Mainstream Weekly

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2010 > Untouchable Ambedkar—the Saga of his Discrimination in America

Mainstream Vol. XLVIII, No 17, April 17, 2010

Untouchable Ambedkar—the Saga of his Discrimination in America

Monday 19 April 2010, by A K Biswas

The 119th birth anniversary of Dr Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar has been observed on April 14 this year. On this occasion we offer our sincere homage to that towering personality by publishing the following article and a piece that N.C. wrote on him in 1990 when the Bharat Ratna was posthumously conferred on Dr Ambedkar.

Paradoxically the curse of untouchability continues to chase Dr Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar even half-a-century after his death and the bane is not history yet. The Dalit faces it almost at every step within or outside India, though we love to imagine and preach on that basis quite otherwise. And Ambedkar has been subjected to discrimination in the Alma Mater where about a century ago he had had his higher education. Enrolled in 1913 as a student of the prestigious Columbia University of New York, USA, he obtained his MA and Ph.D degrees there. The University in 2004 had initiated a proposal to create an Ambedkar Chair for Studies, Research and Analysis of Indian Political Economics. The University, where the brilliant and meritorious student spent his formative years, wanted to finance the project out of its own resources, considering the indelible imprint the social revolutionary left on the nation’s socio-cultural and political life. Needless to note that when he went to the University he faced no hostility based on descent. This ipso facto underlines that the class or coterie that has taken position now, then did not exist or lay their foothold to pollute its pristine environment. Alas! the footprints of untouchability have now become a hallmark in the temple of learning.

Ambedkar Chair Fall to Caste Hatred

In a thought-provoking article in The New York Times, Joseph Berger had exposed a sensational but well-guarded secrecy how the Columbia University was compelled to abort the project for the Ambedkar Chair in the teeth of opposition by some faculty members. It is clarified at the first opportunity that the opponents of the Ambedkar Chair were not Americans per se. The members who offered resistance to nip the scheme in the bud were Indians—one and all. And they were, according the said article in the powerful daily, the “upper-caste Indians”. We may hazard a guess without apprehension of contradiction, if not opposition, that they were educated and intellectually equipped Hindu upper castes to revile Ambedkar in the prestigious overseas temple of higher leaning. Prof E. Valentine Daniel of the Anthropology Department was the architect of the project. According to Joseph Berger,

Mr Daniel, former Director of Columbia’s South Asian Institute, told of the resistance he faced among upper-caste Indians on an academic committee when he wanted to name an endowed Chair in Indian Political Economics after a noted untouchable, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, a Columbia graduate who helped draft the Indian Constitution, which decades ago abolished the caste system.1

The man who scripted the very Article of the Constitution of India abolishing untouchability was himself targeted for brazen discrimination at the altar of his own Alma Meter. It was here that he had acquired and honed his skills for an odyssey against the social vices enshrined in the Hindu scriptures and immortalised by their meticulous practices. Nobody could raise fingers alleging that Ambedkar lacked merit, efficiency or competence or diligence, a theme song usually sang against the Dalits. He, on the other hand, outshines many of the overrated contemporary icons in erudition, statesmanship, patriotism, or administrative abilities. He was a brilliant researcher, writer, historian and, above all, an untiring crusader against injustice all his life. He brought the concept of social justice in the public domain and discourse by incorporating it in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution. The Constitution enshrines the following Article dismantling untouchability:

Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of untouchability shall be an offence punishable according to law.

The provisions of the Indian Constitution or laws thereunder do not apply to crimes committed by Indians in the USA. Even in India, we know the treatment the Dalit receives and the challenges he faces in all walks of life every day. Crimes against him are legion and insensitivity in the polity abysmal. The above constitutional provision adores the statute book only as an useless piece of ornament which does not embarrass his countrymen. It is factually a dead letter now. A mere 2.5 per cent of the cases of atrocities committed against the SCs and STs end in convictions. The roles of agencies assigned with investigation, prosecution and trial are well demonstrated in this state of affairs, involving the dignity, life and properties of the target groups. Speaking dispassionately, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 today, designed to safeguard the target groups from myriad atrocities, oppressions and exploitations, is of no use to them.

One may recall, in this background, how Mulayam Singh Yadav, as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, once made a shocking public declaration that he would not enforce the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act during his tenure. That an Act passed by the nation’s Parliament could be shelved by a State in such a supercilious manner on its Chief Minister’s discretion is anti-national. It was a challenge to the highest legislature of India. And no voice of sanity was ever raised against such an arrogant declaration from any corner! The Dalit opinion even on core issues affecting their vital interests rarely finds space in the media. Nobody would ever remember if and when an annual report of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes or National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, both constitutional watchdogs, was discussed in Parliament. Since decades the National Commissions have hitherto submitted their reports to the President of India year after year but their labours of love have been gathering dust in a corner of the labyrinthine corridors of power. The measure of parliamentary as well as official neglect towards India’s Scheduled Castes and Tribes is starkly reflected in its totality.

The discrimination targeting Ambedkar by the Indian members in the Academic Committee at the aforementioned prestigious Columbia University poses a perplexing predicament. They being Indians, the Indian Government, with the best of intentions, if at all, could not raise an alarm or bogey of racist attack against the Ambedkar-baiters. Nor would the Indian authorities have the inclination to take up the issue even now with the Obama Administration urging appropriate actions against those Indian-American academics for violation of the civil rights of the USA and to honour Amedkar in the way the South Asian Institute had planned. The countrymen did not know if the vast establishment maintained by the Indian Government at taxpayers’ money in New York and Washington or elsewhere ever cared to intervene in the matter and invite the attention of the home authorities for guidance/advice. Since the article portraying the Indian social mindset in the powerful New York Times has fallen on the deaf ears and blind eyes of the authorities, both in the USA and India, we have no way but to conclude that they are least bothered if Ambedkar is disgraced, desecrated, discrimi-nated against or humiliated there in the USA despite the record of his spectacular services to the nation.

The issue has implications far wider and too deeper than meets the eye. The same New York Times underscored the depth of hatred against the Indian Dalits enveloping the length and breadth of the USA. Joseph Berger further writes:

E. Valentine Daniel, a Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, says some Indian executives will not hire untouchables, now usually called Dalits, or downtrodden, no matter their qualifications.

“It’s even more than a glass ceiling, it’s a tin roof,” he said.2

The Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), the apex body of the captains of industries in India, we may recall, went on overdrive against a proposal of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment that the Government of India would like to initiate measures favouring reservation of jobs for SCs and STs in the private sector. This is warranted by the fact that the government, both at the Centre and in the States, have ceased to recruit manpower in any significant manner. So the Indian executives on US soil and their country cousins are equally contemptuous of the Dalit and the tribal. In fact they are on the same page when the question of recruitment of the Dalit and tribal candidates is taken up.

The American Indians are alarming not so much for the Indian Dalits or tribals as for the Americans of African origin and descent. Sociologists do not form their opinions nor draw conclusions based on a solitary instance. Observation of instance after instance, repetition of similar events, besides adequate experiment and experience, lead social scientists to believe and thereafter form an empirical opinion on any issue. Given the circumstances, the Dalits have to contend with the same degree and dimension of prejudice in the USA as they encounter in their motherland back in India. The Dalit there is under a tight grip, if “tin roof” as against “glass ceiling” conveys any meaning. Enduring intense caste hatred has gone into the genetic code of the Dalit as also the tribal communities in India. A Shiv Sena type movement by the African Americans against the Indian Americans of the kind noted by the Professor of Anthropology may not be altogether a ridiculous idea. Only time will say.

¨

Indians can scarcely grasp the dimension of contributions the Columbia University has made to human knowledge and civilisation. The oldest educational institution of the New York State, founded in 1754 as King’s College by the royal charter of King George II of England, the Columbia University is the sixth oldest in the United States of America. The University most justifiably prides itself with more winners of Nobel Prizes than any other university across the globe. It administers and annually grants the Pulitzer Prizes. Notable alumni and affiliates of the university include four Presidents of the United States of America, nine Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, 79 Nobel Prize winners and 96 Pulitzer Prize winners. US President and a Nobel Laureate for Peace [2009], Obama is one of the shining alumni of the Columbia University.

A look at the American record of Nobel Prizes since its inception (in 1901) may be revealing in this context. Till 2004 AD, some 179 Americans have won the Nobel Prizes, of which 79 were grabbed by the alumni and associates of Columbia. In other words, 44 per cent of the American record of Nobel Prizes were achieved by the alumni and affiliates of Columbia. Ambedkar had made an observation based on his galling personal experience that merit is not appreciated in India. He was, however, very quick to add that Brahmans appreciate the merit of a Brahman, Kayasths of a Kayasth and so on. On the same analogy we can as well say that in India, honour is not an universal cause célèbre if bestowed on a Dalit. The honour to Ambedkar in the Columbia University, his unidentified detractors felt, did not glorify India or Indians. Their senses and faculties for appreciation are jaundiced by morbidity: They saw Ambedkar’s caste; they did not see, much less acknowledge, his towering achievements and accomplishments coupled with crowning scholarship. The tragedy is that this happened in the USA, the land that saw the rise of Barak Obama, a half-African-half-American.

The inaugural speech by Obama on January 20, 2009 as the President of the United States of America, loaded with significance, implication and potential, reverberated from one end of the world to the other. The transcendental rise of this humble man on the global horizon in so short a span of political life, is without any parallel and has made him a cynosure of all eyes and ears across the continents. The enunciation of his inclusive policy was strikingly different and distinctive from that of his predecessors. To the troubled world, vitiated by mindless terrorism and visited by despicable horrors of deaths and destruction, his unambiguous and bold declaration sends out a powerful message of hope and confidence:

We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture drawn from every end of this Earth.

The voice of sanity has the potential for breaking the barriers of borders, faiths and ideological hues. The catholicity of his vision touched chords in every heart of the global village. Indians in general, and Hindus across the globe in particular, were deeply stirred up to an ecstasy. No American President hitherto opened up the heart of that proud, nay, insensitive —and often perceived as arrogant—nation exposing its depth and eagerness for adoption and assimilation of all in the style and fashion Obama did on the day of his inauguration. His words for the Hindus of America were translated into action soon by organising the first ever Deepawali celebrations (2009), a festival of lights, in the White House. By this solitary action, President Obama has endeared himself to the world of millions of Hindus and practically converted them into his fans, friends and admirers. He has ingratiated himself to them without exception.

But the President should be aware of the dark side of the Hindus. The worrying, though conclusive, evidences of their venom are already on record. If they enjoy free and unrestrained hand with claws and nails to deal with the way they have been doing with the Indian Dalits on US soil, even people who are stone-blind could see and would be convinced that the same calamitous fate or misfortunes would befall the African Americans too, if not others. In any case, we know the Indians generally refer to them pejoratively as the kalua, bloody niggers! This is no longer a secret. We may recall here the impressions and attitudinal hostility the Bengali Americans nurse against Obama. When his candidature for the presidency was announced in 2008 after his victory in the primaries, an American despatch for a Bengali weekly reported it.3 Loosely translated, the Bengali weekly says that the second generation of Bengali immigrants in America might be enamoured of Obama’s education in the Harvard University, his record of unblemished community services since student days, his erudition and oratory as the presiden-tial candidate, programme of action etc., but their parents or elders do not share the same degree of sentiment, enthusiasm or infatuation about Barak Obama. They are, on the contrary, clearly unhappy at the thought of a Black guy at all entering the White House as the US President. The Brown people, in fact, are no less resentful than the Whites against a Black occupying the highest office in the US. Once Obama got elected, many Bengalis genuinely apprehended that the Blacks would have a field day. Out and out lazy and thoroughly shirker, the kaluas are a dead-weight on the American people and society. They are like the working classes wedded to rabid trade unionism under the indulgent Communist Party of India ruling the roost in West Bengal since 1977. Those people are fully responsible for derailing the State into chaos, conflict, confusion and stagnation. For America too, if Obama got elected as the President, the writing of the wall is quite clear. Many Bengalis were deeply worried that he would be under acute community influence and/or pressure despite his brilliance. One Bengali American went to the extent of exclaiming:

Thirtyfive years ago, I had left India for the
USA with a fond dream of working with White-skinned people [sahibs]. Lo and behold! now I am destined to serve under a bloody nigger.

The outburst is a clear and unambiguous reflection of the mindset of the educated Bengalis who had adopted America as their home several decades ago but have not changed a bit from their retrograde moorings.

Paeans for President Obama by

Indians are Opportunistic

The Indians have already joined the global village in singing paeans sonorously for the 44th President of Kenyan-American origin. However, such a change of attitude is utterly opportunistic and prudence dictates that it should be viewed with the suspicion it merits. Beneath their skin lies deep layers of hatred for the people of African descent.4 The Hindu perception and attitude, marked by age-old precepts and rituals, concepts of privileges, prejudices and graded inequality, inflexible sense of exclusiveness and gnawing discrimination, have become a veritable graveyard for a vast humanity on its own home—India. Wherever the Hindus migrated under the sun, they did not leave their old baggage behind. They have carted old baggage with their culture and heritage, which are like round pegs in square holes. They fail to appreciate how their ancient baggage is stinking beyond tolerance and has been causing nausea for humanity. America would better take note of the prospect of unbridled growth of a Hindu America because its dimension would be horrifying. A struggle to curb the menace of caste and resultant evils, leading to poisoning the nerves and arteries in the UK with huge Hindu and Dalit immigrants, has already begun. An Equality Bill is on the anvil there.

Atrocities in hundreds and thousands of cases on Dalits and tribals across the country evoke no interest of the media or even to the intelligentsia at large in India. They scarcely turn their eyes to them for redress and/or creating public knowledge. The American Congress as well as the European Parliament has noted the nature of atrocities and exploitation Dalits and tribals are destined to suffer. The US Congress’ long and elaborate resolution of 1st session (H. Con. Res 139 of July 24, 2007) states inter alia:

‘Untouchables’, now known as the Dalits, and the people of the forest tribes of India, called Tribals, who together number approximately 200,000,000 people, are the primary victims of caste discrimination in India;

[.......] discrimination against the Dalits and Tribals has existed for more than 2000 years and has included educational discrimination, economic disenfranchisement, physical abuse, discrimination in medical care, religious discrimination, and violence targeting Dalit and Tribal women;

[........] despite the fact that many Dalits do not report crimes for fear of reprisals by the dominant castes, national police statistics, averaged over the past five years by the National Commission on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, 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;

[........] many Dalit girls are forced to become temple prostitutes who are then unable to marry and may be auctioned to urban brothels, and many women trafficked in India are Dalit women.....

low-caste unborn females are targeted for abortions....

A British member of Indian origin in the European Parliament had condemned its resolution drawn on US lines, though the incidence of atrocities against Dalits and tribals is common knowledge all over the globe. Few Indians know these resolutions and fewer in authority and influence have shown interest in addressing the issues cited therein. So, it is certain, the Dalits and tribals have to wait yet for long for an era free of atrocities and contempt their forefathers endured.

References

1. Joseph Berger, The New York Times, October 24, 2004 in an article, “Family Ties and Entanglements of Caste”.

2. Ibid.

3. Alolika Mukherjee, American despatch in Weekly Bartaman (Bengali), Kolkata, July 29, 2008, p. 29.

4. The Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela, who, after serving sentence for decades in jail, fought elections successfully. His African National Congress (ANC), however, did not get support of the people of Indian origin residing there. The latter preferred, by and large, the continuation of a regime under the White supremacists globally accused of apartheid. This fact, however, has not been highlighted by the Indian media.

The author is a former Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar. He can be contacted at e-mail: atul.biswas@gmail.com

Notice: Due to the Corona Virus crisis and lockdowns underway our print edition is interrupted & only an online edition is appearing. No subscriptions are being accepted