Being untouchable no longer

Increasingly powerful voices in India are calling for a true end to discrimination based on caste.

When President Obama visits India next month, it is quite certain that he will pay tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, perceived around the world as one of history's most celebrated symbols of liberation, and a source of inspiration for the US president himself.

But there are calls within India for Obama to look further than Gandhi in paying homage to Indian heroes. For India's community of 167 million Dalits, once known as "untouchables", the true icon is Dr B R Ambedkar. Himself an untouchable, Dr Ambedkar gained doctorates from Columbia University, where President Obama, too, was educated, and at the London School of Economics, before becoming the architect of independent India's new constitution.

Relatively little-known internationally, Ambedkar has accrued almost divine status as a focal point for Dalit aspirations. Within India, Ambedkar appears everywhere. His statues easily outnumber those of Gandhi. Deep in communities of Dalits, you will hear the greeting, "Jai Bhim", meaning "hail Bhimrao [Ambedkar]". You will see his portrait in any self-assertive Dalit's home, and his name is spoken with pride. When, in 2006, the nation marked the 50th anniversary of his death, over 800,000 Dalits crowded to pay him their respects in Mumbai.

Dalits stress that, unlike the Mahatma, Ambedkar challenged the very existence of the caste system as the basis for discrimination against Dalits. It is because of Ambedkar, they say, that Dalits play any role in India's political and administrative structures – albeit a limited part. That is why anti-caste activists are urging Obama to pay homage to Ambedkar as a true giant of the cause of liberation from oppression.

These calls are just one sign of the increasingly powerful vocalisation of Dalit aspirations for recognition of their cause, and for social, economic and cultural equality. Dalit hopes for liberation from caste oppression – and it is important to add that Dalits suffer discrimination in every religious community – are resonating increasingly loudly around the world. The issue has gained profile at the United Nations, the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination having charged the Indian government to bring about clear improvements in a number of areas. NGOs continue to press companies investing in India to tailor their corporate social responsibility policies to address the specific challenges of caste discrimination.

Two campaigners against caste discrimination, S Anand and Meena Kandasamy, visited London last week to highlight the cause by speaking at events around a photography exhibition, "Being Untouchable".

The exhibition, by Marcus Perkins for CSW, offered a sympathetic series of portraits of the many different faces of untouchability in modern India, in a powerful reminder of the plight of the tens of millions of victims among the Dalits: the woman who cleans excrement from a dry latrine because it is her caste job; the young girl pushed into burning ashes because she walked on a path reserved for "high" castes who may never get justice; the destitute who may always be excluded from education and opportunities. Theirs are the stories that truly need to be heard amid the cacophony of coverage of India's economic boom.

Reading from her deeply moving 2006 poetry collection at the launch last week, Meena Kandasamy offered a poignant reminder of the depth of Dalit aspirations for drastic change:

We will rebuild worlds from shattered glass and
remnants of holocausts.
[. . .] It will begin the way thunder rises in our throats and we
will brandish our slogans with a stormy stress and
succeed to chronicle to convey the last stories
of our lost and scattered lives.

David Griffiths is south Asia team leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

David Griffiths is an Advocacy Officer for Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) - a human rights organisation which specialises in religious freedom in over 25 countries around the world
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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad