The battle for social justice in India is against  discrimination based  on   caste system.  Discrimination in  U.S.  is on colour of skin of the Afro-Americans.  It was Periyar and Ambedkar who fought for  social justice in India, while Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, fought for the rights of the Black in the U.S.  Martin Luther King  received  Margaret Sanger Award for “his courageous resistance to bigotry and his lifelong dedication to the advancement of social justice and human dignity”. 

His fight for civil rights of the Negros  was rightly described as one for social justice in this Award.  It is not, therefore, surprising  that in his fight for civil rights, he adopted the same  method  as for Harijan uplift on the part of Mahatma Gandhi in India.  He named his society after Gandhi and followed   the philosophy  of  Thoreau on civil disobedience and Gandhi  for passive resistance.  In a lecture series, which he initiated under the title “American Race Crisis”,  he referred to a remark of  Jawaharlal Nehru during a  conservation  on the sad conditions of  Afro-Americans comparable to that of Indian’s  untouchables.  

History of social discrimination

Discrimination has been  universal.  Men are born free, but they are  every where in chains said Karl Marx from economic point of view.  But the chains binding  the lower classes of society are even throttling,  since  one can  raise about economic backwardness, but not social backwardness,  when you are either a shudra in India or a Negro in  U.S.,    a burden which cannot be cast away at one’s will.  

Slavery has existed from the  dawn of  history.  In ancient Greece,  the population was divided into three main classes, which were politically and legally distinct.  The fourth class was at the lowest being slaves  reminiscent of four fold classification (Chatur varna) among the  Hindus.  George H. Sabine in “History  of Political Theory” points out that in  ancient  Greece, slavery  was taken for granted even  as feudal  ranks were  taken for granted in the Middle Ages.  
The lot of slaves was even defended by the leisure class.  Robert E. Lee in U.S. in 1856 wrote:

“The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things. How long their servitude may be necessary is known and ordered by a merciful Providence.”

Even a historian like Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America  justified the  continuation of segregation on account of  racial differences.  The slaves were claimed to have been  better looked after by their masters.  George Fitzhugh said that a Negro  is little  better grown up child and must be governed as a child.  The slavery was sought to be made light of by Congressmen in the U.S. in those days as nothing more than  an employment for life compensated by a life with  “no starvation, no begging, no want of employment”.  

The position in Europe has not been different.  One has only to refer to  Code Noir promulgated by Louis XIV to regulate the slave trade and institution of slavery.  In Louisiana, the French colony in the U.S.,  the Code was adopted.  This Code did recognise  for the slaves the right to marry, but prescribed corporal  punishment  for dereliction of the tasks entrusted  to them.  One of the punishments was to separate married couples.  Children could be separated  from their mothers.  The slaves  were also to be instructed  Catholic faith conceding that the slaves too had a soul, a matter on which apparently  there had been some  differences!   

In all the States in U.S., religion whether Protestant or Catholic  strictly discouraged inter-racial relationships with segregation common in churches.

Extreme care  was taken to eliminate the risk of slave rebellions.  Voices  were sometimes raised on  moral grounds as well as practical reasons to oppose slavery, but vigorously opposed by  slave merchants.  During most  part of the British colonial history, slavery existed.  In 1703, more than 40 per cent  New York city  households  had slaves.  In the South, labour intensive agricultural produce like indigo, rice, tobacco and cotton, which  were major crops, required manual labour.   In South Carolina,  65 per cent of the population  was enslaved.  

The Constitution of the United States in 1797  permitted a tax on import of slaves  at ten dollars each. It was in 1807, the Importation of Slaves Act was adopted to bar import.  These steps affected economy of the Southern States aggravated by Abraham Lincoln’s call for abolition of slavery resulting in the civil war.  But slavery continued  for a few decades thereafter.

The conditions  of the Black people continued to be  degrading.  Emancipation proclamation  by an executive order of the President Lincoln  changed the legal status of the slaves, who were made free.  But the fight for social status was a long drawn one.  Notwithstanding the 13th Constitutional Amendment,  involuntary  servitude continued.  Many were re-enslaved  with shocking brutality.  Segregation for Black was the rule.  Black schools  were manned by Black teachers in the South.  It was as late as 2007, an apology for involuntary servitude was organised  in the Virginia General Assembly.   

Martin Luther King’s contribution

Martin Luther King Jr, a pastor,  used the power of  the church to bring some sanity  in approach to the problem of discrimination.  He  was constantly  engaged in the fight against segregation with  the authorities on  one side and the die hard extremists  like Malcolm and Ku Klux Klan on the other.   Blacks were kicked,  ejected  from the churches and thrown  into jails.  When things went out of hand, King called off  the demonstrations  and  held a day of penance following Gandhi’s method and was criticised  for surrender  to the Government.  But he provoked  mass arrests  thereafter,   had them widely publicised, when protestors  were sought to be  dispersed with high pressure water jets and police dogs.

King was arrested and jailed, his 13th arrest  out of 29.  From his cell, he composed the now-famous letter which called for a relentless movement to pursue  legal channels for social change. He said, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”  He pointed out that the Boston Tea Party, a celebrated act of rebellion in the American colonies was illegal and conversely, what Adolf Hitler did  in Germany was legal!  This was his explanation to justify defiance of law to vindicate the rights.

 King also expresses his frustration with white moderates and clergymen too timid to oppose an unjust system.  The Whites justified the attack on the Blacks by pleading the law and order and advised Negros to wait for a “more convenient season”.  It was then  he made the famous “I have a dream” speech which took the U.S.  by storm.  It is worth repeating:

“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its Governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little White Boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today”

The above speech is one of the  finest orations  in the history for inspiring  the affected.  

Civil rights movement on a  Sunday in 1965 turned out  to be a “Bloody Sunday”  because of mass violence provoked by police violence.  King then  became desperate   and wrote that equal rights for African Americans could not be far away, “because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.  The battle was to go  on till it succeeded.   He  wanted  housing and means of alleviation of  poverty for the poor and wrote a book on the subject calling for “Economic Bill of Rights for Poor Americans with the title “Where  Do We Go From Here? – Chaos or Community?”.  

The place where  Martin Luther King  was assassinated on 4th April, 1968 now houses National Civil Rights Museum.    

Reverse discrimination

Vested interests are  bound to ensure that they are  not divested by all means.  It is, therefore, not  surprising  that all kinds of arguments are  canvassed against reservation policy for schools and colleges and for jobs.  Both in U.S. and  India, the argument is that  merit gets ignored in the process.  Merit is  assumed to be the privilege of higher castes.  A  DNA theory  of inherited genes goes round making the twice-borns to be the sole depositories of merit. 

Though this kind of argument is a silent one prompted in India, there has been a parallel but more open  development in the U.S.  where the Whites have openly canvassed  the view that the Blacks are mentally  inferior  with a pseudo-scientific approach  to support this absurd proposition.   It was opposed by an equally fanciful theory, by Lysenko, a  Russian agronomist, that acquired characteristics can be inherited.  

A new theory to oppose  reservation  in favour of  the Negros  was styled in America as “reverse discrimination”, which is supposed to  be the result of reservation for the Blacks.  In both India and U.S. there is a plea to adopt  economic criteria so as to dilute the reservation system. In India, reservation for women  including political reservation is talked about, but  it is claimed, that   open/ general/ non-reserved categories  results in significant reverse discrimination  and affects the poorer sections of the  unreserved classes.  The lesser qualifying  marks for the reserved category comes in for heavy criticism.

 The question of reverse discrimination has come up not only with reference to  the colour of the skin but also of the sex due to competition of women  in recent times especially in educational and medical fields.  In the case of women,  it is stated that no preference should be given to them because of  prosperity of their husbands!  It is pleaded in the US that preference  shown to the Negros or women or the aged has resulted in a “mismatch” hurting the  society as a whole.  

Both in India and  U.S.,  number of cases  are being filed on the plea of reverse discrimination.  In U.K. too, criticism  of the policy is evident from an Article written by David Rosin, a former Vice President of Royal College of Surgeons lamenting  “it is time that someone  spoke of concerning the reverse discrimination” adding  that “female and  ethnic minority consultants are being given preferential treatment to meet artificial quotas”.    

In  U.S.,  preference on the basis of race (colour) was challenged unsuccessfully in 2003 in Gruttar Vs. Bollimger, when race was held to be a diversity factor as justifying  the affirmative action in admission in University of Michigan Law School.  

Propaganda that reservation undermine the quality of standards in the U.S. is persistent. A similar propaganda in India is that the present malaise of corruption and inefficiency  is on account of reservation policy, though a statistical study is bound  to expose the absurdity of this mischievous claim.  

There has been a conflict between  law on equal opportunity on  one hand and the law against  discrimination  in other in the Courts  in U.S. and Indian Courts.  


Martin Luther King is no more,  but the battle is  on.  Election of Obama as the President  is a significant success for  social justice platform in the U.S.   In India, the progress is tardy with a long long way to go.  The battle for  social justice by way of agitation for civil rights  in U.S. is a lesson for fighters for social justice in the  rest of the world  and more so in India.  Notwithstanding  rights   under the Constitution or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, equality is still a dream. Men like Martin Luther King and Abdul Kalam dreamt for a better world. So do we. Will our dreams only be dreams?

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