Dear friends, donors, and well-wishers,

 

As I mentioned before, Indian American Association of Ohio State University had their annual gathering on 02/14/2009. This year they are donating the money raised from the dinner party to our project, FFEI. I was told that it was a large gathering and I am still awaiting details from the organizers.

 

Meanwhile, Mr Rajeev Ravisankar, the journalist who introduced FFEI to the student body sent me his speech. I am thrilled to read it and I would like to share with you. I am also posting my reply to him (with a few corrections from the original), FYI.

 

Please find a few minutes to read it. If I am critical, it is only due to intentionally falsifying the reality. As intellectuals, I expect the professors (in question) to be honest and socially responsible. When so many budding students are under their care, don’t they have responsibility to tell them the truth?  So, bear with me, if you feel, I am too radical.

 

As always, I invite your comments. I am posting his speech with his permission.

Thanks

Benjamin

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Speech    -by Rajeev Ravishankar

 

Speech for Indian American Association Benefit Dinner

The Ohio State University

February 14, 2009

 

My name is Rajeev Ravisankar, I am a graduate student and staff member at Ohio State. Last year on February 14th, I was halfway around the world and more than halfway through a 10 month journalism program in Chennai, India at the Asian College of Journalism. As the program came to an end, I received an award and some prize money for my investigative project on schools run by the right-wing RSS. Almost immediately I thought to donate to Ambedkar scholarships.

 

I’ve known about Ambedkar scholarships/Friends for Education International for a few years. My sister initially told me about it, but I set it aside saying that I’d donate later. After spending nearly a year in India, this organization came to mind so quickly because I was surrounded by the issue of caste and symbols of the fight against caste oppression.

 

Perhaps the most prominent symbol in this struggle is Dr. Ambedkar. For those who are unfamiliar, Dr. Ambedkar helped frame the Indian constitution and was one the fiercest critics of the caste system. He has had a profound impact that continues to be felt in Indian society.

 

While I was in Chennai, I lived on Ambedkar road and there was a statue of Dr. Ambedkar at the end of the street. Also, I gave a poster of Ambedkar to a restaurant worker who I befriended. I don’t think I have ever seen someone as excited as my friend after I had given him this poster. People talk about the symbolic importance of President Barack Obama, but it is arguable that Dr. Ambedkar’s symbolic and substantive value is even greater. He continues to inspire so many people to join the struggle against caste.

 

As I stated earlier, I had to constantly negotiate the issue of caste throughout my journalism course. Whether in lectures at college, in social interactions, or when I went to report on education, labor and poverty, the role of caste always had to be considered. Otherwise, the story would not be complete.

 

In many ways, I am fortunate to have experienced caste only in this way, as something that caused discomfort and also anger because it is a barrier to social justice, equality and realizing a democratic society.  I learned a lot from being forced to negotiate disturbing social realities like caste, and confronting these realities prevented any possibility of complacency or apathy.

 

However, for so many others caste is experienced through subtle and overt prejudice, discrimination and systematic oppression. Access to education, healthcare, sustainable employment, land, housing and also the ability to procure food and water are all affected by caste. In addition, caste intersects with many other factors like class, gender, sexuality and religion. For many Dalits and also Adivasis, their position in this elaborate social hierarchy can be a matter of life and death.

 

It’s important to remember that these communities are not homogenous, are not perpetual victims and they do not need to be acted upon or saved. Everyday individuals and groups from these communities use their agency to struggle and fight for rights, livelihood and equality. There are examples of this even in my personal experience. For instance, I met Bezwada Wilson who started a major organization focused on the issue of manual scavenging, the cleaning of human excrement. He is such a humble person and his family has traditionally been forced to do this labor. He decided to devote his life to fighting this form of caste oppression.

 

I also had the opportunity to interview Thirumavalavan, the leader of Dalit Panthers in Tamil Nadu. This organization, originally inspired by the Black Panthers in the US, is pushing for greater rights through a mainstream political movement. I’ve seen video of Dalit Panthers mobilizing hundreds of people to protest in order to gain land rights.

 

The children of manual scavengers that I met are another example of people struggling against caste. The expectation might be that these schoolchildren would not seek work that is different from their parents. However, many of them aspired to be doctor’s and engineers.

 

Recognizing this, what we can do is critically think and learn about these issues and have open discussions and debates with each other, our friends, and our family in order challenge assumptions and move forward with better understanding. We should also acknowledge that some of the same discrimination exists in our own society. In areas such as education, the situation for African Americans and Latinos is not much different.

 

More broadly, we can seek to work in solidarity with these movements and lend our support to initiatives such as Friends for Education International. My personal interest in this organization is a result of reflecting on the college that I attended in India. Out of 120 students, there was not a single Dalit despite the fact that there were four scholarships available specifically for Dalits. When we had lectures and discussions on caste and marginalization, we sorely lacked representation of different perspectives.

 

I’ll end with a quote from Dr. Ambedkar, someone who has had a great impact on my life.

He said, “We want our own people, people who will fight tooth and nail for our interest and secure privilege for the under-privileged; people who will undo the wrongs done to our people ;people who will voice our grievances fearlessly; people who can think, lead and act; people with principles and character…”  

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My comments:

 

Dear Mr Rajeev,

Thanks for the message. I am in correspondence with Mr Vikram Rao. In fact, I sent an email to him yesterday and waiting for his reply.

 

It is a good message and I liked it. We need people like you who recognize the problem, read relevant material, understand the issue, think about it rationally, invoke the conscience of right minded people putting the issue in right perspective without bias, and work for social transformation for the good of all, not for a few. Living in the west, we have this responsibility as we read and witness great social movements of the marginalized and its transformation of the entire society for good. In these movements, without the help of the advantaged, the disadvantaged could achieve nothing we see today.

 

A year ago, I had an opportunity to attend “South Asian Film Conference” near LA where a short (20 mins) documentary film on Dr Ambedkar’s life “Arising Light” by my friend Dr David Blundell was screened. (In fact, he is looking for funding for a feature length documentary (3+ hours) on Dr Ambedkar for almost 2 years with no success.) In the Q and A session, there were many questions on caste by the audience mostly composed of whites and a few Indian professors. I was surprised to hear the outright condemnation of caste discrimination by those Indian professors whenever there was a question on caste or Dalits. It seemed to me that their only purpose was: denial of caste discrimination, project it as a thing of past, banned by the constitution, absolutely no caste discrimination in present day India, and it was magnified and vilified (if not created) by the British for their doctrine of “divide and rule”. I was appalled and stunned to hear such comments from the so-called learned professors of Indian origin. When it was my turn to speak, I had to clash and silence a couple of them by identifying myself as a Dalit while exposing their glib talk and their outright denial of the reality. To augment what I said, I have asked the audience to watch documentaries like “Lesser Humans”, “India Untouched” to name a few and listing them a number of articles and books. I saw the audience writing them on their notepads and I am sure that they understood the motives of those learned professors. Later, I thought, “If they can falsify the truth and misguide such an intellectual gathering, what do they teach to their students under their care (who never suspect their motives) in the universities?” While discussing the incident with Dr David, I came to know that it is fact that American Universities largely consists of such professors in non-technical fields. He also narrated me how he was silenced or overlooked on several occasions by such professors/heads of departments when he tried to talk about issues raleated to “Dalits” or “Ambedkar” in the meetings. According to him though there were lots funds unused in “Asian Studies” grants, none could help him when he brought up the idea of making a movie on Dr Ambedkar.

 

I was more abashed, when the panel of judges (all Indian professors) expressed brazenly their ignorance about Dr Ambedkar’s life and mission.

 

On another occasion, as a member of “Toastmasters International Club”, I gave my talk combined the topic with caste discrimination (as I always do). After the talk, I was approached by a white university student and asked me if what I was talking was real. When I answered affirmatively, he said something like this, “I love India and most of my friends and professors were Indians. But I never heard them speaking about caste or its discrimination. I only heard that it is an efficient system of “division of labor” that we see anywhere in the world one form or the other.” I could understand why he was so ignorant.

 

Ofcourse, at workspace in US, I often find socially-ignorant- of-highest- order Indians, filled-with- caste-pride Indians, Hindutva Indians, anti-reservation and anti-affirmative action Indians, and every-scientific- advancement- found-in- Vedas Indians. Some times I laugh at their ignorance despite their education at top Indian institutes, some times I fight with them, and some other times I withdrew myself and mind my own business.

 

So, I look forward to help from people like you to spread the discrimination of Dalits far and wide. I am sure, knowledgeable world community takes action to end this heinous practice that sustained its ugly practices for almost 3000 years. As an example, we all know that the South African Apartheid couldn’t have ended without world’s outcry. Is it not the responsibility of every right thinking individual to bury this evil practice ASAP?

 

Thanks again for your thought-provoking message to Indian American Association. Thanks to your sister who introduced our project. Thanks for your help.

 

Note: Can I ask your permission to post your speech among our network of friends and supporters?

 

With warm regards

Benjamin Paul Kaila

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