Baba Saheb Ambedkar, who completed his graduation and PhD while residing in America, had warned about the global impact of casteism as Indians migrated to other parts of the world. While caste-based discrimination may not be as pervasive and violent as it is in South Asia, studies show it exists to a significant degree in the United States.'
Seattle became the first city in the United States to pass a bill banning caste-based discrimination, following years of lobbying by South Asian American groups. The bill was introduced by Indian American council member Kshama Sawant, who represents central Seattle's District 3.
The magnitude of this achievement cannot be overstated, as it stands to be a groundbreaking event in global legislative history. Indeed, this may well be the inaugural bill enacted by any governing body worldwide, subsequent to the introduction of Article 15 by Ambedkar, which aimed to eradicate discriminatory practices based on caste in the Indian Constitution.
South Asian American groups, including the Ambedkar Association of North America (AANA), Ambedkar International Center (AIC), Ambedkar King Study Circle, Equality Labs, and others have been campaigning for the successful passing of this legislation, which they believe is a historic step in the fight against caste discrimination.
The Mooknayak spoke to Dalit activists from AANA and Equality Labs, in detail about the intensity of the caste issue in the United States of America, which seemingly, is an Utopian land for thousands of youths who aspire to land there in pursuit of higher education and a dream career.
Maya Kamble, President of AANA in a conversation with The Mooknayak narrated about the depressing conditions prevalent at workplaces and harassments meted out to the employees from the marginalized communities specially in academic field and tech sector. "When a manager belongs to a dominant caste, any employee who comes from a lower section or caste is often ignored, regardless of their efficiency or talent. I had a personal experience with a previous employer who consistently ignored my relevant suggestions to improve our work products and business, despite my best efforts in my professional career once he found out that I was a Dalit" Maya remarked.
She shared an incident where a senior turned down her offer to help out with a technical problem, which she was more than qualified to do, because he considered her " jinxed and ill-fated due to her caste". The experiences lead her to feel apprehensive as she never expected her caste identity to follow her into USA and worse, get discriminated at her workplace, she says.
This type of discrimination based on caste identity is unfortunately prevalent in workplaces, as HR personnel often lack understanding of the issue and there are no effective mechanisms in place to address it. "Caste discrimination is prevalent primarily because HR departments do not fully comprehend the issue, and there are no effective mechanisms in place to address it. Most of the companies do not have provisions for internal complaint committees like in India to tackle these problems sensitively, hence the issue is often ignored. This can make life difficult for marginalized communities who are often bullied by the dominant class. She also states that for any Dalit Woman, it's a double whammy, as she then has to face sexual discrimination too. She remembers to have declined once, an invitation from a colleague to attend a Hindu religious worship session, saying she didn't believe in rituals as she was a Buddhist. Her colleague said nobody in India was ever born Buddhist, implying that Buddhists in India were largely lower caste Hindus converts. " She asked first whether I was born a Buddhist and when I answered in affirmation, she asked whether my parents too were born Buddhists" Maya said.
From academic institutions to workplaces
Suresh Attri, another member of AANA noted that casteism has expanded beyond academic institutions and infiltrated workplaces in the United States. "Last year, over 125,000 students from India migrated to the United States in pursuit of their career aspirations in diverse Fieldson the coveted F1 student visa. Ever year hundreds of thousands of students come here, however, alongside their dreams, these students also carry the burden of caste-based hierarchies and the conservative mindset of casteism that has transcended borders and seeped into the United States" he said.
According to Suresh from the academic institutions, casteism and caste discrimination have infiltrated workplaces, making life difficult for the marginalized community, who are often oppressed by the dominant class. The dominant caste students who often come to the USA for master’s and PhD’s bring their discriminatory casteist mindset on campus and then take that mindset into workplaces after they graduate.
Suresh recounts instances where he himself was bullied by youths from Haryana and Hyderabad at his university campus due to his caste identity. He explains how the social gatherings too turn into moments of harassment for the lower caste people. "The Indian Dalit community, being naturally drawn towards their fellow countrymen, often congregate in Indian neighborhoods, weddings, and gatherings where they inevitably encounter individuals belonging to the upper castes, who constitute the majority in these settings. Regrettably, these upper caste individuals often resort to ganging up on and bullying the Dalits, subjecting them to insidious forms of casual casteism that, on occasion, escalate into overt discrimination with deleterious consequences" he said.
However, the emergence of a powerful dialogue on the issue in Seattle has galvanized the Dalit community, inspiring them to speak out against casteism and seek support from their political representatives in other cities across the United States. This has created a burgeoning momentum that promises to tackle casteism not just in academic institutions but also in the workplace, he emphasized.
The problem & the growing population
The South Asian diaspora continues to grow in Seattle, where the corporate headquarters of Amazon is located, with a population of 3.59 million. According to a 2019 report by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), there are 5.4 million South Asians in the US. However, the growth in the South Asian community has also led to an increase in caste-based discrimination. For many years, South Asian American groups struggled to describe the issue of caste-based discrimination to Americans. However, a 2018 survey by the US-based Dalit civil rights organization Equality Labs found that 67 percent of Dalits reported experiencing caste-based derogatory jokes or comments, while one in three Dalit students reported experiencing discrimination during their education.
The Collaborative Efforts: Technological warfare
The Alliance of Seattle Indian Americans, AIC, AANA, Equality Labs, Ambedkar King Study Circle, Ambedkarite Buddhist Association of Texas, Muslim Association of American Muslim Empowerment Network Puget Sound, and the Ravidassia community, as well as dozens of other organizations, supported Kshama Sawant's bill. " Various Ambedkarite, Dalit, and human rights groups worked tirelessly to ensure the latest victory in Seattle, including campaigns, working with council member Sawant, public testimony, and personal appearances. Over 4000 emails were sent, hundreds of people signed up to give remote testimony for the Seattle ordinance. Those appearing in person had to line up outside the venueat midnight so they could speak before the council voted " Thenmozhi Sounderarajan , the Dalit American Activist and Founder of Equality Labs, told The Mooknayak. She said, the overwhelming majority of those who testified urged council members to vote yes to prohibit caste discrimination. Many Dalits, Bahujans, Sikhs, Muslims, non-South Asians, and even some upper-caste Hindus spoke in favor of banning caste discrimination. "We made Technology the tool to give momentum to the movement and garner support from as many organisations as possible for getting the ordinance passed. The social media came as a huge help, the messages were spread vastly, and people put in all efforts they could". She said the four major mechanisms adopted to pitch the victory was through mass emails, mass testimonies, support letters by nationals and by local communities. Thenmozhi likes to put it as the ' Victory of Love over Hatred'. She says, " Love has won over hate. We braved rape threats, death threats, disinformation, and bigotry. Thanks to the 200 organizations who stood with us and thanks to the 30 caste oppressed civil rights organization who spoke truth to power! We are United as a South Asian American community in our commitment to heal from caste. First Seattle now the nation" she asserts positively. Passing of the Seattle ordinance is a significant moment in the fight against caste discrimination and has been widely celebrated by South Asian American groups. However, much work remains to be done to raise awareness of the issue and combat caste-based discrimination in the US and around the world.