He leadership of a new generation of Dalit women–articulate, clear about strategy, and utterly fearless despite death threats and opposition from groups including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Hindu American Foundation
When Indians migrate, they can carry the prejudice of caste with them. The first comprehensive UN report on caste-based discrimination found at least 250 million people worldwide face dehumanizing discrimination, with women and girls vulnerable to sexual violence. (Shutterstock)
It’s hard to say when this story begins. Perhaps it’s 2015 when Dalit activist and author, The Trauma of Caste Thenmozhi Soundararajan co-founded Equality Labs with the goal of ending caste apartheid.
Perhaps it goes back to when a 10-year-old, United States-born Soundararajan asked her mother, immigrants to America in the 1970s, about her caste, learned she was an “untouchable”, shared this fact with a friend when she had gone over to play and was then served a snack on a paper plate.
Or perhaps it starts in 2020 when the state of California filed a lawsuit against Cisco for caste discrimination against a Dalit employee. Since that lawsuit, 250 Dalits from tech companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple have reported caste-based discrimination.
Regardless of where this story begins, it leads to February 21, 2023, the day Seattle legally banned caste discrimination.
India’s Constitution guarantees equal status to all citizens. We have a slew of laws, including the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, yet everyday caste-based violence is routine, rarely making headlines except in the most egregious cases, such as the death of Rohith Vemula and the rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Hathras that has, unsurprisingly, resulted in the acquittal of the four men charged by the CBI for the crime (the fourth was found guilty under the SC/ST act and for culpable homicide, not rape.)
Caste apartheid stains higher education, chief justice DY Chandrachud recently noted. Referring to the death by suicide on February 12 of 18-year-old Darshan Solanki, a Dalit student at IIT, Bombay, he said these “are not just statistics. They are stories sometimes of centuries of struggle.”
When Indians migrate, they can carry the prejudice of caste with them. The first comprehensive UN report on caste-based discrimination found at least 250 million people worldwide face dehumanizing discrimination, with women and girls vulnerable to sexual violence.
A 2018 Equality Labs survey documented caste discrimination in the US for the first time to find one in four Dalits had faced verbal or physical assault.
I have been listening to heartbreaking conversations where Dalit students speak about being “outed” when their entrance test marks are revealed, ergo students on reservation quotas, ergo ostracisation on campus.
The Seattle ordinance is remarkable for three reasons. First, it recognizes generational trauma and marks a significant step in ending it. “Today Seattle, tomorrow the nation,” Soundararajan told me on the phone.
Starting with Brandeis University in 2019, a growing number of universities, including the California state universities with 23 colleges, prohibit caste discrimination.
Second is its strategy in building a coalition of over 140 groups of oppressed people, including Dalits, Blacks, indigenous people, workers, and even dominant-caste Hindus, including Seattle councilwoman Kshama Sawant who led the vote.
But it’s the third which is more remarkable for me: The leadership of a new generation of Dalit women–articulate, clear about strategy, and utterly fearless despite death threats and opposition from groups including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Hindu American Foundation.
These include the 30 Dalit women engineers who, following the Cisco lawsuit, spoke up against the “casteist networks of Silicon Valley Tech” despite the risk of losing jobs and immigration status.
They include the Dalit feminists who broke the silence around caste violence by marching in 16 cities in 2015. This awareness-building eventually led to the first Congressional briefing on caste in 2019, co-hosted by Equality Labs, the Ambedkar Association of North America, and Api Chaya, which supports violence survivors.
The goal is healing and reconciliation, Soundararajan said. “People are sick of the pain. We are building a movement to free all oppressed people with love, empathy and care.”
Namita Bhandare writes on gender
The views expressed are personal