This April, we celebrate Dalit History Month, which commemorates the birth of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a champion of Dalit rights and the chief architect of the Indian Constitution. Dalit History Month encourages all of us to prioritize the oft-neglected histories and lives of caste-oppressed people.
Recently, we invited Equality Labs, the only Dalit-led national organization organizing the Dalit diaspora in the United States and abroad, to share with other GAR members how casteism is deeply intertwined with classism. Although casteism affects at least 1.2 billion people, there is very little understanding of what it actually is and what’s at stake for the most politically, economically and socially vulnerable and oppressed groups in the South Asian diaspora.
Thenmozhi, Executive Director of Equality Labs, explained how in South Asian communities, one of the oldest historical violences that we have is the system of caste. Caste is was created by Brahmin priests to divide society into different classes of people who were assigned differing levels of spiritual purity, impacting their employment, housing, social circles, and all aspects of their livelihoods. Caste is a system of power and privilege, and it has been used to oppress Dalits for centuries, even as they leave and emigrate from South Asia. As Thenmozhi highlighted, the historic and ongoing trauma and pain experienced in our homelands never leaves our hearts, doesn’t leave our bodies, and really manifests in how we show up for each other.
Prem, a Lead Organizer with Equality Labs, shared how casteism connects with classism within our working-class, pan-Asian communities. As Prem said, “Caste-oppressed communities are the working class. They face many forms of caste violence, including segregation, discrimination, and humiliation.” Prem shared his personal experiences as a Nepali Dalit worker as he faced emotional abuse, exploitation, wage theft, and discrimination daily working in the restaurant industry and living in the Bay Area. In the diaspora, caste discrimination manifests especially restaurants and other workplaces owned and managed by dominant-caste people where caste-oppressed people are the most vulnerable and often have the most at stake for themselves and their families and communities. Because of this, we must understand that caste equity is a crucial part of workers’ rights.
So then, what are the calls to solidarity with Dalit communities in the United States and the diaspora? Shahira, an organizer with Equality Labs, stressed that our movement must have a shared and intersectional understanding of casteism and classism. The opposition to caste equity, such as the Hindutva right-wing, are also the opposition to racial justice, economic justice, environmental justice, gender justice, workers’ rights, and all the things that our communities need to survive and thrive in this world. Many dominant-caste opposition have aligned themselves with broader conservative and white supremacist forces. We have seen this become a greater concern in our members’ works as caste-dominant people oppose Ethnic Studies and affirmative action in states like Virginia and California through the Board of Education and hold positions of power in local and state governments throughout the nation.
Fortunately, we are also able to align ourselves to achieve material wins for our communities. Recently, Equality Labs led a coalition of over 200 organizations to urge Seattle, WA, to add caste to its non-discrimination policy. Because of this alliance, Seattle is now the first city in the United States to ban caste discrimination. Shahira shared how having a broad alliance including not only Dalit Civil Rights organizations, but also organizations focusing on racial justice, gender justice, and union organizing, was pivotal in the success of the campaign.
GAR understands that our struggles are all interconnected! We have to have mutual care and concern for each other and for justice for all our communities. We can cultivate this culture by continuing to create and hold peer-learning spaces to deepen understanding of each of our members’ local organizing and to build strong move relationships.