Wednesday 28 October 2009
Why not a Dalit priest?
By Kancha Ilaiah
Let not the NRIs work for creating religious frictions by presenting
one section's festival as Indian festival.
The Non-Resident Indians of North America have been trying to convince
the White House that they should recognise the Deepavali festival as
American national festival by celebrating it in White House. They made
such efforts during the Bill Clinton period but failed. Then they
tried very hard during the George W Bush term and again failed.
However, they succeeded during this time in convincing the Obama
administration that it should celebrate the Deepavali festival in the
White House. On the Deepavali day, Obama attended a celebration
organised by Indians in the White House and lit a lamp. The main
representative of India on the dais, along with Obama was an Indian
Brahmin priest with a shaven head and semi-naked body covered with a
Pattu Vastram and a dhoti. He also sported big three fold Vaishnava
Assuming that the NRIs were not willing to present a homogeneous
Hinduism by keeping a Shaivaite priest also, the basic question that
does bother is: does that priest represent Indian Dalits-Bahujans who
hardly have any space in the Hindu religious temple structures?
The NRIs living in America used Obama's black background to convince
him to attend the celebration and give a respectability to
Indian-Hindu culture. What they have 'hidden' from Obama and his
administrative staff was that in India still the Hindu priestly caste
does not allow millions of Dalits to enter Hindu temples and they
treat them as untouchables.
We were all a witness to Obama's oath taking ceremony where the black
pastors played a key role, though there were white pastors side by
side. In spite of an attempt to raise a controversy around his own
pastor Jeremiah Wright, Obama refused to disown him.
Since Hinduism does not even give such a scope to Dalits and other
backward castes, they are forced to remain unequal and outside its
ritual celebrations. No Dalit-Bahujan is allowed to become a priest in
any mainstream Hindu temple.
For a long time the American blacks faced a similar denial of
spiritual rights (though there was no untouchability) within the white
church. The blacks fought for decades to fight such spiritual racism
and over a period of time they gained the right to go to the white
church. But the blacks were not allowed to ordain as pastors and lead
the church system. To counter such discrimination the blacks started
their own churches, which have become a whole religious system in
themselves. All great black leaders emerged from that black church.
Whether it were the first major black leader, Frederick Doglas of
Abraham Lincoln's times, or Martin Luther King who emerged as the
greatest leader of the civil rights movement and won a Nobel Peace
prize at the age of 38, all were black pastors in black churches. Even
Obama emerged as a political leader, while working in the black
When the Indian casteist forces celebrated the Deepavali in the White
House, the Indian community would have realised that it would have
destroyed his race neutral administrative apparatus if they did not
take a Dalit priest to the White House. They should have done that, at
least, to tell the world that the NRIs do not believe in caste
discrimination and untouchability.
Some of these NRIs were raising objections as to why the Congress
House Committee of Human Rights (called the Subcommittee on Africa,
Global Human Rights and International Operations in the United States
House of Representatives) heard the Indian delegation in 2005 about
the existence of discrimination based on caste and untouchability in
Back in India Sri Sri Ravishankar, Ramachandra Guha and others accused
us (myself, Joseph D'Souza, Udit Raj and Indira Atwale were the main
deposers) as people who were indulging in internationalising the
internal problems. How do these so called reform seers and
intellectuals respond to celebration of Deepavali in White House and
that too with a Brahmin representing Indian culture? Suppose the
Kerala NRIs ask for celebration of Onam in the White House, who will
represent that festival? Would a Bali's heritage Shudra represent it
or a Brahmin from Vaishnava tradition?
Do not these intellectuals, so called seers and NRIs understand that
Deepavali as it is being celebrated today is an anti-Dalit-Bahujan
festival as Narakasura, who was killed was a Shudra himself? How could
a festival that celebrates the death of an Indian Shudra be considered
as a secular festival? Secondly, how does Deepavali represent India as
a cultural festival when India is a country of multi-religious people?
The only festival that can represent all Indians is Independence Day
(August 15) celebration. Let the NRIs not work for creating religious
frictions by presenting one section's festival as Indian festival. Let
the NRIs stop globalising communalism and casteism also in this from.
Let Obama's administration realise that there are 200 million Dalits
who cannot celebrate Deepavali as a festival in India.
This is the reason why the Obama administration should have asked for
the presence of a Dalit priest on the occasion of celebration of the
Deepavali in the White House.
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