How India’s Most Downtrodden Embraced the Power of Statues

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Over the last month, I have watched statues around the U.S. come down, some with broader support than others, as part of a loud argument with American history. What has struck me most is the juxtaposition with India, where the construction of statues, not their destruction, has been a method for dealing with our own struggles of racism and inequality.

In India, too, segregation and discrimination has persisted for centuries, based not on race but on caste. While, to an outsider, caste may seem invisible, it is instantly recognizable to Indians through names, dialect, food, addresses and other indicators. So-called untouchables — outcastes — are relegated to the lowest rungs of the social order because their traditional occupations are deemed to be polluting.

Even the English word for outcaste — pariah — comes from the word paraiyar, the name for the drummers’ caste in southern India deemed impure because they deal with leather. The Paraiyars are among the 270 million Indians, around 17% of the population, who identify as Dalit, the preferred name for erstwhile untouchable castes. The word means “broken” or “oppressed.”

While it’s risky to equate the experiences of two distinct peoples, some parallels between the Dalit and Black struggles are obvious. Historically, upper castes maintained social control and caste order by strictly enforcing marriage endogamy and segregation. There were punishments for violations, with the strictest reserved for the Dalits. Much like African Americans, Dalits were blocked from occupying certain public spaces, using a common water source or entering parts of the village. Even casting a shadow on an upper caste was considered polluting.

The treatment of Dalits in many parts of India today resembles that meted out to African Americans in previous centuries. It’s not unusual for Dalits to be murdered if they marry outside their caste — with their corpses hung in public as a lesson. Dalit women’s bodies are treated as property by upper castes, sometimes to punish them or their husbands for caste violations.

But the strength, contributions and achievements of Dalits have also become a part of public consciousness in India — not least through public monuments. Almost every Indian town has a statue of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a founding father of the Indian Republic and one of the country’s most remarkable 20th-century figures.

Ambedkar was born in 1891 into the untouchable Mahar caste. A brilliant student, he received scholarships to study at Columbia University and the London School of Economics. He got his doctorate in economics, became a member at Gray’s Inn, taught economics and practiced as a lawyer — all before he turned 35. His book, “The Annihilation of Caste,” is a cornerstone in Dalit scholarship. As chairman of the Drafting Committee in India’s Constituent Assembly, he shaped constitutional rights and was instrumental in abolishing untouchability and guaranteeing equal protection under the law to all individuals in India.

Historically, Dalits were excluded from receiving any form of public recognition. But Ambedkar statues have reclaimed public space for Dalit contributions in virtually every town in India. Almost always, they show Ambedkar holding the constitution in one hand and pointing ahead with the other, toward a more just and equal society. Most were not commissioned by the state but funded and built by local Dalit communities.

It sounds simple but celebrating a cause or a people by building statues isn’t easy. In India, Ambedkar statues are frequently vandalized, torn down by upper castes to show Dalits their place. Some need to be protected by shields and cages.  

Dalits rarely retaliate violently. Instead they resist systematically through political, constitutional and civil movements. One reason for this is that Dalits don’t enjoy broad support from upper-caste Indians and lack the privilege to tear down statues of other figures without violent repercussions.

More importantly, though, Ambedkar’s followers are adhering to his belief that, in a democratic republic, such matters must be negotiated through a defined political process. When an Ambedkar statue was vandalized last year following caste clashes in Vedaranyam, the response of Dalit activists was to call for the construction 1,000 new monuments.

Imagine if Americans were to build statues commemorating Fredrick Douglass and W.E.B Du Bois and James Baldwin and Harriet Tubman and Rebecca Lee Crumpler and Madam C.J. Walker — monuments in every town that would last for decades if not centuries. It would not make up for the need to reform police departments and address structural racism, just as Ambedkar statues have not ended the impoverishment of and atrocities against Dalits. But, in the fight over symbols, it would count as a welcome, overdue and long-lasting victory.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Shruti Rajagopalan is a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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