UK opens inquiry into closure threat to Ambedkar House

The Ambedkar House is a four-storey townhouse at 10 King Henry's Road in Camden area of north London. (Credit: Twitter)

The closure of the Ambedkar House in north London would have widespread implications on India-UK relations, an inquiry was told on Tuesday.

The Ambedkar House is a four-storey townhouse at 10 King Henry's Road in Camden area of north London, where Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar lived in 1921-22 during his student days at London School of Economics (LSE).

It is faced with closure after a planning application for its conversion from a residential property to a museum was turned down by the local council authorities recently, a decision being appealed against by the Indian High Commission in London on behalf of the government of Maharashtra which owns the property.

"This relates to a breach of planning permission and calls for 10 King Henry’s Road to cease as a memorial/museum and revert to its previous [residential] use," said Inspector Keri Williams, as he opened the hearing at Camden Council in London on Tuesday.

Williams, who was appointed by the UK’s Planning Inspectorate, confirmed that the public inquiry will to run into two additional days next month, including a site visit of Ambedkar House on October 16. At the end of the inquiry after he has heard representations from both sides, the inspector is charged with preparing a report.

With the appeal in the case recently “recovered” by the UK government, UK Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government Robert Jenrick will be the one making the final decision in the case based on that report.

"This will have widespread implications for India-UK relations, especially under the current political scenario when we are Brexiting and need to further strengthen our bilateral relations with India," said Alex Sunshine, who presented himself as a witness on behalf of the Indian government as someone who works with the Dalit community in Maharashtra.

"Dr Ambedkar is revered in India, his birthday marked as a public holiday. It would be seen as petty and mean spirited and cause great offence to Indians if the council insists on this memorial being returned to residential use," he said.

His view was echoed by Sally Roach who appeared at the inquiry as a neighbour who lives across from Ambedkar House and described being “blown away” by it.

"I was quite astonished at what this man had achieved, both in terms of his background and his influence on the Indian Constitution and the lives of untouchables… if Camden Council could find a way to allow it to remain, it would be remarkable and wonderful,” she said.

The council, on the other hand, presented expert witnesses to try and establish that the Dalit rights activist's association with the particular London house was very brief and any memorial can be moved elsewhere in order to not deprive the local area of crucial residential and housing space.

"It is just not the right place for it. The association with Dr Ambedkar is tangential at best," said Nick Baxter, Senior Heritage and Conservation Officer for Camden Council.

The home was bought by the Maharashtra government for around 3.1 million pound and refurbished to transform into a memorial-cum-museum, which now houses photographs and belongings of Ambedkar, with the walls adorned with his famous quotations.

It had been an important stop on Narendra Modi’s first visit to the UK as Prime Minister in November 2015 but it ran into trouble after it emerged that the right clearances for the creation of a museum on the site had not been sought.

The Indian High Commission in London re-filed an appropriate planning application, which was rejected last month.

The Indian side, which has engaged Singhania and Co legal firm for its appeal against the decision, argues that the home holds special significance for a huge section of Indians in the UK and outside because it was where Babasaheb lived during a crucial formative period in his academic life.

An important UK government intervention came last week when it was announced that the minister in charge of local government would be taking a decision on the matter due to its significance.

"Given the exceptional importance of Dr Ambedkar in the story of the creation of modern India, and the lasting contribution of the British-Indian community on the shared cultural heritage of our country, I have decided to recover the appeal for determination by central government," said UK Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government Robert Jenrick, who will be receiving the inspector’s report in the coming weeks.

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