Dalits, inspired by Obama, seek recognition during Asia tour
On Saturday, President Obama spent the afternoon in the seaside mega-city of Mumbai visiting the old-style house of Mohandas K. Gandhi, whom the president hailed as "a hero not just to India, but to the world."
Still, some social activists and business leaders in India are hoping that Obama will honor a lesser-known freedom fighter, B.R. Ambedkar, who hails from India's lowest social caste, once known as untouchables.
While Gandhi was working for India's freedom, Ambedkar left his impoverished village in India and received a scholarship to study at Columbia University and later at the London School of Economics. He then returned home, becoming the architect of an independent India's new constitution and a symbol of empowerment for millions of desperately poor Dalits.
At a time of widespread discrimination against his caste, Ambedkar became one of the first untouchables, or Dalits as they are now known, to earn a college education. Today, statues of Ambedkar dot thousands of squares in Dalit villages, far more than busts of Gandhi. They are also a symbol of Dalit aspirations and advances, especially as India's economy continues to soar.
"Dalit" means "broken people," and they fall into India's lowest caste in the ancient social order. But they make up nearly 200 million in India's population of 1.2 billion.
Dalit leaders say they are not asking the American government to rearrange Obama's schedule. They just requested a symbolic gesture or even a mention of Ambedkar in a speech to show that Obama understands civil rights history in India.
The Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce, for example, recently wrote a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Mumbai requesting to meet with Obama. They have not heard back. But they said they weren't upset. They really just wanted thank the president for being a source of optimism.
"The Dalit group wanting to see the president has no demands," said Chandra Bhan Prasad, an author and activist. " It's about showing gratitude that U.S. society is more forthcoming in addressing social racial contradiction than any society in the universe. The parallels between the Dalits and the African Americans in the U.S. are striking. Like millions of my fellow Dalits, I, too, take inspiration from the exemplary strides that the African Americans have made during the past four decades."
| November 6, 2010; 10:55 AM ET
Categories: 44 The Obama Presidency | Tags: Asia, Gandhi, India, Obama, President Obama, foreign policy
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