…John Lewis hardly knew anything about the ‘Dalit’ people of India, sometimes referred to as the ‘untouchables’. Although he had visited India as part of a government delegation in 2009, he had only visited the Gandhi memorial and other Hindu sites glorifying the elite. His mentor, Martin Luther King had been a devout follower of Gandhi and had credited him for his path of ‘non-violence’. Never was he exposed to the downtrodden of India, the people relegated to the lowest jobs, the people who live in constant fear of being publicly humiliated, paraded naked, beaten, and raped with impunity by upper-caste Hindus seeking to keep them in their place. No, it was not until he was talked into giving a young Dalit activist 15 minutes of his time (that turned into an hour), that John Lewis got his first glimpse into the life of the Dalit (Untouchables). It was during this hour that he realized that in India, more than 160 million people are considered “Untouchable”—people tainted by their birth into a caste system that deems them impure, less than human.
Little did John Lewis know that the Dalit of India studied everything about African Americans that they could, feeling such a connection that they referred to them oftentimes as the ‘untouchables’ of the United States. The young activist/scholar, Suraj Yengde captured Lewis’ attention with his heartbreaking stories of the ill-treatment of the Dalit in a presentation that he entitled “The Caste System”. Suraj had studied the lives of African American leaders and jumped at the opportunity to meet him. As stated Lewis. granted a 15 minute time slot for the Indian activist that extended into 60 minutes to discuss the conditions of the Dalit people of India on May 23, 2018, Lewis had many questions and wanted Yengde’s opinion about politicians of Indian origin in the Republican party here in the U.S. After taking stock of India’s caste discriminations and atrocities as explained by Vengde, Lewis said he now understood why Indians that lived in the U.S. so easily adopted Republican values. Lewis swore on that day that he would forever be a friend of the Dalit cause. He promised that he would visit India one more time to witness the Dalit world. He promised that he would make sure that the Dalit issue got discussed and recognized in the U.S Congress. As a representative of the Dalit world, Suraj Yengde went away happy to add another historical moment in the growing archive of Dalit-Black solidarity.
photo: John Lewis and Dali activist Suraj Yengde