Why not a Dalit priest?

Deepavali in White House
Last Updated 27 October 2009, 17:43 IST

The Non-Resident Indians of North America have been trying to convince the White House that they should recognise the Deepavali festival as American national festival by celebrating it in White House. They made such efforts during the Bill Clinton period but failed. Then they tried very hard during the George W Bush term and again failed.

However, they succeeded during this time in convincing the Obama administration that it should celebrate the Deepavali festival in the White House. On the Deepavali day, Obama attended a celebration organised by Indians in the White House and lit a lamp. The main representative of India on the dais, along with Obama was an Indian Brahmin priest with a shaven head and semi-naked body covered with a Pattu Vastram and a dhoti. He also sported big three fold Vaishnava ‘namam’.
Assuming that the NRIs were not willing to present a homogeneous Hinduism by keeping a Shaivaite priest also, the basic question that does bother is: does that priest represent Indian Dalits-Bahujans who hardly have any space in the Hindu religious temple structures?

The NRIs living in America used Obama’s black background to convince him to attend the celebration and give a respectability to Indian-Hindu culture. What they have ‘hidden’ from Obama and his administrative staff was that in India still the Hindu priestly caste does not allow millions of Dalits to enter Hindu temples and they treat them as untouchables.

We were all a witness to Obama’s oath taking ceremony where the black pastors played a key role, though there were white pastors side by side. In spite of an attempt to raise a controversy around his own pastor Jeremiah Wright, Obama refused to disown him.
Since Hinduism does not even give such a scope to Dalits and other backward castes, they are forced to remain unequal and outside its ritual celebrations. No Dalit-Bahujan is allowed to become a priest in any mainstream Hindu temple.

For a long time the American blacks faced a similar denial of spiritual rights (though there was no untouchability) within the white church. The blacks fought for decades to fight such spiritual racism and over a period of time they gained the right to go to the white church. But the blacks were not allowed to ordain as pastors and lead the church system. To counter such discrimination the blacks started their own churches, which have become a whole religious system in themselves. All great black leaders emerged from that black church.

Whether it were the first major black leader, Frederick Doglas of Abraham Lincoln’s times, or Martin Luther King who emerged as the greatest leader of the civil rights movement and won a Nobel Peace prize at the age of 38, all were black pastors in black churches. Even Obama emerged as a political leader, while working in the black community church.

When the Indian casteist forces celebrated the Deepavali in the White House, the Indian community would have realised that it would have destroyed his race neutral administrative apparatus if they did not take a Dalit priest to the White House. They should have done that, at least, to tell the world that the NRIs do not believe in caste discrimination and untouchability.

Some of these NRIs were raising objections as to why the Congress House Committee of Human Rights (called the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations in the United States House of Representatives) heard the Indian delegation in 2005 about the existence of discrimination based on caste and untouchability in India.

Back in India Sri Sri Ravishankar, Ramachandra Guha and others accused us (myself, Joseph D’Souza, Udit Raj and Indira Atwale were the main deposers) as people who were indulging in internationalising the internal problems. How do these so called reform seers and intellectuals respond to celebration of Deepavali in White House and that too with a Brahmin representing Indian culture? Suppose the Kerala NRIs ask for celebration of Onam in the White House, who will represent that festival? Would a Bali’s heritage Shudra represent it or a Brahmin from Vaishnava tradition?

Do not these intellectuals, so called seers and NRIs understand that Deepavali as it is being celebrated today is an anti-Dalit-Bahujan festival as Narakasura, who was killed was a Shudra himself? How could a festival that celebrates the death of an Indian Shudra be considered as a secular festival? Secondly, how does Deepavali represent India as a cultural festival when India is a country of multi-religious people?
The only festival that can represent all Indians is Independence Day (August 15) celebration. Let the NRIs not work for creating religious frictions by presenting one section’s festival as Indian festival. Let the NRIs stop globalising communalism and casteism also in this from. Let Obama’s administration realise that there are 200 million Dalits who cannot celebrate Deepavali as a festival in India.

This is the reason why the Obama administration should have asked for the presence of a Dalit priest on the occasion of celebration of the Deepavali in the White House.

(Published 27 October 2009, 17:43 IST)

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