Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Words: Oppressive Vs. Liberating

Narendra Jadhav's

My Family’s Triumphant Journey
Out of the Caste System in Modern India

Review By Michael Chacko Daniels
Editor & Publisher, New River Free Press International

Growing up in Bombay in the 1950s and 1960s, I often read and heard the word Harijan—Children of God—used to refer to India’s untouchables.

The best that can be said today about that usage of Harijan is that it was a well-intentioned verbal figment that Mahatma (Great Soul) Gandhi conjured up, and dogmatically and steadfastly popularized, in an attempt to transform ancient caste-based prejudice.

But no amount of word play could transform a society rigidly structured on caste lines, which were held in place with a vast array of ancient religious strictures that perpetuated some of the most horrendous daily atrocities on the planet, including the following dehumanizing practice described in Dr. Narendra Jadhav's heart-stirring, nonfiction book, (Scribner, 2005), Untouchables (Scribner, 2005):

Dr. Jadhav's ancestors were required to wear clay pots around their necks to keep their spit from polluting the ground that the upper castes walked on and attach brooms to their rumps to wipe out their footprints as they walked.

The book is appropriately sub-titled:

My Family’s Triumphant Journey Out of the Caste System in Modern India.

To mitigate such religiously-induced atrocities, followers of the ascetic, saintly, high-caste Gandhi faithfully doled out his verbal fiction of Harijan.

And unintentionally continued to disempower one-sixth of India’s people, who were condemned, like their ancestors over thousands of years, to exist in that hellish substratum below the hereditary occupations of priest, warrior, merchant, and laborer.

In his moving narrative, Dr. Narendra Jadhav writes that Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the pre-eminent untouchable leader whose life mission was the total elimination of untouchability, considered Harijan to be a patronizing word, expressed his contempt for it, and crossed verbal swords with Gandhi.

Dr. Ambedkar, who had experienced the pain and humiliation of untouchability from the inside as an untouchable--unlike Gandhi, preferred a word that was unambiguous about its impact.

—which means crushed, stepped on, or oppressed—was Dr. Ambedkar's preferred word.

Unlike Harijan, Dalit penetrates through the layers of hypocrisy surrounding the oppression of India’s untouchables, bursts into the ear, and seeds in the minds of non-touchables and touchables alike, except perhaps the most resistent, knowledge of the true extant of liberation that still needs to take place.

Ambedkar’s message to India's untouchables—a sixth of its population—to "educate, organize, agitate" not only placed him at odds with Gandhi’s policy of incrementalism in winning the goodwill of high-born Hindus, but also gained for him the eternal hostility of conservative Hindus for leading a mass conversion of untouchables into Buddhism as part of his liberation movement.

Gandhi's word, Harijan, which had widespread, oppressive verbal currency in postcolonial India for over three decades after his death (in 1948 at the hands of a conservative Hindu) right through the 1970s, proved to be an ineffectual measure across the length and breadth of India, especially in its rural core, and even in his home state of Gujarat, where for a while he had gained almost God-like status.

One could argue that Gandhi's word choice might have even contributed to delaying the give-and-take political transformations that democracies must go through as they mirror their electorates.

Fortunately, since the 1980s, the equations of democracy finally began to shift the weight in favor of Ambedkar over Gandhi in the argument over which term and which movement would bring about the liberation of those oppressed by thousands of years of discrimination.

To Mahatma Gandhi's credit, he, like Dr. Ambedkar, wanted to abolish untouchability legally and it was at his insistence during his lifetime that the latter was selected as chairman of the drafting committee for the Indian Constitution and came to be known as its Father.

Today, Dalit is the preferred word in all political discussions that matter in India.

And Dr. Ambedkar's question to Dalits continues to have the power to liberate India's untouchables from both external and internalized oppression in the post-Harijan era:

"It may be in the interest of others to be your masters, but why should it be in your interest to be their slaves?"

--Dr. Jadhav quoting Ambedkar in Anand Giridharadas' article, "An economist's rise defies caste system," International Herald Tribune, 10/11/2005

Reading Untouchables, Dr. Jadhav’s remarkable story of his father’s rebellion against the inhuman cruelty of caste-based oppression, it becomes plain why nothing less than shaking the social, political, and economic foundations of the caste-based system would work in breaking the hold of the age-0ld oppression.

The book—based on Dr. Jadhav’s father's diaries, which he kept at his urging after retiring from work in 1970, and oral narratives from his mother—was a bestseller when it first came out in Marathi in 1993 under the title Our Father and Us.

Rooted in the unpretentious, earthy language of the rural hinterland of the Indian state of Maharashtra, this triumphant journey of liberation is no mere socio-political tract. It is a vibrantly human nonfiction story.

Woven through the narrative are the details of Dr. Jadhav's parents’ life in village India; his family’s struggles in Mumbai; their hard-fought successes; their conversion to Buddhism under Dr. Ambedkar’s influence; and his father’s indomitable spirit that sees them through the slings and blows of outrageous social and economic practices, his uncompromising honesty, and his belief in education as the ultimate empowerment of his children.

It is also a great story about the love Dr. Jadhav's parents had for each other and for their children.

Both village and urban India come alive in Dr. Narendra Jadhav's Untouchables, within a reality rarely experienced in works on India—fiction or nonfiction.

It is one of the most hopeful books about India I have read. I highly recommend it.

Running the Numbers

One Billion Plus
Number of Indians

Six Billion Plus
Number of Humans.
Every sixth human is an Indian.

165, 000, 000 Plus
Number of Dalits in India.
Every sixth Indian is a Dalit.

288,368,698 Plus
U. S. population in 2002.
165, 000,000 is over half of 288,368, 698.

Short Bio of Dr. Jadhav

Born in Mumbai in 1953, Dr. Jadhav is currently the principal adviser and chief economist of India’s central bank—the Reserve Bank of India. A prolific writer and public speaker, he has written seven books and more than 70 research papers and articles. He is married and lives in Mumbai.

B.Sc. (Statistics) and M.A. (Economics), University of Mumbai, India
Ph.D (Economics) Indiana University, United States

Notes on Meaning of Dalit and Harijan

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"In South Asia's caste system, a Dalit—formerly called untouchable—is a person outside the four castes, and considered below them. Included are leather-workers, scavengers, street handicrafters, poor farmers and laborers. . . .

"Other terms have been used to refer to Dalits in recent times. Harijan was the polite form for untouchable coined by Mahatma Gandhi which means "Children of God" (Hari is another name for God Vishnu). . . .

"In the context of traditional Hindu beliefs, Dalit status has often been historically associated with occupations regarded as ritually impure: any occupation involving killing or handling dead bodies, or anything involving disposing of refuse or human waste. Engaging in these activities was considered to be polluting to the individual who performed them, and this pollution was considered to be 'contagious'. As a result, Dalits were commonly banned from fully participating in Hindu religious life (they could not enter the premises of a temple), and elaborate precautions were sometimes observed to prevent incidental contact between Dalits and higher-caste Hindus. . . ."


"Lessons for Shaping the

India of Our Dreams,”

Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India

"I am truly delighted to be associated with the release of books written by Narendra. These books are a tribute to his scholarship, erudition and more importantly, a firm determination to progress in life against all odds. His is truly a profile in courage. I feel particularly happy to release these books today because Narendra’s message to the world is not just a critique of what is wrong with our social and economic reality, but, and more importantly, it is a message of how the wrong can be set right. All his work is a pointer to this hopeful future for our people.

“Indeed, Narendra’s life is itself a story of both struggle and progress. All real progress is after all a product of genuine struggle. If Narendra, like the millions of our countrymen and countrywomen who have been deprived and discriminated against, had not stood up to be counted, had not fought for a better life, then the progress we have seen in our lifetime would not have been possible. But we cannot rest content with the status quo. There are ‘miles to go before we sleep.’

“Like the life of Dr B R Ambedkar, or indeed the life of our beloved former Rashtrapati, the Late Dr. K R Narayanan, the life story of Dr Jadhav is also a story of change, of great courage, of progress, of hope. It should, I believe, inspire millions of our disempowered citizens to feel empowered and to seek a new life of dignity, self-respect and well being. Our Government is deeply and firmly committed to the empowerment and progress of the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, the Minorities and Women. Our political platform is a platform of progress through empowerment.

“In releasing these books today, I wish to participate in the celebration of the hope that Narendra’s life symbolizes. It has important lessons for shaping the India of our dreams, because it is the hope of a better tomorrow, that makes life worth living, especially for those who have had a difficult past and little to rejoice in even in the present. What I find stimulating about the writings of Narendra is the fact that the optimism about the future that he has imbibed from his own life and the life of his father has shaped his thinking about our country and about our economy.

“I am mightily pleased to read the conclusions he draws in his book on the Indian economy, ‘Re-Emerging India.’ Indeed, the story of India is best captured by that phrase. Normally economists refer to what are called Emerging Markets. I hope Narendra’s book will encourage analysts to make a distinction between the so-called ‘Emerging Markets,’ and the ‘Re-Emerging Markets.’

“India, like China, is not just an ‘emerging market.’ It is, if anything, a ‘re-emerging market.’ Our history has been a history of active participation in the global exchange of goods, services and ideas. There was a time when our GDP accounted for a quarter of the world’s GDP. India is presently engaged in the process of recovering its lost space in the global economy, to re-emerge as another engine of global economic growth.

“However, for this process to be speeded up, we have to pay greater attention to questions of equity and social justice just as we continue to pay attention to issues of modernization and liberalization and de-bureaucratization of our economy. I have often spoken about the need to ‘walk on two legs’ in a complex polity like ours. We must pursue policies that address the cry for equity and social justice, and at the same time, pursue policies that meet the demands of efficiency and enterprise. And this we must do within the framework of a plural democracy. This is not an easy task. Few countries in the world have attempted it, fewer have succeeded. Indeed, no country as large as ours has ever done so. But this I believe, is the only way we can move ahead.

“What I find most satisfying in the work of Dr. Narendra is the fact that he mirrors this vision of fighting discrimination along with pursuing modernization. In our country, there are some who focus all their attention on only one side of the coin of our reality. If all our energies are invested in rewriting the past, when will we write the story of our future? The two have to go together. We must rid our society of the social evils that have held us back. But we must also build a new India that is capable of dealing with the world in a self-confident manner.

“I believe this is the central message of the combined works of Narendra. I urge all political leaders and social reformers to read both the autobiography of Dr Jadhav and his treatise on ‘Re-Emerging India.’ We must draw the correct lessons from both. Narendra’s autobiography must shape our social and political vision. It must shape our educational policy. His book on the Indian economy must shape our thinking on economic policy.

“Let me say in conclusion that when I reflect on Narendra’s worldview, I am indeed reminded of the worldview of Dr B R Ambedkar. Dr Ambedkar also combined in himself the radical vision of a social reformer, indeed a social revolutionary, and the forward-looking vision of an economic and political modernist. The Indian Constitution was shaped simultaneously by both sets of visions. It encapsulates a commitment to social reform and an equal commitment to political and economic modernization.

“I sincerely hope the success of these books will inspire Narendra to write more books and illuminate public discourse in our country on the vital issues of national policy. I wish Narendra many more years of active and productive intellectual and social work in the cause of our nation’s greater glory. I compliment him on his work and wish him well in years to come. May God bless him and bless his path.”

New Delhi, 11/16/2005

Excerpts From Other Reviewers

"A loving paean to courageous parents, and an indicting portrait of prejudice in modern-day India. This Indian bestseller will strike a chord in the U.S."
-- Kirkus Reviews

"A dramatic piece of writing that forces us to acknowledge the inhumanity and injustice of a social order that treats humans worse than animals."
-- The Tribune

"It's a story about dreams coming true -- the kind that audiences all over the world find irresistible."
-- The Hindu

"A searing narrative of a Dalit family's odyssey through oppression."
-- Sahara Times

Articles on Dr. Narendra Jadhav


A Dalit straddles the financial world
Narendra Jadhav is Principal Adviser and Chief Economist at the Reserve Bank of India. He is also a Dalit and strong advocate of reservations in the private sector. His recent book Untouchables : My Family's Triumphant Journey Out of the Caste System in Modern India has received wide acclaim. India Together's Subramaniam Vincent talked with him recently. . . .

International Herald Tribune

An economist's rise defies caste system
By Anand Giridharadas (International Herald Tribune)

Mumbai, India In the village where he was not born, Narendra Jadhav's untouchable ancestors walked with brooms on their rumps to erase their polluting footprints. When a cow died, too sacred for others to eat, it was the untouchables, the hungry lowborn, who plucked at the stringy carcass, blood spraying their faces as their children shooed scavenging dogs. . . .


Ambedkar Center for Justice and Peace
Articles and news stories focusing on Dr. Ambedkar, the Dalit leader who was the Father of Indian Constitution.

B. R. Ambedkar
Wikipedia – Biography.

Dalit Christians
Describes discrimination against Dalits, including Christians: "A site that promotes human dignity, a site that defends human rights, a site that advocates social justice to all dalits who are the victims of the caste discrimination in the subcontinent of India. This site has a special reference to dalit Christians who face severe discrimination both in society and in church.”

National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights
Information about human rights campaigns across India.

Human Rights Watch
Broken People: Caste Violence Against India’s “Untouchables”

Dalit Solidarity
Dalit Solidarity, Inc., is dedicated to the cause of elevating the status, dignity and level of opportunity for India’s Dalits—India’s most socially and economically disadvantaged people—by providing access to education and health care and through advocacy for human rights and social justice.

Religion and Dalit Identity
An essay on religion’s role in lower castes’ collective identity in India.

The Asian Review of Books
On the Web

National Geographic Article
Branded as impure from the moment of birth, one out of six Indians lives–and suffers—at the bottom of the Hindu caste sytem. They are Untouchable.

Time Asia Article
India's untouchables are mounting a rebellion against upper-caste privilege. Their weapons are education, votes and, increasingly, guns
Time, Asia, October 20, 1997, VOL. 150 NO. 16