Decoding the Dalit Controversy of the USA- Caste and Discrimination

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Introduction

The word “caste” applies to a rigid hierarchical social structure based on ideas of purity and pollution, under which people at the lowest of the structure might endure alienation in various ways. Although India is not the only country to have a caste-based system.

Caste, race, and ethnic discrimination are among the world’s most serious human rights violations. It impacts millions of individuals around the globe but is rarely acknowledged. Although there are different kinds of race and ethnicity-based discrimination grounded and prevalent in all parts of the world, the caste-based system and discrimination are slightly different.

A portrait depicting a weaver. Weavers and other labours have always been identified as lower castes or Shudras in the Indian caste system.

This phenomenon was also observed in feudal Japan in ancient times. The samurai class had the powers and privilege to commit atrocities against the lower classes. And this class was divided on the similar structure of the society with samurais-peasants-geishas etc., akin to a caste-based system. 

Similarly, we can also observe the prevalence of caste-based discrimination in the Asian region, where untouchability still exists in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Myanmar, etc. 

How Caste-based discrimination perpetuates

People of different races, colours, and ethnicity have always faced discrimination especially people of Asian and African origin

However, one country holds a distinction in the world order regarding the caste system. It is none other than India, where this system of caste owes its origin to the religion of Hindusim. Although the religious notions and divisions on caste have undergone significant change with time. Caste system being monopolized and misused my majority and political agendas to maintain the historical imbalance perpetuated for centuries.

Caste distinctions also predominate in housing, wedding, and general social contact under numerous caste systems worldwide. Disparities perpetuated by threats of social exclusion, economic boycotts, and physical assault are some of the ways through which the caste system is enforced.

The Hindu religion places emphasis on a caste-based hierarchy

Due to the cumulative impacts of gender and caste-based oppression, Dalit women are more susceptible to severe human rights violations involving assault and sexual harassment. The caste system must be abolished to achieve equality, values for human rights, economic growth, and peace.

CASTE-BASED DISCRIMINATION IN INDIA

In India, this is a very prevalent problem. India is a culturally and socially stratified country. In Indian culture, the caste division has existed for centuries, some 1000’s years old. The Indian caste hierarchy divides the population in Indian society depending on their caste or the occupations they perform. Indian civilization has been divided into four groups from the ancient period: Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras.

Read in detail about the caste system here!

This system believes Dalits to be “untouchables,” and they are excluded from it. Dalit is a term that can imply repressed, separated, or squeezed. It belongs to people previously referred to as “untouchables,” indeed a demeaning phrase.

Fighting against caste-based oppression! Women showing placard of political wing associated with lower castes in India.

The origins of the caste hierarchy are a subject of much debate. Some are historical in nature, while others are religious or biological. It’s not surprising that different classes and categories of humans have always tried to maintain supremacy over others to maintain unquestioned authority and are still trying to exercise control. Thus, there are still heated debates, politics, and combined atrocities in the name of this power game.

The History

However, it becomes essential to know that the historical division of caste, as mentioned in the ancient scriptures, was based on the division of labour in society. Therefore, the caste system was never associated with birth, which it went on to achieve in a later stage. For instance, if a person was working as a trader, he would be termed a vaishya one performing rituals as a Brahmin.

Nothing was related to the family name and vice versa; a particular community will be associated with a specific work. Although, at a later stage, people born within a specific community were associated with the same position that the majority performed. Thus, enclosing the caste system into a rigid regime linked with a person’s birth.

Many individuals believe in it, while others do not. It is dependent on a person’s way of thinking and mindset. On the one hand, some people oppose the system, while others favour it. It is essentially a form of social segregation.

Implications on Society

The caste system has several adverse consequences for society’s development. First, it made it impossible for citizens to exercise their rights. Lower caste people face rampant discrimination and a sense of inferiority complex.

They were even prohibited of primary human needs, which are now termed fundamental human rights in modern parlance. Such as food, clothing, and the ability to worship a god. There have been reports of forceful caste conversion, banishment from the community, and even murders, along with the inhuman “honor killing” system.

I am not different, I am just diverse!

Third, it separated and fragmented society’s peace and cohesiveness. Fourth, it instills a false sense of superiority in upper-class individuals. This results in a system that inhibits growth and ensures particular communities reap all the benefits of maintaining their hegemony. As a result, a silent sentiment of animosity grows throughout the population. The authorities are working hard to abolish the caste hierarchy by enacting laws and legislation.

CASTE-BASED DISCRIMINATION: A GLOBAL ISSUE

A caste system acts as a “hidden apartheid” that separates humans into inegalitarian social groupings from birth. Although caste-based discrimination has been outlawed in many nations that have experienced it. The reality of the situation is often different, as regulation is either not followed or is ineffective or is hampered by well-established caste bias in law enforcement and justice systems. 

These people have restricted access to resources, education, services, political engagement, and growth due to marginalization by both state and non-state actors, leaving several people in extreme poverty.

People of different races, adopting different practices and origins have always been viewed with suspicion exacerbating historical injustice.

People believe that practices like these have decreased due to modernity and knowledge. Still, the reality is way far away from this. People in different corners of the world still have to face this discrimination. Still, the difference is some people come out in public and raise this issue while others do not.

People usually believe that it is an issue in a few countries like – India or South Africa. Still, the reality is totally different as people, even in well-developed and modernized countries like the US, also have to face this discrimination.

Read more about discrimination within the society and the curious case of genocide in Canada here.

CASTE-BASED DISCRIMINATION FACED BY INDIANS IN THE US 

As told through historic litigation, the history of caste discrimination in America puts the spotlight on the pattern of oppression and its various dimensions – economic, mental, and physical. It demonstrates how deeply caste has infiltrated American society.

According to a study by the Dalit civil rights organization Equality Labs, over 25% of Dalits who took part in a caste poll indicated they had been verbally or physically assaulted because of their caste. One out of every three Dalit students has experienced discrimination within their education, and 60% of Dalits have heard insulting jokes or judgments based on their caste. In the United States, prejudice based on caste generated a dread of being “outed” – around one in every two Dalits and four Shudras expressed this anxiety.

Casteist assaults have found their way even in countries far away from India in educational institutions abroad.

In the United States, caste remains a dominant social system. However, during the second half of the twentieth century, when strict immigration laws based on race were abolished, there was a massive increase in immigration from South Asia, particularly India, into the United States. 

USA- The land of opportunities

It offers an excellent opportunity for India’s wealthy and educated upper castes to immigrate to the United States and achieve power under the guise of racial minorities. Disadvantaged and marginalized castes who arrived in the United States without equivalent means, based on their rigorous hard work, on the other hand, became a minority inside a minority.

Not only these students have also faced this discrimination in recent times. Students who are pursuing their graduation or post-graduation from the universities of the US have filed a complaint against it. They also said that they did not expect that practices like these are followed in developed and modernized countries like the US.

A merit-based society ensures diversity and equality for all irrespective of their background

Migrating to developed nations is a way for the caste-oppressed Indians to get judged on their merit, work, and capacities. A merit-based system established in developed countries ensures that everyone gets an equal opportunity to reach greater heights without being discriminated against based on concerns wholly irrelevant to the task at hand, such as race, colour, creed, etc.

The Win

After a long journey of Dalit students demanding reservations for their caste in these universities, the university fulfilled their demands. The anti-discrimination policy at California State University (CSU) was recently updated to include caste.

The CSU system unexpectedly had caste to its nondiscrimination policy on January 1, barring caste-based discriminatory practices or partiality throughout its 23 campuses. Students from low-caste backgrounds will now be allowed to register anti-Dalit bigotry, which several students allege regularly. CSU joins many American organizations, Harvard University, and the Democratic Party of California to recognize caste discrimination.

On the one hand, many students are happy with this decision. At the same time, on the other end, Faculty members wrote a scathing letter to the CSU Board of Trustees criticizing the decision to include caste in the university’s nondiscrimination policy, claiming that the latest proposal would disproportionately affect a minority community for surveillance and differential treatment.

The Controversy

However, this policy shift was implemented without scientifically sound evidence or sources. It will actually generate discrimination by illegitimately picking out and attacking Hindu professors of Indian and South Asian heritage as parts of an accused class due to firmly rooted, incorrect assumptions about Indians, Hindus, and caste, rather than redressing injustice. 

This is such a double-edged sword. To end discrimination and ensure equality for all, one must finish the bifurcations and separate class identities. However, this step indulges in bifurcation, promoting different identities to protect. 

The deep-rooted historical discrimination ensured that the lower castes were not allowed to access public and community water, taps etc. These measures promoted separate identities.

They are dissatisfied that the CSU faculty association favoured this decision without consulting the affected professors. Dr. Suraj Yengde, Harvard’s most powerful Dalit, is disappointed with the university’s latest decision to make caste a protected category for students.

CONCLUSION

It takes time, governmental determination, broad engagement, and resources to confront discrimination and promote inclusive societies. Governments and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) must take the initiative by enacting legislative provisions, strategies, schemes, and funding. Foremost, it is essential to construct the circumstances for long-term social reform.

There is a need for highly effective institutions and training for individuals responsible for delivering services or enforcing policies. People from all walks of life must oppose discriminatory perspectives and behaviours. Various initiatives are aimed towards Dalits, but few are directed at those whose prejudices contribute to marginalization and oppression.

Diversity makes it beautiful!

The role of democratic institutions at all levels, from small Dalit hamlets to state-wide social and political movements, has been emphasized as vital for creating socially progressive government policy. Addressing social inequalities and fighting for emancipation from caste, class, and gender discrimination is serious.

The changes should come from within, and the gaps and differences would reduce with a progressing society ensuring equal opportunities for all and letting go of the ancient notions. For nothing is permanent except change.

Excerpts: by YASH ARYA

About the Author

Komal Chaudhary

Komal is a very passionate girl who loves to explore new things. Currently, she is doing Masters in Political Science from Delhi University. In addition, she has a keen interest in international affairs and effectively pursues the same. As a youth of the contemporary world, she aspires to make the Indian population more conscious and knowledgeable by working with The International Prism.

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