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Towards a more perfect Indian Union
April 11, 2008
Senator Barack Obama's speech last month titled 'A more perfect union' has been described as the most important speech on the topic of race since the late Rev Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech of August 1963.
His words and ideas have a universal appeal which transcends colour, race and religion. If Bharat Ratna Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Father of the Indian Constitution, had been alive today, one wonders if he would have wanted to give a speech which would be almost identical, word for word, to what Senator Obama said, except that caste and creed would replace race as the marker for discrimination.
And like Obama did so movingly, one has to believe that he too would have exhorted Indians to aspire for a more perfect Indian Union.
'We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens: JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; EQUALITY of status and of opportunity.'
Fifty eight years ago, a group of men and women gathered and, with these simple words, launched India's improbable experiment in trying to create unity out of unprecedented diversity. Hindus and Muslims; Brahmins and untouchables; Nobel Laureates and illiterates -- people who had suffered from discrimination, tyranny and persecution for thousands of years finally made real their declaration of Independence, after a Constituent Assembly met for a period of over two years and drafted a Constitution that was adopted on January 26, 1950.
The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by India's original sin of discrimination and oppression on the basis of caste and creed, an issue that has long divided the people of India. The founders chose to establish reservations for Scheduled Castes and Tribes to continue for at least ten years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.
Of course, the answer to the question of how to fight discrimination was already embedded within the Indian Constitution -- a document that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people that the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth.
And yet words in a document would not be enough to deliver the backward communities from discrimination, or provide men and women of every caste and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of India.
What would be needed were Indians in successive generations who were willing to do their part -- through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.
I am the son of a Mahar, a caste of untouchables, born in Mhow, Madhya Pradesh. I was raised with the help of -- among others -- upper caste Brahmin teachers and Kshatriya maharajas. I've gone to some of the best schools in the world in the US and UK, and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I married a Brahmin woman from Ratnagiri district. I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.
We do not need to recite here the history of caste- or creed-based injustice in India. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in so-called 'backward communities' today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on over many millennia, as generations suffered under the brutal legacy of untouchability and caste- or creed-based discrimination.
Legalised discrimination, where lower castes or people of certain creeds were prevented, often through violence, from having meaningful occupations or owning property, has meant that the families from these communities could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between the advanced and backward communities in India.
This is the reality in which the Dalit Panthers and members of other economically distressed communities grew up in pre- and post-Independence India. What's remarkable is not how many failed or took to violence in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds.
But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the Indian Dream, there were many who didn't make it -- those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by the lingering impact of discrimination on the basis of caste and creed.
What the members of these backward communities need to realise is that a similar anger exists within segments of the so-called privileged communities. Most poor, working and middle-class Indians who do not belong to the backward communities don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their birth.
As far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything. So when they hear that a person from a 'backward community' is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed, resentment builds over time.
Like the anger within the backward communities, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over quotas has helped forge the right-wing coalitions. This is where we are right now. It's a caste stalemate we've been stuck in for years.
But I have a firm conviction that working together, we can move beyond some of our old caste- and creed-related wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.
For the minority and backward communities in India, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of Indian life. But it also means binding our particular grievances to the larger aspirations of all Indians.
And among the privileged classes of India, there has to be recognition that equal opportunity for all and reasonable and rational levels of affirmative action based on economic backwardness are necessary to help uplift the poor and backward people of all castes and creeds.
The profound mistake many observers make is not in speaking about the evils of discrimination on the basis of caste and creed in our society. It is that they speak as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country -- a country that has made it possible for one untouchable to lead the effort to write the Constitution of the nation and for another untouchable to become President of the Union of India -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.
But what we know -- what we have seen -- is that India can change. That is the true genius of this nation.
As my grandson Prakash said during the 1999 debate on the 79th Amendment in the Lok Sabha, '... if you want different societies to come together, I think it is time that we decide that the use of the word 'caste' ... be banned in this country.' He was echoing the words of Begum Aizaz Rasul of the United Provinces, who said in the Constituent Assembly that '... nothing can protect a minority or group less than a barrier that divides it from the majority. It makes it a permanently isolated group and prevents it from moving closer to the other groups in the country.'
The first meeting of the Constituent Assembly concluded with the stirring words of Iqbal, 'Yunan-o-Misr-o-Roma sab mit gaye jahan se, Baqi abhi talak hai nam-o-nishan hamara. Kuch baat hai ke hasti mit-ti nahin hamari, Sadion raha hai dushman daur-e-zaman hamara'" ('Greece, Egypt, and Rome have all disappeared from the face of the Earth; and yet the name and fame of India has survived the ravages of Time and the cataclysms of Ages.')
What we have already achieved gives us hope -- the audacity to hope -- for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
Ram Kelkar is a Chicago-based writer