Friday, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, went where no other Indian prime minister has gone before.
In a major televised interview with CNN-News 18 – CNN International’s partner in India – Modi affirmed his devotion to defending the rights of Dalits and condemned those who are still imposing caste discrimination.
“I am devoted to the development of all Dalits, oppressed, underprivileged and deprived,” said Modi to host Rahul Joshi. “Those who see this as an obstruction to their politics are the ones creating trouble… All those who have fed this country the poison of caste divide have destroyed this country.”
In so doing, Modi also confirmed he is a devotee of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the Dalit leader considered the architect of the India’s constitution, and who is also deeply venerated by hundreds of millions of Dalits. Ambedkar should be venerated by all Indians.
Modi is taking a clear stance, even against members of his own party, on what is now the most significant civil rights movement in modern history: Dalit emancipation.
There is no doubt Modi will come under heavy attack for his comments (he already suffered criticism when he condemned the attack that ignited the current Dalit revolt). His opponents will probably say Modi is saying this for political reasons, for he cannot win the upcoming elections without the support of the Dalit community. Though, it’s a hard argument to make because Modi’s decision clearly pits himself against the ruling parties in India—including the party that put him in power (the anti-beef agenda of his party is what set the groundwork for the recent attacks on Dalits). Modi’s position also attacks the incoherent rationalization of the caste system by discredited authors like Ravjiv Malhotra whose writing feels akin to the shameful and inhumane justifications by religious leaders for the Nazi’s holocaust or the apartheid systems.
Modi’s statements also come as a critique to the Indian diaspora in the U.S., the U.K., and other countries where the existence of the caste system and the oppression of Dalits and other minorities in India is sometimes denied.
Sadly, because these expats live in the safety of western democracies and do not have to live day to day with the reality millions face, they doubt and even attack those who live and work in India to end caste discrimination and empower Dalits. The controversy over including the facts of the caste system in California textbooks is just one case in point.
I welcome Modi’s clear, courageous statements. I think he understands caste discrimination better than previous prime ministers from upper castes because he himself is from a so-called “backward caste” community.
I also consider Modi’s public stance as, perhaps, the most significant development in the Dalit struggle for emancipation. In the fight for human rights, oftentimes the tide doesn’t turn until a nation’s leader makes the decision to fight, no matter the cost to his person, until justice and equality are available to all.
Though, he will now face an uphill battle. India’s politics have often been influenced by the power the caste system endows on upper caste politicians; they will not want to give this up easily.
Achieving political victory at any cost seems to be the agenda behind many political parties in countries around the world, and India is no exception. Prime Minister Modi will have to figure out how to confront his opponents and convince his own party and social family to join him in reforming the caste system.
Yet, as I write this, the Dalit uprising continues to gain momentum. Justice seems to be rolling across India. The movement has found a unified voice in Ambedkar’s grandson, Prakash Ambedkar. He is organizing arally this month on New Delhi’s Parliament street, the heart of India’s governing offices. On the western side of the country, the leaders of the initial protests in Gujarat have declared that on December 6, the birthday of Ambedkar, they will publicly burn the “Manu Smriti.” This is the holy book that codified the caste system and that has dictated the rules for social relations in India for millennia, and Ambedkar was the first man to burn this book in Mumbai, decades ago.
How all these plots will unfold is still unknown, but what we do know is that the tide in India’s battle for Dalit emancipation is indeed turning.
We also know that, today, Modi took one step closer to becoming India’s Abraham Lincoln. If he has the courage to continue, he could free from bondage hundreds of millions, and become one of the greatest civil rights leaders of our time.
Then, we will show the world that India is not only a great nation, but a good nation.