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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 46, November 6, 2010

An Open Letter to President Obama

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Dear Mr President,

I hope you are doing great. I am delighted to hear that you are coming to India. The last time I saw you at the OSU rally in Ohio battling out against a belligerent Ms Clinton. I have moved back to India since. I witnessed jubilation back home among the Indians in general and the downtrodden in particular seeing the highest office of the most powerful country gained by someone lowest in the social strata—a victory of sorts for the civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., your mentor.

Climbing of the ladder by an African American (if not by the son of a Muslim) was not just notional, but it was indicative of the changing times and changing thoughts of the common working class Americans (or Whites to be overt). ‘Yes, we can’ was the slogan for your campaign and you indeed could phenomenally transgress gender and religion to convince the nation that they could be safe and sound even under a Black man.

The euphoria is over now and you are faced with challenges both within and outside the USA and you are facing them very well, one would imagine. The Iraq withdrawal was your most important promise that the Americans are seeing getting fulfilled.

Today, India is agog with stories of your upcoming visit in November. Reportedly, you would be attending the Indian Parliament session during your visit. This has enthralled us all—although the Speaker of the Lower House, Ms Meera Kumar, might be feeling edgy a la a school principal during a supervisor’s visit unsure about the unruly crowd in the House. The leader of the world’s most powerful democracy will be watching how the world’s largest democracy functions in one of its pillars.

While roaming about in the premises of the Parliament garden or Parliament photo gallery (I hope you will spare some time) you might stumble upon the effigy of a middle-aged person with glasses raising his index finger indicating the direction towards the building. Amid the traditional dhoti and khadi clad effigies, this distinct coat and trouser clad image will be easier to identify.

The statue or image belongs to none other than the chief architect of India’s Constitution, Dr Babasaheb Bhimarao Ambedkar (1891-1956). He was not only a Columbia University alumnus like you but also that of London School of Economics. He was perhaps the highest qualified figure of his times despite belonging to the lowest strata of the Indian social order (the Untouchable). He is the greatest civil rights activist India has ever produced who not only built the democratic values respected by the world but is revered even today by millions in India. An economist, a lawyer, a social worker, a professor, a politician, a journalist and a philosopher—Dr Ambekar was a versatile figure. He singlehandedly led a non-violent movement to give the downtrodden their rights during a time when even the shadow of the Untouchables was considered unholy. He is considered as the father of affirmative actions in India.

He attacked the inequality in Hinduism vociferously and argued and won the case against Gandhi during the Round Table discussions over the political rights of the Untouchables before independence. He finally embraced Buddhism along with millions of his followers reviving the age-old religion that took birth in this very nation. He even modelled the secular, socialist republic’s democratic structure after the Buddha’s Sangha (assembly).

TODAY, Dr Ambedkar’s statues across the country easily outnumber those of Gandhi or Nehru demonstrating that his legacy has lasted more than that of the latter in modern-day India. Books and collections of his writings and speeches sell like hot cakes the day they are launched. And now we have one such statue in the Columbia University campus itself, in case you haven’t noticed it.

Dr Ambedkar, in being elevated from the lowest echelons of society, compelled me to introduce you to this giant personality who still faces a bias by the higher caste-dominated government agencies and the media. That’s why they would limit your exposure to the Gandhis and the Nehrus of the country and not Dr Ambedkar. To juxtapose, imagine what the Fox News does to the African American community or its heroes. As a sedate ritual I am pretty sure India’s establishment comprising the descendents of the Nehru-Gandhi family, would take you to the Rajghat (Gandhi’s memorial) in Delhi but they would not talk to you about Dr Ambedkar.

Your mentor, Martin Luther King Jr., visited India when Dr Ambedkar was alive but met only the then Prime Minister Nehru and seems to have been kept in the dark about his civil rights counterpart in India and perhaps never came to know about him.

Please do what MLK couldn’t. Get introduced to Dr Ambedkar and his thoughts and contribution to India’s democratic system. This will definitely make your trip worthwhile in the long run notwithstanding the other agenda in your priority, that is, the Nuclear Liability Bill or the Indo-US relationship or the Kashmir issue.

If you get too overwhelmed by your first trip to India, just google Dr Ambedkar when time permits!

Ravikiran Shinde

401, Legend Prestige, B.T. Kawade Road, Pune

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