Opposing Discrimination, Oppression, Violence in the World: Inspiring Struggles for Equality, Justice and Liberty
BY TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 9 January 2017
Dr Ravi P Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service
6 Jan 2017 – Oppression, victimisation and marginalisation of people has been widespread all over the world since pre historic times. This oppression had taken several forms – servitude or enslavement, bonded or forced labour, kidnappings and trafficking of women. Servitude and oppression in one form or another existed in the Roman civilisation and it gradually spread to other parts of the western world.
The Arabs had their own forms of servitude and forced labour of people who often became slaves when they were unable to pay of their debts to the moneyed landlords and other rich and important people. Africa also had its distinct forms of enslaving people and forcing them to work in farms and in the homes of the rich. The practice of slave trade between some countries of Africa like Ghana and Nigeria was also common. In addition, the British who colonised South Africa denied basic human rights and imposed many restrictions on the black Africans – a practice generally called apartheid which was an institutionalised means of racial segregation and discrimination that lasted till 1991 when it was officially abolished.
We know of Nelson Mandela and other revolutionary personalities such as Bishop Desmond Tutu who struggled ceaselessly for several years before this inhuman practice of apartheid was officially banned in South Africa. Mandela subsequently became the President of South Africa in 1994 for five years. He was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and several other civilian awards including Bharat Ratna by India. Apart from his non violent struggles, he also emphasized the role of education in promoting the welfare of people. Bishop Tutu was also a recipient of several awards including the Nobel in 1984 and the Gandhi Peace Prize in 2007.
Gandhi who arrived in South Africa in 1893 at the age of 24 years to work as a legal representative for the Muslim Indian Traders in Pretoria struggled for several years till 1914 in in a non-violent manner to promote the interests of the Indians living and working in the country and opposing racial discrimination that was rampant under the minority white rule. This also helped him develop the instrument of civil disobedience and Satyagraha in opposing racial oppression and denial of human rights – a means that was extremely useful and effective in struggling for India’s independence from Britain on his return to India.
Another form of oppression that existed was the practice of slavery primarily of Africans and African Americans in USA in the 18th and 19th centuries after it gained independence from British rule. It was legal and widespread in all the thirteen colonies at the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In the early 20th century USA suffered from the abominable practice of racial discrimination against the coloured people. There are several examples of this unjust practice against which several Americans struggled. One of the well known persons who strived for justice and non discrimination was Martin Luther King Jr who was born in 1929 and assassinated in 1968 at the young age of 39 years. Martin Luther King who was a Baptist minister adopted the practice of non violent struggle and was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence and satyagraha.
India had and still has (although on a smaller scale) the abhorrent practice of discrimination, oppression and violence against the so called lower caste or depressed classes of people now known as Dalits. They were considered untouchables – that implied keeping them at a distance and not having any social interaction with them.
Among the many stalwarts such as Gokhale and Tilak that the state of Maharashtra in central India produced in the 19th and 20th century, was Jotirao Phule (1827-1890). Another well known person was B R Ambedkar (1891-1956) who is also often called the father of the Indian Constitution.
Although Jotirao Phule and Ambedkar lived in different times which are about two generations apart, there are many similarities in their approach to the problem of untouchability that they witnessed. Phule hardly received any formal education – he was educated up to class X. Ambedkar graduated from Bombay University and studied economics and obtained his Ph.D. degrees both from London School of Economics (1923) and Columbia University (1927). He also studied law.
The educational backgrounds of the two are reflected in the fact that Phule wrote his books and representations and other propaganda material in Marathi language and Ambedkar in English. Despite his own limited formal education Phule promoted education as a means of emancipation of the depressed classes. His love for education motivated him along with his wife to establish a girls’ school in 1848 for the depressed classes – (present word is Dalit or Harijan as Gandhi called them). Jotirao first taught his wife Savitribai and then both of them started teaching the children in this school. Subsequently they established other schools for the local people.
At that time, the Dalits were not allowed to draw water from the wells of the upper castes. Phule was opposed to this discriminatory practice. Despite opposition from some people he allowed the depressed classes to draw water from the well in his own house. For these efforts the Municipal Council of Poona publicly conferred on him the title of Mahatma (great Soul) in 1888. Not only was he working and agitating for values that Gandhi subsequently followed it is amazing that he also was conferred the same honor as Gandhi half a century earlier.
Apart from his non violent struggles for justice and freedom from the British colonial rule, Gandhi was also vehemently opposed to discrimination against the Dalits of India and struggled ceaselessly for their welfare. There were differences in his and Ambedkar’s approach, but their objective for justice, equality, liberty and welfare was similar.
B R Ambedkar had seen the oppression faced by his family as well as by the so called untouchables first hand in his place of birth. He was aware of the struggles of Phule to bring about social justice and liberation of the oppressed masses of Maharashtra and was inspired by Phule’s writings on the subject. Subsequently he wrote extensively about the injustice and discrimination faced by Dalits (the lower castes). He worked ceaselessly for the removal of discrimination against them and for their welfare. Later, when India gained freedom from the British rule in 1947 and a new constitution was to be written, Ambedkar having a legal expertise, played a pivotal role in this responsibility and is often referred to, as indicated earlier, as the father of Indian Constitution
Today Ambedkar enjoys a cult position in the Indian society by his unrelenting efforts at working for justice and respect for the Dalit community and by his forceful writing. Ambedkar’s legacy continues to evolve in India.
We see that the world has seen discrimination, injustice and oppression — social, economic, racial and caste based, of poor marginalised people all over the world. This has taken several forms – forced labour, slavery, apartheid, and untouchability. Equally there have been struggles against these abhorrent practices by brave, truthful and visionary persons.
Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, an educationist and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 January 2017.
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