Joeanna Rebello Fernandes| TNN |

Sujatha Gidla.Sujatha Gidla.
It was to escape the tyranny of untouchability — experienced even at IIT-Madras where she was a research associate — that Sujatha Gidla left for the US at age 26. But casteism followed her there too. In her memoir Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, the 54-year-old pieces together the uncertain life of her family in Andhra. Gidla, who is the first Indian woman to be employed as a conductor with the New York City Subway, tells Sunday Times why untouchability is not yet a thing of the past.

What is the Dalit experience in America? Are you blackballed there by fellow Indians?

Yes, of course. In fact after my first interactions with Indians, I dumped them and just have foreign friends now. One of my classmates who came here before me let me stay with her until I found a place. But I felt I was unwelcome. My sister, who’s a doctor, was subjected to it back home and here too. When pursuing her residency in New York, at one class when the speaker hadn’t turned up yet, an Indian resident doctor announced, “I am a Reddy, let’s all say which caste we belong to.” When it was my sister’s turn, another Indian resident looked at her like, “Let us see how you will say what caste you come from.” My sister said, “I am an untouchable”. If she said something else, the others who knew what she was would say she was lying. If she said nothing, they would guess why. When the foreign residents asked, ‘What is this caste?’, the Hindus told them it is something that denotes your status in Indian society. This upper caste Tamil resident also went around telling everybody my sister was an Untouchable. She suffered a lot on account of it. In fact immigrant associations in America, established ostensibly to celebrate their culture, are actually caste groups. TANA (Telugu Association of North America) is nothing but a Kamma caste organisation. There’s another one, ATA, for Reddys. Some like the American Association of Telugu Brahmins (AATB) don’t even hide behind “celebrating Telugu literature/cultural”, they are openly based on caste. When the right-wing Hindu American Foundation (HAF), an extremely wealthy and powerful organisation, threatened to sue the California Education Board if they didn’t redact the references to Indian caste system in the state’s school history textbooks (their claim was that their children would be taunted for it) it was the Dalit Freedom Network in America that fought to keep it in, because it is a fact of history.

You talk about the time in a bar in Atlanta when you told a guy you were untouchable, and he said, “Oh, but you’re so touchable”. Is it difficult to explain ‘untouchability’ to Americans?

Very. Their question is how can you distinguish one caste from the other? It’s easy to distinguish race by skin colour. We live in a caste society but we’re not in a position to explain how it works. I try to explain how people are segregated by caste, especially untouchables. Their speech is different caste-wise, as is the way they dress, body language…That’s how I try to explain it. But people outside the country cannot really comprehend the inhumanity of the caste system.

Hasn’t the lot of Dalits improved post-Independence?

It is very much worse for Dalits after Independence. For 3,000 years, as long as the caste system has been here, there has been violence against untouchables but not in this organised, widespread way.

Whatever upliftment happened was during the last decades of the British rule and early years of Independence. Ambedkar was the key figure in establishing reservations in education and jobs for untouchables as well as tribals and backward castes. The few Dalits we see able to climb up the economic and social ladder, it is mainly due to reservations. But the thing is, reservations made a difference to only a thin layer of people. Everybody says Ambedkar was great — yes, Ambedkar was great, in that he used the historical opportunities that came up after WWII and during Independence. But we can see how it has not made much difference for millions of untouchables. As a Marxist, I say it is not reservations but a fundamental social change that is needed.

ndia does have a Dalit President…

It’s not even a fig leaf but a slap in the face of untouchables. It’s like saying, ‘Oh you’re all complaining we’re not doing anything for you, here, take this guy…’ It doesn’t mean anything, and the main thing is that Dalits are under attack.

Even Christianity and Communism seem to have reinforced caste-based discriminations. Is there a larger lesson to be learnt from this?

I’m a Christian but it didn’t mean I escaped caste. Caste is not related to religion, it is a social institution. There is casteism among Muslims and Christians as well. Communists are supposed to change social relations, but in India they have failed to because none of the Indian communist parties take into consideration the fact that caste is a special kind of oppression that exists in Indian society apart from class.