Dalits, inspired by Obama, seek recognition during Asia tour
By Emily Wax
On Saturday, President Obama spent the afternoon in the seaside
mega-city of Mumbai visiting the old-style house of Mohandas K.
Gandhi, whom the president hailed as "a hero not just to India, but to
Still, some social activists and business leaders in India are hoping
that Obama will honor a lesser-known freedom fighter, B.R. Ambedkar,
who hails from India's lowest social caste, once known as
While Gandhi was working for India's freedom, Ambedkar left his
impoverished village in India and received a scholarship to study at
Columbia University and later at the London School of Economics. He
then returned home, becoming the architect of an independent India's
new constitution and a symbol of empowerment for millions of
desperately poor Dalits.
At a time of widespread discrimination against his caste, Ambedkar
became one of the first untouchables, or Dalits as they are now known,
to earn a college education. Today, statues of Ambedkar dot thousands
of squares in Dalit villages, far more than busts of Gandhi. They are
also a symbol of Dalit aspirations and advances, especially as India's
economy continues to soar.
"Dalit" means "broken people," and they fall into India's lowest caste
in the ancient social order. But they make up nearly 200 million in
India's population of 1.2 billion.
Dalit leaders say they are not asking the American government to
rearrange Obama's schedule. They just requested a symbolic gesture or
even a mention of Ambedkar in a speech to show that Obama understands
civil rights history in India.
The Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce, for example, recently wrote a
letter to the U.S. Embassy in Mumbai requesting to meet with Obama.
They have not heard back. But they said they weren't upset. They
really just wanted thank the president for being a source of optimism.
"The Dalit group wanting to see the president has no demands," said
Chandra Bhan Prasad, an author and activist. " It's about showing
gratitude that U.S. society is more forthcoming in addressing social
racial contradiction than any society in the universe. The parallels
between the Dalits and the African Americans in the U.S. are striking.
Like millions of my fellow Dalits, I, too, take inspiration from the
exemplary strides that the African Americans have made during the past
By Emily Wax | November 6, 2010; 10:55 AM ET
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