Anuja Mirchandaney


The 44th President of America, Barrack Hussein Obama, is a black American with ancestry in Kenya. Only 50 years ago a black man could be thrown out of a running train for entering into a all white coach. Naturally his election to the highest office of the most powerful country in the world evoked unprecedented response both within and outside the US, perhaps more than any event in recent history. It is thus natural that Dalits of India look at this development with unusual expectations about their own status and future. But India is at least 50 years behind the US and threatens to prolong the agony of its millions of Dalits, be they Hindus, Muslims or Christians. This article by Anuja Mirchandaney examines the thinking of Dalit activists in India about the developments in America.


As Barack Obama is sworn in as the first black President of America on January 20, 2009, dalits in India debate what this means for marginalized communities in both countries.


The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States of America stands out as one of the defining moments of 2008. It has been hailed the world over as a historic moment, and despite cynicism from some quarters, a landmark for a country that just a few decades ago witnessed a tumultuous civil rights movement.


Though wary of the Democratic Party’s opposition to outsourcing, the response to Barack Obama’s victory has been, by and large, a positive one in India. Has the unprecedented election of a person of color to the highest office in a nation considered  a superpower been a source of inspiration to India’s own historically marginalized community, the dalits? A black intellectual and B R Ambedkar’s contemporary, columnist George S Schuyler, wrote in the Pittsburgh Courier in 1931that the “correct analogues to blacks were the Indian untouchables who were like blacks, segregated, denied access to education and transportation, turned away from religious temples, and economically oppressed.” While dalit Muslims in Bihar have celebrated Obama’s victory, calling him an ‘American dalit’, the response from other dalit activists has varied from guardedly happy to outright dismissive.


K T Manoranjini, a young dalit activist lawyer in Bengaluru (Bangalore), is happy with the election results. She says that Barack Obama, by virtue of being a black man understands what it means to be exploited, as opposed to a George Bush who comes from an elitist background. This understanding will inform future developmental programmes, particularly in the areas of science and technology (where the black community is grossly under represented) as “he will always be conscious of the needs of black people”.


Du Saraswathi, a dalit feminist activist and writer, is also happy with the electoral outcome, but says we can see this as a positive change depending on Obama’s stance on foreign policy. At a more abstract level she feels that there is hope for the marginalized all over the world, and now “at least they can have a dream…it is a symbolic victory for all people all over the world”.


In an opinion piece on, Tinku Varadrajan, a professor at New York University, concludes that Obama’s victory was ‘given’ to him by his society, as a reward for a “mutiny against convention that was

thought to ennoble not merely him and his kind, but all of America…” He was referring to the negative image America had acquired globally. He believes that America, unlike India, “rewards mutiny against convention, against one’s past, and against those who would keep one down”, and Obama’s presidential bid as a colored man was just that.


Du Saraswathy too believes that America needs to redeem itself after being spat upon by the world. Borrowing a metaphor from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, she says, “Ultimately, the whites needed a black man to wash away their sins.”


Senior functionary of the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti (DSS) in Bengaluru and the state coordinator of the National Alliance of Peoples Movements (NAPM), N Venkatesh, welcomed the election of Barack Obama as the first black President of America. However, his happiness is qualified. He outlines what in his view are the challenges facing the president-elect. He says Obama should dismantle the ‘infrastructure’ that was set up during the Bush era that allowed multinational corporations to plunder the natural resources of poorer countries. Speaking about the Indo-American nuclear power treaty, he says that the chief reason President Bush promoted it was because it was projected as providing employment to 1,50,000 US citizens.


Another crucial issue that Obama should focus on according to N. Venkatesh is peace in the world. He should establish peace, democracy and social justice. “To get power he has posed like anything,”  observes Venkatesh, meaning that while in campaign mode Obama made all the right noises. “Now we have to see what he will  deliver.”


Addithya, a young dalit journalist and Youth Convener of the National Alliance of Peoples Movements  (NAPM), is more skeptical. Obama talked a lot about human rights while campaigning, but will not do much when he is in power, Addithya says. The election of Obama makes no difference because “the system is the same although the person is different — only the mask has changed”. Obama’s victory does not inspire him, he says, but concedes that Obama may be a source of inspiration for black people in America. Barring a few favors, the aspirations of black people will not be fulfilled, he predicts.


Speaking about whether a dalit will be elected prime minister in India, both Venkatesh and Addithya feel that this would be difficult. Addithya believes that the reasons for Obama’s electoral success have no relevance in the Indian context. He draws a parallel from sports to explain: can one win a match using the rules of cricket for a game of football?  The entire social and political set-up is vastly different in the two countries. In addition, he says, Obama as a person of color has come to power after 200 years of slavery, while in India the caste system has existed for more than 1,000 years!


Doubtless, India has seen dalits in exalted positions like chief architect of the Indian Constitution, President of the country, and most recently, as the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and in a sense some barriers have been broken. However, as N Venkatesh points out, the prime minister’s post is a far more important one. Casteism and communalism need to be destroyed before we can expect an Obama-like phenomenon to occur in India. He gives the example of Jagjivan Ram, a respected scheduled caste national leader in the pre-independence era and a Union minister in post-independence India, well-known for his oratory, leadership and organizational abilities.


In the 1970s Ram left the Congress saddened by the excesses of the Emergency and joined the Janata coalition. According to Venkatesh, Jagjivan Ram’s chances were foiled by Jayaprakash Narayan, leader of the Janata coalition who reneged on his undertaking to choose Jagjivan Ram the prime ministerial candidate. This move hurt the dalit community a lot, he says.


He further rues the kind of issues that centrist parties espouse in present-day politics. “They are not taking up issues of the poor: instead, they follow imperialist policies that favor exploitation of our resources by multinational corporations,” he says. This is a far cry from Obama, who started his political career as a community organizer in Chicago and worked on social issues of the poor. In India it is difficult to see how a person engaged in social or political activism can be supported by any of the political parties at the centre, Venkatesh says.


In his doctoral thesis on race and caste, Dr Ambedkar drew out the commonality between the two. People of the so-called lower caste in India and black people in the United States have both suffered tyranny — of the upper castes in India, and of white people in the US. This was grounded on the assumed superiority of the higher varna or white skin. In the context of a shared history of oppression on similar grounds, there is a sense of commonality, maybe even brotherhood between the dalits and the blacks. But there is also a recognition of the cultural, social and economic seas that separate the two forms of discrimination in the two countries.


(Anuja Mirchandaney is a legal researcher and freelance writer with the Alternative Law Forum, Bengaluru. Her primary interest is in research and writing on socio-legal issues;


(submitted by Frederick Noronha)

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