Ambedkar House: India’s £3m property row with two London residents

By Joshua Cheetham & Joshua Nevett
BBC News

Image source, Ambedkar House
Image caption,
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated Ambedkar House in 2015, during a visit to the UK

In a quiet corner of London, one of India's most venerated "founding fathers" continues to leave his mark.

The city's affluent Primrose Hill neighbourhood has been home to generations of celebrities, from model Kate Moss to actor Daniel Craig.

But hundreds of visitors - including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi - have flocked from around the world to one particular townhouse.

"Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Indian Crusader of Social Justice, lived here 1921-22," proclaims a blue plaque outside the house.

Step through its doors, past a bust of Dr Ambedkar draped in garlands, and guests can see rooms reconstructed in his memory, with legal documents strewn across a dining room table. His glasses lie next to dog-eared books on the bedside table.

But there's a problem: two neighbouring residents are opposed to the museum which, according to the local council, should not exist.

Next month, the fate of the museum will be decided at a council hearing. Its owners could be forced to convert it back into a residential property and close its doors to visitors, diluting the legacy of a man whose influence still reverberates in India to this day.

Image caption,
A view of Ambedkar House from outside the property in Primrose Hill, north-west London

Known as Ambedkar House, the building was bought by the government of Maharashtra, a state in western India, for more than £3m ($3.65m) in 2015.

Since its inauguration by Prime Minister Modi in 2015, it has operated as a free-to-visit attraction, dedicated to Dr Ambedkar, who is known as the architect of India's constitution.

The home has attracted hundreds of guests, and three neighbours told the BBC that during this time, visitors have come and gone without any disturbance. One resident, who lived across the road, said they did not even know it existed.

But in January 2018, Ambedkar House was reported to Camden Council for a planning breach, and the council found that the building did not have permission to operate as a museum.

Image caption,
A large bust of Dr Ambedkar has been placed on a table inside the house

In February 2018, the property's owners retrospectively applied for permission to use the building as a museum. But in October 2018, the council rejected the claim, arguing that it would amount to an "unacceptable loss" of residential space.

Two residents have also complained to the council, in north-west London, about alleged disturbances caused by "coach loads" of visitors making "noise day and night".

The government of Maharashtra has appealed against the decision and a public inquiry is scheduled for 24 September.

Maharashtra's government refused to comment on the case. But in a statement to the BBC, India's High Commission - its embassy in the UK - said the property "holds a special significance for a huge section of Indians". It said a planning application was submitted to Camden Council to convert the house into a memorial.

Image caption,
Dr Ambedkar, who studied at the London School of Economics, was India's first law minister

Dr Ambedkar - a Maharashtra native who died in 1956 - was a legal scholar, a passionate civil rights activist and the man tasked with drafting the country's constitution after its independence in 1947. He was also India's first law minister.

He was born a Dalit - one of the so-called "untouchables" of India's caste system - and became the most important and revered political leader for the community, which has faced social and economic discrimination for centuries.

He fought for women's rights, an end to caste discrimination, and reserving jobs in government and schools for disadvantaged groups. He is widely regarded as one of India's greatest political leaders.

Before his his political career, Dr Ambedkar briefly lived in Primrose Hill, from 1921-22, while studying for a doctorate degree in economics at the London School of Economics.

Image caption,
A UK charity encouraged the government of Maharashtra to buy the property in 2015

That's why, at the suggestion of the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations (FABO), the government of Maharashtra bought the property in 2015.

When the house came up for sale, former UK civil servant Santosh Dass, who lives in Hounslow, west London, convinced the state to buy it.

She told the BBC that the property was in a dilapidated state at the time, and said the renovation work had given the home, and the community, a new lease of life.

Image caption,
In one room, photocopies of documents have been strewn across a table

"We've done the neighbourhood a favour," said Ms Dass, president of the FABO.

She said that discussions had been held about getting permission to turn the house into a formal museum, but organisers "underestimated how much time the whole thing would take".

"We really want it to be a proper memorial so people can come and visit," said Ms Dass. "Some people see it as a pilgrimage."

Image caption,
Dr Ambedkar (centre) with his second wife Mai Ambedkar and activist Rao Bahadur CK Bole (left) in Mumbai

About 50 people are estimated to visit Ambedkar House every week, including enthusiasts who travel from far away. Outside the building, one family told the BBC they had travelled from India to visit the home, which was top of their sightseeing agenda in London.

C Gautam, a FABO committee member, was sanguine about the future of the property as a museum because "eminent people support us".

A letter in support of the museum has been written to the borough council by Lord Richard Harries, a former bishop of Oxford. Some neighbouring residents, however, do not share his enthusiasm.

Image caption,
A statue of Dr Ambedkar has been erected in the back garden of the property

One local resident, who did not wish to be named, told the BBC: "It's supposed to be residential, not a museum."

The resident claimed that Ambedkar House "went ahead with the renovations without permission", adding that "crowds of people come here now".

During Camden's public consultation, one resident also complained that visitors "arrive in coach loads, taking photos and making noise".

Bonnie Dobson, who lives on King Henry's Road, told the BBC she considered the objections "puzzling and upsetting". The 78-year-old Canadian folk singer said she had lived in Primrose Hill since 1969 and made a concerted effort to know her neighbours.

Image caption,
Residents have complained of disturbances on King Henry's Road

"To the best of my knowledge, no-one has ever been disturbed by the fact that the house is now a little museum," she said.

Ms Dobson said she liked the idea that tourists were coming to see Ambedkar House but disputed ever seeing "coach loads" of visitors. "If there were coaches coming up and down my road I'd know it," she added.

Ultimately, it is the Planning Inspectorate - an independent agency working for the UK government - that will make a judgement on the planning appeal.

If Ambedkar House lost the appeal, its owners "would be required to return the property to its lawful use as residential", a council spokeswoman told the BBC.

In a report on the planning application, the council said the conversion of the building into a museum was, in theory, permissible. However, it was the loss of residential space that breached policy and led to the rejection, the council said.

"In terms of balancing the loss of residential floor space against the cultural benefits, there is nothing to suggest that an alternative site could not be found," the council said.

Image caption,
A quote from Dr Ambedkar, painted on the wall, reads: "Democracy is essentially an attitude of reverence towards our fellow men"

Mr Gautam insisted that most neighbours had been supportive of Ambedkar House.

"They tell us that some of their relatives remember when Ambedkar lived there 100 years ago," he told the BBC. "So they seem really happy that a unique thing is happening here."

Inside the building, a quote from Dr Ambedkar is printed on one of the walls. "Democracy is essentially an attitude of reverence towards our fellow men," the quote reads.

The council's reverence for Ambedkar House, it seems, remains an open question.

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