One of Kshama Sawant’s earliest memories of the caste system was hearing her grandfather — a man she “otherwise loved very much” — utter a slur to summon their lower-caste maid.
The Seattle City Council member, raised in an upper-caste Hindu Brahmin household in India, was 6 when she asked her grandfather why he used that derogatory word when he knew the girl’s name. He responded that his granddaughter “talked too much.”
Now 50, and an elected official in a city far from India, Sawant has proposed an ordinance to add caste to Seattle’s anti-discrimination laws. If her fellow council members approve it Tuesday, Seattle will become the first city in the United States to specifically outlaw caste discrimination.
In India, the origins of the caste system can be traced back 3,000 years as a social hierarchy based on one’s birth. While the definition of caste has evolved over the centuries, under both Muslim and British rule, the suffering of those at the bottom of the caste pyramid – known as Dalits, which in Sanskrit means “broken” — has continued.
In 1948, a year after independence from British rule, India banned discrimination on the basis of caste, a law that became enshrined in the nation’s constitution in 1950. Yet the undercurrents of caste continue to swirl in India’s politics, education, employment and even in everyday social interactions. Caste-based violence, including sexual violence against Dalit women, is still rampant.
The national debate in the United States around caste has been centered in the South Asian community, causing deep divisions within the diaspora. Dalit activist-led organizations such as Oakland, California-based Equality Labs, say caste discrimination is prevalent in diaspora communities, surfacing in the form of social alienation and discrimination in housing, education and the tech sector where South Asians hold key roles.
The U.S. is the second most popular destination for Indians living abroad, according to the Migration Policy Institute, which estimates the U.S. diaspora grew from about 206,000 in 1980 to about 2.7 million in 2021. The group South Asian Americans Leading Together reports that nearly 5.4 million South Asians live in the U.S. — up from the 3.5 million counted in the 2010 census. Most trace their roots to Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
There has been strong pushback to anti-discrimination laws and policies that target caste from groups such as the Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America. They say such legislation will hurt a community whose members are viewed as “people of color” and already face hate and discrimination.
But over the past decade, Dalit activism has garnered support from several corners of the diaspora, including from groups like Hindus for Human Rights. The last three years in particular have seen more people identify as Dalits and publicly tell their stories, energizing this movement.
Prem Pariyar, a Dalit Hindu from Nepal, gets emotional as he talks about escaping caste violence in his native village. His family was brutally attacked for taking water from a community tap, said Pariyar, who is now a social worker in California and serves on Alameda County’s Human Relations Commission. He moved to the U.S. in 2015, but says he couldn’t escape stereotyping and discrimination because of his caste-identifying last name, even as he tried to make a new far from his homeland.
Pariyar, motivated by the overt caste discrimination he faced in his social and academic circles, was a driving force behind it becoming a protected category in the 23-campus California State University system in January 2022.
“I’m fighting so Dalits can be recognized as human beings,” he said.
In December 2019, Brandeis University near Boston became the first U.S. college to include caste in its nondiscrimination policy. Colby College, Brown University and the University of California, Davis, have adopted similar measures. Harvard University instituted caste protections for student workers in 2021 as part of its contract with its graduate student union.
Laurence Simon, international development professor at Brandeis, said a university task force made the decision based “on the feelings and fears of students from marginalized communities.”
“To us, that was enough, even though we did not hear of any serious allegations of caste discrimination,” he said. “Why do we have to wait for there to be a horrendous problem?”
Among the most striking findings in a survey of 1,500 South Asians in the U.S. by Equity Lab: 67% of Dalits who responded reported being treated unfairly at their workplace because of their caste and 40% of Dalit students who were surveyed reported facing discrimination in educational institutions compared to only 3% of upper-caste respondents. Also, 40% of Dalit respondents said they felt unwelcome at their place of worship because of their caste.
Caste needs to be a protected category under the law because Dalits and others negatively affected by it do not have a legal way to address it, said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and executive director of Equality Labs. Soundararajan’s parents, natives of Tamil Nadu in southern India, fled caste oppression in the 1970s and immigrated to Los Angeles, where she was born.
“We South Asians have so many difficult historical traumas,” she said. “But when we come to this country, we shove all that under the rug and try to be a model minority. The shadow of caste is still there. It still destabilizes lives, families and communities.”
The trauma is intergenerational, she said. In her book “The Trauma of Caste,” Soundararajan writes of being devastated when she learned that her family members were considered “untouchables” in India. She recounts the hurt she felt when a friend’s mother who was upper caste, gave her a separate plate to eat from after learning about her Dalit identity.
“This battle around caste is a battle for our souls,” she said.
The Dalit American community is not monolithic on this issue. Aldrin Deepak, a gay, Dalit resident of the San Francisco Bay area, said he has never faced caste discrimination in his 35 years in the U.S. He has decorated deities in local Hindu temples and has an array of community members over to his house for Diwali celebrations.
“No one’s asked me about my caste,” he said. “Making an issue where there is none is only creating more fractures in our community.”
Nikunj Trivedi, president of the Coalition of Hindus of North America, views the narrative around caste as “completely twisted.” Caste-based laws that single out Indian Americans and Hindu Americans are unacceptable, he said.
“The understanding of Hinduism is poor in this country,” Trivedi said. “Many people believe caste equals Hinduism, which is simply not true. There is diversity of thought, belief and practice within Hinduism.”
Trivedi said Seattle’s proposed policy is dangerous because it is not based on reliable data.
“There is a heavy reliance on anecdotal reports,” he said, suggesting it would be difficult to verify someone’s caste. “How can people who know very little or nothing about caste adjudicate issues stemming from it?”
Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, called Seattle’s proposed ordinance unconstitutional because “it singles out and targets an ethnic minority and seeks to institutionalize implicit bias toward a community.”
“It sends that message that we are an inherently bigoted community that must be monitored,” Shukla said.
Caste is already covered under the current set of anti-discrimination laws, which provide protections for race, ethnicity and religion, she said.
Legislation pertaining to caste is not about targeting any community, said Nikhil Mandalaparthy, deputy executive director of Hindus for Human Rights. The Washington, D.C.-based group supports the proposed caste ordinance.
“Caste needs to be a protected category because we want South Asians to have similar access to opportunities and not face discrimination in workplaces and educational settings,” he said. “Sometimes, that means airing the dirty laundry of the community in public to make it known that caste-based discrimination is not acceptable.”
Council member Sawant said legal recourse is needed because current anti-discrimination laws are not enough. Sawant, who is a socialist, said the ordinance is backed by several groups including Amnesty International and Alphabet Workers Union that represents workers employed by Google’s parent company.
More than 150,000 South Asians live in Washington state, with many employed in the tech sector where Dalit activists say caste-based discrimination has gone unaddressed. The issue was in the spotlight in 2020 when California regulators sued Cisco Systems saying a Dalit Indian engineer faced caste discrimination at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters.
Sawant said the ordinance does not single out one community, but accounts for how caste discrimination crosses national and religious boundaries. A United Nations report in 2016 said at least 250 million people worldwide still face caste discrimination in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Pacific regions, as well as in various diaspora communities. Caste systems are found among Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Muslims and Sikhs.
Among the diaspora, many Dalits pushing to end caste discrimination are not Hindu. Nor are they all from India.
D.B. Sagar faced caste oppression growing up in the 1990s in northern Nepal, not far from the Buddha’s birthplace. He fled it, emigrating to the U.S. in 2007. Sagar says he still bears physical and emotional scars from the oppression. His family was Dalit and practicing elements of both Hinduism and Buddhism, and felt shunned by both faiths.
“We were not allowed to participate in village festivals or enter temples,” he said. “Buddhists did not allow anyone from the Dalit community to become monks. You could change your religion, but you still cannot escape your caste identity. If converting to another religion was a solution, people would be free from caste discrimination by now.”
In school, Sagar was made to sit on a separate bench. He was once caned by the school’s principal for drinking from a water pot in the classroom that Dalits were barred from using. They believed his touch would pollute the water.
Sagar said he was shocked to see similar attitudes arise in social settings among the U.S. diaspora. His experiences motivated him to start the International Commission for Dalit Rights. In 2014, he organized a march from the White House to Capitol Hill demanding that caste discrimination be recognized under the U.S. Civil Rights Act.
His organization is currently looking into about 150 complaints of housing discrimination from Dalit Americans, he said. In one case, a Dalit man in Virginia said his landlord rented out a basement, but prevented him from using the kitchen because of his caste.
“Caste is a social justice issue, period,” he said.
Like Sagar, Arizona resident Shahira Bangar is Dalit. But she is a practicing Sikh and her parents fled caste oppression in Punjab, India. Her parents never discussed caste when she was young, but she learned the truth in her teens as she attended high school in Silicon Valley surrounded by high-caste Punjabi friends who belonged to the higher, land-owning Jat caste.
She felt left out when her friends played “Jat pride” music and when a friend’s mother used her caste identity as a slur.
“I felt this deep sadness of not being accepted by my own community,” Bangar said. “I felt betrayed.”
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Deepa Bharath, The Associated Press