Dalits get their wish as Obama evokes story of their hero
New Delhi -- President Obama has spent his three-day India trip praising Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation. During his speech at India's parliament Monday, Obama had more accolades saying, "I am mindful that I might not be standing before you today, as President of the United States, had it not been for Gandhi."
But for weeks, India's lowest caste community has been lobbying for Obama to evoke another hero of India's human rights movement: B. R. Ambedkar, who hails from India's Dalit caste once known as untouchables. Ambedkar was born in abject poverty but earned a scholarship to study at Columbia University and rose to write India's constitution. He is a hero for India's poorest residents and is a symbol that they too can be lifted out of poverty. Dalits number 200 million out of India's 1.2 billion population.
Dalit business leaders wrote letters to the U.S. embassy, asking them to include Ambedkar in the president's speeches. On the third and final day of his trip, Obama granted their request.
"We believe that no matter who you are or where you come from, every person can fulfill their God-given potential, just as a Dalit like Dr. Ambedkar could lift himself up and pen the words of the constitution that protects the rights of all Indians," Obama said in his address to parliament. "We believe that no matter where you live--whether a village in Punjab or the bylanes of Chandni Chowk...an old section of Kolkata or a new high-rise in Bangalore--every person deserves the same chance to live in security and dignity, to get an education, to find work, and to give their children a better future."
Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit author and activist, said Obama's words would be long remembered. Although Dalits have benefited from affirmative action programs they continue to face violence and discrimination, especially in rural India.
"It's wonderful, because by referring to the term Dalit and Dr. Ambedkar Obama has given us recognition," Prasad said. "In essence, Obama has expressed solidarity with India's social underclass. Now the question is is the government of India listening-- are they willing to bring Dalits along within its splendid growth story."
| November 8, 2010; 8:33 AM ET
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