You cannot build a society based on lies. We talk of India becoming a military power and an economic powerhouse, but do not address the caste-based discrimination that is allencompassing. For the masses who face institutionalised discrimination on a daily basis, the only way out of this morass is through reconciliation,” says Sunil Sardar, as we sit talking in the balcony of his New Delhi residence, looking out over an ancient banyan tree.
A native of Maharashtra, in his early years, Sardar experienced at close quarters, the discrimination and despair that is the lot of the lower castes in India. He was deeply involved in the struggles of the common people, which tied his destiny to that of the lower castes. Sardar was instrumental in organising and leading a farmers’ protest in Maharashtra and fought for social justice and economic empowerment of the lower castes. He met his wife Pam, a schoolteacher from Indiana, US, through his work. Through the 1990s, Pam and Sunil worked together to realise their social mission in central India.
In 2003, Sunil and Pam founded Truthseekers International, to facilitate the reconciliation of India’s powerless millions. “We named it Truthseekers after The Society for the Seekers of Truth, founded in the 1800s by Jotirao Phule, the famous Indian social reformer who was a strong advocate for the lower castes of India,” says the social activist cum- spiritual reformer.
“From Kabir to Ravidas and Mahatma Phule, and from Buddha to BR Ambedkar, over the centuries, social reformers, thinkers and evangelists have spread the same message. That message is the redemption of the oppressed and the reconciliation of the exploited. This is truer in the India of today than ever before,” says Sardar, sporting a bright yellow cotton kurta and a Kullu-pattern winter cap.
“Discrimination against India’s lower castes is handed down through its traditions and its history and is codified in Brahminical scriptures. Ambedkar, the father of the Indian Constitution, described it in terms of ‘graded inequality’, thus bringing out the essentially evil and inhuman nature of this practice of exploitation based on perceived superiority,” he adds.
Speaking animatedly about his life’s work among India’s most marginalised sections, Sardar reveals that he applies a set of three criteria to gauge people’s commitment to the cause of the amelioration of the disempowered. “I look for three responses and it reveals the entire picture to me. What is your response to conversion? How do you look at the issue of remuneration and where do you stand on the matter of providing reservation for the backward classes and other exploited sections? This is a litmus test and it never fails,” says Sardar.
To realise its goal, Truthseekers International funds schools for the marginalised sections and organises foot-washing missions. “Foot-washing missions help rid one of ego and send out a message about the greater truth. In essence, the truth of God transcends caste,” says Sardar.
In the years ahead, Sardar is looking towards devoting his life to the cause of reintegration of the lower castes by means of a Commission of Reconciliation. “India can never truly achieve its fullest potential unless we bring about a reconciliation of the vast majority of the oppressed,” he asserts.
“In democratic India, an insidious plan has been in force in recent times to corrupt the term conversion, which is actually related to repentance. This potent force has been rendered wholly impotent. Though guaranteed in the Constitution, conversion is now considered political anathema and societal abuse. The challenge before the people in India is to redeem this word,” says Sardar. “Because it is this one decisive act — of repentance, conversion, turning around, renewing the mind — that alone sets one free from all illusion, falsehood and deception.”
Taking a sip of tea from a ceramic mug with ‘Tokyo’ written on it, Sardar looks towards his wife Pam and says his life is devoted to the cause of reconciliation and that a careful scrutiny of historical events reveals its indelible impact on human life. Though somewhat unrealistic to many in this digitised world, he says conversion is a reality that mankind can only overlook at the peril of its own future and destiny.
“Native India has never opposed conversion. Conversion is a challenge and a scary thought to only the Brahmin, upper-caste political and religious leadership, which stands to gain the most out of maintaining a status quo in caste equations. The democratic right of franchise also has been turned on its head. Caste is now a handy tool to play vote-bank politics by self-serving caste leaders. But India’s caste-oppressed, along with many other marginalised groups, have always known conversion to be the only way out of mainstream Brahminical tyranny. Buddhism, Jainism, Sufism, Sikhism and the Bhakti revolution were all indigenous conversion movements that were gladly embraced by the suffering people of India,” says Sardar.
“At the tail-end of these end times, we are being called to be pro-active in an ongoing socio-spiritual movement. This is a call to expose the tyrannical lie of the millennia-old demonic ploy called caste. This call is not to convert India to the ‘Christian religion’ but to lead it into a living relationship with truth,” says Sardar. As the hour-long interview draws to a close, the winter chill manages to cast a shadow over a barely-visible January sun, forcing us to expedite the end of the interaction.
But not before Sardar says, in his inimitable, earnest manner, “For the sake of the future generations, this task must be completed by those from the present generations, from those in positions of empowerment and from those who can change the status quo.”