CRF Blog

NYRB: God’s Oppressed Children

by Bill Hayes

In God’s Oppressed Children for the New York Review of Books, Pankaj Mishra reviews Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla.

India, the world’s largest democracy, also happens to be the world’s most hierarchical society; its most powerful and wealthy citizens, who are overwhelmingly upper-caste, are very far from checking their privilege or understanding the cruel disadvantages of birth among the low castes. Dalits remain largely invisible in popular cinema, sitcoms, television commercials, and soap operas. No major museums commemorate their long suffering. Unlike racism in the United States, which provokes general condemnation, there are no social taboos — as distinct from legal provisions — against hatred or loathing of low-caste Hindus. Many Dalits are still treated as “untouchables,” despite the equal rights granted to them by India’s democratic constitution.

This constitution was drafted in the late 1940s with the help of B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit leader, whose reputation as a bold and iconoclastic thinker has been eclipsed by the cults of his upper-caste rivals Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi. The founding principles of India’s democracy that Ambedkar helped enshrine are even more far-reaching than America’s in their guarantee of equal rights and absolute prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth. But high-minded legislation in India is rarely accompanied by a necessary change in hearts and minds. The institution of caste, the social group to which Indians belong by birth, remains the most formidable obstacle to an egalitarian ethos. [more]