More people around the world will watch Barack Obama’s inauguration than any other presidential inauguration in history. From here in South Asia, it is also safe to say the world’s oppressed will follow the statements and actions of this president more than any other. Will Obama courageously speak for a group of slaves numbering more than 250 million?
It was understandable and, in many people’s opinion, right for Obama to distance himself from race issues and slavery’s legacy in his election campaign. This is largely possible because of a U.S. that is post-Martin Luther King and post-civil rights movement. But would it be right for him to keep silent on issues of modern slavery and neo-colonialism in our world?
Recently, while riding in one of London’s famous black taxis, I asked the black driver from Ghana what he thought of Obama’s election as president. He said, “It is the best thing that has happened to Africa.” When I enquired further, he said Obama has become a symbol of self-belief and hope for many Africans.
I looked at the Bible next to the driver’s seat and asked the taxi driver what he expected from Obama as a Christian. “To remind the world of the current problems of racism, slavery, and poverty in the world,” he said.
I wonder who Obama’s speechwriters will be. Will they compel him in the world of realpolitik to toe the line? To not mention the problem of modern slavery? India’s human rights defenders wonder whether he will, for example, mention the Dalits — the single largest group of humans victimized by a historic, religiously-sanctioned racism? One of Obama’s fellow students at Harvard, an Indian attorney who now litigates in India’s Supreme Court, told an Indian newspaper that as a law student, Obama was curious about the “untouchables” of India — today known as Dalits.
When President Bush gave his main speech in New Delhi in 2006, he (or his speechwriters) chose to quote three citizens of India in his comments on freedom and democracy: Gandhi, Nehru, and Tagore. I’ve explained elsewhere why this was a huge mistake. In brief, Gandhi and Nehru were indeed India’s great founding fathers, and Tagore was a Nobel Prize winner in literature. But one of the names should have been Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the father of India’s constitution, a Columbia University trained lawyer, the emancipator of the Dalits and backward castes, and India’s own Martin Luther King.
Will Obama mention the name of Ambedkar in any of his India speeches? Will he remind the world of India’s own struggle with slavery? Will Obama understand and embrace the symbolic power of his presidency outside the U.S.?
Joseph D’souza is the International President of the Dalit Freedom Network. He lives in Hyderabad, India, and works out of Hyderabad, London, and Denver.