or in promoting higher education, if it makes the examination system the be-all and end all of its existence’. He was convinced that the distinctions between undergraduate colleges and post-graduate universities has led to a 'certain degree of rivalry and enmity'. This distinction, which has degenerated into a hierarchy had a retrograde effect on research and promotion of knowledge.[19]

Babasaheb keenly observed the status of under-graduate colleges in Bombay both as a teacher and as a policy maker. He realized that undergraduate students are hardly adept in pursuing research. He suggested a lecturing system, which he called ‘inter-collegiate teaching’ where teachers/professors dealing with similar disciplines organize their sessions in a way that would benefit all the students of the discipline irrespective of college.[20] Let us take a moment to analyse this suggestion - one, he imagined greater communication and conversations among teachers of a common discipline, greater amalgamation of students from various social backgrounds who are united by a discipline, dilution of exclusivity and creation of common pedagogical practices and greater diversity of content. This is a radical proposal - academically, pedagogically and politically. To believe that there can be an academic semblance across social classes involved in the study of similar disciplines is a ‘disturbing’ idea for a hierarchically arranged university structure such as ours. He argued that such a scheme of lecturing would help us arrange teachers into different faculties. These faculties, he proposed, should have the final say on the academic issues of a university. A university would become a teaching university only when teachers have a strong say in its functioning. In the words of Ambedkar, ‘only a teacher’s university can be a teaching university’.[21] Universities should be established in close coordination with colleges and they should work in synthesis as equal partners who promote undergraduate and postgraduate teaching. He was against the separation of colleges and universities. Ambedkar believed that teachers who are part of the university should engage in undergraduate teaching, for knowledge is beast produced through conversations of students and teachers. In other words, he felt that the researcher should not be a 'solitary worker', but a teacher constantly dedicated to the project of dissemination. In fact, he did not separate knowledge production from its dissemination.[22]

Backward Classes as Decision-Makers

Furthermore, Ambedkar strongly advocated for the presence of backward communities in the Senate of a University, where legislative decisions are taken. Not surprisingly, he faced severe hostility for his suggestion in the Bombay Legislative Council, especially from its upper-caste members. Ambedkar contended against this hostility by arguing that the skewed communal composition of university bodies can be acted against only by providing a counter-check through representation of backward classes and minorities. He argued in the Bombay Legislative Council[23]-

One of the fundamental functions of the University as I understand it, is to provide facilities for bringing the highest education to the doors of the needy and the poor. [...]'if it is the duty of a modern university to provide facilities for the highest education to the backward communities, I think it will be accepted as a corollary that the backward communities should have some control in the University affairs.

Ambedkar always combined issues of representation, citizenship and knowledge production. He argued that the largely elite intelligentsia was devoid of ‘social virtues’; it was illiberal and narrow.[24] Thus, leaving important decisions to their volition would be the undoing of backward classes. He perceived education as the greatest, achievable material benefit for the marginalized. He argued that for the backward classes their existence is not safe without education - and thus emphasizing the need to control the university as an inevitable corollary.[25]

Why was education so central to Ambedkar’s politics? Why was the modern university a beacon of hope? Why does he believe that backward classes are not safe without education? Finding answers to these questions would need detailed investigations. However, from all that we have discussed, one can surely argue that Ambedkar placed education at the heart of his politics because he knew how ‘knowledge’ is closely linked to the exercise of power. Conditions of exploitation in the caste system are determined by the asymmetrical nature of access to knowledge. Thus, capturing modern spaces of knowledge production is perceived as a battle worth fighting for.

In lieu of a Conclusion

Ambedkar deeply felt that education as a social inheritance should be made as ‘equal’ as possible. For him, there was no way we could escape this equality, if we aim to build a healthy social body. Ambedkar’s ideas on education, particularly university education, remain unachieved and germane. Their relevance deepens in the present context of increased commodification of education. The ‘publicness’ of education is constantly under attack, making accessibility a far cry. Ambedkar was fully mindful of commercialization and thus argued for making education unconditionally public, possible and subsidized. He strongly advocated that education cannot be perceived as a ‘quid pro quo’ or a commercial exchange, especially in a context when the masses are entering its portals for the first time.[26] His debates on education displayed an informed sense of history. He conceptualized university as an institution destined to ensure the highest education to the ‘lowest’ classes. As a corollary, he convincingly felt the need for Backward Classes representation in the legislative bodies of a University. He never separated research from teaching or dissemination. Thus, he dismissed the distinction of under-graduate colleges and post-graduate universities. He vouched for greater coordination and communication among teachers and students of similar disciplines. He imagined a teaching university driven by the spirit of enquiry. He argued that university education should destabilize the permanence of caste identities and lead to the arrival of a cultivated ‘individual’. Further, he observed that such an ‘individual’ can emerge only when various elements, classes of national life can fully and fearlessly participate in the process of knowledge production. In other words, knowledge production in modern spaces cannot be the birth right of a select few.



[1] Part of this paper was presented as a special lecture by Asha Singh in Thomas Jones Synod College, Jowai, Meghalaya. A version of this paper was published in Praxis International Journal of Social Science and Literature (April 2019).

[2] Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches Vol.2, (Editor’s Introduction), Government of Maharashtra, 1982, pp. xi-xiv

[3] Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches Vol.2, Government of Maharashtra, 1982, pp. 407-428

[4] Bahishkrut Hitakarini Sabha was established by Ambedkar on 20th July 1924 with a stated objective of educational and socio-economic uplift of the Depressed Classes. For details see- Keer Dhananjay, Dr. Ambedkar life and mission, Popular Publications, Mumbai, 1990, p. 54.

[5] Depressed Classes included Aboriginal and Hill Tribes and Low-caste Hindus.

[6] Ambedkar periodized modern education in the following broad categories – 1813-1854; 1854-1882; 1882-1928; 1923 onwards. 1813 marks the beginning of modern education for the learned native; 1854 marks the beginning of mass education; 1882 is the year when the Indian Education Commission or Hunter Commission tabled its report and recommendation on the status of mass education and 1923 marks the transfer of mass education from legislature to local bodies in Bombay. See, Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches Vol.2, Government of Maharashtra, 1982, pp. 407-428

[7] Ibid: pp. 410-415

[8] Ibid: p.413

[9] Ibid: p.417

[10] Despatch No. 49 of 19th July 1854 the Court of Directors

[11] Ibid: p.417

[12] Ibid: p.418

[13] Becker, Carl. ‘Everyman his own historian.’ The Vital past: writings on the uses of history 1935, pp. 20-36.

[14] Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches Vol.I, Government of Maharashtra, 1982, pp. 268

[15] Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches Vol.2, Government of Maharashtra, 1982, pp.420-421

[16] Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches Vol.2, Government of Maharashtra, 1982, pp. 292-313

[17] Ibid: p.292

[18] Ibid: p.296-297

[19] Ibid: p.46

[20] Ibid: p.303

[21] Ibid: p.306

[22] Ibid: p.299

[23] Ibid: p.61

[24] Ibid: pp.61-62

[25] Ibid: p.62

[26] Ibid: pp.40-41



Asha Singh is an Assistant Professor with Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.

Nidhin Donald is a doctoral scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.