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Dalits get their wish as Obama evokes story of their hero

By Emily Wax

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."

By Emily Wax  | November 8, 2010; 8:33 AM ET
Categories:  44 The Obama Presidency  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: WATCH: On '60 Minutes,' Obama focuses on economy
Next: Obama's speech, his teleprompter, the reaction

Comments

Thanks to President Obama not a beacuse of visiting to India But he expresed about Dalits God Dr. Babasheb Ambedakar, beacuse in a India no one single leader are remebering Dalits God Dr. Babasheb Ambedkar our dalits lifes is so horeble they are living very poor condition. So I think Obama presidental spech will help us, once again heartly thaks through all India Dalits

Posted by: praveen31st | November 9, 2010 11:14 PM | Report abuse

Tanks to President Obama not a because of visiting India but the expresion about Dr. Babasheb Ambedkar, I heartly welocomes President Obama spech regarding Dalits God Dr. Babasheb Ambedkar, Beacause in India no One a single politic leader can't remeber Dr. Babasheb Ambedkar. So Once again I Thanks through all India Dalits.

Posted by: praveen31st | November 9, 2010 11:04 PM | Report abuse

It's amazing that whereas a leader of a foreign country recognizes the struggles of the Dalits, India's most marginalized community, and their leader Dr Ambedkar, India political leaders continue to ignore and even exclude the Dalits from the mainstream of the society in multiple ways.

No Indian leader has ever expressed regret for what the Dalist have had to bear due the caste system in India for thousands of years. This is in sharp contrast to Canada and New Zealand where the government officially expressed their apology to the indigenous population for playing havoc with their culture, beliefs and way of life.

Posted by: Trishan | November 8, 2010 11:17 PM | Report abuse

It's amazing that whereas a leader of a foreign country recognizes the struggles of the Dalits, India's most marginalized community, and their leader Dr Ambedkar, India political leaders continue to ignore and even exclude the Dalits from the mainstream of the society in multiple ways.

No Indian leader has ever expressed regret for what the Dalist have had to bear due the caste system in India for thousands of years. This is in sharp contrast to Canada and New Zealand where the government officially expressed their apology to the indigenous population for playing havoc with their culture, beliefs and way of life.

Posted by: Trishan | November 8, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse

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