This may very well be the biggest civil rights battle — at least internationally — unfolding in real time unbeknownst to most of the world.
For months, India’s “untouchables,” known formally as Dalits, have been revolting against the centuries-old caste system, a religious order that has determined individuals’ lot in life and has prevented them from ever escaping it. Dalits gathering in the thousands have been holding “beef festivals” as a sign of protest, given cows are sacred in Hindu culture, along with blocking roadways and burning busses.
And now it seems the country may finally be on the precipice of change.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking to CNN-News18′s Rahul Joshi in an interview to air Friday, condemned the oppressive caste system, saying it has “no place” in “civilized society.”
“This is a social problem, which is deeply rooted,” Modi said. “Politics over social imbalances is a disservice to society. To all those who have faced injustice for generations, today the [Bharatiya Janata Party] has a sizeable presence of tribal [members of parliament] and [members of the legislative assembly].”
This is a particularly poignant development because the BJP, of which Modi is a part, is a fundamentalist Hindu party. The prime minister noted the historicity — and the controversy — of his embrace of the lower-caste population, specifically the Dalits, during his discussion with CNN-News18.
Following the 125th anniversary celebration of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the Dalit author of India’s constitution, Modi told Joshi that many were concerned over “the thought that Modi is a devotee of Ambedkar.”
“Self-appointed guardians are trying to create tension, they didn’t like that Modi is with Dalits and devotes himself to tribals. I’m devoted to the development of all Dalits — the oppressed, under-privileged and the deprived,” he said. “Those who use this as an obstruction to their politics, those who have fed this country with the poison of caste divide, have destroyed the country.”
“We must go forward with a purpose,” he added. “Are these incidents fitting of a civilized society?”
The Rev. Dr. Joseph D’Souza, moderating bishop of the Good Shepherd Church and Associated Ministries of India and president of the All India Christian Council, described the caste-based-discrimination system as “the single most significant civil rights issue in the world, and maybe in world history.”
“Today, Prime Minister Modi went where no other prime minister has gone before,” D’Souza said of Modi’s comments in a press release Friday. “He condemned the system which has disenfranchised hundred of millions of Indians for centuries.”
The bishop, who last month penned an editorial about the issue at TheBlaze, said Modi’s comments reminded him of Ambedkar because of his “courage to criticize members of his own party and to acknowledge the destructive effects of caste on Indian society was courageous, important, and significant.”