On Tuesday, 21 February, Seattle achieved a historic milestone by becoming the first city in the United States to explicitly prohibit discrimination based on caste after Indian American Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant introduced a "first-in-the-nation" legislation to ban caste-based discrimination.
In an interview with The Quint, Sawant explains the birth of the anti-caste movement in the US, the influence her desi roots play in American politics, and provides a sharp response to her critics.
How did you, as an Indian in computer science, make the leap towards academia, and eventually to politics where you've established yourself as one of the most prominent Indian-American activists in the country?
From my earliest memories, as far back as I can remember, I was extremely preoccupied with political questions.
When I say political, I don't mean elected office or elections, I mean, political questions about the world around us and why the world is structured in this way? Why there is poverty? Why should there be misery?
So, from the very beginning, for me, the most compelling and it was a very intellectual position also that for me, it was a very compelling thought that, surely this is not the best that humanity can achieve. Surely, we can do better.
What is Seattle's historic anti-caste legislation, and how did it come about?
Discrimination based on caste is now illegal under Seattle law, and the principle mechanism that this law offers is that if you're an oppressed caste worker who are facing caste discrimination at the hands of your dominant caste bosses, then you can go to court using this law and sue the corporation where you're experiencing this discrimination.
How has your origin and your exposure (or the lack of exposure) to caste influenced your journey towards getting the United State's first anti-caste legislation passed?
I did not come from a political family, and I had nobody political around me. In the political sense, I was very isolated and alone. Again, as I said, it might resonate with a lot of people, there's nothing unique about my experience.
I grew up in a family, many of whom are academics or engineers, and I grew up loving mathematics, and I love that subject. But I never had a passion for any career. In fact, I guess I would have miserably failed if I had to build a professional career on that basis, on the basis of professional qualifications, because I never had a passion for it.
But I went along in terms of becoming an engineer because that was the only thing I could do, and of course, you have to earn a living as well.
So, you know, I was doing that. But throughout that period, what I was preoccupied with was not building my professional career but I was preoccupied with finding intellectual answers for my burning questions.
What was your reaction when you arrived at the United States and experienced caste discrimination, given the extremely prevalent misconception that such incidents remain centred and limited to India?
When I came here, I had a certain idea that while I don't expect things to be perfect, I still would think that in the richest country in the history of humanity, you surely wouldn't see many of the endemic problems you see in a neo-colonial country like India, which has been impoverished by years of imperialism and years of subjugation by a very corrupt state and those factors, that things would be significantly better
I mean, it would be ludicrous to think that things in the United States are the same as in India, but they are not.
However, what was astounding to me was to see how even in a wealthy society, some of the most basic needs for tens of millions of American working people are not covered.
How does caste discrimination manifest itself within society in the United States?
The way the caste discrimination phenomenon manifests itself in the United States, is, for the most part, and it's not by no means the only way, but for most part, the most prominent way that we can see it is in the workplace.
For example, we've seen hundreds of oppressed caste tech workers, you know, Dalit and other oppressed caste tech workers speak up. We have seen a very important letter anonymously written by 30 Dalit women software engineers, which was published in The Washington Post, where they talked about the serious discrimination that they face, even including sexual harassment, a daily dose of derogatory remarks and slurs, constantly targeted at oppressed caste individuals.
Your critics claim that there is an inherent hurdle in identifying caste and acting upon it as well. While you did mention plans to educate society about caste, do you think it's a process that takes so much time that it ends up becoming a bit irrelevant?
The premise of the right wing argument is that there is no caste discrimination. But that is false you know; you have statistical data about it. You have the testimonials of hundreds, if not thousands of people who are describing this
At the end of the day, you know the right wing always, they always start by saying, “Well, I'm opposed to discrimination, but we don't need this law.”
Well, my response to them is, if you oppose discrimination, then why do you oppose a law that opposes discrimination? The only people who would oppose a law against discrimination are people who believe in discrimination.
To say that protecting Dalits or Indian Americans against discrimination would somehow target Indian Americans as a whole or Indian Americans from other castes, is like saying that addressing racism against black and brown people would negatively affect white people.
How did the Indian community rise up and support the Seattle anti-caste legislation? Moreover, how have they reacted to the move?
There's been an absolutely overwhelming amount of support for this ordinance and really, in many ways, the genesis of the movement to win this particular ordinance around caste discrimination started three years ago, when there was a movement against the CAA-NRC, the citizenship laws.
At that time, local organisations like the Indian American Muslim Council and the Coalition of Seattle Indian Americans united Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Dalit leaders alongside Socialist Alternative and my office, and we won a resolution condemning the CAA-NRC.
We had support from Amnesty International USA, Arundhati Roy, Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, and also from Ashwini KP who is based in Bengaluru with a special United Nations Special Rapporteur on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.
How would you like to respond to opposition which claims that the legislation is divisive and equates it to "class warfare?"
These are falsehoods because this is nothing new. Just to give you an example, the Seattle Anti-Discrimination law already prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, gender, sexual orientation, and all those characteristics.
So, if somebody is facing LGBTQ-based discrimination and discrimination because they're gay, or LGBTQ, otherwise, it's not like the law is required to identify them in some way these those are self-identified characteristics.
The law in Seattle, gives an LGBTQ person the right to go to court and say, ”I am LGBTQ, and I have faced discrimination because of being LGBTQ. and here's the evidence.”
The caste-based discrimination law will work in exactly the same way.
What's your relationship with India? Do you miss it and wish to come back? Do you visit often?
Every time I visit, I have this deep longing, this deep desire to just live there and not come back to the US. But at the same time, I also have ties in the United States. So I feel like I have a dual home between the United States and India.
I do feel a powerful solidarity with ordinary people in India with the working class and India and on a personal level, as a socialist and as a person who hails from India, I am just especially gratified that this ordinance has caught the attention of so many people in India because I feel like if this can offer any message of hope for building a fight back inside India, which is much harder.
It isn't it much easier to be against the Narendra Modi regime in the United States, it's much harder to be in India, and building movements against the right wing and against the billionaire class.