An evening in Berlin with friends, all of them lawyers. It’s easy, at first, to see us all as being in the same situation. We share many political views and all work to further human rights. But then one colleague tells us about the housing situation in Bombay. His organization, the Human Rights Law Network, is based close to the city’s courthouse. They often appear in court to fight on behalf of the very many people who are denied their rights in India, the largest democracy in the world: indigenous communities who are confronted with industrial, infrastructural or mining projects; the underclasses; the Dalit, the untouchables; women; prisoners; and many others. Neither my colleague nor any of his co-workers can afford an apartment close to the office. They don’t earn enough money, even as lawyers – albeit lawyers who work on behalf of those who have almost nothing and can therefore pay almost nothing.
This colleague, a man in his mid-thirties with extensive professional experience, lived until recently in a hostel in order to avoid what would have been a four hour daily commute. He lived with three others in a room the size of my living room, without any room to call his own. My own luxury suddenly starts to feel like an embarrassment.
The conversation turns to history. Gandhi, fighter for freedom from the British colonial power, a model for civil disobedience, has a remarkably persistent mythology. But some of this myth has come in for closer inspection and unravelling, in recent times for instance by a number of writers including Arundathi Roy and the historian Perry Anderson. Our conversation keeps coming back to the issue of the caste system, officially abolished in 1947. Even Gandhi, so highly regarded by the public in the West, never fundamentally challenged caste-based segregation. In modern India today, with its rapid technological development, millions of people suffer greatly from discrimination because they belong to the lower castes.
Our colleague tells us about Dalit communities who, for generations and without any prospect of change, have been doing the most unclean jobs such as the removal of human and animal waste. Day laborers receive no wage for their work. As ‘payment’ in kind they are given only leftover wheat and other grains that are still covered in animal dung as well as snakes encountered during their work. Even the city-based Indian middle classes seem to accept this societal role allocation as normal. Emancipation attempts on the part of the Dalit were met with resistance and even violence, particularly violence directed against women.
Another devastating blow was dealt by the first months of the new government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In a country made up of a vast array of different regions, religions, languages and cultures, Modi’s Hindu nationalist party is employing great force in its efforts to enforce its philosophy of Hindu dominance. These efforts include some absurd debates and ideas such as that Muslims are only dominant over Hindus because they are allowed to eat more meat and in particular beef, the consumption of which is forbidden for religious reasons for Hindus. As a result, they argue, rules should be introduced to limit Muslim meat consumption. Playing with fire.
Is it naïve of me to hear all these stories and still react incredulously? No – it’s born of my own desire for change. And it is this desire that unites all of us gathered here, from Europe, Latin America and India, irrespective of the very different conditions we face, driving us to find common approaches and bring about change in the unacceptable realities we encounter.