An ‘un­touch­able’ for pres­i­dent in In­dia?

The next chief ex­ec­u­tive could usher in eco­nomic and so­cial eman­ci­pa­tion for Dal­its

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Joseph D’Souza Joseph D’Souza is the mod­er­at­ing bishop of the Good Shep­herd Church and As­so­ci­ated Min­istries of In­dia. He is pres­i­dent of the All In­dia Chris­tian Coun­cil and is the founder and in­ter­na­tional pres­i­dent of the Dalit Free­dom Net­work.

This week, as all me­dia at­ten­tion rests on Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s first face-to-face with Pres­i­dent Trump and the bur­geon­ing eco­nomic part­ner­ship be­tween the two pow­ers, back home in In­dia an his­toric pres­i­den­tial elec­tion is tak­ing place. In a sur­pris­ing turn of re­cent events, both Mr. Modi’s party and the op­po­si­tion have nom­i­nated two Dal­its, or “untouchables,” for pres­i­dent.

The Na­tional Demo­cratic Al­liance, led by Mr. Modi’s BJP party, has cho­sen former Bi­har Gov. Ram Nath Kovind, while the In­dian Na­tional Congress — a coali­tion of par­ties form­ing the op­po­si­tion — nom­i­nated former Speaker of Par­lia­ment Meira Ku­mar.

Mr. Kovind’s nom­i­na­tion is par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant since it was es­sen­tially a de­ci­sion made by Prime Min­is­ter Modi and BJP Pres­i­dent Amit Shah. Mr. Shah said on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions the party would nom­i­nate a Dalit for pres­i­dent.

In many ways, both can­di­dates rep­re­sent the as­pi­ra­tions of mil­lions of Dal­its: Mr. Kovind, the son of a poor farmer, fought his way through law school and even­tu­ally be­came a re­spected Supreme Court lawyer and gover­nor. Mrs. Ku­mar, the daugh­ter of two prom­i­nent Dalit ac­tivists, be­came the first woman elected to the post of speaker of Lok Sabha (the lower house of In­dia’s Par­lia­ment).

Some po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts are al­ready say­ing nom­i­nat­ing two Dal­its for pres­i­dent is sim­ply an act of to­kenism to gar­ner votes. Af­ter all, Dal­its and sched­uled castes con­sti­tute a for­mi­da­ble vot­ing bloc. But to those of us who are fa­mil­iar with In­dia’s long strug­gle over caste dis­crim­i­na­tion, es­pe­cially against Dal­its, and re­li­gious in­tol­er­ance, this might just be the big­gest news story to break in more than a half-cen­tury.

In­dia — the world’s largest democ­racy and fastest grow­ing large-scale econ­omy — finds her­self em­broiled in a clash of faiths, cul­tures and caste iden­tity that’s hold­ing her back from Mr. Modi’s am­bi­tious eco­nomic plans.

Most re­cently, a ban on the sale of cat­tle for slaugh­ter has driven a wedge be­tween In­dia’s plu­ral­is­tic com­mu­nity, es­pe­cially ag­gra­vat­ing the age-old feud be­tween Hin­dus and Mus­lims. Many Hin­dus con­sider the cow a holy an­i­mal, while mil­lions of Mus­lims, Chris­tians, Bud­dhists and Hin­dus from low castes em­brace beef as part of their diet.

In one stroke, the ban, which is pro­posed by far-right Hin­dus, has im­per­iled the liveli­hood of mil­lions of farm­ers, tan­ners and butch­ers, and dec­i­mated the largely Mus­lim-dom­i­nated beef in­dus­try. Des­per­ate farm­ers are com­mit­ting sui­cide through­out the coun­try, while street vig­i­lantes who have taken it as their sa­cred duty to pun­ish any­one — in­clud­ing govern­ment of­fi­cials — sus­pected of harm­ing a cow seem to have been of­fi­cially vin­di­cated. In all, this re­li­giously mo­ti­vated de­ci­sion could cost In­dia more than $4 bil­lion in an­nual ex­ports and many mil­lions of jobs.

The beef ban is the sin­gle, lat­est ex­am­ple of the cri­sis un­fold­ing among Indians about their na­tional iden­tity. Is In­dia a coun­try for all re­li­gions — as the con­sti­tu­tion makes clear — or is it only a coun­try where ex­trem­ists are tol­er­ated?

And at the cen­ter of it all is one of the great­est hu­man rights ques­tions in his­tory: How will In­dia treat its hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple whom ex­trem­ists call “un­touch­able,” the dal­its?

For mil­len­nia, In­dia’s Dal­its have faced dis­crim­i­na­tion, violence, rape and even death sim­ply be­cause they were not born into the right caste.

Now, they’re stand­ing up for their rights.

Just re­cently, skir­mishes be­tween Dal­its and the Thakur (an up­per-caste com­mu­nity) broke out in Ut­tar Pradesh, a state that has be­come in­creas­ingly volatile since a rad­i­cal Hindu cleric was ap­pointed chief min­is­ter. In one clash, more than 60 houses and busi­nesses owned by Dal­its were burned to the ground and dozens of Dal­its were in­jured. In re­sponse, the lo­cal po­lice have ar­rested more Dal­its than mem­bers of the Thakur com­mu­nity.

Gal­va­nized by these and count­less other vi­o­lent in­ci­dents against Dal­its, a group known as the Bhim Army, named af­ter Bhim­rao Ambed­kar, has risen up in open re­volt.

Thou­sands of Dal­its have re­sponded to the Bhim Army’s call to protest, flood­ing streets with their symbolic blue shirts and scarves. Their leader, a 30-year-old lawyer called Chan­drashekhar Azad, was re­cently ar­rested at a protest or­ga­nized to de­nounce the violence in Ut­tar Pradesh. His fol­low­ers daily flood the streets of New Delhi de­mand­ing his re­lease.

It’s at this per­ilous time in In­dian his­tory that the nom­i­na­tion of a Dalit for pres­i­dent sur­prises the masses.

Ram Nath Kovind, who stands as the fa­vorite can­di­date in this elec­tion, has the po­lit­i­cal back­ing from the rul­ing BJP party, the cre­den­tials and the ex­pe­ri­ence that could make him the most in­flu­en­tial and pow­er­ful Dalit in In­dian his­tory. His pres­i­dency could usher the eco­nomic and so­cial eman­ci­pa­tion Dal­its have awaited for cen­turies.

As a mem­ber of In­dia’s low­est-caste com­mu­nity, he might also have the per­spi­cac­ity to hold back the el­e­ments in his own party which aim to ho­mog­e­nize In­dia through a re­li­gion, food or line of an­ces­try. He could be the lynch­pin within an er­ratic BJP party to har­mo­nize In­dia’s richly di­verse re­li­gious and eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties.

Skep­tics may doubt a Dalit, cho­sen for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons, could have such an im­pact, yet I’m con­vinced that when we re­move the chains of in­tol­er­ance and op­pres­sion, any­thing is pos­si­ble.

In­dia’s best days are in­deed ahead of her.

For mil­len­nia, In­dia’s Dal­its have faced dis­crim­i­na­tion, violence, rape and even death sim­ply be­cause they were not born into the right caste. Now, they’re stand­ing up for their rights.

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