How to Fight a Deadly Caste System

By Asam S. Ahmad Apr 21, 2015

Sexual violence against girls and women in India has been big U.S. news since a college student named Jyoti Singh Pandey was fatally gang raped on a Delhi bus in December 2012. The grisly attack on Pandey, who is widely known as "Nirbhaya" ("Fearless One"), sparked unprecedented mass marches and a broader discussion about the connection between caste and gender-based violence against Dalit women.

There are close to 200 million people classified as Dalits in South Asia. Pejoratively known as "Untouchables," people in this caste occupy the lowest rung in a hierarchy that still operates powerfully today in the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora. 

Last year grassroots activists staged the multi-state Dalit Women’s Self-Respect Yatra [March] in India. Out of that historic demonstration came Dalit History Month, a new effort that earmarks April as a time to learn about the history and contributions of Dalit people.

Colorlines recently spoke with Dalit-American organizer, technologist and artist Thenmozhi Soundarajan about the first annual Dalit History Month. Below are excerpts of the interview that have been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Explain the Dalit History Month project.

Dalit History Month is a participatory collective that has members throughout India and North America. In addition to developing the Dalit History Month timeline, which is available at, we are having public and online events all throughout the month of April. In India we have events scheduled in Bihar, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, as well as Delhi and Hariyana. In the U.S. we have them in Houston, Boston, New York and California. What’s remarkable is that many local communities across America have started organizing and putting on unaffiliated events on their own. 

Can you speak to this moment in South Asian diaspora organizing?

I think we’re at a really critical juncture right now because the Dalit Women’s Self-Respect March has just lead the largest challenge to caste-based sexual violence in South Asian history. As a result of that march, and through the international solidarity that has come out of it, we’ve been able to start radicalizing within South Asian movements throughout North America and Europe. We are only now beginning to name the structural issue of caste and how it powerfully impacts South Asian organizing.

Why is it so important to talk about caste in the diaspora, particularly in the United States?

Many of the South Asians who were privileged to migrate [to the U.S.] have privileges related to language, class and, most importantly, to caste. So when the diaspora is said to be “casteless,” or South Asians want to say that caste doesn’t exist here, it basically erases the vocabulary we have to talk about the hierarchical privileges we occupy. Caste is all around us. We know that gurdwaras [temples] are organized by caste and that people still marry and associate along caste lines. When you look at the majority of the faculty in South Asian departments in North America, you have one to two professors who are Dalit but none are tenured. 

So caste is everywhere. 

Yes, and as a larger South Asian movement we need to recognize that it is unacceptable for us to move forward until we look very deeply at the way caste privilege has shaped [our] strategies and institutions. 

How does caste function amongst non-Hindu South Asian communities?

There’s all these social locators in the diaspora that place you within a caste hierarchy. Today the upper-caste social locators have become the norm for what is seen as South Asian culture, when it is in fact Savarna [upper-caste Hindu] culture. 

What are some of those social locators?

Your last name, where you’re from, [if] your family owns property, whether you celebrate certain holidays, who are you going to marry, and where you identify even within your religion. All these markers communicate caste without explicitly referring to the hierarchy of caste. 

When I hear the word “caste,” I immediately think of race. Can you talk about the similarities or differences between the two?

Race and caste are both social categories. They are analogous but not the same. When Dalit organizers find solidarity with black movements around the world, they are not saying that caste is race. For Dalits, the spiritual component to caste is very complicated because what it means for us is that we’re spiritually defiling to other people. So within that context, the journey of every Dalit is also a deeply existential one. 

So what does solidarity with black people and movements look like?

I think sometimes South Asian organizers use black organizing as a release valve for their caste privilege. …For most South Asians in the diaspora, it’s a lot easier to talk about Blackness because then the people at the top of the race hierarchy are the white supremacists and you don’t have to look at the caste privilege that exists not just for your own identity but in your family as well. …It’s [easy] to say “Ferguson matters” even as [you] ignore all of the massacres that their Savarna infrastructure has unleashed onto [Dalit] communities. 

You’re describing a kind of escape mechanism. 

Yes, when really what [you] need to do is internal work related to [your] own privilege of Brahmin and Savarna hegemony. And while many South Asian communities have solidarity with black peoples, there’s also a core strain of anti-black racism within South Asian identity that is rooted in caste privilege. Many of the prejudices South Asians have towards black people are rooted in the ways they have been taught to think about darker peoples in the subcontinent. 

How can upper-caste people begin to challenge their privilege?

For South Asians who are Savarna and upper-caste, being anti-caste is not about working in or studying Dalit communities. It’s about actually having these difficult conversations in your own networks and, most specifically, in your own families. This is the part that is the hardest for people because most of us feel we can’t talk to our families about these things. But this is also why caste-distress, [the trauma of caste oppression], is held by Dalits and not the upper caste. The reality is, however hard it is for Savarnas to start having these conversations, it is still going to be exponentially easier for them than it is for Dalits. 

How does the refusal to talk about caste in the diaspora play out internationally?

The rise of Hindu fundamentalism in South Asia is directly related to the Hindu fundamentalism in the diaspora. So the more that South Asian diaspora identity gets linked to this fundamentalism and isn’t challenged for the Savarna and Brahmin supremacy that it is, the harder it is for us to start moving and creating structural shifts both for that region and for our communities here.  

Caste is rarely mentioned in the coverage of India’s “rape culture.”

It’s like looking at the issue of rape during U.S. slavery and not talking about the fact that black women experienced state impunity towards their bodies much differently than white women because they were not seen as human. The same is true for the 80 million Dalit women in India whose bodies are still forged to caste. When you know that there is such a large group of women within Indian borders and you can do whatever you want to them and the state will basically turn away, what it does say about the freedom and the safety of all women?

How do you find gender is being taken up differently with young women now leading these movements?

When men lead they usually only bring themselves, but when young women lead we bring our families. What’s remarkably different about all of the projects coming out of the Dalit Women’s Self-Respect March, whether its the campaign of Dalit Women Fight or Dalit History Month, is that all of the spaces are intergenerational, they place women at the forefront, and we have our brothers, our fathers and our uncles there in support. That’s not typically what you think of when you see South Asian spaces. 

Asam Ahmad is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared in Black Girl Dangerous, Youngist, Now and Briarpatch. He is also a co-founder of It Gets Fatter, a body positivity collective for and by people of color. 

*Soundarajan is an Artist as Activist Robert Rauschenberg fellow