Shin-kickers From History: Dr. B. R. Ambedkar–Untouchable, Reformer, Founding Father

Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar

Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar (1891-1956) was one of the great men of the twentieth century, though he is virtually unknown in the west.


Ambedkar was born into the "untouchable" caste of Mahars in the Indian state of Maharashtra. At the time, untouchables suffered under legal restrictions that made the Jim Crow laws of the United States look mild by comparison. They traditionally performed jobs considered "unclean" by Hindu theology: a religious and economic catch-22 in which they were ritually unclean because of the work they did and could only do certain types of work because they were ritually unclean. They were not allowed to enter Hindu temples--in some regions they couldn't even walk on the road in front of a temple. In the South Indian state of Travancore, untouchables had to carry a bell that announced their presence so higher caste Hindus would not be defiled by their proximity.

Like African-American reformer Frederick Douglas, Ambedkar became a spokesman for an oppressed people thanks to education. At a time when fewer than one percent of his caste could read, Ambedkar was supported in his quest for education by both his family and high caste Hindu reformers who recognized his talents. Between 1912 and 1923, he earned a BA in Bombay, an MA and PhD in economics from Columbia University, and a MA and D.Sci in economics from London University--and passed the bar from Grey’s Inn in London.


Back in India, Ambedkar devoted himself to improving the lives of untouchables. He soon found himself in conflict with Gandhi, who had declared himself an untouchable by choice. They disagreed at both the symbolic and the practical level. Both men recognized the power of abandoning the term "untouchable". Gandhi proposed Harijans (people of God) as a substitute. Ambedkar rejected Harijan as patronizing, preferring the term dalit (oppressed). Gandhi wanted to improve the lives of Untouchables by appealing to caste Hindus to abandon untouchability. Ambedkar recognized that it was easier to change laws than to change people's hearts and heads. He preferred to lead dalits in campaigns designed to improve access to education and to secure basic civil and religious rights, including the right to use the public water system and to enter temples.

In 1935, after an unsuccessful five-year campaign to gain the right to enter Hindu temples, Ambedkar decided if you can't beat them, leave them. He declared "I was born a Hindu, but I will not die a Hindu" He urged untouchables to "change your religion": reject Hinduism and convert to a religion that doesn't recognize caste or untouchabliity.

Both Christianity and Buddhism fit the description, but Ambedkar leaned toward Buddhism, which had ceased to be a living religion in India when Muslim invaders destroyed its temples and monasteries in the twelfth century, On October 4, 1956, after twenty years of study and writing on the subject, Ambedkar and thousands of other dalits converted to Buddhism in a massive ceremony. In the following years, more than four million dalits declared themselves Buddhists and stepped outside the mental framework of the caste system.

Founding Father

Ambedkar fought bitterly with Gandhi and the Indian National Congress on issues of dalit rights and representation throughout the 1930s and 1940s. But when India achieved independence, Nehru named Ambedkar India's first Minister of Law. More important for the position of dalits in independent India, the new nation's temporary assembly elected Ambedkar chairman of the committee that drafted its constitution. Under his leadership, the constitution legally abolished untouchability and included safeguards for depressed minorities.

Since independence, India has implemented affirmative action programs for the benefit of what are officially called the "Scheduled Castes and Tribes". In 1997, fifty years after independence, India elected its first dalit president--an event what would have been unthinkable during Ambedkar's lifetime. Nonetheless, dalits still suffer from discrimination on many fronts. (Does any of this sound familiar to my fellow Americans?)

Ultimately, both Ambedkar and Gandhi were right: in order to abolish untouchability or other types of political and economic discrimination, it is necessary to change not only laws but also people's hearts.

Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors

If you've spent much time here in the Margins, you know that I'm fascinated by historical boundaries: the times and places where two cultures meet (peacefully or, more often, not) and change each other. One of my favorite examples of a historical boundary is Islamic Spain, where Dar al Islam and Christendom met in exciting and productive ways. Recently I read a new book that shifted my vision of this period by several important degrees.

Popular conceptions about the role of religion in the Middle Ages take two basic forms. One version looks at the medieval world in terms of crusade, jihad and pogrom: a violent collision between mutually intolerant communities of Christianity, Islam and Judaism with long-term consequences for the modern world. The alternate vision, popularized in works such as María Rosa Menocal's The Ornament of the World and focused specifically on medieval Spain, is that of the convivencia--a culture of mutual tolerance and reason. In Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors: Faith, Power and Violence in the Age of Crusade and Jihad, religious historian Brian A. Catlos convincingly argues that neither image is adequate to understand the shifting political, economic, and religious alliances of the Mediterranean world from 1050 to 1200.

Catlos looks at the complex relationship between politics and religious identity in the medieval Mediterranean through the stories of men who straddled communal boundaries in pursuit of power. Muslim and Christian kings made alliances against common enemies of either (or both) religion. Latin Christians went on crusade against other Christians. Sunni Muslims declared jihad against Shi'ites. Jews served as governors, generals, and administrators in both Muslim and Christian kingdoms--and in one case came close to ruling a Muslim state. Mercenary warriors, including the legendary El Cid, switched sides whenever it was in their own interest.

Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors is a fascinating and complex account of diversity, collaboration and conflict in the period when medieval Christianity met the Islamic golden age.

Well worth the read.

Much of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Who Was The Most Successful Pirate in History*

Any guesses?  Edward Teach, commonly known as Blackbeard?  Captain Kidd?  Captain Morgan?** Grace O Malley, aka the Pirate Queen?    Sir Francis Drake?***

None of them are even close, though Drake has the distinction of capturing what may well have been the largest prize taken in a single raid: the Spanish galleon Cagafuego.  The title goes to Cheng I Sao (aka Hsi Kai Ching, Ching Shih, Lady Ching,  or Mrs. Ching depending on the vintage and quality of the account you read.), who terrorized the South China Seas in the first half of the nineteenth century--a time when many Chinese women were literally hobbled by bound feet.****

Cheng I Sao

Piracy was a family business in nineteenth century China.  Pirate clans lived on their boats--some of them lived their entire lives without setting foot on land.  Within the world of the pirates. some women held rank, commanded ships, and fought shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts.  Cheng I Sao took female participation in the family business to a new level.

According to popular accounts,  Cheng I Sao was a Canton prostitute who married the successful pirate Cheng I in 1801 and soon became his partner in building a successful confederation of pirates from competing clans. When Cheng I died in 1807, his widow took over. She avoided succession struggles by appointing her adopted stepson as her second in command and later marrying him.

At the height of her success, Cheng I Sao controlled 1500 ships and more than 70,000 men, organized in six fleets, each with its own flag and commander. (Talk about a pirate queen!) Her fleets attacked ships of all kinds, from small traders to imperial war ships, and ran a protection racket along the coast.

By 1809, Cheng I Sao was powerful enough to threaten the port city Canton (now Guangzhou).  The Chinese government turned to the European powers for help, leasing the 20-gun ship HMS Mercury and six Portuguese men-of-war.  Big guns were not enough to defeat the pirate admiral's fleet.  In 1810, the Chinese changed tactics and offered the pirates amnesty.

Cheng I Sao decided it was in her best interests to negotiate peace terms with the Chinese empire.  She proved to be as effective at the bargaining table as she was on the deck of a ship: the Chines granted her pirates universal amnesty, the right to keep the wealth they had accumulate, and jobs in China's military bureaucracy.  Cheng I Sao retired in Canton, where she reportedly lived a peaceful life until her death at 69 "so far as was consistent with the keeping of an infamous gambling house." *****

*  If I had my act together I'd have written this post in time for Talk Like A Pirate Day, which was last Friday.  All I can say to that is ----aaargh!

** Not just a brand of  rum

***After all, a privateer is just a pirate with a license to steal

****They were also barred from holding public office and had limited opportunities for education and employment, but this didn't make China unique.

*****What?  You expected her to take up knitting and mahjong?