The Nehru Centre at the heart of London’s Mayfair is renowned for events promoting Indian high culture. It’s a beautiful building in the classical 18th century style and was once owned by the Duke of Cambridge. The lease now belongs to the High Commission of India.
It was not, therefore, the obvious place to launch a book about someone “untouchable”. But on April 12, One World Action co-hosted the launch of a graphic novel that tells the story of the life of Dr. Ambedkar: the largely forgotten hero of the Indian Independence movement and drafter of the Indian constitution but also a Dalit (formerly known as “untouchables”).
The central message of the book – Bhimayana – is a challenge to discrimination based on caste. It is drawn in a vivid traditional style and was two and half years in the making. The two artists Subhash and Durgabai Vyam worked with Navayana Publishing and its dynamic director Anand to create a powerful story interweaving the life of Dr. Ambedkhar with contemporary experiences of untouchability.
For One World Action the production of the book and the story it tells provided an opportunity to draw attention to Dalit rights and enabled us to take our campaign against caste discrimination in a new direction. One World Action provided a small grant to Navayana and the artists to finance the production of the book.
As the speakers at the launch pointed out, caste discrimination is one of the most pernicious and hidden forms of discrimination in the 21st century. To be “untouchable” is to be less than human and Dalit children grow up with the message that they are not equal. Celebrated historian of India Patrick French stressed how 160 million Dalits were still invisible in many parts of Indian society – even after over 60 years of independence. Poet Meena Kandasamy spoke of her own experiences of discrimination and read a poem about the experience of a young Dalit girl being attacked for drinking water at school from the wrong pot. And over 100 guests were able to view the work and learn for themselves more about the life of Dr. Ambedkar as well as the work that One World Action does to promote the rights of Dalits – particularly women and girls.
In spite of its incredible economic development and growing political power, caste discrimination is still a taboo subject in India. It was therefore fitting that Bhimayana’s ground-breaking international launch took place at The Nehru Centre – the heart of the Indian cultural establishment – putting Dr. Ambedkar into his rightful place as a hero of modern India.