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With the sun streaming through the open double doors of the Truthseekers International office, I sat down in a white plastic chair, leaned back, and started scribbling notes on a piece of folded scratch paper I had rummaged from the bottom of my bag. I’m lucky I even had a pen with me. Aren’t we all glad I’m a professional? But that’s generally how things go around here in India – one moment I’ll be doing something and then I’ll get taken by the elbow and told to talk to so-and-so about this or that. No context is usually given as to who they are or why I should be talking to them…and then there’s the language barrier so I have to use an interpreter to ask in the least rude way possible, “So…who are you?”
So when I started interviewing Nawkelal Prajapati I didn’t really know what I was getting into. Obed, my interpreter, started out by saying, “He is a Truthseeker!” I love that term and I’m getting used to hearing it around here. It’s often synonymous with being a Christian, but not necessarily. It really is exactly what it says it is. And shouldn’t that ultimately be what we all are?
Anyway, I introduced myself and explained my purpose here in New Delhi and my position as a fellow with World Next Door. Nawkelal nodded in affirmation and responded with, “My personal story is quite long, and usually I have four or five hours to share” (ah, Indian culture!). I smiled back and said, “How does twenty minutes sound?” (I’ve learned it’s best to set a time limit and let it go from there. Twenty minutes would likely turn into an hour, anyway.)
So he gave a little head wobble of affirmation and jumped into his narrative. He is from the Prajapati caste, which is part of the OBC (other backward class) community here in India. The OBCs make up over 52% of the entire population of India, and while most OBCs would not be considered “untouchable,” in some areas of rural India, they continue to be viewed in that manner.
“About a decade ago,” Nawkelal began, “something happened to me that changed my life forever.” He was on his way from one village to another, aboard a local bus. As is customary here in India, multiple tea breaks are expected along the road, even for short distances. So at one such stop, he took the steps down off of the bus, got himself a seat inside the tea shop, and began to sip a steaming cup of chai.
The shop owner approached him, in a rage, and demanded to know what caste Nawkelal was from. “I am from the Prajapati caste,” he replied. This infuriated the shop owner even more and before Nawkelal could take another sip, the shop owner insisted he put down his cup immediately. “You have spoiled my cup! You have spoiled this entire shop! I can never use these dishes again!” he shouted, and then ordered him to pay for every cup in the entire place.
Nawkelal shook his head and pleaded with the owner, saying there was no way he could afford to replace every single cup. “You should write a notice at the entrance of your shop if my people aren’t allowed inside,” he said. As he argued, the proprietor had gathered around him other angry patrons, and Nawkelal realized there was no way he could fight back. So he paid for the chai and the cup it came in and left quickly, but not before hurling it violently against the side of the wall.
As he hurried back into the bus to wait for it to push out, he noticed a feral dog skulking at the front of the shop, urinating to mark its territory. The shop owner looked on but did nothing. This infuriated Nawkelal even more and he stepped outside of the bus once again to confront him. “You throw me, an educated man, out of your shop for ‘spoiling’ your cups, but this dog is free to do what it wishes?” The owner replied, steadying his eyes, “The dog was innocent, but you came in here knowing you are an untouchable.”
After a slight pause in his narrative, Nuwkalel looked right at me, his eyes dark and his eyebrows lowered, “In India’s caste system, man’s dignity is lower than a dog’s urine. If this is happening to me, what must be happening in the villages every day?”
Something changed in him that day, and he knew he was called to something bigger, something greater, maybe even something revolutionary. He realized then that the Hindu caste system, left to itself, would never cease to be anything but sorrow for the OBC and Dalit (untouchable) communities. He began to gain a following, encouraging everyone he met to convert out of Hinduism. “It doesn’t matter what religion – Muslim, Buddhist, Christian – just don’t be a Hindu.”
In 2006, Nuwkalel met Sunil Sardar, founder of Truthseekers International, and that’s when his life was radically transformed. He was led to Christianity and was baptized shortly thereafter. In his own state of Madhya Pradesh, he began to lead a movement of other OBCs against hypocrisy within the government and demanded educational reform. In his mind, the kind of hatred he endured in that tea shop was being perpetuated by a lack of education at the most basic level.
So he stepped up and followed his new calling and is now leading thousands along with him. It is his dream that in 2016, on this platform of educational reform for the low-castes and untouchables, he and others like him will begin to be voted into Parliament, giving hope to millions of Indians. He and Truthseekers are working together as we speak to make this dream a reality.
These are the kinds of stories that I both love and hate to hear. To know that this kind of discrimination is happening, not only here in India, but worldwide, is almost too much to bear. Honestly, I think it’s why a lot of us tend to look the other way when it comes to global injustice, because if we think about too much, well, we will either be paralyzed by the weight of it, or desensitized to it completely.
Here’s what I know to be true. Our character grows the most when we experience suffering, pain, and heartbreak. Through trials, our resolve is strengthened. The ones whose story is the most tragic are often the ones who are the most resilient and have the most influence. On the one hand, no one wants to suffer (at least not too much) but it’s that very thing that can give us the will and the determination to actually make a difference in the world.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. What Truthseekers is doing here in India is not easy to quantify. There are no cut and dried results. Caste reconciliation is not necessarily a problem that pulls at your heartstrings like other issues might. That doesn’t make it any less important.
As I have spent over a month here in India, whether it’s sitting around the table at the TSI offices or enduring a train ride to the rural villages or simply enjoying dinner in my host’s living room, it is beyond clear that Truthseekers is influencing their culture from the inside out in ways that I, as a Westerner, never could. Please remain faithful in praying for these courageous warriors as they continue in the fight.
Until next time,
About the Author: Sarah is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She has her undergraduate degree in Business Communication from Azusa Pacific University in Southern California and is currently working on her Masters degree in Organizational Leadership. Sarah recently finished a two and a half year assignment working for an anti-trafficking NGO in Kathmandu, Nepal, where she had the opportunity to mentor and lead college students in ministry abroad. She is mildly obsessed with Jeopardy, coffee, running, and the Atlanta Falcons.