Kshama Sawant is a prominent socialist politician, economist, and activist based in Seattle, Washington. She was born in Pune in 1973, grew up, studied, and worked in Mumbai until 1996. Sawant studied computer science and graduated from the University of Mumbai in 1994. After working as a software engineer for a year and a half, she accompanied her husband, Vivek Sawant, an engineer with Microsoft, to the US. She studied economics, obtained a PhD from the North Carolina State University in 2003, moved to Seattle in 2006, and joined Socialist Alternative that same year.
She currently serves as a dedicated member of the Seattle City Council, representing District 3. Sawant is renowned for her tireless advocacy for progressive policies, including the introduction of a $15 minimum wage, rent control measures, and a tax on large corporations to fund affordable housing initiatives. Her impressive track record of social activism has earned her international recognition, and she is widely regarded as a leading voice for social and economic justice in the United States.
Sawant successfully pushed for the Seattle City Council to pass a ban on caste discrimination, making it the first city in the United States to do so. The legislation prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste in employment, housing, public accommodations, and other areas.
In this exclusive , in-depth interview with The Mooknayak, Kshama Sawant shared her views on the needed ban on caste discrimination, her perspective on the issue, need for the creation of a new political party for the working & oppressed faction and the significance of this legislation for the South Asian community and beyond -:
Why is it important to address caste discrimination specifically in the US, and how prevalent is this issue?
Caste discrimination is a very serious issue in the United States. Dalit community members from South Asia and other oppressed-caste immigrant community members often face discrimination, especially in the workplace, including in the tech sector. Data from Equality Labs show that one in four caste-oppressed people faced physical and verbal assault, one in three faced education discrimination, and two in three (sixty seven percent) faced workplace discrimination. A Carnegie Endowment for International Peace study also found workplace caste-based discrimination to be a pervasive reality for caste-oppressed workers in the United States.
What about the dalit women professionals working in the US?
In a public letter published anonymously, thirty Dalit women software engineers documented the systematic caste bias they had experienced in hiring, referrals, and peer review, and the insults and demeaning comments they had endured. The workers described the caste discrimination and sexism they faced as “dominant caste locker room culture at its worst.” Men or Women, almost everyone have had the same experience.
The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing won an appeals court ruling in August, 2022, to proceed with a lawsuit alleging that a Dalit engineer at Cisco Systems—a multi billion-dollar tech conglomerate—was actively targeted by his dominant-caste managers, and denied professional opportunities, such as a raise and promotions, because of his caste background. As a columnist in The New York Times wrote, the “technology giant got away with ignoring the persistent caste discrimination because American laws don’t yet recognize caste discrimination as a valid form of exclusion,” allowing companies to operate “in willful ignorance of the terrifying realities of caste.”
After that lawsuit was initially announced, nearly 260 tech workers talked about the caste discrimination they had faced in the workplace, including in the Pacific Northwest, in companies like Facebook, Cisco, Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon.
The ordinance has faced opposition from some Hindu American groups. How do you respond to their concerns that it unfairly targets the entire community based on their national origin and ancestry?
The main opposition to the banning of caste-based discrimination is from right-wing organizations, namely, the Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America. The agenda of both these extremely right-wing organizations is aligned with the reactionary regime currently in power in India, of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Modi regime has found a lot of common ground with the Trump agenda and the American right wing. Both the Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America have strongly supported the horrific anti-Muslim, anti-oppressed-caste, anti-poor citizenship laws that were attempted by the Modi regime. Almost exactly three years ago, the then Seattle City Council voted unanimously in favor of a resolution from our socialist council office condemning these unjust citizenship laws, and urging the U.S. Congress to similarly take a position condemning them.
Could you tell us more about the high-profile opponents?
Our most high-profile opponent was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a far right organization tied to India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The VHP has been implicated, among other things, in the 2002 Gujarat carnage of Muslims. Also in opposition were the right wing Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America.
The right-wing claim that it would disproportionately target Indian Americans is totally false. Discrimination on the basis of religion and national origin is already protected by Seattle’s anti-discrimination law. To say that protecting Dalit Indian Americans against discrimination would target Indian Americans from other castes is like saying addressing racism against Black and Brown people would negatively affect white people. It is a version of “White Lives Matter,” which was a right-wing attempt to deny the existence of racism, with the claim that saying “Black Lives Matter” would mean discrimination against white people. The Black Lives Matter movement—and enormous amounts of statistical evidence—have exposed that racism is unfortunately alive and well in society under capitalism. The same is true of caste discrimination.
What message would you like to send to other activists and lawmakers who are fighting for social justice and human rights around the world?
Our movement to win this ordinance was based on a fighting strategy, and independent of the Democratic and Republican Parties. For the nearly ten years that I have been a Council member, Socialist Alternative (my activist organization) and I have used our office to build movements that have been able to wrest major victories from big business and the city’s Democratic establishment. We helped make Seattle the first major city to win a $15/hour minimum wage, won our Amazon Tax to fund affordable housing, and passed landmark renters’ rights.
This same approach was crucial in winning this week, with the movement having to overcome not only strenuous opposition from the Hindu right wing but also opposition of a different kind from Democratic politicians, who in various ways threatened to kill or undermine the legislation.
Democratic Council members were overwhelmingly not on our side in this fight, and initially echoed some of the right wing’s talking points, though ultimately all but one voted yes under pressure from our movement. But even on the day of the vote, they were hatching plans to delay or undermine the legislation.
You have been vocal for the creation of a new political party for working people and the oppressed. How do recent political actions highlight the need for such a party?
That morning, on the day of vote, I received a phone call from one Council member who said they intended to bring forward an amendment to delay the law’s implementation, based on a stated concern of inadequate funding for Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights. It’s true this office has been shamefully and chronically underfunded by successive Democratic Party Mayors and City Councils, but it is in my view unconscionable for these same Democrats—who have frequently opposed my efforts to tax big business to fund services—to use this pretext to demoralize oppressed-caste workers and empower the right wing.
This Council member finally backed down, but it’s a reminder how crucial it is to mobilize working people to overcome establishment opposition.
As I have said throughout my tenure as an independent socialist, we need a new party for working people and the oppressed. This has also been on full display in national politics of late, as self-described “pro labor” President Biden was joined by Pramila Jayapal and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in passing their strikebreaking bill against railroad workers fighting for sick leave and workplace safety. We’ve already seen the brutal consequences of Democrats siding with the railroad tycoons, with the totally avoidable catastrophe in East Palestine, Ohio.
In fact, throughout history, it is a fighting approach of building movements that have won social justice and human rights victories - movements that are independent of politicians and others who represent the interests of the elite.