This weekend, Houston will play host to the prime minister of the largest democracy in the world, Narendra Modi of India.
A sold-out crowd of 50,000 people is expected to attend the event, playfully dubbed “Howdy, Modi!” at the NRG Stadium. According to the event organizers, it will be the largest gathering for a foreign leader visiting the U.S., other than the Pope.
To make it an even grander occasion, President Trump recently announced he also will join Modi and deliver remarks. The meeting of the two leaders comes at a strategic moment for the two nations, who are negotiating a bilateral trade agreement while at the same time contending with the increased tensions between India and Pakistan in the Kashmir region.
Yet an issue that should not be overlooked during this diplomatic occasion is the unresolved problem of the caste system. This system of social stratification has created one of the worst human rights abuse situations in the world, and despite being native to South Asia it is spreading to America and other nations.
For millennia, the caste system — which presupposes some people are inferior because of their low birth — has been used to dehumanize and oppress millions of men, women, and children.
Today, more than 250 million Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables,” and Tribals live in India. And although India has laws that affirm their civil and human rights — such as banning the practice of untouchability — the marginalization of Dalits and low-castes in society still continues because the caste system itself has not been outlawed.
Now, there are some readers who will undoubtedly read this and wonder, how could such an antiquated way of looking at people still exist in the 21st century? Allow me to give a recent example.
A few weeks ago, a court in Kerala drew international attention when it sentenced 10 men to life in prison for killing a man. Their reason for committing the crime? The young man was a Dalit who had married a woman from an upper-caste family. According to local reports, the man’s brother-in-law masterminded the murder. The bride’s father was also accused of participating in the planning, but was acquitted for lack of evidence.
Crimes of this nature tend to evoke sympathy and confusion in the eyes of Westerners, who view them as the result of strange beliefs of foreign religions. They might not realize it’s a lot more familiar than they think.
Caste prejudice has metastasized and spread beyond its original confines. It exists among Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Christians. The young man in the example above and his wife were Christians and came from Christian families.
Even more, the caste system has spread overseas to America, Europe, Africa, Australia, and other parts of the world. There have been incidents of caste-incited killings among Sikhs in Austria and from Canada. In America, a recent survey found caste prejudice exists in the South Asian communities, manifesting itself in workplace and education discrimination.
The caste system persists because it hasn’t been abolished by law, and the consequences of this failure have been disastrous. In India, the caste system is one of the forces behind India’s income inequality, the highest in the world. Nearly one third of India’s population lives below the poverty line. Unsurprisingly, this one third are the Dalits and low castes. On the other hand, despite being a minority, India’s upper castes own 41% percent of the country’s wealth.
The sad truth is the caste system will not be eradicated until those at the top rise against it. Like Abraham Lincoln and William Wilberforce’s efforts to abolish slavery in America and England, India needs its own social movement led by upper castes to dismantle the caste system. Just as the U.S. found a way to constitutionally ban racism, India has to find a way to abolish the caste system once and for all.
Of course, America still has a way to go to completely rid itself of racism, for it’s ingrained in peoples’ minds. Indeed, despite being the oldest democracy in the world, it took America nearly 200 years to grant African Americans their full rights as citizens. Nevertheless, America course-corrected and rectified this wrong the Founding Fathers had left unaddressed.
In the case of India, the architect of the Indian Constitution — the Columbia-educated B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit himself — desired to abolish the caste system from the outset. He was able to ban untouchability, but the caste system remained intact.
During his first campaign for prime minister, Modi said this would be the decade of the Dalits and low castes. He even referred to his low caste birth to identify himself with them.
As someone who can relate to the plight of the Dalits and low castes, Prime Minister Modi could take on the mission of abolishing the caste system. He would certainly face serious opposition from his upper caste supporters, but he would etch for himself a legacy as the emancipator of the largest group of discriminated people in the world.
Most Rev. Joseph D’Souza is widely considered one of the most influential voices of global Christianity. He is a justice and peace campaigner, civil rights advocate, interfaith peacemaker and Christian theologian. Rev. D’Souza is the founder and international president of Dignity Freedom Network, a multinational advocacy and humanitarian aid alliance dedicated to restoring human dignity to the poor, marginalized and outcastes of South Asia. Since its founding in 2001, the network has impacted an estimated 14 million people through its educational, anti-human trafficking, health care and economic development initiatives. Rev. D’Souza presides as moderator bishop and primate — or archbishop — over the Good Shepherd Church of India. He is a sought-after international speaker, participating in conferences, peace summits and civil society forums across the world and debriefing governmental bodies on religious freedom and human rights issues. He is a contributor at The Hill and The Washington Times, among others. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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