One of Kshama Sawant’s earliest memories of the caste system was hearing her grandfather – a man she “otherwise loved very much” – utter a gibberish to summon the lower-caste maid.
The Seattle city councilwoman, raised in an upper-caste Hindu Brahmin household in India, was 6 years old when she asked her grandfather why he used the derogatory word when he knew the girl’s name. He replied that his grandson “talked too much”.
Now 50, and an elected official in a city far from India, Sawant has proposed an ordinance to add caste to Seattle’s anti-discrimination laws. If her fellow council members approve it Tuesday, Seattle will become the first city in the United States to specifically ban caste discrimination.
In India, the origins of the caste system can be traced back 3,000 years as a social hierarchy based on one’s birth. While the definition of caste has evolved over the centuries, under both Muslim and British rule, the suffering of those at the bottom of the caste pyramid – known as Dalits, which in Sanskrit means “broken” – has continued.
In 1948, a year after independence from British rule, India outlawed discrimination on the basis of caste, a law enshrined in the nation’s constitution in 1950. Yet the undercurrents of caste continue to swirl in India’s politics, education, employment and even in India’s everyday social interactions. Caste-based violence, including sexual violence against Dalit women, remains widespread.
The national debate in the United States around caste has been centered in the South Asian community, causing deep divisions in the diaspora. Dalit activist-led organizations such as Oakland, California-based Equality Labs say caste discrimination is widespread in diaspora communities, showing up in the form of social alienation and discrimination in housing, education and the technology sector where South Asians play key roles.
The United States is the second most popular destination for Indians living abroad, according to the Migration Policy Institute, which estimates that the American diaspora grew from about 206,000 in 1980 to about 2.7 million in 2021. The group South Asian Americans Leading Together reports that nearly 5.4 million South Asians live in the US – up from the 3.5 million counted in the 2010 census. Most trace their roots to Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
There has been strong backlash to anti-caste-targeted anti-discrimination laws and policies from groups such as the Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America. They say such legislation would harm a community whose members are seen as “people of color” and already face hatred and discrimination.
But over the past decade, Dalit activism has garnered support from several corners of the diaspora, including from groups such as Hindus for Human Rights. In the last three years in particular, more people have identified as Dalits and publicly told their stories, fueling this movement.
Prem Pariyar, a Dalit Hindu from Nepal, becomes emotional as he talks about escaping caste violence in his home village. His family was brutally attacked for taking water from a community faucet, said Pariyar, who is now a social worker in California and serves on Alameda County’s Human Relations Commission. He moved to the United States in 2015, but says he could not escape stereotyping and discrimination because of his caste-identifiable surname, even as he tried to create a new one far from his homeland.
Motivated by the blatant caste discrimination he faced in his social and academic circles, Pariyar was a driving force behind becoming a protected category in the 23-campus California State University system in January 2022.
“I am fighting for Dalits to be recognized as human beings,” he said.
In December 2019, Brandeis University near Boston became the first American college to include caste in its non-discrimination policy. Colby College, Brown University and the University of California, Davis, have adopted similar measures. Harvard University introduced caste protections for student workers in 2021 as part of the contract with its graduate student union.
Laurence Simon, international development professor at Brandeis, said a university task force made the decision based “on the feelings and fears of students from marginalized communities.”
“For us, it was enough, although we did not hear of any serious allegations of caste discrimination,” he said. “Why do we have to wait for it to become a horrible problem?”
Among the most striking findings of a survey of 1,500 South Asians in the US by Equality Labs: 67% of Dalit respondents reported being treated unfairly in their workplace because of their caste and 40% of Dalit students surveyed reported being exposed to discrimination in education. institutions compared to only 3% of upper caste respondents. Also, 40% of Dalit respondents said they felt unwelcome at the place of worship because of their caste.
Caste must be a protected category under the law because Dalits and others adversely affected by it do not have a legal way to deal with it, said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and CEO of Equality Labs. Soundararajan’s parents, natives of Tamil Nadu in southern India, fled caste oppression in the 1970s and immigrated to Los Angeles, where she was born.
“We South Asians have so many difficult historical traumas,” she said. “But when we come to this country, we push all that under the rug and try to be a model minority. The shadow of caste is still there. It still destabilizes lives, families and communities.”
The trauma is transgenerational, she said. In her book “The Trauma of Caste”, Soundararajan writes of being devastated when she learned that her family members were considered “untouchables” in India. She recounts the hurt she felt when a friend’s mother, who was overcast, gave her a separate plate to eat from after learning about her Dalit identity.
“This battle over caste is a battle for our souls,” she said.
The American Dalit community is not monolithic on this issue. Aldrin Deepak, a gay, Dalit resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, said he has never faced caste discrimination in his 35 years in the US. He has decorated deities in local Hindu temples and has a number of community members to his house for Diwali celebrations.
“No one has asked me about my caste,” he said. “Making a problem where there is none only creates more fractures in our society.”
Nikunj Trivedi, president of the Coalition of Hindus in North America, sees the caste narrative as “completely twisted.” Caste-based laws that single out Indian Americans and Hindu Americans are unacceptable, he said.
“The understanding of Hinduism is poor in this country,” Trivedi said. “Many people think caste is equal to Hinduism, which is simply not true. There is diversity of thought, belief and practice within Hinduism.”
Trivedi said Seattle’s proposed policy is dangerous because it is not based on reliable data.
“There is a heavy reliance on anecdotal reports,” he said, suggesting that it would be difficult to confirm someone’s caste. “How can people who know very little or nothing about caste decide questions arising from it?”
Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, called Seattle’s proposed ordinance unconstitutional because “it singles out and targets an ethnic minority and seeks to institutionalize implicit bias against a community.”
“It sends that message that we are an inherently large society that needs to be monitored,” Shukla said.
Caste is already covered by the current set of anti-discrimination laws, which provide protection for race, ethnicity and religion, she said.
Legislation related to caste is not about targeting any community, said Nikhil Mandalaparthy, deputy executive director of Hindus for Human Rights. The Washington, DC-based group supports the proposed caste ordinance.
“Caste must be a protected category because we want South Asians to have similar access to opportunities and not face discrimination in workplaces and educational settings,” he said. “Sometimes it means airing the dirty laundry of society in public to make it known that caste-based discrimination is not acceptable.”
Councilor Sawant said the legal complaint is necessary because current anti-discrimination laws are not enough. Sawant, who is a socialist, said the ordinance is supported by several groups, including Amnesty International and the Alphabet Workers Union, which represents workers employed by Google’s parent company.
More than 150,000 South Asians live in Washington state, with many employed in the technology sector where Dalit activists say caste-based discrimination has disappeared. The issue was in the spotlight in 2020 when California regulators sued Cisco Systems, saying a Dalit Indian engineer faced caste discrimination at the company’s headquarters in Silicon Valley.
Sawant said the ordinance does not single out one community but explains how caste discrimination crosses national and religious boundaries. A 2016 United Nations report said at least 250 million people worldwide still face caste discrimination in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Pacific regions, as well as in various diaspora communities. Caste systems exist among Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Muslims and Sikhs.
Among the diaspora, many Dalits pushing for an end to caste discrimination are not Hindus. Nor are they all from India.
DB Sagar faced caste oppression growing up in the 1990s in northern Nepal, not far from the Buddha’s birthplace. He fled it and emigrated to the United States in 2007. Sagar says he still bears physical and emotional scars from the repression. His family was Dalit and practiced elements of both Hinduism and Buddhism, and felt shunned by both faiths.
“We were not allowed to participate in village festivals or enter temples,” he said. “Buddhists did not allow anyone from the Dalit community to become monks. You can change your religion, but you still cannot escape your caste identity. If converting to another religion was a solution, people would be free from caste discrimination now.”
At school, Sagar was made to sit on a separate bench. He was once caned by the school principal for drinking from a water jug in the classroom that Dalits were barred from using. They thought his touch would pollute the water.
Sagar said he was shocked to see similar attitudes emerge in social settings among the American diaspora. His experiences motivated him to start the International Commission on Dalit Rights. In 2014, he organized a march from the White House to Capitol Hill demanding that caste discrimination be recognized under the American Civil Rights Act.
His organization is currently looking into about 150 housing discrimination complaints from Dalit Americans, he said. In one case, a Dalit man in Virginia said his landlord rented out a basement but prevented him from using the kitchen because of his caste.
“Caste is an issue of social justice, period,” he said.
Like Sagar, Arizona resident Shahira Bangar is Dalit. But she is a practicing Sikh and her parents fled caste oppression in Punjab, India. Her parents never discussed caste when she was young, but she learned the truth in her teens when she attended high school in Silicon Valley surrounded by high-caste Punjabi friends who belonged to the upper, landowning Jat caste.
She felt left out when her friends played ‘Jat pride’ music and when a friend’s mother used her caste identity as a slip.
“I felt this deep sadness of not being accepted by my own community,” Bangar said. “I felt betrayed.”
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