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Parsis in Baroda berated Ambedkar for his caste. But Naval Bhathena changed everything

B.R. Ambedkar met Naval Bhathena at US' Columbia University in 1913, where he was studying on a scholarship given by Baroda's Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III.

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The enduring and lifelong friendship of Babasaheb Ambedkar with a little-known Parsi man Naval Bhathena was forged in the United States and remained unshaken even when the life trajectories of both the men took different courses.

Ambedkar grew up with harsh experiences of caste discrimination. He was not allowed to sit alongside ‘high-caste’ students. With his brilliance and insatiable hunger for knowledge, he availed a scholarship offered by Sayajirao Gaekwad III, the ruler of the Baroda princely state, to study at New York City’s Columbia University. That is where he met Naval Bhathena, a friend-cum-benefactor, free from caste biases that were typical of an Indian.

Also read: Ambedkar was wrong, Gandhi wrote against untouchability in Gujarati journals too

The two meet

Ambedkar reached the US in July 1913. After a brief stay in the dormitory of the University, he shifted to the Cosmopolitan Club first and then to Livingston Hall Dormitory (rechristened Wallach Hall) where he chanced upon Naval Bhathena, a Parsi student. (Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Dhananjay Keer, Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1954. Page 26).

It is not widely known what Bhathena was studying in the US and how his relationship with Ambedkar blossomed. There aren’t too many details because the only known source on Bhathena is Ambedkar’s biography written by Dhananjay Keer and published in May 1954, when the Dalit social reformer was active.

From Columbia University, Ambedkar proceeded for London where he wanted to study further. But his ambitious trip was cut short by officials of Baroda who insisted that the term for the scholarship had ended.

It took another three years for Ambedkar to return to London with financial help from Naval Bhathena. Though Ambedkar was a professor at Bombay’s Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics, his savings were not enough. Bhathena then extended him a loan of Rs 5,000 and Ambedkar sailed for London in 1920. (Page 44)

Also read: Columbia University teaches Ambedkar’s biography, but few in India have even read it

The Parsi inn story no history textbook will carry

But before this second journey, Ambedkar had a traumatic tryst with members of the Parsi community in Baroda – a seminal incident in Ambedkar’s life that shaped his thinking deeply.

After returning from Columbia, Ambedkar came to live in Baroda where he had to work to fulfil his scholarship contract. As this Columbia-educated scholar did not find a place to stay in Baroda because of caste bias, he ended up at a Parsi inn. The inn, however, was open only for the Parsis. When asked about his caste, he declared himself a Hindu. Ambedkar somehow managed, by bribing the receptionist, to get his name entered in the register as a Parsi.

This arrangement was, however, short-lived. Others in the community found out Ambedkar’s caste. An agitated crowd of Parsis with sticks in hand stormed the inn. Ambedkar has described the tragic scene in front of his room: “(they) fired a volley of questions. Who are you? Why did you come here? How dare you take a Parsi name? You scoundrel! You have polluted the Parsi inn…” They issued an ultimatum. They must not find me in the inn in the evening. I must pack off. They held out dire consequences, and left.” (Waiting For A Visa, Chapter Two, Dr. B.R Ambedkar_CompleteWorks_Created by Dr. Anand Teltumbde).

That night, Ambedkar spent in a park nearby. He couldn’t sleep. He sat under a tree, with his suitcase, bedding and all his certificates and books strewn around on the ground. He left Baroda soon after.

Today, that spot in the park is a site of remembrance and homage for many Dalits. There is a small plaque and a memorial shrine that was erected just over a decade ago.

Just like not many Indians know about Bhathena’s benevolence, the Parsi inn incident isn’t part of any school textbooks in India or collective memory.

Also read: Can you be a true democracy & let go of caste, Ambedkar asked Indians. We are yet to reply

A rock-solid friendship

Leaving India to study in London did not end Ambedkar’s miseries. The shortage of money kept bothering him. He had to skip his meals. In this circumstance, “now and then Ambedkar turned to his friend Mr. Naval Bhathena for help…He pressed Bhathena for a sum of Rs 2,000 as he desired to buy German exchange in advance which was then very low but was likely to look up after some days.” (Keer. Page 46). Feeling thankful and concerned at the same time, Ambedkar wrote to Bhathena “Believe me, I extremely regret to see you bothered on my account. I fully realise that the worries which I have thrown on you are more than even the thickest of friend can bear. I only hope that my constant asking for something or other does not break your back, and alienate you from me the only and dear friend of mine.” (Page 46)

After completing his law studies, Barrister Ambedkar decided to practice law, but had no money to obtain a sanad — a prerequisite for a practising lawyer. Once again, Bhathena helped him and “with that money, the Doctor got his sanad and started life as a Barrister in June1925.” (Page 51)

In the 1940s, Ambedkar was worried about the financial future of his son and nephew, and he turned to his rock-solid support: Naval Bhathena. He wrote to Bhathena asking him “to draw a plan of any industry he would like to suggest for his son and nephew, so that the boys might have an honest calling as a means of living and he might die peacefully.” He also requested Bhathena to teach them some stable business. (Page 404)

Also read: Why Ambedkar chose Buddhism over Hinduism, Islam, Christianity

The last meeting

Their last meeting was in October, 1956. Bhathena recalled it in his tribute “Our longest meeting was at his house two months before he died. We were together from three o’clock in the afternoon till six in the evening and no other person was allowed in the room. That day Ambedkar spoke from his heart. He criticized his son and also his nephew and I left the house, saddened (that) my friend was at journey’s end. Even now, I can hardly believe that he (just) lived a couple of months more.” (Ambedkarachya Sahavasat, Dr. Savita Bhimrao Ambadekar, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Foundation, Mumbai, 2013. Page 354).

The author is a senior columnist and writer based in Ahmedabad. Views are personal.

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  1. Ambedkar and Savarkar-two great personalities with one goal
    [Ambedkar’s death anniversary- 6th December]

    On 14th April, 1942 on the occasion of 50th birthday of Babasahab Ambedkar following massage Veer Savarkar sent to him—“With his personality, learning, skill in organization and capability of giving leadership Ambedkar did valuable service to India. His work is of eternal nature, humanitarian and that of imbued with pride in one’s own country. The feeling that a great man like Ambedkar is born in so-called untouchable-caste will eliminate despair prevailed in the hearts of untouchables, and from the life of Ambedkar they will get energy to face the dominance of so-called touchables. Having full respect to the personality and works of Ambedkar I wish for his long and healthy life.” Savarkar or be it Ambedkar both had one goal of removing the distinction of high and low based upon caste from the society. In the eyes of Savarkar the Hindu organization and its strength had more importance and for that he wanted to eliminate untouchability. Where on the other hand Ambedkar was of the creed that the caste based distinction is unscriptural and inhumane therefore needed to be destroyed— as a result of which Hindu organization will itself come into existence. In Ambedkar’s view how important the organisation of Hindus is could be seen from his statement that—“Organisation of Hindu is national work. It is more important than swaraj. More than that of swaraj the protection of Hindus is important. If Hindus are not strong enough swaraj will get degenerated into slavery.”
    On 23rd Jan, 1924 Hindu Mahasabha was formed by the inspiration of Savarkar. Three resolutions were passed then, and one of them was to initiate a movement to eradicate untouchability. Mass singing of bhajanas [devotional songs]; all-caste community feast; building of Patitpavan mandir; agitation for the right of entrance to untouchables inside Bitthal temple of Ratnagiri all these works done under the guidance of Savarkar greatly impressed the low-caste people. In Savarkar they begun to see one who was truly concerned to their plight. So as to express their gratitude in return to this once on 13th August, 1924 the untouchable community of Bhagur, the birthplace of Savarkar, invited him on the day of Rakshabandhan utsav. In the honor of the guest women living there performed his aarti [a religious rite], and tied rakhi `on the Savarkar’s arm. So did the people of different castes who came to participate the ceremony, tying rakhis on each other arms. Later they together took oath of not observing casteism in social and religious activities. If it is to be seen that how deep Savarkar felt about the necessity of eradication of untouchability then what he said on the occasion of Ganeshotsav in a Valmiki basti[locality of sweepers] of Nasik must be looked into. He said—“I wish I would see untouchability removed. After my death may those giving shoulder to my coffin be comprised of businessmen, of Dhed and Dome [the so-called low-castes], apart from Brahmins! Only on being consigned to flame by them all will my soul rest to peace.” So that the sense of brotherhood nurtured among Hindus he considered it necessary to get public-tap and temple to be freed from caste-barrier. Not only this even all the activities concerning inter-caste harmony had his support. Therefore on 7th Oct, 1945 in Maharashtra when an inter-caste marriage between Navle and Karpe castes was organized then among those prominent personalities who blessed married couple was also Savarkar; others were Mahatma Gandhi, Jagadguru Shri Shankracharya, Dr Kurtkoti and Guru Golwalkar of RSS.
    For social harmony how seriously Savarkar was engaged in making his efforts that Ambedkar knew too well, which he even expressed on different occasions. One such occasion occurred when a temple in Peth kila in Ratnagiri was built by Bhagoji seth Keer , and Savarkar sent an invitation to Ambedkar to inaugurate it. In response to the invitation Ambedkar wrote a letter to him —“Due to my engagement in previously scheduled programme I am unable to join the function; but as you are in social field this has lent an occasion to draw a favorable conclusion in this matter. Destruction of untouchability alone will not make untouchables an inseparable part of Hindu community. Chaturvarnya [fourfold varnas] itself should be abolished. I am extremely delighted to say that you are among those few who felt the necessity of this.”
    [Note- Please refer “Dr.Ambedkar aur samajik kranti ki yatra” by Dattopant Thengri, translated in Hindi by Shreedhar

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