Caste bias exists in US, has to be countered, says Kshama Sawant

Kshama Sawant

Washington (IANS): Kshama Sawant made history last month when Seattle adopted a resolution moved by her to ban caste-based discrimination, become the first US city to do so. She took and stared down critics like the Hindu American Foundation, a powerful advocacy group, and many Hindu Indian Americans who argued the ban discredits and singles out Hindus.

Sawant is determined to take on the Hindu right wing and, at the same time, both the Republican and Democratic parties alike for not representing workers adequately. Her own political outfit is called Socialist Alternative. Sawant says the caste ban was borne out of the movement she and others had launched three years ago to oppose India’s Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens.

Here are excerpts from an interview:

IANS: What would you say to critics of the ban on caste-based discrimination that okay caste is bad and we are dealing with it internally but with this resolution, you have put a target on the entire community of Indian Americans and South Asians?

Kshama: First of all, it’s completely dishonest to say that there is any target on Indian American community or South Asians because the Seattle anti-discrimination law already bans discrimination on the basis of religion or national origin. And my question to these people is, if you oppose discrimination based on caste, why would you oppose a law that bans caste discrimination. It’s contradictory to what you claim to stand for.

In fact, throughout history, we have seen right-wing forces start their right-wing talking points couched in progressive sounding rhetoric, like ‘Oh, I’m against discrimination, but this is not the way to go’. So no matter how you put a fight against discrimination, they will say, ‘Well, this is not the right way to go about it’.

It’s not surprising that it’s the Hindu American Foundation [an advocacy group that led the opposition to the caste ban] and coalition of Hindus in North America that are opposing this, because they, you know, their entire agenda as you can see from their website is very aligned with Hindutva ideology. And they actually don’t want to address caste discrimination because they are some of the purveyors of caste oppression because it’s an integral part of Hindutva ideology.

Although it’s far from the only one. So it’s not surprising that it’s not only that they oppose this legislation. They are also the right-wing Hindu, right-wing forces, who are the purveyors of Islamophobia as well. So it’s not just about this issue. And this argument that it’s somehow anti-Hindu, it’s all a fake argument, it’s, as I said, it’s a right-wing talking point.

IANS: Critics of the ban also argue that Seattle already banned all sorts of discrimination, including on the basis of ancestry, which would include your country, religion, background. Why add caste to it, specifically?

Kshama: They’re grasping at straws to oppose something that is clearly — was clearly — needed. And, in fact, you can see from the response that we’ve gotten globally, just this overwhelming support shows that this is actually needed. Even from a legal point of view, the reason this kind of case was filed in California was because the state does not have a specific discrimination (law) against caste [refers to a case filed by a tech company employee].

And if you look at the pre-existing discrimination law in the city, you know, before we won this ordinance, for example, it bans discrimination on the basis of gender, and also bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. At that time when people were advocating for having sexual orientation also, in addition to gender, the right wing at that time said ‘Well, why do you need to do that, it’s already protected by the ban on discrimination based on gender’. But that’s not true.

I mean, they’re separate things. In fact, the law is stronger when it recognizes and stops a very specific form of discrimination. And the reason you need to put in caste is because this type of discrimination is very real, and it is becoming more widespread as the concentration of South Asian immigrant workers increases.

IANS: The last point that critics have brought up is that caste-based discrimination is not so rampant in the US and, in fact, it’s very rare. So why bother? And that some of the data cited in support for the need for a caste ban is suspect, specially those coming from Equality Labs (a Dalit civil rights organization in the US).

Kshama: All the data that we have, which is a lot, completely defies this talking point from the Hindu American Foundation. Yes, we have the Equality Labs study. We’re very clear that none of these studies has perfect methodologies but they do reveal something very important about what’s happening in relation to caste discrimination. And it’s not just a study by Equality Labs.

There’s also another study which used a different methodology, but reached the same conclusion: that there is a serious issue of caste oppression and that it is pervasive in the United States where we have South Asian community members. That study was by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The Carnegie study also acknowledged limitations of their own methodology. What they said, and this is a very important point, given how much fear oppressed caste people feel in even coming out as Dalits or oppressed caste, if anything, there’s under-reporting. In addition to the statistical studies, we’ve also seen hundreds upon hundreds of Dalits and other oppressed caste workers speak up about the kinds of discrimination that they face in the workplace. It ranges from being denied raises and promotions to being treated unfairly in reviews, peer reviews and appraisals, and also include day-to-day harassment, day-to-day indignity of being the target of so-called jokes on the basis of caste.

IANS: So just to be clear, this discrimination based on caste is by Indians on other Indians?

Kshama: I wouldn’t say only Indians because other people from South Asia also face discrimination. For example, the ban on caste discrimination that was achieved by the movement in California State University was spearheaded among others by a Dalit activist from Nepal. This type of discrimination which, as I said, is very specific, is faced by oppressed castes – South Asian immigrant workers – from dominant caste South Asian bosses.

IANS: So it’s basically a brown-on-brown kind of thing?

Kshama: I wouldn’t use that term because that’s a phrase used by the right wing to dismiss the real racism in our society.

IANS: So essentially, it’s South Asians on South Asians?

Kshama: Again, I wouldn’t put it in that way. I wouldn’t use that phrase, because it’s important to explain that the reason this is happening has nothing to do with them being South Asian. Under capitalism, we see different types of oppression. And so there’s racism in the United States; and that’s not just by South Asians, racism is rife in all of society.

There is sexism in India and other countries as well. What it really points to is what Malcolm X once said, which is, you can’t have capitalism without racism. Similarly, you can’t have capitalism without sexism. You can’t have capitalism without caste oppression. Different types of oppression have a common thread running through them which is originating in a very class-based society, a society that benefits a very few people at the top, and then divide-and-conquer strategies are used to divide masses at the bottom.

IANS: So when did you start thinking of bringing a resolution to ban caste-based discrimination?

Kshama: In many ways, the genesis of this movement goes back to our fight against another type of oppression, which is discrimination against Muslims. It really began with many activists – Hindu, Muslim, Dalit and other activists – fighting alongside Socialist Alternative [her political organization] and my office three years ago for another historic resolution we won that year — in February of 2020 — condemning the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and NRCA (National Register of Citizens) citizenship laws of the [Narendra] Modi regime.

And based on that we won another resolution in solidarity with the farmers movement in India. So you know, this movement has been maturing where activists have been fighting alongside us on many different issues and in December of last year, it was clear that organizations and other activists in in our movement wanted — and I agreed with them — to really push for a big, progressive measure related to caste and that’s how we came up with the idea of banning caste discrimination.

In fact, when we started researching how to do this, we found out that actually there are universities across the United States that have already banned caste discrimination on their campuses. So that was really heartening for us. You know, that was good, but there was already momentum around that issue. And so we built a movement here that united Dalit activists alongside dominant caste progressive Hindus — organizations like the Hindus for human rights — were on our side and also Muslim and Sikh activists, union members, Alphabet workers union — the union that represents Google workers — were also on our side and of course Socialist Alternative, my organization.

IANS: And so now, are you planning to take this movement to other cities and states?

Kshama: We absolutely need this to spread around the country and inside. It’s clear, just from the overwhelming response we have got that thousands of activists across the nation want to win it and we want to actively help them win. And it’s like the most important thing we are sharing with them are the lessons from how we won. If we don’t build fighting movements like the one we’ve built here, you will not be able to defeat the Hindu right wing, and you won’t be able to overcome the opposition of the Democratic establishment in your city either.

IANS: Did you get support from the four Indian Americans in Congress – Ami Bera, Pramila Jayapal, Raja Krishnamoorthi, Ro Khanna?

Kshama: I wrote a letter personally to Pramila Jayapal and Ro Khanna. I don’t believe we heard back from Ro Khanna at all. And the momentum was so strong that we did get, I think, some sort of social media tweet from Pramila Jayapal.

IANS: Can you speak a little bit about the international response to the ban? From India?

Kshama: We received an overwhelming response from people in India. It is clear that it has really captured their imagination. We’ve received letters of excitement and congratulations from ordinary people, including young young people and we got a letter of support from the spokesperson of the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

IANS: What about the Indian diaspora? In Canada, England? Any of these countries?

Kshama: Yes, definitely. We have received letters of support from direct and other activists in the UK, Australia and also, as I said, people from Canada literally came and joined us for the vote here. And since then, we’ve also received a couple of letters of support from other people and other organizations in Canada as well.

IANS: So what next? Is there a new agenda that you are working on now?

Kshama: Yeah, I don’t know if you have heard yet. But this is an election year for the City Council, I’m not going to run again. This coming Saturday, actually, Socialist Alternative and I and other activists are going to launch a new nationwide movement called Workers Strike Back. We are demanding $25 an hour minimum wage (it’s $15 currently), Medicare for All and continuing the fight against oppression and discrimination, and also a call for building a new party. You know we believe that the working class in the United States needs a new party of its own because our interests are not being served by the Democrats or Republicans.

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