A RIGHT TO OPPRESS? AKSC CHALLENGES SOME HINDUS’ CLAIM THAT OUTLAWING CASTE DISCRIMINATION VIOLATES THEIR RELIGIOUS LIBERTY
For Immediate Release
(Ambedkar King Study Circle – April 30, 2021)
San Jose, CA: Members and supporters of Ambedkar King Study Circle (AKSC) demanded protective legislation against caste discrimination at a meeting of Santa Clara County’s Human Rights Commission (HRC) on April 29, 2021. The HRC organized a discussion about whether caste ought to be a protected category in the county along with race, gender, sexuality, and other markers of identity, to inform more discussions and future actions. The meeting held on Zoom reached its limit of 500 participants as soon as it began and ran for 7 hrs 30 minutes, past 1:00 am, with 5 expert speakers and a few hundred speakers from the community.
The meeting began with an invocation by Ms. Protima Pandey who called on everyone to make space for the narratives that weren’t heard before and reminded all of the religious patriarchal norms in society that stifle equality in the name of religion. Invited speakers, including researchers on caste & immigration, and a labor organizer testified about the prevalence of caste discrimination in the US and in the Bay area. Except for Mr. Girish Shah who represented the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council, every other expert speaker was strongly in favor of adding caste as a distinct protected category to legally secure caste-oppressed people’s rights against this “oldest form of dehumanization”.
During the Q&A with the invited speakers, commissioner Dr.Yi-Baker asked if caste discrimination could lead to the freezing of social mobility of Dalits (a self-chosen moniker of caste-oppressed people in India). Dr. Subramaniam responded that caste power is intended to keep a certain social hierarchy in place. Therefore, “when Dalits strive for upward mobility,…they are put back in their place through mechanisms such as social ostracism, economic boycotts, and physical violence.”
In the public comment that followed, Dalit speakers, representing a broad swath of nationalities (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka), religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism), genders, and sexual orientations spoke movingly about the pain, suffering, and material deprivation they had been subjected to because of their caste identities. Multiple members of the LGBTQ community explained how anti-discriminatory legislation had finally allowed them the freedom to be themselves and that protective legislation would do the same for caste-oppressed people.
Many non-Indian speakers including those that identified themselves as Jewish, Muslim, & Black offered powerful comparisons to the histories of anti-semitism, Islamophobia, and anti-Black racism to urge the commission to act against casteist discrimination. Some of the sharpest commentary came from a speaker who argued that just as she, a white American woman, was in no position to define or refute non-white peoples’ experiences of racism, members of dominant castes were in no position to deny that casteist discrimination exists. Her comment was clearly a response to the multiple dominant-caste speakers who repeatedly accused Dalit and Bahujan speakers of fabricating their stories.
Reflecting on the meeting, Ms.Arulmozhi, a member of AKSC, invoked Abraham Lincoln’s quote that the oppressor and the oppressed have different definitions of liberty. She explained that although those with caste-privilege might argue that the practice of caste is a (Hindu) religious liberty that the state must not interfere with, it must still be outlawed as it impinges on the liberty of caste-oppressed peoples.
AKSC looks forward to the HRC’s recommendations and is hopeful that the County’s Board of Supervisors will enact protective anti-caste legislation based upon those recommendations. AKSC will continue to educate the public about the lives and experiences of caste-oppressed peoples in the US, including by collecting testimonials about casteist discrimination from Dalit and Bahujan peoples in the United States. AKSC welcomes people of all communities to join them in their fight for liberation from caste.
Anu Mandavilli | Email: amandavilli at gmail.com
Karthikeyan Shanmugam | Email: iamsjkk at gmail.com
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