Why Dalit Matters: a Dalit-American Argument for the Inclusion of “Dalit” in California Textbooks
Image: National Geographic
My name is Suthamalli Ganga and I am a proud Dalit American who has lived in the US for over seventeen years. Dalit is a term that is used for my people who were formerly known as Untouchable, but we see this word as an epithet and use Dalit instead, which refers to our struggle in the face of caste apartheid. I want to share my story to help those who want to know more about the erasure of Caste and Dalit that Thenmozhi Soundararajan wrote about in Erasing Caste.
When I moved to United States it was my hope that I could finally escape caste apartheid. All I wanted was to finally become a free man. That is why I was shocked by the statements of the Hindu American Foundation and the Uberoi Foundation that Indians no longer practice caste. For my whole life has been shaped by being a Dalit and it continues to shape and influence my existence today.
It began when our family was forcibly displaced by poverty and caste discrimination from our village in Tamil Nadu. Because we were poor and Dalit, we ended up in Dharavi, one of the largest slums of Mumbai. There ‘lower’ castes had to remove their rubber slippers while crossing the streets where ‘upper’ caste people resided. We continually faced such indignities but we always met them with resistance. For example, my father was a key figure in Dharavi, organizing Dalit workers to fight for our basic right to keep our footwear on while crossing the unhygienic tar-lined streets.
Even though that was decades ago, and we’re now in 2016, Caste Apartheid still haunts us all over India.
The structure of Indian political power, administration and judiciary, is predominantly ‘upper’ caste. Dalits and ‘lower’ castes continue to be subjected to heinous crimes like rape, murder and caste discrimination in every sphere of life, with impunity. Such present day situations are a legacy of a 2,000 year-old caste system, which has religiously sanction in Hinduism’s holy scriptures. These scriptures include an entire book – the Manusmriti – devoted to a collection of caste laws that detail how to maintain the caste structure through systematic deprivation and injustice to ‘lower caste’ peoples.
As a result of these scriptures, Dalits like myself, were denied basic human rights. We were segregated and made to live outside the village limits in ghettos and prohibited from access to public resources like land and water. We were forced to work with dead carcasses, given menial jobs and treated like slaves.
Which is why it was a shock for me to read “Erasing Facts: What SAFG activists have really done to Hinduism and India in California textbooks” by Suhag A. Shukla. Shukla, who is an executive director of the right-wing conservative Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and from an ‘upper’ caste. As a member of the South Asian Histories for All Coalition I was horrified by her article.
Suhag clearly minimizes the impact of the reality of the caste system as taught in California’s textbooks. She argues that caste ties to Hinduism cannot be proven. However, this is the very religion that explicitly sanctions the discrimination of Dalits like myself. Dalit Scholars have refuted these assertions by citing several primary sourced verses from the Hindus’ own holy scriptures. But beyond their own texts, these arguments could only be made in the US as the general consensus in India is finally moving towards understanding the terrible scourge of caste apartheid. Especially after the recent high profile castes of Rohith Vemula, the honor killing of Shankar from the inter-caste couple of Shankar and Kaushalya, and the rapes of Dalit students like Jisha and Delta. It is clear we are at a tipping point of resistance and awareness to the culture of impunity related to caste.
From the Hindu American Foundation’s place of caste privilege, they can afford to be blind to caste crimes, discriminations and injustices. But for those of us who live the Dalit experience, both here and in India, it is not so easy to detach the Hindu religiosity from caste.
When I first arrived in America, I expected to have finally have a chance to be free from the shackles of caste. However, I was surprised at how casteist ‘upper’ caste Indian Hindus like Shukla were in America too. There are countless instances when ‘upper’ caste American Indians have distanced themselves from Dalits once their ‘lower’ caste identities were revealed. A friend I had known for five years suddenly cut his ties to me on finding out my ‘lower’ caste. I have experienced caste discrimination here in other ways too. For example, I have been invited to upper caste homes and then subtly reproached when I refused to pray to Hindu Gods. ‘Upper’ caste Hindu friends also began to avoid coming to the Ambedkar Association of North America stall at our local Indian independence celebration when they saw we had a picture of Dalit liberation leader Dr.Ambedkar. Finally, I have also felt deeply uncomfortable in conversations amongst social networks establishing who was Brahmin and who wasn’t. South Asian diasporic spaces that are predominantly Hindu are always been tricky for us to navigate.
The reality is that the majority of ‘upper’ caste Indians who immigrated to the United States, did so after India’s independence from the British in 1947. They were able to move only because of they were able to use their existing wealth, resources, and education to do so. All of those privileges were systematically denied to Dalits for centuries. But despite having arrived in the land of the American dream, and despite changing continents, most of them continue to keep their ‘upper’ caste worldview. And this prejudice plays out on a very small minority of Dalits and ‘lower caste’ peoples who have fought every odd to get out of the violence of caste structure and move to the United States in search of refuge in the American democracy.
As a Dalit-American father, it is one of my biggest regrets that my two children, who are raised in the United States, were not taught about the caste system at school. For Michigan’s curriculum did not have the same opportunity to teach caste and Dalit history that California textbooks offered. I would have liked for them to have had exposure to the structural violence of caste from more than just myself, family members and friends. I believe it would have given them a sense of pride to know that their ancestors were resistance fighters whose plight could enrage and whose fight they could celebrate!
This is why it is so offensive that Suhag disingenuously tries to find “solutions for Dalits in the Hindu religion” that has in fact oppressed us for so long. Our history goes beyond their hate-based Hindu fold , and I want my children to learn all of our history free of the framing of our oppressors.
The only thing worse than not teaching about caste and erasing the word Dalit is teaching a falsity!
Erasing Dalit erases my people’s resistance to the caste apartheid. It erases the powerful legacies of Ambedkar, Phule, and Periyar. It erases the possibility of who we are as community beyond the epithet that is “Untouchable”. All students who come to learn of Dalit liberatory movements have much to learn and grow from as our traditions center rationality, gender equity, and secularism. At this time more than ever this tradition is a powerful counterpoint to the Hindu fundamentalism in India and the US.
I believe strongly that students should be allowed to learn history as it happened. They should be taught the facts then left free to decide if the caste system was in fact a dehumanizing practice or not. The Hindu American Foundation and their allies must to be stopped from adding their casteist spin on history. If Shukla truly wants Dalits to be equals, then she should first acknowledge her own caste privilege, and HAF must stop its attempt to gloss over caste apartheid, it origins in hindu scripture, and allow Dalits and other religious and cultural communities to have autonomy in our histories. Anything less is a confirmation of their casteist, and fundamentalist conservative agenda and they will be stopped.
First published in Round Table India.
For more background, see ‘Erasing Caste: the Battle over California Textbooks and Caste Apartheid‘ by Thenmozhi Soundararajan and ‘Last Hearing Today: Should the Word ‘Dalit’ be used in California Textbooks?’ by Mridula Chari.
A brief and powerful rebuttal of the Hindu American Foundation’s position can be found in this article by Meghna Chandra, excerpted here:
My desire to learn more led me to India, where I studied modern Indian history from South Asian historians like MSS Pandian and Tanika Sarkar. I read the works of Savitribai Phule and Jyotirao Phule, EV Ramasamy Periyar, and B.R. Ambedkar, and began to understand their disillusionment with Hinduism and visions for human emancipation on the subcontinent. I learned about the history of Buddhism as one of the first anti-caste liberation movements, the Bhakti saints who subverted the rigid Bramhinical and patriarchal order, and yes, the history of Muslim and Christian missionaries who offered services and scholarship that were enabling to oppressed groups, and how these interventions created local indigenous liberatory traditions that were beautiful, vibrant, and also very much Indian.
Finally, see also ‘The Religious War Against American Scholars of India‘ by Elizabeth Redden.
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