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We Fled India to Escape the Nightmare of Caste Oppression. To Our Horror, We Found it in America, Too

We Fled India to Escape the Nightmare of Caste Oppression. To Our Horror, We Found it in America, Too

  • I support the Coalition of Seattle Indian Americans and Seattle Councilwoman Kshama Sawant in their bid to end caste discrimination in this country.

I was born into a Dalit Hindu Arya Samaj family in Uttar Pradesh. As a public health advocate in the U.S., I am committed to freeing myself and all South Asians from the evil that is caste. That is why I am standing with the Coalition of Seattle Indian Americans to oppose caste discrimination in this country. And I am in solidarity with Councilwoman Kshama Sawant as part of the intercaste, interfaith, movement to add caste as a protected category in Seattle. 

I experienced significant caste discrimination growing up. I saw caste in every institution. Back home, our family encountered Hindu temples that practiced untouchability, and we felt deep pain when we saw Dalit people lynched, raped, and mutilated every day on the news in India. Caste violence is one reason our family immigrated to the U.S. We hoped to escape the violence, to leave the nightmare of caste behind. Instead, to our horror, we discovered that caste is here too. 

It began in university. I went to Cal State Northridge and had to hide my identity as a Dalit. I could not afford to have anything endanger my new American life. I saw how frequently people flaunted their caste identity and privilege; if others learned of my background, I knew I would face recrimination and exclusions. A faculty member at CSUN, Professor Shiva Bajpai, was one of the loudest voices denying caste and used his influence to try to censor caste from U.S. textbooks and diminish the ongoing violence of caste. The irony was that he did all this as the board chair of the Brahman Samaj of North America. 

Now a proud working mother I see caste everywhere. It is in my husband’s hospitals where upper-caste physicians denigrate the skills and abilities of Dalit doctors. It is in the parent networks at my daughter’s school.

Now a proud working mother I see caste everywhere. It is in my husband’s hospitals where upper-caste physicians denigrate the skills and abilities of Dalit doctors. It is in the parent networks at my daughter’s school. After seeing the bigotry of the other mothers, I do not want my child to interact with dominant caste Hindu families that are practicing untouchability here. 

As a domestic violence advocate working with survivors across the state, I can tell you that caste pervades all our communities and religious institutions. If you don’t believe me, just ask me why so many castes have their own associations: Brahmin Samaj of North AmericaAmerican Telegu Reddy Catholic AssociationRajput, Association of North AmericaKshatriya Association of North AmericaNorth American Jat Association. There are too many to count.

Caste is a human rights issue, and we should not let our discomfort talking about caste prevent us from taking the policy measures necessary to protect all our people. 

I urge my fellow Hindus to listen to all who are coming forward. We must be open to understanding the bigotry of caste: All of us who are coming forward to speak about our experience of caste discrimination must brace ourselves for the bigotry from dominant castes and those that conspire against civil rights for all. But we have been here before. Our history has long been defined by the fragility of the privileged and courage of Dalits. 

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It is time for a new oath. We must practice ahimsa. We must love our fellow South Asians and brothers and sisters of all religions. As Hindus, we can look upon the history of caste and work towards remedies of past harms. This is the only ethical thing to do. Yes, we have endured centuries of discrimination. And now we can write a new chapter to abolish caste in Seattle.

(Top photo, background illustration by Simone Noronha. Courtesy, The New Republic.)

Pooja Singh is a Northwest Ambedkarite who works in Public Health. She is an avid gardener and survivor advocate who has worked with domestic violence organizations as a community advocate for caste-oppressed survivors across the west coast. She is also a proud member of the Coalition of Seattle Indians

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  • The author calls herself Dalit, an Ambedkarite — and then bemoans there are Brahmin, Reddy, and other groups. That logic is not a forte of this writer and activist is what is clear from this little diatribe and this attempt at getting in front of the line for American goodies. What is the “caste nightmare” the writer is suffering from or has been subjected to is not clear. Nothing has been denied her because of her Dalit status, as far as we can make out from this opinion piece, and no Brahmin, her target of ire, has come knocking on her door to castigate her. It seems that this writer did not flee India to escape caste as much as she has made her way to the US carrying her caste status to claim privileges here. What a shame….

    • Oh, there you go again, Ramesh. Enlightening us with your abject ignorance and thereby revealing your true nature. Study a little more. Maybe you will finally grasp why there are people in this group who make rightful claims of wrong treatment at work. Just a matter of time before you and your ideologically wedded family members are outed in America.

      • Just writing random things and appealing to sentiment is not a good argument. Please provide documented evidence. If harrassment, show any record of complaint or cases filed.

  • Is the samelade horrified by the umpteen churches and sects that dot the landscape? Or as the dominant group its ok when Christians have multiple small sects, that further used to sort themselves by country of origin. But it seems that brown immigrants can not be afforded this same luxury, and must be simplified into a 5 tier pyramid structure to make it easy for our US masters to govern us with as much ease as out colonial masters enforced 150 years ago.
    This is basically a hegemonistic trend, ironically masquerading as a DEI move

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