One of Kshama Sawant’s earliest memories of the caste system was of her grandfather – a man she “otherwise loved very much” – using an insult to summon her maid of lower caste.
The Seattle City Council member, who grew up in an upper-caste Indian Brahmin household, was six years old when she asked her grandfather why he used that derogatory word when he knew the girl’s name. He replied that his granddaughter “talked too much.”
Sawant is now 50 and an elected official in a city far from India. He has proposed an ordinance to expand Seattle’s antidiscrimination laws to include caste. If her fellow councilors agree Tuesday, Seattle will become the first city in the United States to specifically outlaw caste discrimination.
In India, the origins of the caste system as a social hierarchy based on one’s birth can be traced back 3,000 years. While the definition of caste has evolved over the centuries under both Muslim and British rule, the suffering of those at the bottom of the caste pyramid – known as Dalits, meaning “broken” in Sanskrit – continued.
In 1948, a year after gaining independence from British rule, India outlawed caste discrimination, a law enshrined in the country’s constitution in 1950. Yet the undercurrents of caste continue to swirl around in India’s politics, education, employment and even day-to-day social interactions. Caste-based violence, including sexual violence against Dalit women, remains widespread.
The national debate in the United States about caste centered on the South Asian community and caused deep divisions within the diaspora. Dalit activist-led organizations like Oakland, Calif.-based Equality Labs say caste discrimination is rampant in diaspora communities and takes the form of social alienation and discrimination in the housing, education and technology sectors, where South Asians play key roles .
The US is the second most popular destination for Indians living abroad, according to the Migration Policy Institute, which estimates the US diaspora has grown from about 206,000 in 1980 to about 2.7 million in 2021. The group South Asian Americans Leading Together reports nearly 5.4 million South Asians live in the US – up from the 3.5 million counted in the 2010 census. Most have their roots in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Anti-discrimination laws and policies targeting caste have been heavily pushed back by groups such as the Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America. They say such legislation will harm a community whose members are seen as “people of color” and already face hatred and discrimination.
But over the past decade, Dalit activism has garnered support from various corners of the diaspora, including groups such as Hindus for Human Rights. In the last three years in particular, more people have identified as Dalits and told their stories publicly, which has revived this movement.
Prem Pariyar, a Dalit Hindu from Nepal, gets emotional when he talks about escaping caste violence in his home village. His family was brutally attacked for drawing water from a municipal faucet, said Pariyar, who is now a social worker in California and works on the Alameda County Personnel Commission. He moved to the US in 2015 but says he couldn’t escape stereotypes and discrimination because of his caste-identifying surname, even as he tried to start a new life far from his homeland.
Pariyar, motivated by the open caste discrimination he faced in his social and academic circles, was a driving force behind its becoming a protected category in the 23-campus California State University system in January 2022.
“I fight for Dalits to be recognized as human beings,” he said.
In December 2019, Brandeis University near Boston became the first US college to include caste in its nondiscrimination policy. Colby College, Brown University and the University of California, Davis have taken similar action. Harvard University instituted caste protections for student workers in 2021 as part of its contract with its graduate student union.
Laurence Simon, a professor of international development at Brandeis, said a university task force made the decision “based on the feelings and fears of students from marginalized communities”.
“That was enough for us, although we haven’t heard any serious allegations of caste discrimination,” he said. “Why do we have to wait until there’s a terrible problem?”
One of the most striking findings of an Equity Lab survey of 1,500 South Asians in the US: 67% of the Dalits surveyed said they were treated unfairly in their workplace because of their caste, and 40% of the Dalit students surveyed said they had been discriminated against in education to have been institutions compared to just 3% of upper caste respondents. In addition, 40% of the Dalit interviewed stated that they did not feel welcome at their place of worship because of their caste.
Caste must be a legally protected category because Dalits and others adversely affected by it have no legal way to deal with it, said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and chief executive officer of Equality Labs. Soundararajan’s parents, who are from Tamil Nadu in southern India, fled caste oppression in the 1970s and immigrated to Los Angeles, where she was born.
“We South Asians have so much severe historical trauma,” she said. “But when we come to this country, we shove it all under the rug and try to be a model minority. The shadow of caste is still there. It still destabilizes lives, families and communities.”
The trauma is generational, she said. In her book The Trauma of Caste, Soundararajan writes how she was devastated to learn that her family members were considered “untouchables” in India. She tells of the pain she felt when the mother of an upper caste friend gave her a separate plate to eat after learning of her Dalit identity.
“This battle of caste is a battle of our souls,” she said.
The American Dalit community is not monolithic on this issue. Aldrin Deepak, a gay Dalit resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, said he had never faced caste discrimination in his 35 years in the United States. He adorned deities in local Hindu temples and brought a number of parishioners to his homes for Diwali celebrations.
“No one asked me about my caste,” he said. “Creating a problem where there isn’t one only creates further fractures in our community.”
Nikunj Trivedi, president of the Coalition of Hindus of North America, sees the caste narrative as “completely twisted”. Caste-based laws that segregate Indian Americans and Hindu Americans are unacceptable, he said.
“The understanding of Hinduism is low in this country,” Trivedi said. “Many people think that caste is synonymous with Hinduism, which is simply not true. There is a diversity of thoughts, beliefs and practices within Hinduism.”
Trivedi said Seattle’s proposed policy is dangerous because it is not based on reliable data.
“One relies heavily on anecdotal accounts,” he said, implying that verifying someone’s caste would be difficult. “How can people who know very little or nothing about caste assess problems that arise?”
Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, called Seattle’s proposed regulation unconstitutional because “it singles out and targets an ethnic minority and seeks to institutionalize implicit prejudice against a community.”
“It sends out the message that we’re an inherently bigoted community that needs to be monitored,” Shukla said.
Caste is already covered by current anti-discrimination laws, which protect race, ethnicity and religion, she said.
Caste legislation is not about targeting a community, said Nikhil Mandalaparthy, deputy executive director of Hindus for Human Rights. The Washington, DC-based group supports the proposed caste ordinance.
“Caste needs to be a protected category because we want South Asians to have similar access to opportunities and not be discriminated against in the workplace and educational environment,” he said. “Sometimes that means airing the community’s dirty laundry to publicize that caste discrimination is unacceptable.”
Councilor Sawant said legal action is needed because current anti-discrimination laws are insufficient. Sawant, who is a socialist, said the regulation has support from several groups, including Amnesty International and the Alphabet Workers Union, which represents workers employed by Google’s parent company.
More than 150,000 South Asians live in Washington state, many of whom work in the technology sector, where Dalit activists say caste-based discrimination is not being addressed. The issue came under the spotlight in 2020 when California regulators sued Cisco Systems, claiming an Indian Dalit engineer faced caste discrimination at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters.
Sawant said the ordinance does not single out any community, but rather considers how caste discrimination crosses national and religious lines. According to a 2016 United Nations report, at least 250 million people worldwide still face caste discrimination in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific, and in various diaspora communities. Caste systems are found among Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Muslims and Sikhs.
In the diaspora, many Dalits campaigning to end caste discrimination are not Hindus. They are not all from India either.
DB Sagar faced caste oppression in the 1990s in northern Nepal, not far from the birthplace of the Buddha. He fled it and emigrated to the United States in 2007. Sagar says he still bears physical and emotional scars from the oppression. His family was Dalit and practiced elements of both Hinduism and Buddhism and felt shunned by both faiths.
“We were not allowed to attend village festivals or enter temples,” he said. “Buddhists did not allow anyone from the Dalit community to become a monk. You could change your religion, but you still can’t escape your caste identity. If conversion to another religion was a solution, people would be free from caste discrimination by now.”
At school, Sagar had to sit on a separate bench. He was once punished with a cane by the school principal for drinking from a water pitcher in the classroom that Dalits were not allowed to use. They believed his touch would pollute the water.
Sagar said he was shocked to see similar attitudes in the US diaspora’s social milieu. His experiences motivated him to set up the International Commission for Dalit Rights. In 2014, he organized a march from the White House to Capitol Hill calling for the recognition of caste discrimination under US civil rights law.
His organization is currently reviewing about 150 complaints from Dalit-Americans about housing discrimination, he said. In one case, a Dalit man in Virginia said his landlord rented out a basement but prevented him from using the kitchen because of his caste.
“Caste is a social justice issue, period,” he said.
Like Sagar, Arizona resident Shahira Bangar is a Dalit. But she is a practicing Sikh and her parents fled caste oppression in Punjab, India. Her parents never discussed caste when she was young, but she learned the truth as a teenager attending high school in Silicon Valley, surrounded by high-caste Punjabi friends who belonged to the upper, landowning Jat caste .
She felt left out when her friends played “Jat Pride” music and when a friend’s mother used her caste as an insult.
“I felt this deep sadness of not being accepted by my own community,” Bangar said. “I felt betrayed.”
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