Colombo, September 17 (The Citizen): Caste discrimination is part of the ideological baggage that upper-caste Indians carry when they migrate to the US.
And the Dalits, who migrate to the US to avoid discrimination and humiliation in India, find that these follow them to the US.
“As culture travels from India to the Diaspora, as language travels, as cuisine travels, so does caste, ” Sangay K. Mishra, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Drew University, told the New York Times. Mishra is the author of Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans.(University of Minnesota Press, 2016).
The subject of Dalit discrimination in the US is being much talked about now because migration to the US is mounting and people of all castes are migrating, though the upper castes vastly outnumber the lower castes and the Dalits. According to the US census, there were 4.9 million Indians in the US in 2021. There are no caste-wise figures yet.
However, an increasing number of Dalits go to the US these days, having acquired higher education since independence. They have also begun complaining of discrimination and casteist slurs from fellow Indians belonging to the upper castes.
In a few cases, the Dalits have lodged formal complaints of discrimination and are campaigning through the media and protest meetings. In California they are trying to get legislation passed to ban caste discrimination.
But this has set off alarm bells amongst the upper caste majority in the US, who also too protest saying that the Dalits’ campaign is unfounded and is actually a motivated “slur against Hinduism”.
Organized as “Hindus” rather than “upper castes” they are lobbying against legislations to ban caste discrimination. The upper castes’ plea is that there is no caste discrimination among Indians in the US.
Caste discrimination has been talked about and written about in the mainstream US media since at least 2018. In its September 8 edition, New York Times (NYT) reported that California could become the first State in the US to ban caste bias. A bill to this effect was tabled earlier in the month.
The NYT quoted Ramesh Suman, a real estate agent in Antioch, California, as saying that one of his clients refused to see a house after saying that it looked like it belonged to a Dalit. Bhim Narayan Bishwakarma a Dalit from Nepal, recalled how a landlord accepted his deposit but reneged on the deal after learning that he was a Dalit. Bishwakarma said he was shocked when he faced discrimination in the US having run away from his native Nepal only to escape caste discrimination.
Dr. Promila Dhanuka, a Dalit oncologist, said that when some Indian American doctors learnt that she was a Dalit, they stopped referring patients to her. Sunita Singh, a Ravidassia Sikh, a Dalit group, said that when she arrived in the US in the early 1980s she was given separate pots and pans at the Sikh temple. The Ravidassias have since put up their own temples.
“Nowhere in the United States has the subject of caste discrimination been as prominent — or as divisive — as in California,” comments the NYT . California is full of tech firms which employ thousands of Indians, the majority of them are upper caste.
A Dalit techie said that at lunch one day, a Caste Hindu colleague was defending the caste system. After the Dalit techie interjected to expose the evils of the caste system, he started receiving lower performance ratings and was eventually reassigned to the company’s office in India.
In 2020, the California State’s Civil Rights Department accused two engineers in Cisco System of caste discrimination in a landmark lawsuit. The Cisco lawsuit cited a Dalit engineer who came forward saying two of his upper-caste managers were openly enforcing caste hierarchies in the office. The lawsuit said that after the employee went to HR with a complaint, he was denied promotions.
The case was ultimately dropped and refiled in a county court, but many Dalit tech workers nationwide said that the allegations resonated with them.
In September this year, the California State Legislature sent a bill to Governor Gavin Newsom that could make California the first state to expressly prohibit caste bias.
Aisha Wahab, an Afghan American Democratic Senator in California, had introduced the caste discrimination bill. A feisty campaigner against caste discrimination, Wahab said: “The more diverse California becomes, the more diverse our laws have to be, and the further we have to go to protect more people.”
Wahab has a number of Indian women working with her to end discrimination against the Dalits. Among them is a firebrand from Tamil Nadu, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder of Equality Labs.
When Thenmozhi found anti-Dalit discrimination in Google, headed by Sundar Pichai, a Tamil Brahmin, she wanted to organize a talk at Google on the issue in the US corporate sector. But Google denied her permission on the grounds that the meeting’s subject was too divisive.
Wahab and Soundararajan faced fierce opposition from the upper caste denizens of Silicon Valley. These “Hindu groups” argued that existing laws were sufficient to fight discrimination and insisted that caste discrimination was abolished in India decades ago.
Praveen Sinha, a professor of accounting at California State University, Long Beach, filed a lawsuit in 2022 challenging the university’s adding “caste” in its anti-discrimination policy. His plea was that the law could be misused by lower castes to make baseless charges to spite fellow employees or bosses or to escape punishment for poor performance.
It was in view of the chorus of protests by the upper caste majority that the California Legislature amended Senator Aisha Wahab’s bill to make caste a “subset of ancestry discrimination” and not a separate category by itself.
But that did not satisfy the critics. Some said that writing caste into State law will draw unwanted attention and give currency to an outdated South Asian custom.
However the Dalits’ campaign is having an effect. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have started moderating caste-based hate speech on their platforms. Dell, Apple and Amazon now include caste-awareness in some employee manuals and trainings.
A spokesperson of Cisco told Reuters that the company was “committed to an inclusive workplace for all. We were fully in compliance with all laws as well as our own policies.”
People like Thenmozhi Soundararajan are proliferating because Dalit discrimination is widespread. There is a network of more than 30 anti-caste, and Ambedkarite organisations. Among them are the Ambedkar King Study Circle, Ambedkar International Center, Ambedkarite Buddhist Association of Texas, and the Boston Study Group. The North American network of Shri Guru Ravidassia centres and Sikh Gurdwaras around the US have also joined.
The South Asian Bar Association of North America, the voice of the South Asian legal community, and organizations fighting Islamophobia have extended suppor.t
Legal and caste scholars like Kevin Brown, Ann Ravel and Shailaja Paik, as well as groups like the Feminist Critical Hindu Studies Collective and Amnesty International, have written in support of the anti-caste work. Kshama Sawant who has been serving on the Seattle City Council since 2014 and is a member of the Socialist Alternative is playing a key role in Seattle. Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) is also fully backing the movement, by keeping the “House” informed.
Long-time civil and human rights leaders like Cornel West, Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy are backing the Dalits in their own way.