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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 49

Obama And The Euphoria: What India May Expect

Tuesday 25 November 2008, by A K Biswas


Years ago, I had read a four-line verse composed by a Black student of the United States of America, giving vent to his feelings and impressions of life around him. A teacher had asked students in a school to do it. That was in the tumultuous days of civil rights movement of the 1960s that heard Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I-have-a-dream” speech, which took the world by a whirlwind. In this background, Patrick Tamayo, the teenager wrote:
Step into my shoes, wear my skin, See what I see, feel what I feel, And then you shall know who I am, what I am and why I am.

The gripping account, it is not far to guess, articulated the emotions of every Black man and woman in the US, which till 1960 did not allow them adult franchise on ground of colour. The struggle for civil rights since 1950 was raging with a renewed vigour. With the advent of the clergyman, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., who took charge of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, the movement gathered unprecedented momentum. The Boycott lasted a record 385 days! By her resolute denial against vacating her seat to make room for a White bus passenger in Cleveland, Montgomery, Alabama State, Rosa McCauley Parks had ignited the spark of an epoch-making agitation. Under Jim Crows Law which authorised segregation, she was arrested and incarcerated. Much later, she was hailed by the American Congress as the “Mother of Modern Day Civil Rights Movement” and conferred with a Congressional Gold medal. Many across the world have watched on television screen scores of Americans, White as well as Black men and women, wiping their tears. Those tears symbolised joy, if not surprise, of the African-Americans over the triumph of human values and universal brotherhood finding recognition through the election of Barak Obama to America’s highest office. But, the Whites, we can assume, atoned for their sins committed against the Blacks for segregation, racism and atrocities since the seventeenth century. To speak candidly, Obama victory, it seems, has turned America colour-blind. And this is the biggest achievement.

Nonetheless we must not fail or forget to stress that the Blacks had well-wishers, sympathisers and friends in their civil right movements among the Whites. They were joined by large number of progressive Americans. The legendary Negro educationist and humanist, Booker T. Washington, in the 19th century was liberated by his White master’s wife, who not only encouraged but supported him for education.

In contrast, I cannot help recalling how Namboodiri Brahmans of Kerala made casteist aspersions on Dr K.R. Narayanan, a fellow native of “God’s own country”. When the President of India was to unfurl, for the first time, the national tricolour, some of the Namboodiris derided that instead of hoisting the national flag, the head of the state might climb up the flagstaff. They were referring to the traditional occupation of the Paravan caste, to which the President belonged. Their ancestral occupation is to climb up coconut trees and pluck its fruits for a living!!! I learnt it from a documentary film on caste discrimination, inequality and atrocities on Dalits shown to the students in the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai [2006-2008].

The enormity of human degradation, discrimination and untouchability in India is beyond imagination as well as comprehension. While America has been able to throw up the breathtaking Obama phenomenon, we must ponder and ask: can India do it? This is a difficult question to offer a direct answer. The answer lies in the nature and character of discrimination and in its origin. The Blacks in the USA were segregated by laws made by men in authority. Therefore, segregation and racism stood well within the reach and ambit of human intervention. Such laws can be dismantled by human efforts backed up by strong will and unflagging determination again by men in authority.

On the other hand, the untouchability, discrimination and inequality in India against a vast section of its populace are ordained by scriptures, which are held and hailed as sacred as well as divine. No human intervention or interference in divine ordinance is, therefore, even theoretically countenanced by its faithful followers, who number in hundreds of thousands. In fact, violation of man-made laws, not excluding even the constitutional provisions, does not grip the violators with mortification. Violation of scriptural ordinance by him is blasphemous and therefore, unimaginable.

There are Indians who believe that apartheid and untouchability have similarities. This is an apologetic view. Untouchability is far worse than apartheid in the attack on human dignity, values, equality and brotherhood. Apartheid stands no comparison to India’s untouchability.

UNLIKE many of his predecessors, the President-elect Barak Obama has good deal of knowledge of India’s dreaded social cancer. As a student in Harvard Law School during 1988 to 1991, he showed deep inquisitiveness and appreciation as to how India deal with the bane of untouchability.1 As a Senator of Chicago, he witnessed both Houses of US legislature grapple with India’s untouchability.

The US Congress adopted a historic Concurrent House Resolution [no. 139] in May 2007, urging India to end the ancient practice of untouchability. Through diplomatic channels and international bodies the most powerful nation of the world would exert influence on the Government of India to achieve what Congress has resolved. Highlighting the anatomy of untouchability the Resolution says: “The Untouchables, now known as the Dalits and the forest tribes of India, called Tribals, who together number approximately 250,000,00 to 300,000,00 people, are the primary victims of the caste discrimination in India.” The dimension of the problem, by the sheer size of its sufferers, is difficult to comprehend with equanimity of mind. With such large a population under groaning distress and exploitation, nowhere under the sun peace, stability and unity can be achieved or secured.

The aforesaid Resolution adds further: “Discrimination against the Dalits and the Tribals has existed for more than 2000 years and has included educational discrimination, economic disenfranchisement, physical abuse, discri-mination in medical care, religious discrimination and violence targeting Dalit and Tribal women.” Untouchability and discrimination in India is as old as the Himalayas.

In a press release, the mover of the Resolution in the Congress, Arizona Senator Trent Franks, observed:

The untouchables are poor, their most basic needs are not fulfilled, and they face great difficulty in accessing employment, education, food and healthcare. Most are among the poorest in the world, living on less than $ 1 per day. More Dalit women are often sold into bonded prostitution and there is religious persecution against untouchables who change their faith.
In 2005, USAID [United States Agency for International Development] stopped funding an organization after it was revealed that they were preventing many of these women from leaving prostitution.
In a recent instance, a whole Dalit village was forced to leave their tribal land because they had converted to Christianity in a state that had laws against conversion. [Emphasis added by this

The US Senators, one and all, we may hope, are too aware, thanks to the Resolution in question, that “many Dalits do not report crimes for fear of reprisals by the dominant castes”, nonetheless “official police statistics averaged over the past five years show that 13 Dalits are murdered every week, five Dalits’ homes or possessions are burnt every week, six Dalit women are raped every day, Dalits are beaten every day and a crime is committed against a Dalit every 18 minutes”. The whole world had laughed at India when the country officially denied discrimination and untouchability in the Durban World Conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in 2001.

The American Senators have noted with alarm that the mechanism for discrimination operates at the most critical or crucial level that is, at the level of education which is the basis of human empowerment. According to the Resolution,

the public education afforded Dalits and Tribals, when available at all, is usually inadequate and conducted in regional languages or Hindi, thereby disqualifying them from access to India’s public universities which teach in English, and from most government positions and most advanced jobs in India, which require English.

How do they propose to influence the Indian authorities that untouchability and discrimination are brought to an end? The Senators resolved for “raising the issues of caste discrimination, violence against women and untouchability through diplomatic channels both directly with the Government of India and within the context of international bodies”. The Resolution further aims at “inviting Dalit organisations to participate in planning and implementation of development projects from the United States Agency for international development and other United States development organisations”. The Senate also wants “prioritising funding for projects that positively impact Dalit and Tribal communities, especially women”.

So the objectives of the Resolution include, inter alia, that “qualified Dalits are no way discouraged from working with the United States Government or organisations receiving funding in India from the United States Government and that transparent and fair recruitment, selection and career development processes are implemented with clear objective criteria”. It envisages that “procedures exist to detect and remedy any caste discrimination in employment conditions, wages, benefits or job security for anyone [that is, Dalit] working with the United States Government or organisations receiving funding in India from the United States government”.

The advisory to US captains of trade, commerce and industry working in India asks them to “avoid discrimination toward the Dalit in business interactions” and to discuss “the issue of caste in the context of congressional delegations”.

It would be altogether wrong to believe that Obama is unaware of the Resolution or the grave import of the sufferings of a population as large as, if not larger than, the total population of USA. He will not ignore nor betray an issue that touches his heart. His victory has raise level of aspiration in this front globally. He suffered the pangs of discrimination only four years before his election to the US Presidency at the hands of his immediate predecessor.2

HOWEVER such resolutions are by and large unknown to the people in general, and most certainly to Dalits and tribals. The Indian media, it is sad to observe, has blacked out this piece of news, which ipso facto is tantamount to discrimination against the underprivileged. The self-imposed censorship, which exposes the mediamen’s roots and class to which they belong, eminently deserves full-throated condemnation from all progressive people.

We recall here the media apathy over the Khairlanji incidents in which an entire family, save and except the head, was eliminated in Bhandara district in Vidarbha, Maharashtra. The media had turned its Nelson’s eye to the horrendous incident for a month during which Dalit activists and their sympathisers from Washington and New York to Tokyo, Sydney to the Hague and Brussels held demonstrations to highlight the innocent dalit massacre in an attempt to create awareness over the plight of the underdogs in India.

Some four-five years ago, President of Pakistan Pervez Musharaff had commented that India, instead of interfering in Pakistan’s internal affairs, should devote attention for the uplift of Dalits. This triggered off strong protest for interfering in India’s internal affairs. Alas! the neglect of the Dalit and tribal communities has now become an issue of international attention. It can no longer kept a guarded secret. Before the advent of Obama as the most powerful man on earth, the Dalit had gatecrashed into the US Congress. In another forum too they have been the subject of a laudable resolution. The European Parliament on February 1, 2007, adopted a resolution that does not enhance India’s reputation in the backdrop of World Conference in Durban where the Indian official delegation simply denied discrimination per se on ground of race. Partly repetitive though, the European Parliament (EP) highlighted atrocities on Dalit and tribal people in India, thus it says: “Despite 27 officially registered atrocities being committed against Dalits every day, police often prevent Dalits from entering police stations, refuse the registration of cases by Dalits and regularly resort to the practice of torture against Dalits with impunity.” It goes on to say further: “Official police statistics averaged over the past 5 years show that 13 Dalits are murdered every week, five Dalits’ homes or possessions are burnt every week, six Dalits are kidnapped or abducted every week, three Dalit women are raped every day, 11 Dalits are beaten every day and a crime is committed against a Dalit every 18 minutes.”

Referring to a recent study on untouchability in rural India covering 565 villages in 11 States, the EP resolution says: “Public health workers refused to visit Dalit homes in 33 per cent of villages, Dalits were prevented from entering police stations in 27.6 per cent of villages, Dalit children had to sit separately while eating in 37.8 per cent of government schools, Dalits did not get mail delivered to their homes in 23.5 per cent of villages, and Dalits were denied access to water sources in 48.4 per cent of villages because of segregation and untouchability practices.”

Like the American Congress Resolution cited above, European Parliament too asserts: “Half of India’s Dalit children are undernourished, 21 per cent are ‘severely underweight’, and 12 per cent die before their 5th birthday.” And untouchability is practiced to “block education of the Dalits”. Untouchability in schools has, it has been noted in the resolution, “contributed to drop-out and illiteracy levels for Dalit children far beyond those of the general population, with the ‘literacy gap’ between Dalits and non-Dalits hardly changing since India’s independence and literacy rates for Dalit women remaining as low as 37.8 per cent in rural India.”

Authorities may deny but the European Parliament did not hesitate to put boldly in black and white that

Dalit women, who alongside ‘Tribal’ women are the poorest of the poor in India, face double discrimination on the basis of caste and gender in all spheres of life; are subjected to gross violations of their physical integrity, including sexual abuse by dominant castes with impunity; are socially excluded and economically exploited.

The US Congress as also European Union resolutions would be strongly disliked by many but those living in India with eyes and ears wide open do not fail to see or hear corroboration of the narration in these resolutions. We are making fools of ourself by lodging protests against truth. Protests over these issues only help demonstrate India’s lack honesty to face truth on untouchability, discrimination and inequality.

IN England an organisation, called the Hindu Council, UK, has come out with anachronistic claim that the British bureaucracy was responsible for caste discrimination in India. The Scheduled Caste list was prepared by them for “divide and rule”. On February 15, 2008, the Press Trust of India quoted the Hindu Council’s as saying: “It was the British, who single-mindedly formulated the caste system in India.....Today we are putting the record straight. We are also naming and shaming those who spread misinformation about Hinduism and its relationship to caste is an ill-disguised attempt to vilify the Hindus in India and elsewhere.” It should shame all who aired such views blatantly lacking knowledge on the issue. Blaming the British is a ploy to drive attention away to other direction from the real culprits and deny resolution of the problems itself staring in the face of India.

The East India Company, suffice it to say, after capturing Orissa in 1803, enacted a Regulation in 1809, banning entry of seventeen castes in the shrine of Lord Jagannath, Puri. The list, interestingly, included the family of Asia’s first Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, as they were Pirali Brahman, degraded in the Bengali Hindu social order. Others in their illustrious company were Chamar, Pan, Chandal or Namasudra, Hari, Bagdi, Dom, fisherman, Kasbi, Sunri, Gazur, Gooski, etc. The Englishmen were more Hindu than the Hindus themselves. They had led a delegation to the temple of Goddess Kali of Kalighat, Calcutta for ‘thanksgiving’ after winning the battle of Plassey. It is worth noting that the colonial government had native law officers, [both Hindu pandits and Muslim Moulvis], well-versed in their respective theology. They were duly consulted before launching any action having bearing on social norms or practices and/or religious sentiment. Even half a century later in 1853 and in 1854 the Bengal Government sought opinion of Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar whether the Kayasths and the Sonar Benia (goldsmith) caste students respectively could be allowed the privilege of admission in Sanskrit College, Calcutta. While the most venerable Bengali Pandit, educationist and social reformer favoured the idea of admission of Kayasth students, he resolutely opposed the case of the latter on ground that they were low in the ladder of caste!!! These are facts of history, hardly leaving any room for challenge without exposing one’s gross ignorance.

How come the same British colonial administration of the bygone era is being targeted today by Hindu Council sitting in UK? Nevertheless the Hindu Council of U K’s anti-British tirade on caste has earned many enlightened advocates and propagandists. It is no more a secret that many Indians living abroad contribute funds to organizations for promoting activities prejudicial to the interests and uplift of the dalits and tribals here.

The European Union Parliament resolution too has invited scathing attack from overseas Indian business organisations, Europe-India Chamber of Commerce and Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin, Belgium Reports, February 3, 2007, from Brussels:

The EU’s resolution on the protection of dalits are somewhat ideologically misplaced and strategically misguided. It is not fair on its part to rush and pass a resolution before verifying the facts and the cultural situation.

He further continues:

I do not think dalits are being subjected to any type of human rights violation or discrimination in India. The government has taken many policy initiatives and economic measures to see that dalits have the same rights as all Indians.

A spokesman of Indian Embassy observed: “It is unfortunate that the EP could come out with such a resolution which lacks balance and perspective.” Embassy spokesman, Brussels also added: “It indicates negative mindset of the people who drafted it.” A British Member of European Parliament, Neena Gill, said: “It is riddled with inaccuracies and does a clear disservice to the Human Rights cause.”

Before we conclude, it may be stressed that on an issue of this dimension the Dalit has to tell that discrimination, atrocities and inequality, and hatred does not affect him any longer. Only this can be taken on its face value. Any other claim, irrespective of its author or source, should be treated with tons of salt.


1. Surat Singh, an attorney of the Supreme Court of India, testifies that he was a class fellow of Obama in Harvard Law School (1988-1991). In their first meeting itself he (Obama) showed enormous inquisitiveness about untouchability. [The Times of India, New Delhi, November 7, 2008, p. 22].

2. Barak Obama has mentioned in his personal experience in his autobiography, The Audacity of Hope. After his election as a Senator, he was invited by President George W. Bush to the White House. After shaking hand with the Black Senator, the President used hand sanitisers to clean up his hands. This speaks volumes of what will be lurking in his mind.

The author is a former Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar. He can be contacted for comments and observations at: atul.biswas@

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