By Barry Rodriguez
On my last trip to India, I had the opportunity to attend an anti-discrimination rally with Sunil Sardar, the leader of Truthseekers. This was nothing new. I had attended several rallies with Sunil already. But this time, a funny thing happened.
I was walking in to find a seat, when all of a sudden the organizer of the rally walked up to me, grabbed my arm and ushered me toward the stage. Even though I didn’t understand just what was going on, I followed him.
After climbing a short stairway, I removed my shoes and walked to where he pointed. There, on the stage between two mustachioed men, was my seat.
I sat down on the floor, cross-legged like everyone else around me, shook the hand of the man sitting next to me, then looked out over the audience. The faces of 400 Indian men stared back at me.
Somehow, I had ended up sitting on the stage at a rally in Meerut, India like one of the honored guests. I was the only Westerner for miles and I didn’t understand a word that was being said.
I shook my head and chuckled to myself. You just never quite know where you’ll end up when you’re hanging with Sunil…
The Seed is Planted
Sunil began his fight for justice decades ago in rural Maharashtra (an influential state in central India). Frustrated by the corruption and exploitation happening in his region, Sunil became the leader of a farmer’s union and began a campaign to bring equal rights to the farmers he represented.
After several years in this position, Sunil came to realize that the problem was not simply a matter of economics. There was a deeper layer of injustice keeping his people in the grip of poverty.
It was around this time that Sunil began reading the work of Jyotirao Phule, one of a long line of Indian social reformers fighting for the rights of the oppressed.
Phule, who lived in the 1800s, did many things to shake up the deeply entrenched ideas of caste his community. He educated his wife (unheard of at that time), let Untouchables drink out of his well and contextualized the Christian Gospel into ideas and practices that actually made sense to the lower castes.
Reading Phule’s work ignited a fire within Sunil’s heart. He began dreaming about what it would look like for the seedlings of change he had planted with Maharashtra’s farmers to spread across all of India.
Gathering other influential leaders, thinkers and activists around him, Sunil re-energized Phule’s “Society for the Seekers of Truth” (changing its name to “Truthseekers International”) and began leveraging his own considerable influence to fulfill his life’s overarching purpose: the transformation of India through the power of the kingdom of God.
Today, Sunil spends his time meeting with caste leaders and politicians, attending rallies and welcoming young social reformers to spend time with him at his office in New Delhi.
It may seem a bit random and disjointed. But as I tagged along with Sunil through endless traffic jams and countless cups of chai, I began to see the overarching purpose in what he does.
One of Sunil’s most important activities is meeting with the many powerful people he has come to know throughout the years. By harnessing their influence, he is able to extend the reach of Truthseekers far beyond that of his own.
One day, for example, I found myself sitting on the bed in a hotel room as Sunil spoke with a former Member of Parliament. This man, a caste leader for more than 70 million gypsies, was preparing to make a big announcement. As of that afternoon, he said, the Banjara caste was leaving Hinduism.
Although the gesture was largely symbolic, Sunil encouraged the man, telling him that he was not alone in his struggle for justice. He reminded him of other influential Indians who had left the caste system and planted the seed that perhaps the God of the Bible should be the one Banjaras should follow.
Sunil regularly meets with such people in power and often takes them along with him for Truthseekers’ footwashing events. By influencing those on the top, Sunil hopes to bring about significant change for those on the bottom.
But not all of Sunil’s activities are geared towards the powerful. Much of his work happens simply by being present for the many powerless people who come by the Truthseekers office throughout the week.
Songwriters, farmers, poets, potters… Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims… a motley stream of the weak, the ostracized and those attempting to reform the system from below, all coming to see what this radical movement of equality is all about.
One day I met a man at the office named Sharafat Hussain Siddiqui. A Muslim imam, he was once a revered and respected leader of his community. But after reading some confusing things about Jesus in the Koran, he turned to the Christian Bible for answers.
Today, he runs what he calls a “modern madrassa,” a school where he teaches both Islam and Christianity to his students. It’s a controversial idea, but he has found a community of supporters in Truthseekers and a fellow revolutionary in Sunil.
There are many others, and their stories are all unique.
The leader of a stone-carving caste wanting to copy Truthseeker’s worship style in his hometown, doctoral students from local universities, interested in learning more, the family of a man murdered in a caste power-struggle, looking for justice and protection…
With each one, Sunil takes time and energy to hear their stories and encourage them in their struggles. He tells his visitors the story of Phule, and tirelessly shares, again and again, about the caste-less kingdom of God and the awesome power of Jesus Christ.
It really is a movement, and every day it continues to grow…
As I sat on the stage at the rally in Meerut, I could see Sunil sitting on the other side. He was shaking hands, smiling as he greeted the other guest speakers.
As he stepped up to the podium, I knew one thing for sure.
I may have been out of place and awkward up on that stage. But Sunil?
He was right at home…