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Will Indian Dalit get the same fair shake as Britain's Rishi Sunak?

Rishi Sunak
New Conservative Party leader and incoming prime minister Rishi Sunak waves as he departs Conservative Party Headquarters on October 24, 2022 in London, England. Rishi Sunak was appointed as Conservative leader and the United Kingdom's next prime minister after he was the only candidate to garner 100-plus votes from Conservative MPs in the contest for the top job. |

The choice of Rishi Sunak as the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister illustrates that Western democracies are progressing and are effective at providing opportunities for minorities and people who were previously oppressed. The same statement was made by American democracy with the election of President Obama. 

Sunak, by sheer merit, has risen to the powerful position of prime minister. It’s a sterling example that truly pluralist democracies are the way forward. India and other developing democracies ought to learn from this. 

Other democracies are still on this journey to empower minorities and see them as equals. It is one of the great ironies that a man of Indian descent is leading the people of the United Kingdom, whom many still characterize as colonial oppressors, and yet in India we cannot seem to give a Dalit an opportunity as prime minister. At the state level, we have had Dalit chief ministers. Indian presidents are elected through a system by which the party in power in New Delhi generally gets the president they want, and we have now had Muslim, Dalit, and Tribal presidents. But it is the government in power and the prime minister which have executive power, and they ultimately rule the nation. So far, we have never had a Dalit or a Tribal prime minister. 

It is a further irony that in the war of words that erupted in India about Sunak’s rise to the prime minister position, many treated our former “oppressor,” England, as the one now to give lessons on how to treat a minority. 

In a scathing statement, Indian Congress leader P. Chidambaram tweeted, "First Kamala Harris, now Rishi Sunak. The people of the U.S. and the U.K. have embraced the non-majority citizens of their countries and elected them to high office in government. I think there is a lesson to be learned by India and the parties that practise majoritarianism." 

To pierce through the rhetoric, let us ask ourselves, “What if?” Would it be possible for a Dalit to rise up on merit and public acceptance to become a prime minister in our democracy, in our generation? What great revolutions around the world might that spawn if the most oppressed people group in the world today reached this seat of substantial power in India? Which political party in India will dare to elect a Dalit as a prime ministerial candidate to flight elections? 

Surely Americans wondered “What if?” when their democracy provided an opportunity for Obama, who came from humble birth and beginnings. Surely Brits asked “What if?” when they saw a person of color contending for the prime minister position. 

As an Indian by birth, I know that my country is at its best when it has been an intersectional country. When pluralism thrives, India thrives. But when lower castes continue to be held back, both overtly and subtly, I’m reminded we have a long way to go. No matter what progress is made economically or technologically, only when Dalits can stand equal, not just before the law, but in the highest seat of executive power, will India be able to hold its head high as a truly evolved democratic nation and a land of opportunity. 

India could have its own Rishi Sunak moment, but not because they could choose someone from a minority race or minority religion. There are issues far deeper than those only seen on the surface. Rather, they will have this moment, not by giving a fair fight based on religious identity, but by simply accepting another Indian, an Indian in every sense of the word. Someone who has been their countryman for millennia, and yet has been oppressed in his community. 

India has been defensive about the caste system and how it treats lower castes and women. By now, India’s democratic leadership should have matured enough to discuss caste discrimination and found a way to forge democratic values whereby India is acknowledged as a global force for human equality. 

South Africa had its Nelson Mandela who rose to leadership right through the hard shell of decades of apartheid. The U.S. had its Martin Luther King, Jr. who also became a major global icon for freedom and liberty as he rose up from former slaves to lead a movement that changed the nation. 

In India, when will all castes, including the upper caste, give honor to Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar as a national figure who stood for freedom and liberty? Why is it that Ambedkar is relegated to be seen only as a Dalit leader? Since Ambedkar’s death in 1956, many politicians have used his name, but mostly just to cash in on it to get votes. Dalits also need to find a way for this father of the Indian constitution to be genuinely owned by Indians of all castes and known globally as well. 

What if Indians, from all of India, owned Ambedkar’s memory and made him a global figure, whose influence over this nation of one billion people is as strong as that of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela? When America can have both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King as global figures, why not Ambedkar, along with Gandhi, to be our global icons? 

Ambedkar belongs to all Indians and the rest of the world. If Indians allowed Dalits and other oppressed peoples to rise up and finish the work that Ambedkar began, as the people of America and South Africa have done, this would be the turning point for a truly representative Indian democracy and also for the world. 

Let’s be clear: Sunak is very much British. His parents were born in Britain, he was raised there, and British culture is greatly manifested in his values. If all some commentators can see is his lineage, or his religion, they are missing the point, and perhaps even reinforcing an identity that simply isn’t what defines his goals or aspirations. The story here is that someone who is British has rightly been given the opportunity that any other British man or woman is given. 

These political developments in the U.K. are a signal that it is time for India not only to ask “What if?” but to give a place for minority castes to have a seat at the table of national leadership. It’s India's time to give all Indians the same fair shake that Brits give to their fellow Brit, Rishi Sunak. 

Archbishop Joseph D’Souza is an internationally renowned human and civil rights activist. He is the founder of Dignity Freedom Network, an organization that advocates for and delivers humanitarian aid to the marginalized and outcastes of South Asia. He is archbishop of the Anglican Good Shepherd Church of India and serves as the president of the All India Christian Council.

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