On 25 June 1923, Ambedkar applied to be admitted as an advocate to the High Court of Bombay. As he had only just returned from England and was yet to submit his revised doctoral dissertation, upon which he was meant to be focusing his attention in Bombay, it is quite clear that he had been eager to launch a legal practice. It was a respectable profession, wherein there was a chance to earn—although earnings for him would be slight, since it depended largely upon touchable Hindus. But it did provide independence – for example, from meddling bureaucrats in a government administrative job – as well as free time to pursue intellectual challenges (such as writing books) and for social work and grassroots activism. In fact, Ambedkar turned his legal practice itself into a form of social work – charging little to nothing for cases involving untouchables or poor labourers – and activism, operating as ‘one of the earliest precursors of India’s civil rights lawyers’.
In his application (which was referred to as a sanad, or an official government certification in British India), Ambedkar annexed evidence that he had been called to the bar from Gray’s Inn, a certificate of good character and skill, as well as a letter from the barrister T.B.W. Ramsay, certifying that Ambedkar had interned in his chamber for a full year while in London. Ramsay was an interesting character. He had a bustling chamber at King’s Bench Walk, just a stone’s throw from the Royal Courts of Justice, near the Middle Temple and the Inner Temple Inns of Court, and just minutes from Lincoln’s Inn as well as LSE. But sports history remembers Ramsay more than legal history does. As an avid lover of cricket, the famous Indian Gymkhana Cricket Club in Osterley, London – generously funded by the Maharajah of Patiala, with contributions by the Maharajahs of Kapurthala, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Cooch Behar and Indore, as well as the Nizam of Hyderabad – owed its existence almost entirely to Ramsay.
Ramsay had a big Privy Council practice, getting many cases from India and the African colonies. A Privy Council practice meant that Ramsay would appear before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, or JCPC, in London. The JCPC was the highest court of appeal for the British Empire. Hence appeals from British India’s high courts in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, or later from the Federal Court of India in Delhi, whether civil or criminal, could eventually make it to this court of last resort. The JCPC was India’s highest appellate court even after Independence in 1947, but was, of course, discontinued with the establishment of the Supreme Court of India through the 1950 Constitution—in fact, it was Ambedkar himself, two decades later, who would move the ‘Abolition of Privy Council Jurisdiction Bill’ in the Constituent Assembly in September of 1949.
Training in Ramsay’s Privy Council practice would have exposed Ambedkar to all of the finer questions of law that take salience over questions of fact in appellate cases. Biographers of Ambedkar follow Keer in his claim that Ambedkar joined the Appellate Side of the Bombay Bar instead of the Original Side because a successful practice on the Original Side would have required the kind of social capital that only upper-caste or British solicitors enjoyed. However, Ambedkar hardly made much of an income even on the Appellate Side, so this explanation alone is weak. Much more likely, Ambedkar’s prior experience and training at an appellate level made him more confident on that side, and the questions of law that were the basis of appeals would also have been more intellectually stimulating. That Ambedkar was always interested in the jurisprudential and intellectual aspects of the legal profession was evidenced, among many other things, by him joining the editorial committee of the Bombay Law Journal a few years later (from June 1927 to August 1928). The prestigious journal had been launched in 1923 by B.G. Kher, a local Congress party leader who occasionally worked with Ambedkar in the 1920s on social causes, and who later became the chief minister (the office at the time was called prime minister) of Bombay, and who would be instrumental in getting Ambedkar re-elected to the Constituent Assembly after Partition in 1947, despite their many disagreements in the interim.
Whatever be the reason for his decision to work on appellate cases, by the end of 1923, Ambedkar’s legal career had begun. He was Dr Ambedkar, Bar-at-Law. But could these impressive credentials compensate for the stigma of his caste?
This piece is an excerpt from Chapter 9: ‘Mr Ambedkar, to Ambedkar Bar-at-Law, to Dr Ambedkar (1922–23)’ of Akash Singh Rathore’s new book, Becoming Babasaheb: The Life and Times of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. The book can be purchased here.
Aakash is a philosopher of international repute, author of nine books, including the just-released Becoming Babasaheb: The Life and Times of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (Harper Collins, 2023), and the best-selling Ambedkar’s Preamble: A Secret History of the Constitution of India (Penguin, 2020). He has also edited over a dozen books ranging from political philosophy and law to literature and religion, including B.R. Ambedkar’s The Buddha and His Dhamma: A Critical Edition (Oxford University Press, 2011), and more recently, B.R. Ambedkar: The Quest for Justice (a box set of 5 volumes, Oxford University Press, 2021). Beyond the pen, Rathore is a top-ranking triathlete and has completed six grueling Ironman races on five continents. He tweets @ASR_Metta and is @aakash_ironman on insta.
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