The Common Good

Use Your Freedom to Defend Others' (Unveiling India's Apartheid, Part 4)

Slavery in the United States did not end in a night or even a year or decade. Even now, long past slavery's demise, the twin poisons of racism and class oppression echo as terrible reverberations from our forefathers' horrific acceptance and perpetuation of brutal violence against their fellow humans. The whips and chains are gone, but the hatred and violence too often well up while inequitable social policies ensure the longevity of poverty for certain classes of people. Even after 150 years, we in the U.S. have a long road ahead in the abolition of racism and class oppression.

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I begin with the U.S. because the timeline of our own struggle means everything when examining the hopes of India's Dalits. Yes, India is changing, but how quickly can a nation change social mindsets that have endured for well over 2,500 years, longer than any known form of human oppression? How do we even begin to dislodge a system ...

... so thoroughly entrenched that the "matrimonials" section (for Indians do not date, they marry) of every newspaper is divided quite clearly by caste?

The hope of change lies in the minds of Dalits themselves. "Educate us," they have cried out. "Teach our children that they are human beings of worth and dignity, that their suffering is not required by any true God. Teach them English that they might find and open the door to the new global market. Free our minds." And so we do. The Dalit Freedom Network, partnering with Operation Mercy Charitable Corporation, has built 80 schools serving more than 10,000 children. Our goal within the next decade is to build 1,000 schools across India, bastions of freedom where Dalit children learn that their humanity is intertwined by their creation by God, that God loves them, and that they need not bow to any other man or woman for fear or threat of violence.

With these schools comes economic development, as Adam has mentioned in his previous posts, and health care clinics. Our aim is holistic transformation of entire villages, and already we have seen the miraculous transformation of spirits. The smiles on Dalit children as they recount their hope for the future is a fresh gift from the grace of God. We see India changing from the bottom up.

But even as India changes and the Dalits change, there are those who would use fear and tension to promote their agendas, who would divide villages and set brother against brother in vociferous anger in order to build new identities of hatred and fear. The right-wing agenda of India's Hindu nationalists, represented by the BJP party, the VHP social organization, and the Bajrang Dal, a national Hindu mafia, cultivates fear in the hearts of India's Hindu majority, especially within the middle class.

Like our own war hawks, these nationalists tell their fundamentalist followers that the future of India lies in the past, in a nation with renewed faith in the old religion and in the effective enforcement of caste distinction. They believe in caste, believe that caste should be kept as the rule for social order. Moreover, they believe that any religion but Hinduism is non-native and therefore a spot on an otherwise pure people. To purify their nation, they set Hindu against Christian and Muslim, the result being attacks like the one Adam detailed in Kandhamal.

Our goal at the Dalit Freedom Network Social Justice Department has been to combat these destructive political aims of Hindu fundamentalists by any means available:

We pursue justice against Indian leaders who perpetuate violence against minorities, including working with the State Department and leaders of Congress to ensure that Hindu leaders who have used their public office to promote and allow violence within their states, such as Chief Minister Narendra Modi of Gujarat, are persona non grata in the U.S.

We raise awareness via hearings and briefings about the rise of anti-conversion legislation in several Indian states, legislation that in its very nature is antithetical to the freedom of the will necessary for the proper practice of democracy.

We combat Hindu fundamentalists who would change America's textbooks, as they tried in California two years back, to reflect their version of history, one that says that caste was and is not a problem in India and that women have not suffered violence in India's social system.

Our next step is to ensure that the U.S. government is properly taking the Dalit issue into consideration when they develop their India policies. How are the Dalits being treated in our international giving and foreign development investments? Are we being equitable? Are we setting a positive example? We must answer these questions with a "yes" if we are to assist India in its long-term development lest we, through a combination of negligence and shadowy political manipulation in our own electoral politics, completely ignore India's downtrodden people and perpetuate the world's oldest oppression.

I invite you to join with the Dalit Freedom Network, as Adam and Sojourners have joined with us, to pursue justice and create a new world for India's Dalits. To support our schools, we've developed a simple child sponsorship program at www.dalitchild.com. Our goal in this program is accountability and trust, and I hope that if you support a child you can one day visit him or her, as so many of our donors have.

I also encourage you to become involved in our social justice work. Contact the presidential campaigns and ask them to speak freely of caste and untouchability in India. Were candidates Obama and McCain to even mention the freedom of India's Dalits in passing, their words would resonate on the front pages of every Indian newspaper.

Also contact your senator and ask her or him to take a look at House Concurrent Resolution 139, currently in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Ask them to support this important public statement about caste and untouchability. The house passed the resolution in July 2007.

Finally, please contact me personally if you would like to be involved in an ongoing way in the struggle to free the Dalits. We may not see the end of caste and untouchability in our lifetime, but our children and our children's children will be blessed by the word we pursue on behalf of justice and peace in the name of God.

Benjamin Marsh (bmarsh@dalitnetwork.org) is the State Department Liaison for the Dalit Freedom Network.

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