More than 20 orgs join hands to form America Against Caste Discrimination

Ritu Jha–

To challenge caste discrimination on ideological, political and social fronts in the United States of America, 22 organizations joined hands to form America Against Caste Discrimination (AACD), an alliance of progressive organizations that would help in mobilizing support to pass the anti-caste discrimination bill SB403 in the California State Assembly.

The event was held Saturday, June 25 at Roosevelt Community Center, San Jose where speakers included Kshama Sawant, a member of the Seattle City Council and the first to bring forward the legislation banning caste discrimination in Seattle; Dr. Roja Suganthy-Singh, Professor of Sociology, Anthropology, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at St. John Fisher University whose activist scholarship focuses on the intersections of race, class, and gender; and Dr. Veena Dubal, Professor of Law at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco. Many others shared their thoughts and need for such coalition.

AACD includes Ambedkarite and Dalit community organizations; Indian-American Sikh, Muslim, and Christian organizations; organizations representing progressive, anti-caste Hindus; socialists and union activists; and secular, progressive and workers’ organizations to demonstrate support for protections against caste discrimination among Indian- Americans.

Talking to indica, Sawant spoke in detail on caste issues in America. “It is never easy to make substantive progressive change under capitalism. The power balance is in favor of the elite, the billionaire class, the big corporations, and their shareholders. They don’t have an interest in the status quo to change, it always requires ordinary people and union members to come together and build a movement that is capable of changing the balance of forces and winning a concrete victory.”

Sawant said the caste issue is “getting more complicated”, and that “people are getting more confused.” She said, “In Seattle we had to really explain the issue to a lot of non-South Asian working people to understand that they should be on our side. They don’t know about caste, and we developed a set of frequently asked questions to make sure people understand the ban against caste discrimination and explain it in that angle – that it is another type of oppression.”

She added, “It is the exact opposite now, more working people both in the US and Canada are aware of the problems of caste discrimination and how widespread they are than they were before we won in Seattle.”

In Seattle, Sawant and anti-caste discrimination law supporters took the political education of working people seriously and developed material that people could read and understand if they are not familiar with the caste issue.

Sawant feels the process of education has to continue. “It is paramount to remember the willful misrepresentation by the Hindutva right wing and Hindus American Foundation, who are spreading dishonest taking points and lies about how widespread the issue is and what needs to be done to push back.”

“We had a lot of people associated with HAF who strongly opposed the bill. They did not say ‘I am for caste discrimination which is why I oppose the bill’; they said ‘I am against caste discrimination but the bill is anti-Hindu’. We have empirical studies and anecdotal evidence that caste has become a widespread issue in the US and Canada, and we have an understanding this is not anti-Hindu. We were able to win because we were on the offense. People across religions are supporting this bill. As progressive people we support freedom of religion, we do not support any religion to discredit or abuse anybody depending on their religion.”

Sawant said she realized the breadth of caste discrimination when in India. “I come from a Brahmin family and it is embedded into that aspect of India’s society. It is not enough to say, I don’t believe in caste; if you are genuine, then it is crucial you become an anti-caste activist because that’s how serious caste-based discrimination, oppression, and violence is in India and it has become worse under the Modi regime. It was important to pass the law because without it, it’d be difficult to take up such discriminatory behavior in court. People who are the cause of the caste of caste discrimination won’t be white and that needs to be classified.”
“Congressman Ro Khanna is a prominent member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has a hundred members and its chairperson is Pramila Jaipal. And yet, they have refused to use their significant influence to fight for working people. It’s really a question of how do we define progressive when the Congressional Progressive Caucus with its hundred members refuses to fight Biden and Warren Buffet and the billionaire class to uphold the strike of the railroad workers. They have failed to win any victory or even come close to building a fight. They have refused to build a fight on $15 an hour, Medicare for all, or any of these questions.”

Faced with this non-cooperation, Sawant called for a people’s party. “Khanna was the most prominent Congress member who urged that Prime Minister Narendra Modi be given a Congressional address. He actually invites Modi to Congress and then the squad members and Jaipal in name say, ‘We are boycotting’. Part of the Democratic Party is giving a red carpet to Modi. So, on the one hand, they are supporting caste discrimination, but on the other hand, they aren’t. Obviously, you cannot trust them.”

Prof Singh, the co-founder and chair of Dalit Solidarity Forum, one of the earliest Dalit rights organizations in the US, and the author of ‘Spotted Goddesses: Dalit Women’s Agency Narratives on Caste and Gender Violence’ said: “I am with the Dalit Solidarity Forum in the USA and a part of this coalition, the historical coalition of America against caste discrimination. This launch is a historic event. For now, all our focus is on SB403. But the coalition is not just about this. It’s about really spreading awareness and taking this across the country, making sure that all states, several colleges, and universities will have policies against caste. Casteism exists in every religion. If the religion is associated with India, there is caste in it. For people to associate caste only with Hinduism is wrong. It’s unfortunate that we are still dealing with this myth that all Hindus are casteists. And when we talk against caste issues, it is not talking against Hindus, as the Hindu American Foundation is making it out to be. It is very wrong to say that if I’m an anti-caste person, I’m against Hinduism, that’s not what it is.”

About misunderstandings and misconceptions regarding caste, she said: “In Florida, the PTA is saying that this anti-caste discrimination bill will traumatize children who are in the midst of talking about critical race theory. That’s not what it is. We can’t confuse trauma with awareness and being well-informed about things.”

After California, the anti-caste discrimination movement will shift to New York. “We are planning, our hope is that New York will probably be the next initiative. We are working with a lot of groups there. The prominent player in New York will be India Civil Watch International, which is again a collective of activists, and journalists, all of us coming together for this cause.”

Singh was not impressed with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent State visit. “How dare he stand there and say that India is all about democracy and ‘we take care of our people’. Nothing of that sort, no human rights there. They’re defining the rights of cows, but not human beings.”

Speaking at the launch event, Dubal said: “Caste was largely hidden from me for most of my life.” She said she was aware of it and would hear when the pujari would ask her parents about ‘our caste’. In 2005, when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) of America and their brethren started the first iteration of the textbook debate is when I first really started thinking about and seeing the insidiousness of caste operating not just in South Asia but also in the diasporic context. In 2005 the Hindu right-wing wanted to erase mention of caste from California textbooks.”

She said that, at the time, they made the argument that the inclusion of caste was not accurate and that caste didn’t exist, but also that the inclusion of caste in textbooks hurt their kids’ feelings. “I was in law school at the time. I attended many of the hearings of the commission on this issue. In one such hearing, I stood up unexpectedly and said that it is shameful. If we don’t teach about how shameful this is then we have no opportunity to fight it. I made an analogy for people in the commission hearing who were making this decision – if a white student came up and said I don’t want any mention of slavery because it hurts my feelings, it makes me feel bad, then you might look at that person with disgust and disbelief because to erase the fact that this country and modern capitalism was born on the backs of black enslaved workers to erase that is to erase any understanding of race in the United States as it persists in its dominant oppressive form. By making this analogy I was making a very clear statement about what would it mean to erase caste. And I think that it drove home the importance of it for a lot of people.”

She said the people who oppose SB 403 are the same people who celebrated Modi last week. “They dined with him despite the blood that he has on his hands. They see the US-India alliance as being geopolitically strategic, and it’s important to understand that because it helps to understand why people like Ro Khanna who otherwise is a progressive have offered ambivalent statements about SB 403.”

Dubal added, “Of all the tech workers in California, 27% are of South Asian origin. It is a particularly important place to have a law like SB403 passed not just because there are so many of us in this space, but because of the critical role that we play in the political economy. California’s tech economy is the center of global tech activity and when this discrimination happens in this context the effects are really quite reverberating.”

She added: “They say SB403 unfairly targets South Asians, that it makes their kids feel bad and this is a form of discrimination in itself. It is quite similar to white supremacists saying if we talk about slavery, it makes our kids feel bad about their white identity. The same sort of absurd logic is being reiterated by the Hindu right in this context.”

Dubal closed her address by saying that she is excited about not just this coalition but about the anti-caste discrimination movement. “I’m thrilled that this is happening not just because it’s giving generations opportunities to politically mobilize around these issues but also a strategically important moment to draw connections between what we are fighting here and what is happening in South Asia right now with the creation of a Hindu supremacist fascist state. This is not just about domestic politics; it is very much about international politics. I hope this coalition against caste discrimination has the space and time and power to build solidarity across all of these issues so that we can maintain safe, secular, democratic communities not just in the US but also in South Asia and India.”

Ram Kumar, president of Ambedkar International Center, talked briefly in the AACD event. “Caste-based discrimination has entered USA. Insanity and brutality of this social evil is beyond calling it simply a human rights violation. It has to be stopped from spreading before its damage is beyond repair here. SB403 is a much needed right step in right direction. Elimination of the “whereas” clauses in its latest version is attempt to mock caste discrimination and projects it in a way that is detached from its systemic nature. Strong law without ambiguity is the need of hour.”

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