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 house 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.
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 came and went without any disturbances. 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.
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 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.
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 – 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.
That’s why, at the suggestion of a UK-based charity – the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations (ABO) – the government of Maharashtra bought the property in 2015.
When the house came up for sale, local resident and former UK civil servant Santosh Dass 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.
“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.”
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 sight-seeing agenda in London.
Goutam Chakraborty, 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.
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.
“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.
Regardless of what residents think, it is Camden Council’s Planning Inspectorate that will have the final say.
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.
Mr Chakraborty 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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A geography teacher, a vet and a fashion designer are just three of the contestants hoping to win this year’s Great British Bake Off.
It returns to Channel 4 on Tuesday 27 August, the third series since it moved across from BBC One.
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- Alice, a 28-year-old geography teacher from Essex, first turned her hand to baking at the age of 15, after she was left unable to do sport while recovering from a back operation for scoliosis. In her 20s, she perfected the fruit pavlova while living in New Zealand, where she also attended art school. Now living in east London, she uses cakes in her lessons to demonstrate everything from coastal erosion to volcanic activity.
- Rosie is a 28-year-old veterinary surgeon in Somerset and her baking passions began when she was given a children’s baking book at age five. When Rosie’s not treating drunken hedgehogs, performing spleen surgery on dogs, or on call, she’s baking through the night to unwind and keep the practice nurses well fed.
- Michael, 26, is a theatre manager/fitness instructor in Stratford-upon-Avon. He was born in Newcastle but considers himself Scottish as he moved to the suitably-named Scone aged seven and studied in Edinburgh. In his baking, though, he is especially inspired by the flavours of his Indian heritage.
- Priya, 34, is a marketing consultant in her hometown of Leicester and her first foray into baking started with an after-school baking club at primary school. Seven years ago, after she was given a mixer as a wedding gift, she went “baking bonkers”. She recently started experimenting with vegan baking and is also writing her first novel.
- Online project manager Helena, 40, lives in Leeds and spent much of her childhood watching her Spanish grandmother cook and bake. She was born in North Africa and grew up in Lanzarote before studying in mainland Spain. She only really started baking properly after spending time living with a family in Las Vegas.
- London-based international health adviser David, 36, is originally from Yorkshire and as a child, his mum baked all the time, meaning the family never ate a shop-bought loaf at home. His passion was further developed by his travels to Malawi, where he learned to build an oven out of an oil drum and invented a cake that could steam cook over a village fire.
- Michelle, 35, works as a print shop administrator in Tenby, Wales, and bakes almost every other day, with fresh bread for breakfast and sweet treats for pudding always on the menu.
- Part-time waiter Jamie was born and raised with his identical twin brother in Surrey and was taught the baking basics by his family. However, it was actually an episode of Bake-Off that inspired the 20-year-old to make a plaited loaf. He happily takes on technically difficult bakes, such as a croquembouche or croissants.
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- Support worker Dan, 32, is another Yorkshire lad. He has fond memories of his mum showing him how to bake a Victoria sponge as a child. He got serious about baking when he was 21 in a bid to impress his then girlfriend (now wife) with a themed birthday cake. He went on to make their wedding cake.
- Steph, 28, is a shop assistant in Chester and her passion for sports and wellness inspires her baking. She enjoys the challenge of making her bakes healthier by adding vegetables or fruit and choosing nutritional fats.
- Durham University student Henry, 20, whose love of baking and all things culinary began at the age of 12, when the Bake Off tent pitched up in his local park. He now tests out his culinary skills on the discerning student palates of his university housemates, while studying English Literature.
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