May 30, 2021

Casteism in the Diaspora

Subhashini Ali

IN his seminal and instructive work The Annihilation of Caste,  Dr Ambedkar says   ‘….turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path.’  Nothing has occurred to alter this shameful truth in any way; not just in India but wherever Hindus are to be found.

When federal law enforcement agents raided the premises of the huge temple built by the Swaminarayan sect in Robbinsville, New Jersey (USA) on May 12, they revealed new evidence of this.  The agents were responding to a lawsuit filed days earlier by a group of lawyers led by Swati Sawant, a dalit immigration lawyer practicing in the state. Sawant had come to know a year ago about the conditions under which Indian workers brought from India to work on the construction of the temple were living and working and that they had been brought in on fake declarations and false promises.  She had started organising them secretly and helped in putting together legal teams to pursue both wage and immigration claims.  According to her “They thought they would have a good job and see America. They didn’t think they would be treated like animals, or like machines that aren’t going to get sick.”

The workers, many of whom were dalits, had been brought to the USA on religious visas (R-1 visas) which are used for priests and missionaries.  It was claimed that they were ‘volunteers’.  The workers were promised good wages and working conditions.  They signed many documents in English which they did not understand and were asked to tell the US embassy that they were skilled temple carvers.

One of the workers, Mohanlal, died a year ago.  His death angered the workers.  One of them, Mukesh Kumar who returned to India, contacted Sawant.  He is one of those named in the federal lawsuit.  He told the New York Times that the attitude of the temple authorities to Mohanlal’s death prompted him and others to take a stand.  He said: “We said, we don’t want to die like that”.

The RSS weekly, Organiser, quick to jump to the defence of the Swaminarayan sect, wrote that  ‘Hinduphobia’ was responsible for the furore and emphasized  the fact that the law enforcement agencies had filed a case against a US company, the Cunha Construction Inc.  What it did not mention was that the construction company had been hired by the temple authorities who had full knowledge of the illegal conditions under which the labourers were working and living.  Also, many of the illegal acts (recruitment, documentation, seizing of passports etc) were directly committed in by the temple authorities. 

As a result of the intervention by law-enforcement agencies, work on the construction site has been halted and at least 90 workers have been removed by them.

The Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, (BAPS) has built temples all over the world and there is every possibility that it has done so by exploiting hundreds of poor Indian workers, many of them dalits.  The temple in New Jersey was to have been their largest and most magnificent one. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has very close ties with BAPS.  He spoke of its spiritual head, Pramukh Swami Maharaj who died in 2016, as his mentor.  He spoke rapturously at his funeral and also laid the foundation stone for the BAPS temple being built in Abu Dhabi.  BAPS was an early donor of several crores of rupees to the fund being collected to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

It is interesting though not surprising that the Sangh Parivar came out so promptly with its defence of BAPS.  By doing so, it has once again demonstrated the hollowness of its claims to be fighting untouchability and for the rights of all Hindus. 

This latest example of the untouchability and caste-discrimination practiced by many in the diaspora is one of many.  What is new, however, is that dalits living abroad are now picking up the courage to challenge these atrocious practices.  

Yashica Dutt in her July 14, 2020 article ‘The Spectre of Caste in Silicon Valley’ gives details of a case in which California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing Regulators have sued Cisco Systems, a large, multi-billion dollar conglomerate in Silicon Valley, for caste discrimination.  The complainant, a dalit engineer, has claimed that American managers of (upper caste) Indian origin, discriminated against him on the basis of his caste. Apparently, one of the managers, Iyer, had revealed to his colleagues that the complainant was a beneficiary of reservations and went on to humiliate him, deny him bonuses etc. This continued after Iyer was replaced by Kompella, a member of the upper caste like himself. The Cisco HR department refused to listen to the aggrieved engineer’s complaints on the plea that ‘caste discrimination’ was not a recognised category of discrimination for them. 

According to the 2016 study “The Other One Per Cent: Indians in America,” (S Chakravavorty, D N Singh), over 90 per cent of Indian migrants belonged to the upper or dominant castes.  Another survey carried out in 2018 by Equality Labs, a dalit-American led civil rights organisation, 67 per cent of dalits in the Indian diaspora in the US admitted to facing caste-based harassment in the workplace.
The US Indian diaspora is spoken of as a ‘model minority’ and it often describes itself as ‘post-caste’.  Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.  Many of its members fought fiercely demanding that the California School Board remove all mention of caste-discrimination in a chapter on India.  The Cisco case is only the tip of the iceberg of the discrimination that many dalits face in their workplaces.

Many dalits facing discrimination have been too afraid of losing jobs and security to speak out but this is not so now.  Black Lives Matter movement has given them courage and, if the case against Cisco results in caste discrimination being recognised and penalised, the registration of many more such cases can be expected.

Caste discrimination if, of course, not limited to the diaspora in the US.  In 2010, the Equality Act was passed in England.  Before passing the law, the government had commissioned a report to study ‘the nature, extent and severity of caste prejudice and discrimination and harassment in Britain and the implications for government policy.”  It found evidence of every kind of overt and covert discrimination: Jat Sikh owners leaving a company owned by Ravidassia Sikhs after they discovered the caste-identity of the owner; a woman home care worker who refused to bathe an elderly dalit woman among innumerable other cases.

The Equality Bill enraged large numbers of Indian-origin citizens to the extent that they abandoned the Labour Party in the general elections and the winning Conservatives had ensured that the final law did not include caste-discrimination.  It only allows victims to seek legal redress for individual cases of discrimination which is an expensive and time-consuming process. 

Prof Ashwini Deshpande, in an article in August 2018, brought out the fact that, even eight years later, the issue still rankled with upper caste Hindus. She said that a month earlier, the National
Commission of Hindu Temples, UK described the use of the word ‘caste’ with reference to the Hindu community as ‘a perpetuation of the colonial use of this term in order to facilitate the evangelical
conversion activities of the Anglican Church’. At about the same time,  a work entitled ‘Caste, Conversion and a “Thoroughly Colonial Conspiracy’”, described this use of ‘caste’  as ‘an act of emotional and intellectual violence of the most heinous kind…’ The author of the article is Pt. S K Sharma.  His deliberate use of the title ‘Pt.’ reveals his caste-pride and makes nonsense of his definition of ‘caste’ as a ‘thoroughly colonial conspiracy’.

These are all examples of not just the unabashed caste-arrogance of upper-caste Hindus but also of their unflinching determination to deny that casteism is inherent to their religious beliefs and to
castigate all those who dare to make such an assertion.  This is the contradiction that their pride in what is repugnant and which they know to be repugnant to many binds them in.

The price that this extracts from not only the dalit community but from Indian society as a whole is incalculable. 

Dr Ambedkar goes on to say about the monster of caste:  ‘You cannot have political reform, you cannot have economic reform, unless you kill this monster.’