Khushali Mahajan, a law student at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law in Punjab, India, reflects on Angela Davis' activism and the similarities between the US and Indian fights for racial justice...
On July 28, the University of Pittsburgh invited Professor Angela Davis, a world-renowned social justice educator and activist, to participate in a conversation on social justice and racial discrimination as part of the University of Pittsburgh’s 2020 Diversity Forum. Provost Ann Cudd and Senior Vice Chancellor Kathy Humphrey facilitated the thought-provoking conversation, and I had the opportunity to attend virtually as a JURIST editor—one who is based in India!
Ms. Davis’ remarkable accomplishments as an activist spans five decades in the US. Since the 1970s, she has stood in solidarity with important causes like the eradication of racial discrimination, intersectional feminism, and prison reform. Her accomplishments as an activist and contributions as an educator directed the course of this hour-long conversation.
During the conversation, Ms. Davis referenced her experiences in activism, while also very gracefully presenting her opinions on some of the burning issues of her time as an educator. But even though she is American, she portrayed a social reality that is shared by people across the world regardless of their nationality. As I listened to her, I realized the perpetual social problems she spoke about were very relatable as an Indian law student.
While the US is the world’s oldest democracy and India the largest, both countries not only share similar political ideologies, but also centuries of struggle. Both countries were built from the blood, sweat, and tears of the oppressed. The conversation with Ms. Davis revealed many parallels between America’s struggle against systemic racism and discrimination and the many socio-legal issues that persist in India.
As Ms. Davis recounted her journey in activism, which began in Jim Crow Alabama with incidents like the lynching of Emmett Till and the terrorist activities of the Ku Klux Klan, I was reminded of a very unfortunate parallel in present-day India.
In 1976, the word “secularism” was added in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution. It was intended to strengthen Indians’ right to equality enshrined in Article 14 and their right to religious freedom under Articles 25 through 28 of the Constitution. However, the reality is quite different. A systematic wave of intolerance against religious minorities exists in India and a rather dismal surge in incidents of Muslim lynching has marred the vision of secularism. From being forced to chant Hindu nationalist slogans to being burnt alive, Muslims have endured a supremacist Hindu sentiment that has stifled religious expression.
This sentiment is bolstered further when religious inclinations supersede one’s secular duty. For example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the inauguration of the Ram Mandir (Temple for God Ram) in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh on August 5. This temple is being erected on land contested by both Hindu and Muslim communities where the former Babri Masjid (Babri Mosque) stood, which was demolished by Hindu fanatics in 1992. This sensationalized controversy was ultimately resolved in 2019 when the Supreme Court of India ordered a peaceful division of the disputed land, but the Prime Minister’s recent visit only served to showcase the supremacy of his Hindu identity over his duty as a secular leader. It is instances like this that allow extremist groups to seek validation for their terrorist acts, further perpetuating violence against religious minorities.
As the conversation progressed, Ms. Davis spoke of systematic racism at length. Her life’s work is dedicated to advancing causes of the African-American community and to eradicate racial discrimination. Referring to racism as a “complex phenomenon,” she said that it is “assumed to be a facet of individual attitude,” but in reality is fundamentally structural and institutionalized. Institutional racism has plagued the US for centuries and is exemplified by statutes enabling the redlining of neighborhoods to deny equal access to loans and housing, disparity in access to healthcare and education, biases in criminal incarceration, and many more.
In the Indian subcontinent, it is not racial discrimination that has plagued society for centuries but rather caste-based discrimination. In particular, systematic discrimination plagues communities that comprise the lowest societal rung: Dalits and the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. These communities were historically subjected to social exclusion and relegated to jobs like manual scavenging and disposal of the dead—jobs considered unfit for the higher castes because of their “unclean” nature. This division entrenched the lower castes for centuries and was reflected in customs that have since seeped into India’s legal fabric.
Indian independence was supposed to bring emancipation to those in the lower castes by granting them equality and protection from untouchability under the Constitution. Statutory provisions such as the Scheduled Castes And The Scheduled Tribes (Prevention Of Atrocities) Act of 1989 and reparations for economic and educational exclusion in the form of affirmative action programs (such as employment and education quotas) were intended to compensate for centuries-long injustices.
Despite these legal measures, however, they still remain victims of systematic discrimination. This has prevented India from becoming an equal society. Historically, Dalits were forbidden from owning land, which has resulted in a large population of landless Dalits who remain at a severe disadvantage. This has reduced their ability to access healthcare and educational services. Moreover, people from these communities are more susceptible to custodial brutality because of the pervasive policing biases against such communities, trapping them in the criminal justice system.
Systematic discrimination has crippled different communities in various nations but reflects the shared reality of the marginalized sections of society. In this regard, Ms. Davis suggested that uplifting the depressed sections of society would not only help to eradicate discrimination but would also benefit the poorer sections of society that are not at a distinct social disadvantage. She rightly pointed out that different oppressed groups do not have to agree with each other to contend their demands, but rather have to “dwell in contradiction,” because it is this contradiction that initiates dialogue and leads to policy change.
Ms. Davis has been an educator for decades, which has profoundly shaped her views on education. She commented that few of the biggest barriers in the transformation of the education system are due to the impediment posed by the lack of capital, and hence entrenching economic minorities. She emphasized heavily the importance of free and accessible education in order to rectify social disparities caused by centuries of oppression.
On the matter of accessible education, the pandemic has exposed a very broken system in India. The education system is plagued by underdeveloped infrastructure, short-sightedness in policymaking, and toxic politics. The Indian education system has suffered a huge blow thanks to the demands of digital learning imposed by the pandemic. The internet is accessible to just 54 percent of the population, leaving hundreds of millions of Indians at a major disadvantage. This has a definite proportional effect on students’ access to online classes, leading to a systematic deprivation.
Moreover, politics has also led to the inaccessibility of education. In the northernmost region of the country, the freshly formed union territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh are testaments to a more sordid reality. In 2019, the special status that was granted to the formerly controversial state of Jammu and Kashmir was repealed, resulting in the loss of autonomy of the region. In the reorganization of this region, internet facilities were discontinued, and more than a year, these essential facilities have not been restored. This has seriously jeopardized the access to education of the students of these regions. But it has more importantly raised the concern on the preservation of Article 21-A of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to education to every citizen.
Each American inequality and injustice raised during the conversation with Ms. Davis has an Indian parallel. Everything boils down to access to resources or lack thereof. It harkens back to the highly pertinent question Ms. Davis raised more than fifty years ago in a speech she delivered at the University of California, Los Angeles: “Should knowledge be cooped up in vacuum which is unrelated to human reality?”
JURIST provides extensive coverage of Black Lives Matter and racial justice issues on our page here.
Khushali Mahajan is a third-year law student at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab, India. She is an Assistant Editor at JURIST.
Suggested citation: Khushali Mahajan, Angela Davis and the Fight for Racial Justice from an Indian Perspective, JURIST – Student Commentary, August 19, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/08/Khushali-Mahajan-Angela-Davis-Pitt-2020-Diversity-Forum/.
This article was prepared for publication by Theo Wilson, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.