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American Outcastes: Dalit community faces prejudice of Indian-Americans

  • By Suman Guha Mozumder
American Outcastes: Dalit community faces prejudice of Indian-Americans

Jaspreet Mahal faced vehement opposition in her native Haryana when she decided to break a taboo: Born into a Sikh family, she married outside her community into the lowest strata in India’s rigid caste hierarchy. Her “personal struggle” on behalf of her Dalit husband challenged the wishes of her family and society. Defying social norms, she ultimately won her battle.

Or so she thought.

When the Ambala native moved from India to the U.S with her husband a couple of years ago to pursue a master’s degree at Brandeis University, a private research institution, she believed she had finally managed to escape India’s caste discrimination and the ignominy associated with being born a Dalit or being married to one. But the illusion was short-lived. She found casteism as present in America as in her native India.

“It was shocking but a hard reality,” Mahal said.

On the Brandeis campus, where she studied for a degree in sustainable international development and women and gender studies, Mahal discovered that many of her fellow upper caste Hindu students maintained caste prejudice, carrying the baggage of “Brahminical superiority,” whether they were international students from countries like India or Nepal, or from the United States. That realization manifested in ways that at times appeared innocuous — both on and off campus, she said.

Dalits, who have traditionally been considered untouchables in India’s caste-ridden society, account for about 16.6 percent of India’s population, according to the 2011 Census figures. Data about their socio-economic condition show they struggle with a life deprived of resources and opportunities. Their control over resources is less than 5 percent, and close to half of the population lives under the poverty line. Sixty-two percent are illiterate. Among the Dalits, most of those engaged in agricultural work are landless or nearly landless agricultural laborers.

A telling example of the state of affairs in India was the case of Rohith Vemula, 26, a promising PhD student at the Hyderabad Central University. A member of the Dalit community, he committed suicide last year. His suicide note said: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.”

But Mahal said that unlike in India, caste prejudice in the U.S. is not overt and it is often missed by non-Indians or those unfamiliar with the hierarchy.

“Sometimes the upper caste intolerance and prejudice manifest in subtle ways that are not easily perceptible by non-Indians,” said Mahal, who lives in Waltham, Massachusetts and finished graduate school last year. “I have had conversations with fellow Indian students in informal settings like in a cafeteria or off campus during which [he or she] would drop enough hints about their identity as a Brahmin or a Kshatriya, often irrelevant to the subject on the table.”

She said often upper castes show no interest in even exploring caste issues. The Center for Global Development at Brandeis South Asia Center organizes an annual seminar on caste and social justice, she said, and it was very hard for her and her Dalit colleagues to get South Asian professors and non-Dalit students to participate. Mahal has become involved with various community organizations in Massachusetts now and is hoping to help in the fight against caste prejudice.

Suthamalli Ganga, a Dalit who has lived in the U.S. for more than 17 years, shares Mahal’s experience.

“When I first arrived in America, I expected to have finally had a chance to be free from the shackles of caste,” he said. He said, however, he has since seen countless instances in which upper caste Indian-Americans have distanced themselves from Dalits once their identities were revealed.

Many observers have said overturning this kind of prejudice is a challenge because of vested interests and apparent apathy of political parties to find a lasting solution.

Critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party allege that recent violence against Dalits follows the rise of radical Hindu supremacist elements within the party, which is said to be tied to the Sangha Parivar. But some Dalit-history experts in the U.S. argue that the exploitation and oppression of Dalits predates the BJP government’s 2014 rise to power.

For years, most American Dalits have refrained from taking part in the traditional celebration of India’s Independence Day on Aug. 15. People like Sita Ram, an undergraduate in science from Punjab University, now living in Connecticut, says the Dalit community does not feel that they have anything to celebrate.

“What India celebrates is the country’s independence from the British Rule, but not the freedom or independence of its hundreds and thousands of people who belong to the Dalit community who are yet to be liberated from the shackles of poverty and exploitation and oppression by the upper caste,” Ram told India Abroad.

Many Hindu organizations, however, deny that casteism exists in India at all. The Hindu American Foundation’s 2016 report “Hinduism: Not Cast in Caste,” noted that caste-based discrimination has never been intrinsic to the essential teachings of Hinduism.

“Hindu history is replete with revered saints who were born into castes considered ‘backward’ or ‘lower’ and whose contributions are significant. Hinduism also has a history of inspiring numerous religious movements through the millennia where saints have shown the way in rejecting caste-based discrimination and emphasizing the eternal teachings of Hinduism about the true nature of mankind,” the HAF report said.

Despite such claims, people like Ashmita Pankaj of Houston, Texas, believe casteism endures — and can even begin on a playground among youngsters.

“When my child was in second grade, she used to have play dates with an upper caste Hindu kid. Once the kid’s mother had come over to our house and in the course of conversation came to know that we follow Buddhism, which is largely considered to be the religion of Dalits in India, that was the last time that the family ever interacted with us,” Pankaj told the Dalit American Foundation.

“As word that my family belongs to Dalit community spread, it led to the seclusion of my child from all other caste Hindu children. It angered me and broke my heart that my child had to face the feeling of being outcaste in the 21st century in the United States too.”

Stories of verbal slurs against Dalits by fellow Indo-Canadians have been reported in the media. Last year, Post Media News, one of the oldest national news agencies of Canada, published an article noting that the barbs are often subtle. An estimated 25,000 Dalits live in British Columbia’s lower mainland.

The report quoted a Dalit woman, Kamlesh Ahir, who told the newspaper: “We are zero. We are a dog, less than a dog,” said Ahir, who was born into the chamar caste whose members traditionally worked as tanners in India. “They think we are nothing. It doesn’t matter if we are a doctor, teacher, because we belong to the lower castes,” she told the newspaper.

Angana Chatterji, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told India Abroad she has come across instances of casteism in the U.S. despite Hindu groups’ claims to the contrary. “The horror and wretchedness of casteism is alive in the diaspora. The university is no exception. Dalit students, community members, and leaders I have met in the U.S. over the past two decades powerfully articulate their struggle with casteism and racism,” said Chatterji, co-chair, Project on Political Conflict, Gender and People’s Rights at Berkeley.

Dr. Muni Subramani, an Indian-American neuroscientist and clinical neurophysiologist who spent several years in research at University of Connecticut and Yale, said while there is no doubt that aggressive campaigns by the likes of the RSS and VHP about “Hindu superiority” have fanned anti-Dalit sentiment, there are more fundamental reasons for such traditional bias.

“I think over centuries, generations after generations of upper caste Hindus have been taught to look down upon Dalits as inferior human beings, whose touch will spoil the lives of a Brahmin, or an upper caste person. Thus, it is difficult for them to treat a Dalit as a normal, regular person,” Subramani told India Abroad.

Such bias, he said, is deeply ingrained in their beliefs and attitudes. “From a medical-scientific perspective, the problems lie in the minds and brains of people who have these anti-Dalit beliefs inculcated in them by generations of upper caste Hindus, and reinforced and passed on from father-to-son for centuries. I think both heredity and social environment are to be blamed,” Subramani said.

His view is validated by the experience of Mahal, who described her experience of living initially with the family of a classmate from India when she first came to the U.S. to study. She said people often discover if a person is Dalit by asking harmless questions — asking one’s last name or the village one was born in — and afterward, a person’s behavior towards a Dalit changes. “When I first came to the U.S. and stayed for a few days with the family of an upper caste friend, whose mother was from Lucknow, I experienced this attitude. My friend, who is generally liberal and does not have much hang-ups about someone being Dalit or married to a Dalit, seemed to be struggling between trying to keep her upper caste demeanor while at the same time trying to be liberal and broadminded. I have noticed this dichotomy,” she said.

Rajesh Sampath, a professor of the Philosophy of Justice, Rights and Social Change at Brandeis University, said that in the U.S., caste discrimination and humiliation of Dalits is more subtle and nuanced than in India. “Typically in higher education, the Hindu majority is composed of the upper caste that could be students, second or third generation Indian-Americans or new Indian immigrants who get to shape the discourse about caste to the western audience. They talk as if there is not a problem in India, not like in the old days, and they get to perpetuate this notion that caste is not a problem,” Sampath said.

The persistence of casteism was brought to the front burner of American public attention a few years ago when descendants of prominent African-American families who led the civil rights movement presented a “Declaration of Empathy” to the Congress in 2014 in Washington, D.C.

“African-Americans and fellow Americans should oppose the modern-day enslavement of the Dalits [of India], and declare empathy with their plight,” said the declaration, which was signed on Martin Luther King’s birthday.

A recently published personal account of discrimination, “Ants Among Elephants, An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India” by Sujatha Gidla has created some buzz among Americans. Major publications like The New York Times reviewed the book by Gidla, who came to the U.S. at 26, and commented on its “insightful” understanding.

Chatterji told India abroad that Dalits continue to speak of being disparaged while their achievements as students and professionals are denigrated.

“Dalit resistance and organizing to combat this is often misconstrued as aggression,” Chatterji said. “Dalit students have routinely lacked political spaces in which their experiences may be heard, acknowledged and addressed. In this context, the emergence of Dalit Studies is intimately connected with Dalit political concerns and social movements.”

She called the emerging discipline vital.

“Dalit Studies as a decolonial project is critical to reframing dominant, Hinduized historiography and knowledge. It offers invaluable and interdisciplinary space that foregrounds the study of Dalit oppressions, discriminations and marginalizations, and Dalit struggles for dignity, justice, rights and equality through history and in the diaspora.”https://www.indiaabroad.com/indian-americans/american-outcastes-dalit-community-faces-prejudice-of-indian-americans/article_3d5375f0-89e6-11e7-bc81-0b4ec5ea04a0.html

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