- - Wednesday, June 28, 2017

This week, as all media attention rests on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first face-to-face with President Trump and the burgeoning economic partnership between the two powers, back home in India a historic presidential election is taking place.

In a surprising turn of recent events, both Mr. Modi’s party and the opposition have nominated two Dalits, or “untouchables,” for president.

The National Democratic Alliance, led by Mr. Modi’s BJP party, has chosen former Bihar Gov. Ram Nath Kovind, while the Indian National Congress — a coalition of parties forming the opposition — nominated former Speaker of Parliament Meira Kumar.

Mr. Kovind’s nomination is particularly significant since it was essentially a decision made by Prime Minister Modi and BJP President Amit Shah. Mr. Shah said on numerous occasions the party would nominate a Dalit for president.

In many ways, both candidates represent the aspirations of millions of Dalits: Mr. Kovind, the son of a poor farmer, fought his way through law school and eventually became a respected Supreme Court lawyer and governor. Mrs. Kumar, the daughter of two prominent Dalit activists, became the first woman elected to the post of speaker of Lok Sabha (the lower house of India’s Parliament).

Some political analysts are already saying nominating two Dalits for president is simply an act of tokenism to garner votes. After all, Dalits and scheduled castes constitute a formidable voting bloc. But to those of us who are familiar with India’s long struggle over caste discrimination, especially against Dalits, and religious intolerance, this might just be the biggest news story to break in more than a half-century.

India — the world’s largest democracy and fastest growing large-scale economy — finds herself embroiled in a clash of faiths, cultures and caste identity that’s holding her back from Mr. Modi’s ambitious economic plans.

Most recently, a ban on the sale of cattle for slaughter has driven a wedge between India’s pluralistic community, especially aggravating the age-old feud between Hindus and Muslims. Many Hindus consider the cow a holy animal, while millions of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus from low castes embrace beef as part of their diet.

In one stroke, the ban, which is proposed by far-right Hindus, has imperiled the livelihood of millions of farmers, tanners and butchers, and decimated the largely Muslim-dominated beef industry. Desperate farmers are committing suicide throughout the country, while street vigilantes who have taken it as their sacred duty to punish anyone — including government officials — suspected of harming a cow seem to have been officially vindicated. In all, this religiously motivated decision could cost India more than $4 billion in annual exports and many millions of jobs.

The beef ban is the single, latest example of the crisis unfolding among Indians about their national identity. Is India a country for all religions — as the constitution makes clear — or is it only a country where extremists are tolerated?

And at the center of it all is one of the greatest human rights questions in history: How will India treat its hundreds of millions of people whom extremists call “untouchable,” the dalits?

For millennia, India’s Dalits have faced discrimination, violence, rape and even death simply because they were not born into the right caste.

Now, they’re standing up for their rights.

Just recently, skirmishes between Dalits and the Thakur (an upper-caste community) broke out in Uttar Pradesh, a state that has become increasingly volatile since a radical Hindu cleric was appointed chief minister. In one clash, more than 60 houses and businesses owned by Dalits were burned to the ground and dozens of Dalits were injured. In response, the local police have arrested more Dalits than members of the Thakur community.

Galvanized by these and countless other violent incidents against Dalits, a group known as the Bhim Army, named after Bhimrao Ambedkar, has risen up in open revolt.

Thousands of Dalits have responded to the Bhim Army’s call to protest, flooding streets with their symbolic blue shirts and scarves. Their leader, a 30-year-old lawyer called Chandrashekhar Azad, was recently arrested at a protest organized to denounce the violence in Uttar Pradesh. His followers daily flood the streets of New Delhi demanding his release.

It’s at this perilous time in Indian history that the nomination of a Dalit for president surprises the masses.

Ram Nath Kovind, who stands as the favorite candidate in this election, has the political backing from the ruling BJP party, the credentials and the experience that could make him the most influential and powerful Dalit in Indian history. His presidency could usher the economic and social emancipation Dalits have awaited for centuries.

As a member of India’s lowest-caste community, he might also have the perspicacity to hold back the elements in his own party which aim to homogenize India through a religion, food or line of ancestry. He could be the lynchpin within an erratic BJP party to harmonize India’s richly diverse religious and ethnic communities.

Skeptics may doubt a Dalit, chosen for political reasons, could have such an impact, yet I’m convinced that when we remove the chains of intolerance and oppression, anything is possible.

India’s best days are indeed ahead of her.

• Joseph D’Souza is the moderating bishop of the Good Shepherd Church and Associated Ministries of India. He is president of the All India Christian Council and is the founder and international president of the Dalit Freedom Network.

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