From afar, yet together in struggle and hope

From afar, yet together in struggle and hope

Reflections on the current outrage against racism from the vantage of Dalit struggles against caste

The recent gruesome murders of Ahmad Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and the protests since then continue to shock the world, mostly because such things happened in a country considered as a world leader on many fronts.  

But as one from India, my reactions have been different. Having lived in Europe for more than a decade and in the US for the last six years, from my experience, I can say that India is one of the most racist societies in the world. India’s caste system is widely acknowledged as the world’s largest systemic violation of human rights, as it continues to deny dignity and justice to over 201 million Dalits – the most discriminated sections of the society. According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau’s 2018 Report, around 42,793 cases of assaults, 821 murders, and 2957 rapes involving Dalits were recorded. In other words, every day 117 Dalits were assaulted, two murdered, and eight women raped. Sadly, the conviction rate is barely 28%. Therefore, as a person from there, I was very sad but not shocked. 

The visuals of both the murders and the aftermath continue to engage my head and heart intensely. I find many similarities: the crudity, complicity, and reluctance of law enforcement mechanisms; the apathy and indifference of policymakers; and some unrelated, unspecified “outsiders” sneaking in to turn “protests” into “clashes” so that repression is justified and the cause forgotten.

There are other similarities too. If white privilege is a leviathan in the US, it is caste privilege in India. That both countries – the US and India – have been, to use Otis Moss III’s expression “saved and blessed”[1] by the toil of these who were for centuries made to feel and kept inferior, and were thus disempowered and exploited. Both Black people and Dalit people while being producers and economic engines of these countries, are also denied basic necessities and opportunities to break out of the shackles of poverty. Both their struggles against discrimination are seen as their ‘problems,’ and not as a moral challenge to the wider society. Both countries – the US and India – also are considered vibrant democracies but controlled and maneuvered to serve the interests of neoliberal capitalist powers, religious supremacists, and social and economic elites. And last but not least, both racism and casteism flourish in churches, although most pretend that they are not racists or casteists even as they carve their lives around the privileges that these identities bestow, and operate more as exclusive social clubs than anything that is formed around the memory of the one who was murdered for defying oppressive systems and cultures.

So, as one familiar with the insidious dynamics of cultures and systems of domination and discrimination, I followed the news with both disappointment and hope. Disappointed that such ghastly displays of cruelty required many days of protests to be addressed. Contented that there were protests, not just in Glynn County, Louisville, and Minneapolis but all over; not just by Blacks but by people of all colors and shades, from all walks of life, including the police, standing up and marching together to end racism. Such expressions of solidarity are rare in my setting where the virus of caste actively encourages ‘social distances’ and discourages empathy and solidarity. The massive countrywide expressions of moral outrage accompanied by a deep sense of shame seem to announce a collective resolve and a loud assertion that racism is not a problem of the black community alone but of all. It dehumanizes all, the victim and the aggressor alike, and we all need to overcome it together.

This moment seems to mark an important milestone in this struggle for collective transformation. It will be long and hard. My engagement with anti-caste movements has taught me that caste is like a hydra-headed dragon with incredible capacities to survive multiple attacks, and to mutate, assuming more fierce and lethal manifestations. So much so, the Dalit struggle against the monstrous caste system continues.

Another similar challenge is the tendency of protests following atrocities against Dalit people to dissipate because of the quick fixes, feel-good measures, and generous promises besides the delaying tactics of the status quo powers. These movements lie dormant for a while only to resurface when another incident occurs. I am sure that this will not be the case here and now in the US.   

Furthermore, whether racism, casteism, or any other form of discrimination will not get wiped out only by resisting the most obvious and current manifestations, but through collective, consistent and concerted action on many fronts. I believe churches, in fact, all faith communities, have a significant role to play – as prophets and catalysts of this social transformation.

At a time when religious institutions, resources, symbols, and identities are abused and misused to hate, kill and legitimize injustice and exploitation, it is perhaps necessary to set aside these sources of privilege and be more like Jesus who defied similar powers of his time in obedience to God.  It is time that in the same spirit of obedience the church unmasked and exposed the shallowness of power and privilege. Cultures and structures of discrimination are motivated solely by the desire to dominate and subjugate in order to grab and accrue wealth, power, and privileges. There is nothing glorious about such power that parades itself in the face of powerlessness.

Black people in the US, Dalit people in India, and similarly discriminated communities around the world are on a historic struggle to expose precisely these forms and manifestations of power, and the cruelty and cunningness of their dubious theories of self- elevation such as race and caste that make some grow stronger. As such, their struggles are profoundly moral and spiritual struggles. The point is that those on the margins [2] have a view of the world – its muck and malaise that those at the center do not. Their experiences of suffering and struggles for justice are the resources that could make us introspect and to embark on this collective transformation.

We are at an unprecedented stage in human history now as the whole world finds itself in the grip of a pandemic. A tiny but lethal microbial has made us all vulnerable – rich and poor, strong and weak, and young and old alike, exposing the futility of our preoccupations with things, structures and cultures that many believed were necessary for a great feeling of invincibility and invulnerability, and the consequent programming of our life-worlds.  It comes as a warning, but also offers us an opportunity to get rid of all such, and allow ourselves to be transformed into a new people, a new generation with justice, compassion and interdependence as our guiding values, so that all of us are able to breathe – breath freedom, breathe peace, and breathe life.  

Rev. Dr. Deenabandhu Manchala, a pastor and theologian from India, is Area Executive for Southern Asia in Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Cleveland, Ohio.