This is a guest post by Scott R Stroud, an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of The Evolution of Pragmatism in India: Ambedkar, Dewey, and the Rhetoric of Reconstruction (2023), which has also been published by HarperCollins India as The Evolution of Pragmatism in India: An Intellectual Biography of B.R. Ambedkar (2023). This post was originally published on August 3 by the South Asian American Digital Archive and we thank them for permission to reprint here.
The Indian politician and anti-caste activist Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891-1956) was heavily influenced by his experiences in the U.S. and England. He was partially shaped by his expansive education there, studying at institutions such as Columbia University, London School of Economics, and Gray’s Inn. Of this set of institutions, his time in New York perhaps had the most influence on him. It was at Columbia that he was exposed to a range of progressive thinkers, not the least of which was the American pragmatist, John Dewey. While there are many ways that Dewey’s pragmatism mattered for Ambedkar’s thought over the following decades, there is another figure in the pragmatist tradition that has an overlooked connection to Ambedkar: Jane Addams (1860-1935).
It is often thought that Ambedkar left New York in the summer of 1916 for London and that he did return to the U.S. until much later in his life—in 1952 when Columbia bestowed upon him an honorary degree. This is not accurate, however. On December 5, 1931, a few days after the conclusion of the second Round Table Conference, Ambedkar left London and sailed for New York. The exact purpose of this visit is hard to divine, but he ended up spending much of his time near Columbia University until he left for London on January 4, 1932.1
It was during this month in New York that Ambedkar penned a letter to Jane Addams on December 15, 1931.2 The letter is written on Ambedkar’s own stationary, and its return address reveals that Ambedkar was staying at the International House at 500 Riverside Drive near the Columbia campus he roamed as a student. This building was constructed in 1924 with the funding of John D. Rockefeller Jr. to create a diverse learning and living environment for the growing numbers of international students at Columbia. In all likelihood, Ambedkar was able to stay there for the duration of his short visit given his status as an international alumnus.
Why did Ambedkar write Addams in 1931? His ostensible purpose was to wish her “a full and speedy recovery from your distressful illness.” Perhaps Ambedkar was reminded of her importance to causes parallel to his own given that she had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1931. On the day of her receiving this award, she was also admitted to a hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, to deal with her continuing ill health. She had been battling to regain her health ever since she suffered a heart attack in 1926. Both news of her health and her award made the papers around the globe, so Ambedkar surely heard of Addams through the media.
Ambedkar also knew of Addams from John Dewey’s classes at Columbia. In John Dewey’s 1915-1916 classes, Philosophy 131-132 “Moral and Political Philosophy,” Ambedkar and his fellow students (including the Chinese reformer, Hu Shih) heard their professor praise Addams’ 1902 book, Democracy and Social Ethics, in support of his claim that democracy implicated a wide range of community relationships beyond the political.3 Addams was an important part to the diverse tradition of American pragmatism, and she was set apart by the unique endeavor of running the settlement Hull House in Chicago. Settlement houses were part of a social movement that started around 1890 to alleviate poverty and suffering brought on by rapid industrialization. Social workers and activists would establish community centers in which they lived side-by-side with poor local residents and tried to improve the living conditions of the surrounding community. Addam’s Hull House is one of the most successful American instances of this movement. It was when Dewey was in Chicago that he became friends with Addams and familiar with Hull House. Addams was not simply working for the improvement of the condition of women, immigrants, the poor, and those who might suffer from the violence of war; she also wrote and thought about the philosophy that stands behind such activism.4 Addams’ thoughts on nonviolence and democracy influenced Dewey, as Dewey’s ever-growing body of work influenced Addams in turn.
When Dewey left Chicago for Columbia University in 1904, he remained friends with Addams and a supporter of the settlement movement. Addams continued with her work and expanded into international peace advocacy. Her decades-long efforts against international conflict, as unpopular as they were during the Great War, earned her the Nobel recognition in 1931.
Ambedkar’s letter, however, focuses on her illness and makes no overt mention of her award. It does seem implied however, since he tells Addams “Your life of devotion to the submerged of the world has been the inspiration and encouragement for us all even in darkest India.” Ambedkar seems aware of her settlement work to alleviate the burdens of the poor in Chicago at Hull House, as well as the care for those in other nations evinced by her peace-building work in America and Europe. Perhaps he also knew of her trip to India in 1923, a visit where Addams was largely exposed to the figures and movements fixating on Indian self-rule, and not on the battle against untouchability. Addams was a friend and correspondent of Gandhi’s, but the two were unable to meet on this trip because he was imprisoned at the time.
Addams did not seem to prioritize, or even know much about, the social evils of caste. Ambedkar seemed motivated in his letter to not only wish her improved health, but to introduce himself and his anti-caste cause. Indeed, he starts the letter referring to himself “as a representative of the sixty-millions of downtrodden untouchables in India.” Ambedkar seemed motivated to put the social issue of caste on Addams’ mind with his references to the size and state of the mass of humans oppressed by these long-rooted and oppressive matters of social custom. Caste limited and dehumanized most of those caught in the grips of its hierarchy, but this function was often missed by Americans like Addams.
What do we make of this letter? In archives in the U.S. and in India, I have found no evidence that Addams sent a reply to Ambedkar’s letter of December 15. Nor is there any record of future correspondence between these two thinkers. Addams, of course, was deluged with congratulatory letters and telegraphs after her receipt of the Nobel Prize; combined with her uncertain health and hospitalization, it’s no surprise that she did not write back to the Indian civil rights leader.
From this letter, however, we can see something of Ambedkar’s motivation. He not only introduced himself and his cause in the letter, he hoped for a personal audience with Addams. “I devoutedly [sic] hope,” he writes at the end of the letter, “that your recovery will come within the limits of my short stay in America to permit me to present my humble respects in person.” There’s no evidence that they ever met, and Addams’ health and residence elsewhere lead us to think she did not meet Ambedkar in New York. But we can guess that Ambedkar sought a meeting with Addams not only to congratulate her, but also to build bridges between her settlement and peace work and his struggle against untouchability and caste oppression. We know that Ambedkar would later (in the 1940s) try to build similar bridges to leaders in the civil rights movement such as W.E.B. Du Bois.
Perhaps Ambedkar wanted to convince Addams that eradicating untouchability was an overlooked part to the Gandhian quest for Indian self-rule or swaraj that she was so taken by.5 Or perhaps Ambedkar wanted to compare strategies on settlement houses and their use in the Indian context. After all, he had most likely long known about settlement houses—the settlement house figure, Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch, was married to Ambedkar’s economics professor, Vladimir Simkhovitch. Mary Simkhovitch directed Greenwich House in New York and was friends with Addams. She and Vladimir lived at the Greenwich Village settlement during the week, and often brought Vladimir’s students to visit it. Ambedkar may have heard about her settlement activities or even visited it during his enrollment in one of his five courses from Vladimir at Columbia. In any case, we see Ambedkar initiate a series of hostels and educational organizations that similarly aimed to educate and support the lower classes (and castes) in India upon his return in the 1920s. Like Addams and Simkhovitch, as well as Dewey, Ambedkar saw the power in a holistic education that involved classes, books, as well as edifying social activities outside of formal education.
The pragmatists are a diverse lot. But one of the themes that drives Addams, Simkhovitch, and Dewey is vitally important: life was educative and intelligent action could further shape the course of experience to maximize its effects on our habits and communities. Ambedkar felt the power in this commitment, and he would often argue in his writings for a view of democracy as a way of life or a matter of our habits of associated living with our fellow humans. Addams’ ideas of social reform were a noteworthy attempt to refine harmful social habits and customs, and Ambedkar surely saw her as a fellow traveler. This overlooked letter to Addams highlights Ambedkar’s drive to internationalize his mission and to connect the battle of caste to the oppression of women, the poor, and to peace-making in general.
The author would like to thank Prakash Ambedkar, Kishor Walanju, Cathy Moran Hajo, and Marilyn Fischer for their assistance with this article.
1. These dates are derived from the account in K. N. Kadam, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Significance of His Movement (Bombay, Popular Prakashan, 1991) and Vijay Mankar, Life and the Greatest Humanitarian Revolutionary Movement of Dr B.R. Ambedkar: A Chronology (Nagpur, Blueworld Series, 2009). I have found no evidence of meetings between Ambedkar and his Columbia contacts (including Dewey) during this time.
2. This letter can be found in the Jane Addams Papers. It was brought to my attention by the Addams scholar, Marilyn Fischer, who knows this massive set of documents very well. No biographies note the existence of this letter.
3. For information on the courses with John Dewey and their content, see Scott R. Stroud, The Evolution of Pragmatism in India (University of Chicago Press & HarperCollins India, 2023).
4. For more on Addams as a philosopher, see Marilyn Fischer, Jane Addams’s Evolutionary Theorizing: Constructing “Democracy and Social Ethics” (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2019).
5. Addams would continue to advocate for Gandhi’s movement in her correspondence and writings after 1923, and Gandhi would write her about various matters. Gandhi reprinted some of her work in edited volumes. For more on the relationship between these two thinkers, see Elizabeth N. Agnew, “Jane Addams, Mohandas Gandhi, and the Promise of Soul Force,” Peace & Change, 45 (4), 2020, 481-512 and Tim Gilsenan, “Peacemakers & Friends: Jane Addams & Gandhi,” October 6, 2013.