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Free at last!

November 10, 2008

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Two score and five years ago, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Reverend Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech challenged the conscience of a nation and reminded its citizens that the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation was as yet unfulfilled.

Exactly a century had gone by since President Abraham Lincoln, an illustrious son of the great state of Illinois, signed a decree freeing African-Americans from the 'flames of withering injustice' into a joyous daybreak that marked the 'end of a long night of captivity.'

And yet, life for the descendants of freed slaves was still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. Reverend King dreamed of a day when his children could live in a nation where they would be judged not by the colour of their skin but instead by the content of their character.

Seven score and five years after President Lincoln spoke his stirring words at Gettysburg about a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, another illustrious citizen from Illinois has finally proved him right.

The son of a black Kenyan Muslim father and a white Kansan Christian mother won an election to become the leader of that very nation, based on the content of his character and notwithstanding the colour of his skin.

Reverend King's dream has finally been fulfilled.

Virginia, which was the first state to secede two months after President Lincoln was sworn into office, became the first key 'red' battleground state to support Senator Obama, more or less assuring him of victory.

Eventually, both Florida [Images] and North Carolina joined Virginia in becoming the three 'red' states from the old Confederacy to vote for an African-American to become President of the United States.

And yet no one should make the mistake of thinking that the playing field has been leveled completely. While an important colour barrier has indeed been toppled, no woman has ever been elected President or even vice president of the oldest constitutional democracy in the world.

Meanwhile, India, the United Kingdom, Germany [Images] and many other nations in the world have already elected women to be heads of state as prime ministers and chancellors.

Senator Hillary Clinton's [Images] success in garnering massive support in the Democratic primaries is surely a fact to be celebrated, but truth be told, there are very few women leaders in either party who are considered to be potential Presidential candidates at the present time.

Comments by Senator McCain and the religious right provided many reminders that barriers and prejudices still exist against other minorities, including Indian-Americans, in spite of all the euphoria about Senator Obama being elected the 44th President of the United States.

Senator McCain never fully retracted his statement that 'the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation.' It may still take a while before a person of Hindu, Jewish or Muslim faith has a realistic chance of being elected President of the United States.

Of course, it is also incumbent upon the Indian-American community to take a much more pro-active role in the political arena in the United States, whether in the Democratic Party or the Republican Party.

The fact that Governor Bobby Jindal is viewed as one of a handful of leaders who will shape the Republican Party in the post-2008 election debacle era is heartening. However, Indian Americans are far and few in leadership positions in both the major parties, and this hardly portends well for what is viewed by many as an up-and-coming immigrant community in the United States.

It is surely a matter of great joy and pride for Indian Americans that Governor Jindal was seriously considered as a possible running mate for Senator McCain. Even so, the nagging doubt in many Indian-American minds remains that there is a Judeo-Christian litmus test for success in American public life.

When a woman accused Senator Obama of being an Arab, Senator McCain responded by underlining the fact that he is a good man and a citizen. Kudos to CNN's Campbell Brown for stating the obvious but unspoken truth: Why would it matter if Senator Obama was in fact Arab or Muslim? When did that become a disqualifier for higher office in the United States?

Meanwhile, Reverend Arnold Conrad intoned at a McCain rally that 'there are millions of people around this world praying to their god -- whether it's Hindu, Buddha, Allah -- that his [McCain's] opponent wins, for a variety of reasons... and Lord, I pray that you would guard your own reputation because they're going to think that their god is bigger than you if that happens.'

On the face of it, one would think that this is a blatant example of bigotry and promotion of hatred between communities and religions which would be unequivocally condemned by one and all.

Regretfully, all that the McCain campaign could say was that they understood '... the important role that faith plays in informing the votes of Iowans' and that '... questions about the religious background of the candidates only serve to distract from the real questions in this race.' And CNN's Roland Martin was offended solely because a Christian pastor had the audacity to make this statement about a fellow Christian, who professes with his mouth that Jesus Christ is his Lord and saviour.

Neither Sen McCain nor Mr Martin seemed to understand or appreciate the fact that this statement would be deemed offensive by Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims in the United States.

However, now is not the time to dwell on the fact that this is not as yet a perfect union. Senator, now President-elect, Obama said in his memorable speech on race relations earlier this year that it would be a mistake to think of American society as being static. 'What we know - what we have seen - is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope - the audacity to hope - for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.'

Furthermore, as Obama said in his acceptance speech at Grant Park in Chicago, after being elected President of the United States, 'If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.'

It is especially important to note that Sen Obama went on to include not just black and white citizens, as has usually been the case, but Asians as well in the pantheon of Americans who were sending a message to the world about the strength and diversity of American democracy.

To paraphrase Reverend King's memorable words, the United States continues its exceptional journey toward a day when all of God's children, whether black or white or brown, Jew or Gentile, Protestant or Catholic, Hindu or Muslim, Buddhist or Sikh, or indeed of any colour or creed, will be able to join hands and sing...
Free at last! Free at last!

Ram Kelkar is a Chicago-based writer.

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