Rohulamin Quander

‘Dalit sufferings are a human rights issue’

Print edition : February 07, 2014

Rohulamin Quander, president, The Quander Historical Society. Photo: By Special Arrangement

M.K. Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar viewed Dalits’ problems differently. Photo: The Hindu Archives

M.K. Gandhi Photo: The Hindu Archives

Martin Luther King, Jr, Quander says, knew that power is not easily given away, and that a struggle must first become a part of the equation. Photo: AFP

Malcolm X saw the reality that there is no one answer or solution to any problem. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Interview with Rohulamin Quander, president, The Quander Historical Society.

“THE QUANDER FAMILY IS A very historical African American family whose ancestors were in servitude to President George Washington. As well, there are many instances in our history where Quander ancestors were a component in major American history events. In 1984, I founded the Quander Historical Society, Inc. to uncover, document, preserve and share the Quander family history, and to be an inspiration to others, especially African Americans. There are many stories of adversity and difficulties, but our aim is to underscore triumphs despite the discrimination and racism that we faced. Over time, we have been very successful in overcoming much of that,” said Rohulamin Quander, president, The Quander Historical Society, in this email interview.

At the time of the interview, descendants of some of America’s most prominent African American legacy families were planning to commemorate the 85th birthday of Dr Martin Luther King (January 15, 2014) by conducting an event in the United States Capitol Visitor Centre’s Congressional Auditorium with the participation of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, Congressional members and staff, and the Dalit Freedom Network. The high point of the event would be the signing of “The Declaration of Empathy”, which addresses the modern-day oppression and enslavement of the Dalit people of India.

Rohulamin Quander, who is the main architect of this Declaration, states, “The Quander family, like other African American families, still feels the pain and sting that institutional discrimination visited upon us. With this Declaration of Empathy, we stand in solidarity with the oppressed Dalit people of India. Until they are free, none of us is, indeed, free.” Excerpts:

This “Declaration of Empathy” is a historical moment in the life of Dalits. What motivated you to do this?

Initially, this effort was not my idea. One of my African American relatives, Gregory McCray, an ordained Hare Krishna priest, came to me and related the plight of Dalits. He also met with the president of the Dalit Freedom Network [DFN] and brought us all together. For many years, even as a child, I was acutely aware of the people who were derisively called “the Untouchables”, and I often wondered how people could be so mean to one another. But I was unaware of what I might be able to do to help them. My mother, Joheora, mentioned them from time to time, and we wondered occasionally whether we too were held in that category when my grandfather, Mohammed Abdul Rohualamin, was in India, despite our Muslim background. I still really don’t know. But right is right, and once I saw a way to be involved, to perhaps be of service, I adopted the project and the effort.

Indeed, this effort might help me re-establish contact with my Indian family in the Hooghly-Kolkata area from where they came. I would relish the opportunity to go to India on a speaking tour and to bring greetings and a continued Declaration of Empathy from American citizens. Perhaps, this can be done in the very near future.

Tell me something about your ancestors.

I know rather little about my Indian ancestry although my mother’s family referred to it often. My grandfather, Mohammed Abdul Rohualamin, and his son, Elias, migrated from Hooghly village, just across the river from Calcutta [now Kolkata], in 1913 to Barbados and never returned to India. In 1947-48, two of my uncles, Solomon and Ishmael Rohualamin, visited Calcutta and found some relatives there. However, they did not maintain the contact, so our direct connection to them was lost. My great grandfather was listed as Rogup Ali on the marriage licence when his son (my grandfather) married my grandmother in about 1919-20 in Barbados. My mother, Joheora, was the first of their seven children. I would very much like to re-establish the family connection.

My father was an African American, descended from a proud African American Legacy Family, which means that his forbears are widely recognised as historically significant. In our case, our African American ancestors were brought here, probably from Ghana, and placed into involuntary servitude as enslaved people in the mid-17th century. Although some of them got their formal freedom before 1700, still they were not truly free but exposed to the racial limitations that the white society imposed upon all black people at that time.

Do you see similarities between the history and culture of Afro-Americans and Indian Dalits?

Absolutely! Both groups have sustained a history of oppression and denial of basic human rights. We both endured situations which cried out for justice, and still do. African Americans were in involuntary servitude for about 250 years (1619-1863), and their restricted status continued well into recent decades as the few civil rights laws that did exist were not universally enforced until recently. The Dalit people are our brothers and sisters in suffering. Their situation parallels ours here in the United States and their equal rights to citizenship have been denied. It took a long time to force the day of reckoning, but with continued hope and help from our fellow concerned citizens, things did change. And they can in India too, as more Indian citizens face the reality of the wrong that continues to be done. Outside influences are not interferences in Indian culture and society, as some would claim, but rather a common sense and human rights approach to addressing a wrong that has perpetuated for far too long. Still, lasting change must come from within Indian society, without relying too much upon aid and support from foreign sources.

Many people condemn atrocities on Dalits from the human rights angle. What is your perspective?

I agree. This is a human rights issue above all else. The voices of condemnation will become stronger with time, and their numbers will increase significantly too. From my perspective, the changes and improvements for the Dalit people will only come if the agitation for change is not allowed to lie fallow. This is why I have become involved with the Dalit Freedom Network worldwide and Gye Nyame, both human rights organisations, in this effort to bring about needed change. I respect Indian history and culture as it is also a part of my own background, but everyone must understand that any mistreatment of a past era, when the rights of human dignity were considered differently, and in many ways flatly ignored, such attitudes have got to change. Untouchability has been formally abolished, and even the Indian Constitution, in Article 17, recites equal protections for the Dalit people. Yet those words will remain without force, effect and meaning if those of us who can help to bring about the needed improvements for the Dalit people ignore our obligation and responsibility to do so.

From the strength of the American experience, is it possible for you to suggest some ways to Indian Dalits to come out from the wretchedness of slavery?

To come out from under this wretchedness, the Dalit people must first unite and stay united until their quest is realised. Mahatma Gandhi united India against the British. Now the downtrodden must unite against their oppressors. I do not support any violence, only seek justice for those who have been denied. Dalits must straighten their backs and demand equal rights. Because I do not live or walk in their shoes, I am not in the best position to tell them in detail what to do and how best to do it. But the key is to Organise, Organise, Organise. This is what propelled Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement to the successes that it eventually attained. There are many Dalits who have managed to get an education, to establish businesses, and to rise to places of prominence in Indian society. They must now lift the rest of the Dalit people, brothers and sisters, as they climb up the ladder to great success.

In African American society we often speak of “the Talented Tenth”. This is a reference to the estimated 10 per cent of the African American people that were educated or had attained economic success by the late 19th/early 20th century. These men and women became the spokespersons for the remaining 90 per cent. Many of them were intellectuals who proved themselves to be as smart and resourceful as any white person. It was not easy for them to prevail as the Caucasian opposition was likewise united, determined, and outnumbering. But with tenacity and organisation, both the courts and the U.S. Congress, often begrudgingly, eventually recognised that a time for change had come and that that time was now—enactment and enforcement of basic civil rights legislation to benefit all of the citizens, and the access to equal opportunities.

This is a step-by-step process, and today we have an African American President. This achievement did not occur overnight, but with a steady progression from 1619 [when the first slaves were imported into North America] until 2008 [President Barack Obama’s election]. Do not be discouraged, but step up and stand up for yourselves, your children, and future generations.

What is your opinion on Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa Movement”?

Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa Movement” would not have appealed to me, and likewise it did not appeal to the overwhelming majority of African Americans at that time. It is still the case in 2013. Although we are people of African descent, we are Americans, native born, and an integral part of this great nation’s history and culture in every aspect. Although it was with blood, sweat, and tears, everyone knows, even if they prefer not to acknowledge it, that the enslaved built this country. The enslaved people built the White House, the U.S. Capitol building, and much of the nation’s infrastructure. Not all of it was African American, as our Native Americans, and the Chinese and Japanese were likewise involved. So why, after we made this place what it is, would we suddenly want to pick up stakes and not claim our just due. African Americans have fought in every war this nation has ever engaged in—proving, re-proving, and re-proving again that we are loyal. Therefore, we demand what is truly right and just.

Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X took different paths to achieve the same goal—the freedom of African Americans. How do you see Luther King Jr?

Dr King was a great man, a highly intellectual man. Like Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, he was widely read and was an inspiration to his people. And like him, Dr King also faced rebellion and impatience within the ranks as the foot soldiers became angry and agitated at the seeming slow pace of any progress. But Dr King knew that power is not easily given away and that a struggle and perseverance must first become a part of the equation. He never lost sight of that fact and died fighting for that cause. Although he died at 39, truly, he did not die in vain. Such is typical of many great leaders who died before the realisation of their mission. Yet, the dreamer who set things in motion survives as others took up the mantle and saw it through. Ambedkar is not here physically, but others are capable and able to pick up his mantle. They must do so—NOW!!!

Malcolm X became a modern-day legend. What is the relevance of his Nation of Islam movement in post-September 11 America?

There is no one answer or solution to any problem. And Malcolm X saw that as a reality. Although his approach was more activist and threatening than Dr King’s, both Malcolm and the Nation mellowed some, in my estimation, as they both realised that change was coming and was coming fairly soon. In the post-September 11th era, Malcolm X’s message may still resonate with some as this message spoke truth to power and reminded everyone, especially those who were obstructing the rights of African Americans, that if those rights were not soon accorded there was an alternative approach, one that would prove to be not to their liking. In 2013, the full essence of Malcolm X is somewhat diluted but not to the extent that he is forgotten. Those who would try to forget or obliterate his message would commit a serious error.

Recently, the European Parliament passed some important resolutions on the Dalit issue. Do you have any plan to do lobby for the same in the U.S.?

The exact approach that our group—including The Quander Historical Society, the Dalit Freedom Network, and Gye Nyame—will take once the Declaration of Empathy is signed is yet to be decided. However, I would not consider the execution of the declaration as mission accomplished. We will need to carry on and urge the U.S. Congress to help us continue in our efforts. We recognise that we are not Indian citizens, and likewise do not wish to become embedded in a human rights dispute in India. Our message is that Dalits themselves, joined by like-minded fellow Indian citizens, must stand up for themselves, assert themselves continually, until justice is done.

In the unipolar world, the U.S. is seen as the global police. This authority also gives responsibility. Do you have any suggestion to make your country more responsible towards the issues of the oppressed people of the world?

This is a difficult question, and a satisfactory answer may prove to be elusive. The U.S. is but one nation. There are more than 180 nations in the world. The U.S. cannot possibly police every conflict, international issue, or satisfactorily address every wrong that had been done or continues to be done. However, we stand upon the preamble of the U.S. Constitution and its assertion “that all men are created equal”. That phrase applies equally to women, to blacks, to Native Americans, and, from the U.S. perspective, to the entire world. But being able to enforce, or play the role of “global police”, is another issue entirely. The U.S. cannot be a global enforcer. No nation on earth can accomplish that. We have done far more than our share, and almost universally been condemned for interfering into the internal affairs of other nations. Yet we still continue to do so from time to time. I do not believe that we have imperialistic goals, as some assert, but rather the message is for truth, right and justice. But we are human too, and the U.S. often fails to measure up to whatever we execute as our plan and hope. Still, we must act from time to time and inspire others to act upon their own behalf.

African American literature is one of the major sources of inspiration for Dalits. Can you build a forum for cooperation between African American and Dalit writers?

Forum and platform building requires special effort. At this point we are not yet focussed upon an exchange of literary ideas between African American and Dalit writers. However, the forum scheduled at Howard University, also in early January, could be an initial effort of this exchange. I would hope, though, that as the knowledge of what we are seeking to accomplish in this effort becomes more widely known, there will be opportunities for exchanges between African American and Dalit writers. As you know, the first steps to breaking barriers often come through cultural exchange, which tears down the walls of uncertainty. I would think then that having intellectual and artistic writing be translated into both Tamil and English would be a first step. There are many accomplished writers in both groups, and they and we both need to know what they are saying as this will help us to better understand one another, and likewise effectuate changes where they need to be—in both cultures and societies.

D. Ravikumar is a Tamil Dalit writer.

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