When the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance on 21 February outlawing caste discrimination in the city, it was a moment of great joy and celebration for the Ambedkarite activists in the United States. The legislation was a proof to them that their activism of the last two decades has started to show tangible results.
Suresh Kumar Attri, who requested to use an alias, told The Quint,
"Indian Dalits, being Indians, naturally tend to gravitate towards Indian neighborhoods, Indian weddings and Indian gatherings. In those places, they meet people from upper castes, who are in the majority here. They [upper castes] will gang up on them, they will bully them. Many of the Dalits put up with this casual casteism. And sometimes that casual casteism goes further into real harmful discrimination ... Now with Seattle they know that okay even though somebody may be living in California or New York, they know that if there has been this powerful dialogue in Seattle, they can start bringing this up in their city, to their political representatives. So now, there is a momentum."
Attri, a tech worker based in Chicago, is a member of Ambedkar Association of North America (AANA).
AANA, along with Ambedkar International Center, Equality Labs, Ambedkar King Study Circle, etc, was among the prominent Ambedkarite organisations involved in the drafting and campaigning for the Seattle ordinance.
Maya Kamble, the president of AANA, told The Quint that they helped council member Kshama Sawant's office in the days leading to the vote and also submitted their testimonies to the city council. Kamble was present on the day the legislation was passed.
Giving Back to Society
AANA was founded in 2008 as a non-profit organisation with the aim of working in the fields of education and healthcare. Even though all its members are based in the US, its health and educational programmes are aimed at India.
AANA provides guidance to underprivileged students who want to study abroad and also gives monetary support to students in need of financial assistance. Kamble informed that they spent $65,000 as monetary support to students last year. The organisation also ran a makeshift hospital during the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic at Nagaloka in Nagpur with the help of Samata Sainink Dal, contributing $250,000 towards it.
AANA is also planning to start an anaemia eradication programme for girls and women in Telangana in collaboration with the Centre for Dalit Studies, Hyderabad.
The organisation has a strong Buddhist core and conducts a weekly online session for children and adults on Buddhist teachings and social issues every Sunday called Online Buddha Vihara. This programme has been running continuously since 2010. (Disclaimer: this reporter was invited as a guest speaker at the Online Buddha Vihara in January 2022.)
The other prominent organisation, Ambedkar International Center, has ambitious plans of building an Ambedkar memorial on 13.1 acre land at a cost of 1.5-2 million dollars (approximately 12 to 16 crore rupees) in the town of Accokeek, just over 30 kilometres from the US Capitol. The work on Ambedkar's statue, called Statue of Equality, is currently underway and it will be installed on the project site later this year. The memorial will also have a Buddha statue and other Buddhist iconography, library, garden, residence hall, gift shop, etc.
Indian Diaspora in the United States
The population of Indians in the US has increased exponentially in the last few decades. According to the Washington-based think tank Migration Policy Institute, the population of Indian Americans was 4.5 lakh in 1990. That number grew six times in three decades to reach 27 lakh in 2021.
The Indian diaspora in the US is also highly educated and wealthy. Four-fifths of Indian immigrant adults hold at least a bachelor’s degree and their median household incomes are more than double the average. While caste-wise figures for Indian Americans are not available, anecdotally it is believed that they are mainly drawn from the upper castes.
In a Twitter discussion on Sunday, 26 February, Harvard University professor Ajantha Subramaniam said,
"In South Asia, how does caste privilege work? It works through the control of land, labour, education, media, white collar professions, political institutions, and this is what has carried over to the United States. It's this collective inheritances of caste that have shaped patterns of migration to the US. The most important thing is, the privileged access the higher education in South Asia, which is sort of a byproduct of these other forms of privilege. That has been particularly important in shaping the social composition of South Asian diaspora in the US, which also explains why this node of the diaspora is majority upper caste and why oppressed caste are a minority within this minority."
According to a report published by Equality Labs in 2018, casteism is rampant among South Asian Americans. This was further corroborated by a case filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing against Cisco in 2020. It was alleged that two upper caste employees at the company subjected a Dalit employee, who was identified by the pseudonym John Doe, to caste discrimination.
This case attracted the attention of all the major Ambedkarite organisations in the US as the majority of these organisations' members too work in the tech sector and have faced caste discrimination at their workplaces.
Takshak Chahande, a member of the Ambedkar International Center, considers the John Doe case as a historical moment in the Ambedkarite activism in the US.
"We used to conduct seminars and conferences to create awareness about the caste system. We would educate white people and others what caste discrimination is and why we need to abolish it. But not much was happening outside the social sphere. In 2020, when the John Doe case of Cisco caste discrimination came out, that was the historic moment, because that case paved the way to bring caste discrimination to the forefront. That's why we need to thank John Doe."– Takshak Chahande
The Cisco case received a lot of media coverage. It forced tech companies to start discussions around caste at their workplaces and in some instances, take action. Apple, for example, updated its general employee conduct policy to prohibit discrimination on the basis of caste, alongside categories like race, religion, gender, age and ancestry.
The Ambedkarite organisations like the AIC and Equality Labs were invited by many groups and institutions to speak about the caste system in the wake of this case. The AIC had prepared an introductory PowerPoint presentation on caste discrimination that they would take to the meetings and workshops.
The Ambedkarite organisations also collected testimonies from oppressed caste individuals about the incidents of discrimination they had faced. One such testimony listed on the Ambedkar King Study Circle reads,
"It was about two days after I arrived in the US for pursuing my masters. One of my Seniors asked me out of the blue whether I belonged to particular Brahmin sub-caste."– Aditi S, Fremont, CA
The primary motivation for the volunteers of Ambedkarite organisations in the US is the desire to do something for the oppressed caste people. Most of them are employed in well-paid tech sector jobs. Only a few of them are okay with revealing their social background at work due to the fear of being discriminated by their Indian colleagues. Some have adopted aliases to do their anti-caste work. They keep their work persona and Ambedkarite persona separate.
Mahesh Wasnik, who is currently with AANA but who has previously also worked with AIC, told The Quint that Dalits were afraid to reveal their identity earlier because their bosses were Indian and they were on work visas and so if they lost jobs, they would have to go back to India. Once they get green card, they feel more secure, he said.
In early 2000s, there were two prominent anti-caste organisations – Ambedkar Center for Justice and Peace, founded by Yogesh Varhade and Ambedkar International Mission, founded by Rajkumar Kamble. Many of the founding members of AANA and AIC have worked with Varhade and Kamble in the past.
In the last few years, the anti-caste activism in the US seems to be getting more organised, more professional and broader in the issues it concerns itself with. Equality Labs, for example, has a full-time staff unlike other organisations that are mostly volunteer-run. It also keeps feminism and intersectionality at the very centre of its activism.
Thenmozhi Soundarajan, the executive director of Equality Labs, told The Quint,
"What is unique about Equality Labs, compared to other Ambedkarite organisations is that, caste is broader than the Indian American diaspora. It's in the South Asian diaspora. So you have caste in, you know, Sri Lankan, Nepali, Bangladeshi, Pakistani and also indentured communities, which are all present in the US. Our membership has different people from all those communities. So the ethnicities and the religions in our organisation are very diverse. We're intercaste, multiracial and multifaith."
AANA's current president is a woman and the organisation also had a woman president in the past, which is deliberate. Kamble, who is also the founding member said, "When AANA was formed, we were trying to see that women's representation and participation is always pivotal to our movement. It was always a family-based organisation, rather than only having men at the forefront and women always at the back. We never wanted that."
When Brown University updated its non-discrimination policy in December 2022 to explicitly ban caste-based discrimination on campus, it was due to the efforts of a young Pasmanda woman who was an undergraduate student at the university at the time. While choosing to remain anonymous, she told The Quint,
"I had been interested in getting this done at Brown after hearing that other universities in the United States, especially in California, and then some other smaller colleges have successfully done this. In fall 2021, I met with one of the administrators at Brown in the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity and I brought up what caste was, how it manifests in the United States, and especially on college campuses."
This student, who is of Gujarati descent, later collaborated with other students on campus as well as Equality Labs to make her case stronger and get the proposal passed.
Ambedkarite groups have disproportionately more representation from Maharashtrian Buddhists as the anti-caste movement has historically been strongest there, but that is slowly changing. Suresh Kumar Attri, who belongs to the Ravidassia community of Dalit Sikhs, said that after the 125th year celebrations of Ambedkar's birth anniversary in 2016 by the United Nations in their headquarters at New York, the Ravidassia community has started engaging with Ambedkarite politics more.
"People started to read Annihilation of Caste a lot more and some of the other seminal works of Dr Ambedkar. There have now been study groups established," he said.
While talking about how Ambedkarite activism in the US also has relevance for India, AIC member Anil Wagde said, "All this activism has a lot of ripple effects in India. When a city like Seattle bans caste, every major newspaper in India covers it. They sit up and take note."