For more than 4,000 years, the Dalits of India were called “the untouchables,” the lowest of the low. The Dalits are at the bottom of the Indian caste hierarchy and are currently the oldest surviving oppressed group in the world. They suffer the worst of human miseries and were once deemed impure and polluted human beings.
Even though they are separated by geography, the Dalits and African Americans have a similar story in the struggle for equality. Like African Americans during slavery, Jim Crow and today, in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Dalits are outcasts who continue to bear the brunt of being born in the wrong social order.
This shared history of oppression was not lost on two prominent figures of the 20th century, who came together to rally for each other’s cause. In July 1946, B.R. Ambedkar, a colossal figure in the anti-untouchability movement in India, wrote a letter to W.E.B. Du Bois to ask him for a copy of Du Bois’ petition submitted to the United Nations on behalf of black Americans. Ambedkar hoped to follow suit on behalf of the untouchables. Du Bois, in his response to Ambedkar, acknowledged Ambedkar’s epochal work and expressed his desire to aid in the cause of India’s untouchables.
Ambedkar and Du Bois tried to work together to put India and the United States on trial for the violation of human rights of the Dalit and black people. It is noteworthy that Ambedkar entrusted the fate of then-60 million untouchables to Du Bois. Ambedkar did not find it necessary to approach anyone else, including the newly independent nation-states in Southeast Asia, where he had friendly relations. Instead, Ambedkar approached his fellow black intellectual to prepare a challenge for the U.N. to address the untouchables’ suffering.
Although the practice of untouchability is now outlawed, the Dalits continue to suffer socially, politically, economically and culturally. The Dalits are assigned the filthiest jobs, such as cleaning human excreta—which is indicative of a prefixed caste—or tanning animal skins, all done with nonprotective gear.
Adding to the humiliation, they are paid close to nothing. The 200 million Dalits suffer at the hands of several political forces, which is why, despite the generous constitutional provisions to protect and uplift the Dalits, census data shows that only 2.24 percent of Dalits graduate from college every year.
Speaking up against the caste system can cost lives and invite violence to the whole community, as has happened time and time again. Hence, the Dalit ghettos are often the targets of communal violence, continued state suppression and a social sanction against their welfare.
This is why it’s time that the Dalit agenda became part of a mainstream discourse in black and other solidarity organizations. Like the Movement for Black Lives, the Dalit movement is being led by courageous and visionary Dalit women. The global approaches of Ambedkar and Du Bois must serve as an inspiration in the fight against white supremacy and Brahmin supremacy—as well as against classism, sexism and empire.
Unfortunately, there is still no U.N. General Assembly resolution that specifically denounces the caste system. There is also no single nongovernmental organization or U.N.-affiliated civil society group that exclusively tackles the issues of the global caste system, like race, gender, sexuality and colonialism. This suggests that the existences of over 300 million people affected by the caste system globally are invisible to the world and the U.N. A Dalit lives his or her life without being acknowledged, let alone noticed and recognized.
In these times, when new solidarities are created across the spectrum, the plight of the Dalits needs to be incorporated into the larger social-protest culture. The African-American struggle is not solely local; it is also global, with links to other movements. The prophetic spirits of Ambedkar and Du Bois must come alive as never before.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Cornel West is a professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University. Follow him on Twitter.
Suraj Yengde is with the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard. Follow him on Twitter.