I was invited by the Board of the Parliament of World Religions to speak at the Valedictory function of its 2015 session held in the third week of October at Salt Lake City, Utah, in the US – the home city, incidentally, of the Church of Latter Day Saints, popularly known as the Mormons. Ten thousand and more people representing just about every faith in the world attended, though atheists, agnostics and Communists were perhaps not invited. There were many from India, clergy and senior followers of every major god man and woman, tantrik, and guru. The Sikhs, mostly living in the US and many second generation American citizens, left a lasting impress, organizing a classic Langar, free lunch, for all participants.
The swamis, of course, have a way of speaking and are usually very popular with western, almost entirely white, audiences. A famous Swami from Rishikesh and a well-known American Imam, were among those on the stage at the valedictory.
Difficult to give a reportage but thought to reproduce here an abridged version of my address:
“I see Sikhs and Muslims, Buddhists and Christians from many races and admire how the freedom of faith helps traverse natural and man made barriers in a search of godhead and peace. I recall that it was after an assembly of the Bishops of the World gathered 50 years ago in the Vatican, that the Catholic Church realized the diversity of its membership. Many, for the first time, saw a Bishop of African and Asian descent. That vision eventually led to internal reforms, and eventually the elevation of a Polish citizen and later a South American to the Papacy with deep reaching impact.
I recall with some pride that it was at the first Parliament, in Chicago, a century and more ago that a youthful ascetic from India, Narendra, who the world was to know as Swami Vivekananda, introduced Hinduism to the west… In many ways, the Swami who died young, opened the doors of a civilization discourse that has borne rich fruits. Another child of the same Civilization, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Mahatma, taught the world peaceful resistance in the fight for freedom and the choice of democracy.
But as I searched the mighty halls of this gathering, I missed the sight of any significant representation of India’s own original people, the proud Indigenous groups we know as the Adivasis, the Dalits, who were once called untouchables and consigned to the remote corners of human habitations lest their shadow or smell pollute others. Perhaps I missed a stall or exhibition by the followers of the Adivasis’ Sarnas religion so rooted in Nature, or by the various Dalit groups that have been petitioning the UN to help eliminate birth or descent based discrimination from the world, and thereby also from India. The Constitution of free and democratic India more than 65 years ago gave them equal rights, and then some more special protection to help them overcome the trauma and subjugation of three millenniums. Untouchability, banned by law, remains and flourishes by custom.
We enjoy the rights given us by the Constitution adopted in 1950. But both the Dalits and the Adivasis, perhaps as many as 250 million, even today remain victims to an unjust social system. That is an awfully large number of people, bigger than most countries in the world. Data from Dalit research centers shows that on an average, each day, five Dalit women are raped, two Dalit men are brutally killed, six men or women kidnapped, and two houses in villages destroyed, often in arson. The law severely restricts their freedom of faith.
And now the religious minorities, the Muslims and the Christians as targets of persecution, impunity and apathy, join their ranks. Those who have sought to document their trauma, or attempt advocacy have themselves been targeted, as indeed have human rights defenders. Writers have been assassinated for voicing dissent. The law often seems helpless.
If a Muslim is lynched on the suspicion that he may have killed a cow, or other young men are targeted in extrajudicial killings, torture and arrest, similar fate has stalked Dalits and Adivasis in many parts of the country. Lynching may not be very common, but gang rape of the women of these communities is, making it a staple of newspaper headlines.
This is not a matter of numbers and data. These assassinations and lynching pale into insignificance when compared to the tragic happenings in the Middle-east and Africa where a war is being waged on human civilization, and the apogees of its past and its traditions.
Perhaps it may also be argued that these are not State sponsored, and that the Government disapproves of this targeted violence.
And sometimes, the word is told that this hate, this targeted violence is the work of freeing elements who make but a small percentage of the population. But India is a land of a billion and quarter citizens. Even a microscopic percentage will add up to millions of a violent cadre who think they are not just above the law of the land, but are the law.
Perversions of value systems, new definitions of religious nationalism add up to an attempt to undo the Constitution and the secular moorings of the glorious peaceful freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi and his colleagues such as Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister.
India is not a theocracy. It is a land of opportunity for people who yearn for equality in rights to freedom of faith and dignity and equity in the fruits of developments in science, technology.
I fear the legacy of Vivekananda and Gandhi, of Nehru and Babasaheb Ambedkar, the great Dalit leader who studied in the US, is being suborned. The memory and heritage of these stalwarts is being hijacked. There cannot but be tragedy, fear and tears that flow from such a hijacking.
I stand before you and speak because these victims have not been heard enough. These people have not asked me to represent them or to speak, and I do not indeed dare to say I speak for them. I speak in response to the call of my conscience, and as citizen of India who loves the country of his birth and its people.
It is as this citizen that I summon the courage to call upon Religions and people of goodwill of all faith gathered here, to work together to end the scourge of birth-based caste, and caste discrimination, violence and the malefic forces that rob a section of the human race, the Dalits and the Adivasis of India and south Asia, of their dignity, their self esteem, their right to the freedom of faith, and often enough, their identity. The collective spiritual energy of the people can do this.
The world’s people, and religious leaders must express solidarity for those on the margins of society in a modern country, still hoping for better days, as the Indian expression so forcefully articulates.”
Human Rights Activist, Member
of National Integration Council