Dr Ambedkar's Campaign For Democratic Dining
Image Credit: Via Shutterstock. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar promoted inter-caste dining through the Samaj Samata Sangh.

AS THE FIRST ROUND TABLE CONFERENCE kicked off in London over November 1930, the New York Times ran a front page story about a smaller meeting that occurred on the sidelines, which was remarkable in its own way. 

“PRINCE AND OUTCAST AT DINNER IN LONDON END AGE-OLD BARRIER” the headline of the article, dated November 29, read. In smaller font, a strapline transmitted the gist of the article: “Gaekwar of Baroda is Host to 'Untouchable' and Knight of High Hindu Caste”. The journalist was a Charles Selden.

The meeting Selden was reporting on, was indeed an unusual one. Sayajirao Gaekwad III, Maharaja of Baroda, was hosting Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, whose higher education in the West he had sponsored via scholarships; and the politician AP Patro (Rao Bahadur Sir Annepu Parasuramdas Patro, from the Madras Presidency), for dinner. The venue was the Hyde Park Hotel. Selden described it as “one of many social gatherings incidental to the Indian Round Table Conference”, and one that “the society editors of London newspapers paid no attention to”. Selden further wrote that the news of an ‘untouchable’ dining at the same table as a prince and a knight was sure to cause shock in India, although: “It is true that none of these men is typical of his own caste and class, so the table set for three was more a sign of an isolated miracle than a symptom of any material change as yet in India’s [caste system].”

For the NYT’s readers, Selden summarised Ambedkar’s campaign for social justice and equality in India. Perhaps because it made for a good narrative parallel, he drew attention to one of Babasaheb’s initiatives from the previous decade: inter-caste dining. 

“I have organised in Bombay the Social Equality League [aka the Samaj Samata Sangh] for the purpose of dining together monthly, alternating between the homes of 'untouchables' and caste Hindus. So far we have about 200 members, nearly half of whom are men of caste. Our 'untouchable' members are all very poor men, many of them are so poor they cannot afford to give dinners in their own homes. In such cases the guests pay for the food they eat. But the main point is to get them all round the same table and into each others' homes,” Selden quoted Ambedkar as saying. 

“The movement is growing very slowly, but it is growing. The Liberal Hindus who have joined us have got beyond the point of seeming self-conscious when accepting the hospitality of an 'untouchable' host, but they suffer estrangement from the orthodox members of their own caste. That is the chief obstacle to our progress,” Ambedkar concluded.

While Selden may or may not have made note of it, this was not the only caste-agnostic get-together hosted by Sayajirao for Ambedkar in London. CB Khairmode notes in his biography of Dr Ambedkar that the members of the First Round Table Conference had been very impressed by Babasaheb’s ideas and work. So pleased was Sayajirao by Ambedkar’s impact on the attendees that the Maharaja hosted a tea party in the younger man’s honour at the Hans Crescent Hotel in Knightsbridge. The Hans Crescent, built in 1896, was among the most exclusive hotels in London at the time. “Many Hindi [sic] institutional leaders and Maharaja’s staff member Sir Manubhai Nandshankar Mehta were present at the party,” Khairmode observed.

These displays of inter-caste dining did not necessarily translate into progress at home. Once they returned to India, the Maharaja planned yet another felicitation ceremony for Ambedkar, this time in Bombay. One-by-one the excuses began to roll in, until Ambedkar’s name was dropped from the list of the honourees who would be on stage. Ambedkar himself had grown less sanguine about just how much of an influence the act of inter-caste dining could wield in correcting the deep-seated prejudices and behaviours ingrained over thousands of years. (In contrast, he continued to consider inter-caste marriages as more effective in this regard.)

This seemed a setback from the revolutionary events of a decade ago, when the idea of inter-faith dining had been promoted by Dr Ambedkar. 

In March of 1920, Ambedkar had addressed a Depressed Classes conference in Mangaon. A special guest was Chhatrapati Shahu, then the Maharaja of Kolhapur. Struck by Ambedkar’s impassioned speech, Shahu and his coterie sat down for a meal with Dr Ambedkar and other members of the Mahar community. That same year in May, Shahu organised a second conference, this time in Nagpur. The leaders of 18 sub-castes of the Mahar community were in attendance, and Ambedkar persuaded them all to eat together at a dinner he hosted. 

Other triumphs were more bittersweet. A scant eight years later, Ambedkar was the guest of honour at a sahabhojan — the first inter-caste meal of its kind — in Pune’s Kesariwada. The community event had been put together by Lokmanya Tilak’s son, Shridhar Balwant Tilak, an ardent admirer of Babasaheb. Shridhar had established a Pune chapter of the Samaj Samata Sangh founded by Ambedkar in 1927, and this sahabhojan caused just as much consternation among conservative, upper caste circles in the city as his other social justice endeavours had. These vested interests tried in many ways to sabotage the sahabhojan, but against all odds, Shridhar was able to ensure it went ahead as planned — albeit under the light of lamps and lanterns as the electric power supply to the area had been cut off in a last-ditch attempt to abort the dinner. Ambedkar was deeply touched; he had grown to consider Shridharpant his own kin. (He described the relationship between them as “more intimate and loving than that between real blood brothers. I felt a special sense of belonging with him…”) But by the end of 1928, Shridhar had died by suicide, and Ambedkar was left “frightened, bewildered, and confused” when he received the news.

After the initial euphoria of the Round Table Conferences, Dr Ambedkar also suffered a bout of ill-health over 1931-32 when he was in Bombay. He tired easily, had little to no appetite, and was frequently feverish. Pleas from his associates to pay attention to his health went unheeded. But friendship and food were to offer a way back to better health. Ambedkar’s close friend, the social reformer Dada Keluskar, decided he wouldn’t take no for an answer and started a regime of exercise, conversation and food that he firmly believed would help rejuvenate Babasaheb. Every morning, he would visit Ambedkar’s home and take him to Girgaon Chowpatty or Shivaji Park. A session of swimming in the open sea was followed by a home-cooked meal at Dada’s home. Once Ambedkar was well-enough to go swimming by himself, Dada would bring him breakfast at Chowpatty. The menu that restored Ambedkar to his former self? Two eggs and poli, four pavs with butter, and a flask of coffee.


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