The caste factor

Nilanjana Bhowmick's thoughts on the long shadow of caste.

A Dalit Women's 'Self Respect Yatra' (procession) begins in Kurukshetra, in the state of Haryana at the feet of the statue of Dalit Rights icon Dr. Ambedkar. Credit: Thenmozhi Soundararajan

This year, Google decided to celebrate Dalit History Month by scheduling a talk in April by US-based Dalit rights activist and founder of Equality Labs, Thenmozhi Soundararajan. But, when the moment came, the tech giant pulled the plug.

The reason? Groups of upper-caste Google employees sent out mass emails to their bosses labelling Soundararajan ‘Hindu-phobic’ and ‘anti-Hindu’, and claiming their ‘lives were at risk’. Caste in America? Yup – and caste wherever Indians go.

A 2020 radio series on casteism in the US and Canada found that the caste system, with its treatment of Dalits as the lowest of the low, continues to haunt them even in their diaspora lives. A quarter of the immigrant Dalit respondents to a 2016 survey conducted by Equality Labs said they had experienced verbal and physical assault because of their caste; 60 per cent reported caste-based derogatory jokes directed at them. More than half said they were afraid of being outed as a Dalit.

Indeed, opportunities for migration are also scarcer for Dalits due to their marginalization. According to the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, of the 2.5 million Indians who live and work in the US, a mere 1.5 per cent are Dalits or members of lower castes.

In India nothing much has changed for the community, despite the ascent of Dalit advocacy. If it’s so easy to cancel a talk in the US, imagine the situation in a country where repression is the norm. Actually, don’t imagine – just scan the news. In August you would see that in Rajasthan a nine-year-old Dalit boy was beaten, resulting in death, allegedly because he had touched his upper-caste teacher’s water.

The statistics grow grimmer every year. There are around 200 million Dalits in India – at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic over 51 per cent of them lost their livelihoods as opposed to 31 per cent of upper-caste workers, according to one study. The National Crime Records Bureau reports that 10 Dalit women and girls are raped in India every day.

Apologists are wont to say casteism only exists among the less-educated or in rural areas. But walk into tea shops or homes in any major Indian city and observe the separate glasses and cups set aside for serving water or tea to the lower castes. Much of rural India is completely unapologetic about casteism; it’s a way of life. Dalits are physically segregated from upper-caste people – or made to live in entirely separate villages. Being at the bottom of the heap often means a lack of access to basics such as safe drinking water and proper sanitation. Dalit women are made to stand in separate queues to fetch water from wells – after the non-Dalits have finished. In many instances taps and wells in non-Dalit areas are completely off limits.

Of course, the diaspora Indian community – dominated by the upper castes – do not want a spotlight on this reprehensible part of their ‘incredible’ culture.

One would know where to begin the change in rural India, but where does one start in the cities where caste is endemic but hidden under veneers of pseudo equality and fake progressiveness, or among Indians abroad?