Can’t have caste denial and bigotry in the U.S. anymore: Dalit rights activist Thenmozhi

Ritu Jha-

“We are seeing institutions listening to Dalit students and faculty and the community saying we need a remedy and action being taken! To see this in my lifetime is incredible,” exulted Thenmozhi Soundararajan(Above photo), founder of Equality Labs.

The Dalit rights activist was speaking with indica on caste being added to the California State University’s discrimination policy. “This impacts hundreds of thousands of students,” she said. “Growing up in California, I would never have imagined the state would lead the conversation in terms of caste equity.”

Over the past year, Harvard University, the University of California at Davis, and the California Democratic Party have amended their regulations and designated ‘caste’, India’s ancient and poisonous system of discrimination by birth, as a category of discrimination whose victims need protection.

The surprising announcement that caste would be part of the discrimination policy at California State University was made Jan 18. Cal State, with 23 campuses and eight off-campus centers with 485,550 students and 55,909 faculty and staff, is the largest four-year public university system in the U.S.

Asked since when the university has been working on the issue, Toni Molle, director of strategic communications and public affairs in the chancellor’s office, said, “The university has been working on a policy to include caste for a while and has been engaged with our student and faculty groups with meetings held as recently as last September.

“As a result of those discussions, open dialogue and input received during the public comment period, CSU’s interim policy prohibiting discrimination has formally added caste as a protected category.”

Molle said the policy now lists caste in the race or ethnicity classification. “We issued a formal notice of the final version to our represented employee union groups just before the holiday break, along with an agreement to label the policy ‘Interim’ until any and all meet-and-confer that were requested concluded,” she said.

Thenmozhi, who has been advocating for caste to be added in the university system since 2010, said Cal State, which was not always a safe space for Dalits, had led the country in showing that caste bigotry will not be tolerated anymore. “American institutions have stepped up to the plate to support our civil rights,” she said, “and I think it’s amazing.

“We only heal from systemic oppression by shedding light on it, talking about it and creating policy remedies,” she continued. “So more and more, especially for the younger generation, they know they have to start taking a stand on issues of caste equity. It’s really powerful to see that change.”

Thenmozhi said she felt “really thrilled” with the development. “My sister went to Cal State East Bay and I have friends and family that go to many different CSUs all across the state. They will have a safer outcome than the experiences I had.”

Thenmozhi, who, with other organizations, has been advocating for the caste-bias lawsuit against Cisco Systems, said caste-based discrimination is not new in the Americas. The first instance of workplace caste discrimination happened in the 1800s in British Columbia, she said, where Punjabi Sikh immigrants came to work in the lumber mills. In California, they worked in the valley. In those communities, there was untouchability, she said. Fellow Indians made them sit and sleep on the floor. They could not sit at the table or sleep in a bed. “That’s how they know the Chamar (a Dalit subgroup), someone who is the worker and that fellow’s caste, right?” she said.

The case of Laki Reddy, who trafficked hundreds of people, mostly women and girls, to the U.S. was also about the oppressed lower castes, she recalled.

“We are now in the civil rights movement and there cannot be caste denial,” Thenmozhi said. “And American institutions are no longer going to listen to dominant caste people who say caste doesn’t exist anymore. A critical mass of Dalits who feel confident has come forward asking for rights and saying we will not allow discrimination and bigotry at this scale.

“I’m proud that Dalit feminist leaders and Equality Labs have helped to usher this in all around the country,” she continued. “My colleagues have been fearless in building these inter-caste interfaith spaces to help our South Asian community have a reckoning with this historical harm, but also to find healing and justice at the end of it. I credit all the organizers; this is not a one-person show.”

Asked if there has been a rise in caste-based incidents in the U.S., Thenmozhi said discrimination and harassment were always at a high level, but people were not reporting them. Now that the story has broken, we are seeing more people come forward to bring up such cases.

“This is not racial,” she explained. “There is a difference between racial and caste discrimination. We become racialized when we come to North America, but all of our internal divides, whether it’s nationality or ethnicity, caste or faith, they get flattened in the racial category and HR departments are only trained to deal with the top-level part or category of race.”

However, those internal tensions, whether of faith or of caste, gender or sexual expression, are also covered as protected categories within American civil rights law. So, just because HR teams are not trained in them does not mean we don’t have legal remedies, she said. And that’s a big part of the Cisco case and the Department of Fairness and Employment Housing claim in the lawsuit.

There are many Dalits across the U.S. who are seeing this level of casteism endemic at workplaces, university institutions and religious institutions, Thenmozhi said. Pointing to the BAPS lawsuit, she said a sea change is happening. “We have equity here. We have rights. And we’re using them and moving these changes as fast as we can.”

Asked if this would change social dynamics, she said, “I think the South Asian community can only change at this point. The denial of caste has gone on so long! We are at a tipping point. There was always an attempt to make this an inner conversation. Don’t let the world know.”

The reason why people were not coming forward earlier was that they did not know if they had equal rights at the workplace. But now many workers are standing up. The Alphabet Workers Union recognizes caste as a protected category. “A lot of our work over the next year is going to be with these unions, for workers who are just struggling with this issue,” she said.

Thenmozhi pointed out that it does not hurt anyone to have caste in the protected category except, perhaps, those who don’t want discrimination to be recognized. “This doesn’t take a bite out of anybody,” she said. “Adding a protected category doesn’t eliminate another. So, even that confusion, it’s such a bad-faith argument.

“We would not have been here if we didn’t have this incredible leadership,” she added.