The Dalit Diaspora in the US and the Struggle against Caste Discrimination: A Report

 

Harish S. Wankhede

The International Commission for Dalit Rights (ICDR) has organized the "Global March against Caste Discrimination" in Washington DC on the 21st June 2014. In solidarity with the march, many community organizations, American Dalits and anti-caste social activists took independent initiatives and joined the march in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The mobilization was impressive and encouraging since this was the first time a unified effort was made by the Dalit activists in the United States (USA) to raise their voices against caste oppression and discrimination.

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These events were organized against the background of the recent incidents of gruesome rapes and 'honour' killings of Dalit women in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh. Social activists were shocked especially over the Badaun gang rape case where two teenage girls were raped, murdered and hanged publicly from a tree. People across the board were utterly disappointed over the pathetic and half-hearted responses by the state government over such blatant patriarchal-casteist violence. Further the incapacity of the state institutions to punish the perpetrators of caste violence and atrocities has demoralized the Dalit human rights struggles1. In order to demonstrate that the Dalit movement and other concerned people outside India are deeply hurt by such incidents, a strong message needed to be sent to the new Central Government. This March and the related solidarity initiatives were organized in the US to reinforce civil society's responsibility in defense of human equality and justice and to stand in solidarity with the struggling Dalit groups of India.

The march is also significant as it is the first big public event in the US, organized by the Dalit groups to advocate reforms in public policy initiative related to the 'Effective Elimination of Discrimination based on Work and Descent'. These efforts are in parallel with the United Kingdom based 'Dalit Solidarity Network' (DSN) which has a legacy of building effective campaigning and advocacy to defend Dalit rights in the first world2. As a result of a successful campaign and advocacy initiatives by the Dalits in UK, the British Parliament has approved an amendment and added 'caste' in the definition of protected categories (other categories includes race and religion).

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 Now, in the UK it is also recognized that caste-based discrimination "is a form of discrimination prohibited by international human rights law" and therefore needed institutional safeguards. In response, the British Parliament has passed a resolution by a huge majority, condemning the brutal social order of caste hierarchies3. These are some of the very impressive gains that the Dalit diaspora has achieved at the International level by their sustained advocacy initiatives and movements.

The Dalit diaspora in the US has very recently emerged as a potent force to organize advocacy initiatives in defense of Dalit rights. The ICDR is a young organization, established in 2006 to advocate effective policy changes at the international level towards making the public spaces more welcoming for the socially marginalized groups. It has launched some important community welfare programs however the group has mostly concentrated on advocacy related initiatives through petitioning International organizations like the United Nations and building networking with influential leaders, parliamentarians and policy makers.

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The well-publicized march in Washington DC was yet another event to bring the question of caste into the public spaces. ICDR's web site mentions that this march is to advocate two main concerns to the White House and the Congress: First, that the state has to ratify the UN Human Rights Council's Draft Principles and Guidelines for the Effective Elimination of Discrimination based on Work and Descent (A/HRC/11/CRP.3), and second, that the US Congress has to pass a binding resolution that requires action against caste-based discrimination and expand the geographic scope of its historic Concurrent Resolution on Untouchability in India (House Concurrent Resolution 139 of 2007). Both the concerns highlight that even in the US, a section amongst the Indian immigrants faces caste discrimination and prejudices and therefore reform in the form protective discriminatory policy is needed to assure justice, mainly to the Dalits.

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The international Dalit diaspora, especially within the US, is at a nascent stage in comparison to the other caste/religion/culture/language based associations that promotes the interests of the respective Indian immigrant groups. The Dalit in the US on most of the occasions remained invisible as a community or conventionally becomes part of some broader socio-cultural associations dominated by the upper caste elites. However, there is also a growing awareness that these groups are mostly led by the upper caste elites and therefore the social concerns of the Dalits will hardly be raised in their deliberations. It has been observed that the question of caste is completely absent in the public discourse but a particular kind of brahmanic Hindu cultural hegemony controls the psyche and functions of the migrant Indians.

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A powerful section amongst the Indian migrants is comfortable with the Hindu rightwing political agenda and actively promotes a religious and social discourse that sustains and advocates the brahmanic upper caste values. The concerns related to the lower castes and the Dalits are seen as a taboo topic amongst the mainstream Indian Americans. The need to mobilize the Dalits and sympathetic anti-caste sections emerged mainly to break the silence over the caste question and to democratize the Indian diaspora in a meaningful way. An initiative like the recent Global March by the ICDR is one such event to demonstrate that the caste question is fundamental in understanding the social and political fabric of Indian society not only within the country but also outside it.

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The success and impact of the Global March will soon be visible. This initiative has connected and created a wider network of Dalit activists and organizations in the US and has the potential to bring more groups and individuals to join the anti-caste struggles. The need is to visualize how these new energies can be mobilized towards a correct path in order to ensure more support in fighting caste discrimination. The emerging Dalit leadership in the US must ponder on how meaningfully the advocacy initiatives and other mass awareness programs can also become a great resource for the Dalit groups and other human rights activists struggling in India and in other countries.

[A small collective of diverse people in the San Francisco Bay Area of California have started some initiatives to democratize and educate the Indian diaspora on the caste question. The solidarity event at San Francisco was its first event.

Please contact Benjamin Kaila (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) for further details.]

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Notes

[1]. In the infamous 'Tsunduru massacre' of Andhra Pradesh, 8 Dalits were killed and many were severely injured. The police charged 212 culprits in connection with the incident. Among the convicted, 21 got life imprisonment while 35 were sentenced to one year imprisonment by the special court in 2007. In Andhra Pradesh High Court in 2014, all the accused were acquitted.The Dalit groups are protesting against this verdictin Andhra Pradesh. Please see Prabhakar, Duddu "If all the accused are innocent, then who killed the Tsundur Dalits?", Round Table India, available at: http://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7451:accused-freed-who-are-the-killers-of-tsundur&catid=119:feature&Itemid=132

[2]. There are several other groups in the UK that are campaigning against cases of caste discrimination. Among them are: Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance (ACDA), CasteWatchUK, Voice of Dalit International (VoDI) and The Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations (UK) (FABO).

[3]. The Government Equalities Office commissioned the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) to assess the nature, extent and severity of caste prejudice, discrimination and harassment in Britain and the implications for Government policy. As a result, a 113-page report was submitted dealing extensively with the presence of caste structures and its impact on socio-economic and political relationships in the communities. The findings confirmed the presence of caste associations and discriminatory practices based on social identities. See Metcalf, Hilary and Rolfe Heather, (2010) December "Caste discrimination and harassment in Great Britain", National Institute of Economic and Social Research, London.

~~~

 

Harish S. Wankhede is assistant professor of political science at Delhi University.

Pictures courtesy: Sundeep Pattem.

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