Endurance is not transformation: Caste in the US

It’s been a week since the most important political event I’ve participated in for a while, perhaps ever, in a pretty crazy life (and no, it was _not my MIT talk, though I’m glad it hit a chord with so many folks!). I’ve needed to let it sit in my heart and head, so I could speak the truths that may be difficult for my savarna/”upper”-caste friends to hear. I ask you to open your hearts and minds to our own living realities, in order to make a better and more just world around us.

Last Thursday, in Boston, Equality Labs launched the first ever #CasteintheUS survey led by the mind-blowingly brilliant Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Maari Zwick-Maitreyi (supported by an amazing team). And yes, in partnership with Black Lives Matter Boston and the always provocative, always inspiring Dr. Cornel West. I was lucky enough to be in Boston at the time (so thank you again, Chris Spitzer Bourg and team!)… I could therefore be both joyful and sombre witness to what I hope will be a turning point in the way we think about caste oppression as savarna folks.

The full video of the event is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYRbFBlpTpo&feature=youtu.be

And here is the full text of the survey (endorsed by a number of organisations and individuals, including both SouthAsianHistoriesforAll and WhoseKnowledge): https://www.equalitylabs.org/caste-survey-2018

What does the survey tell us? That even in the United States, many Dalit Bahujan and Adivasi folks (for non desi South Asians: our first peoples, and those either “lower” on the caste hierarchy or formerly, pejoratively outside the caste hierarchy as “untouchables”) face various forms of caste oppression. They immigrate here to escape it, and yet:
* 1 in 3 Dalit student respondents said they’d faced discrimination in education because of caste
* 2 out of 3 Dalits surveyed said they’d faced workplace harassment because of caste, and
* over 40% of those responding said they’d been rejected in romantic relationships because of caste.

We know how much worse this is back home in India, and across South Asia.

As progressive savarna folks – whether in the diaspora or back home in desh – we can no longer pretend this does not exist, and that it is not our problem. This has *always* been our burden to bear, and it is time we took responsibility for it. Every time you think about about what it means to be brown in the US right now – and all its attendant dangers – think about what it means to be Dalit in India right now, and all its ongoing dangers. We didn’t choose to be born brown, no one “chooses” to be born “untouchable”. We have been far too complicit in a completely fictitious, constructed social hierarchy for far too long. I ask you to think about one action you can take today, that you will take through the rest of your life, to be a savarna ally to Dalit communities. If you can, please share that in the comments section below this post.

For my own part, I sit with the complex discomfort of being a brown, savarna, woman, in the US, whose heart is in India. I wear that discomfort like a second skin, and I hope it helps me be the ally others need me to be.

</sombre, reflective piece>.

On the joyful side, it was, amazingly enough, the most celebratory evening, even as we reflected on some of the most enduring forms of structural violence we know. As bell hooks has said, endurance shouldn’t be confused with transformation, and I truly did feel the beginning of a journey from endurance to transformation. Besides, who can deny #curlyhairedgirlpower!!! I love you and learn from you every day, Thenmozhi, Maari and friends.

Is everyone welcome here?

Everyone is Welcome Here posters across Berkeley, California

The tiny city of Berkeley, California saw at least 14 reported incidents of hate in the first 15 days since the election of Donald Trump. Recently, a group of South Asian Berkeley residents — three of whom have personally experienced post-election hate — hit the streets to respond to the unexpected climate of fear, armed only with hope and posters.

Here’s a piece Anisha Chemmachel, Anirvan Chatterjee, and I wrote about our (ongoing) experience. We distributed a bunch of posters this weekend too, and are expanding into our neighbouring city, Albany, through the efforts of friends and allies.

The Aerogram is an online magazine offering a variety of South Asian perspectives.

Everyone is welcome here

This past Sunday, I joined a group of South Asian Berkeley denizens, to put up posters by the artist Micah Bazant in shops across downtown, with the simple but powerful message: “everyone is welcome here”.


The reason? Despite Berkeley being a sanctuary city, we know of at least 14 incidents of hate since the elections. Some of them truly horrifying, including Asma Mohseni’s, which she describes as “the worst ethnically motivated aggression she’s ever experienced, far worse than what she faced living on the East Coast after 9/11.”

We can do better. And we can do it together. In this critical wake up call for Berkeley and the greater Bay Area, Anirvan Chatterjee describes what we know so far, and what we can do next.

For me, it was affirming to see how many local establishments immediately agreed to have us put up the posters. And interesting that people of colour were unsurprised and supportive, while white allies were shocked (by the number of reported incidents) and supportive. All of us need to stay informed, and step in as and when we can.

Please help us pass this message on.

Aami Dhaka. Man Kabul. Ben Istanbul.

Aami Dhaka. Man Kabul. Ben Istanbul.

And if you have no clue why I’m saying any of this, please crawl out of your US-European bubble and look at how the rest of the world is hurting. I’m tired of the biased reports, the skewed responses, the invisibility of pain. We may be brown, black, and beyond your geography. But we hurt in the same way, we bleed in the same way, and the same warped forms of terror kill our peoples – whether they claim Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism or any other form of religion as the basis for their hate.

And for my friends in the US and Europe who hurt with me, thank you for your love and solidarity.

Calling in for Gaza

From my inbox this morning…

National Call-In Day for Gaza!
January 16, 2009

We designate Friday, January 16th as National Call-In Day for Gaza. Calling is quick, easy, and effective, and will take about 5-10 minutes. We need to keep the phones ringing non-stop for the duration of the day so that our message CAN NO LONGER BE IGNORED.

Contact in order of importance:

1) Call President-Elect Obama’s Transition Team at 202-540-3000.
Ask that President-Elect Obama and his team call for:
1) An immediate cease-fire.
2) An end to the blockade and siege of Gaza.
3) An immediate withdrawal from Gaza.

Be firm and polite and stress the fact that over a thousand people have died and thousands have been injured in Gaza, mainly civilians. This follows months of suffering under a severe blockade that has resulted in shortages of food, fuel and basic medical supplies. When calling, mention (UN Security Council Resolution 1860 that was adopted last week which calls for an immediate ceasefire and unimpeded humanitarian access.

2) Call your Representative at 202-224-3121. Ask how they voted on House Resolution 34 which passed overwhelmingly in the House last Friday, with 390 Representatives voting yes, 5 no, and 22 present. The resolution “recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself” and “reaffirms the United States’ strong support for Israel.”

If your Representative voted “no” or “present” on H.Res. 34, thank them and ask that they cosponsor Rep. Kucinich’s upcoming resolution.
(See: http://endtheoccupation.org/downloads/KUCINI_001_xml.pdf)

If your representative voted “yes” on H.Res. 34 state your disagreement with their vote and ask them to co-sponsor the Kucinich resolution.

3) Call your Senators at 202-224-3121 and assert your disagreement with their unanimous vote on Senate Resolution 10 and ask that they introduce a resolution in the Senate that is similar to Rep. Kucinich’s resolution in the House.

Please forward this to all your lists and personally contact 10 friends and urge them to make these calls to save lives in Gaza.

Change happens with numbers. That is how Obama became president and that is how we can bring a lasting peace and justice to the Palestinians. As people living in America, we control the discourse and the funding that has resulted in the present massacre in Gaza. Considering the fundamental role that we play in this political situation, our participation is the least we can do.

“The death of children is the death of innocence, and the death of innocence is the downfall of humanity.”
– Emine Erdogan, wife of Turkey’s Prime Minister, 1/10/09

Yes, Nepal can!

So California couldn’t manage it; Proposition 8 – a ban on gay marriage – was passed, and the California Supreme Court will now examine whether the ban is constitutional or not.

And India is still mulling over it; the Indian Supreme Court is yet to give its final verdict on Section 377, which criminalises gay sex.

But Nepal leads the way: in a historic judgement, delivered on 17 November, Nepal’s Supreme Court not only reiterated that LGBTIs are ‘natural persons’, entitled to equal rights, identity and expression, regardless of their sex at birth, but has also set up a commission that will recommend a same-sex marriage act for the Nepal government.

What made this extraordinary moment possible? One reason is clearly the tireless activism of LGBTI groups in Nepal, led amongst others, by the first openly gay member of Nepal’s constituent assembly, the Communist Party of Nepal (United) representative Sunil Babu Pant. Another factor seems to be the participation of LGBTI in campaigns for a democratic, secular Nepal, a process that led to the relinquishing of the monarchy by King Gyanendra in April, and a new constituent assembly in which the Maoists have the majority.

As Sunil Pant himself said, on a recent visit to India:

In Nepal, the LGBTI communities were part of the campaign for garnering votes for the Communist Party of Nepal. They approached me to campaign and I managed to secure 15,500 votes. It makes a statement that LGBTI people are interested in matters of politics and governance and not just sex. The campaign not only gave LGBTI issues visibility but a platform to negotiate for rights.

And a final interesting possibility raised by a Global Voices commentator from Nepal, is that the country’s predominantly Hindu culture is more accepting of gay rights. She quotes an excerpt from Ruth Vanita’s essay on Homosexuality and Hinduism, in support:

In 2004, Hinduism Today reporter Rajiv Malik asked several Hindu swamis (teachers) their opinion of same-sex marriage. The swamis expressed a range of opinions, positive and negative. They felt free to differ with each other; this is evidence of the liveliness of the debate, made possible by the fact that Hinduism has no one hierarchy or leader. As Mahant Ram Puri remarked, “We do not have a rule book in Hinduism. We have a hundred million authorities.

However, while this argument should surely have traction in India – and is used by sexuality rights advocates – the Indian government’s stand has been, rather ironically, more Victorian than Vedic. Whether the courage of Nepal’s jurists inspires their colleagues in India, remains to be seen. This is one case of cross-border trafficking that I would welcome.

Out of office, but on the road?

Hysterical. The Guardian reports that the Swansea council put up a road sign that was meant to be bilingual – English and Welsh – for ‘No entry for heavy goods vehicles’. Instead they ended up with ‘Nid wyf yn y swyddfa ar hyn o bryd.’ Doesn’t sound Welsh enough for you? It is. Welsh for: ‘I am out of the office at the moment’!

How did the HGVs get lost in translation?

Swansea council contacted its in-house translation service when designing the bilingual sign. The seeds of confusion were sown when officials received an automated email response in Welsh from an absent translator, saying: “I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated.”

Unaware of its real meaning, officials had it printed on the sign. The council took down the sign after Welsh speakers spotted the mistake.

More reason to go back to the days in which one used a phone to hear a human voice at the other end? Hmm… excuse me while I go pick up a robocall from McCain telling me all about Hussein.

My heart is in Nairobi…

Rally32.jpgThe only downside to having lots of friends across the globe is that you worry about them when things fall apart. In Gujarat, for instance, or Pakistan. Or Kenya. A few of us have been trying to contact friends there over the past few days, but it’s been tough. I’ve been reading Global Voices and Ethan Zuckerman’s blog, and watching Al Jazeera’s coverage on YouTube.

For those of you who came in late, violence has broken out across Kenya over the disputed election victory of President Mwai Kibaki, though ethnic tensions are believed to underlie much of the violence. As The Economist puts it:

THE decision to return Kenya’s 76-year-old incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, to office was not made by the Kenyan people but by a small group of hardline leaders from Mr Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe. They made up their minds before the result was announced, perhaps even before the opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, had opened up a lead in early returns from the December 27th election. It was a civil coup.

According to the BBC, over 180,000 people have been displaced and more than 300 killed.

This is today’s news update from the Kenyan blogger M., writing at Thinker’s Room:

  • Official death toll is now 300. Unofficial death toll is much larger
  • Yesterday there were skirmishes in Bahati, Maringo, Kangemi, Arwings Kodhek, Industrial Area and Thika Road
  • A man was killed on Thika Road when police fired in the air, severing an electrical cable that fell on him
  • ODM rally was moved to Saturday
  • At long last Mwai Kibaki addressed the nation in a lackluster speech long on hot air, ambiguity, vagueness and lethargy and short of concrete solutions
  • Archbishop Desmond Tutu arrived and met with the ODM leadership. The grapevine has it that Kibaki initially refused to meet with him. Subsequently it turned out that a meeting was indeed scheduled for this day.
  • Again proving that no matter how low the bar is, stupidity will always find a way to slither under, Government Spokesman Alfred Mutua, rose eyed lens firmly on, castigates the international community for interfering.
  • Flies on the wall allege that Kibaki himself is pretty amenable to negotiation. But as is the hallmark of his regime other elements in his administration are taking hardline positions.
  • Same flies say that Kibaki is willing to form a coalition government with the opposition. This I have to see to believe.
  • Nairobi water company allays fears that the city water supply is poisoned.

Blog aggregators for Kenya can be found at Kenya Unlimited and Mashada. Reading bloggers’ accounts on them seemed horrifically akin to reading stories of communal violence in India; substitute ethnicities for religion and caste identities, and there you have it. Stupid, unnecessary, maiming horror. As they say in Swahili (or at least I hope this is correct), we need wakati wa amani; a time of peace.


Update: in an extraordinary combination of technology and activism, Kenyan bloggers have created an amazing website to track the violence in Kenya, at Ushahidi (in fact, I want to check with them if we can develop something similar for India, and elsewhere). Add serendipity to that: Ashwin saw this, and suggested to his friend, Nick Rabinowitz, that this was the perfect place for the timeline tool he’d created. Sure enough, a few emails later, here it is, an extremely useful addition to the Ushahidi site: the timeline of events. Yay for all those who put this together, and a special yay for Nick!
Image from the Thinker’s Room.

A message from Pakistan

187px-Benazir_Bhutto.jpgFarida Shaheed, one of the founders of Shirkat Gah (a women’s resource centre in Pakistan) and WLUML (the network for women living under Muslim laws), wrote in from Pakistan. With her consent, I share this. It seems clear that despite her shortcomings, Benazir represented a hope for Pakistan that has been horrifically snuffed out.

Dear friends thank you for all your notes of concern,

As a new year starts, I sit here still numbed by the events, paralysed by the events that seem to have shut down our ability to think and act, unable to concentrate (like many others).

Only after her assassination have we come to realize just how many of our hopes were pinned on Benazir, her presence and leadership of the only mainstream party that consistently speaks of the federation, of the poor, the peasants, the workers; spoke of equality for all, especially the minorities and women. The one party with supporters until now across a deeply divided and troubled country, who gave us hope that, maybe – just maybe we could turn this nightmare around, if elections were held and if they were not entirely rigged, and if we received some breathing space…so many if’s and still we dared to hope.

I met Asma [Jahangir] on the 29th and thanked her for having inviting Benazir that night last month as soon as they lifted the house arrest on Asma and Benazir both. Asma said ‘but no, I didn’t call the meeting. Perhaps she was meant to meet us all that last time because it was she who phoned and asked for a meeting with civil society’…A meeting we were pleasantly surprised at, that left us commenting on how much she had matured. She listened to all of us with great patience and grace, answered with patience and good cheer, even some of the sillier points made/questions asked. She reserved her fire for a short passionate intervention on how the fight with the extremists was our own fight not someone else’s agenda and on how precarious Pakistan’s situation was, and how it was time to act.

And yes, it was important that she was a woman, a woman of great courage of defiance and of passion who led from the front foot (as they say in cricket). I am old enough to remember the day she became Prime Minister in 1988 and how immediately – and I do mean immediately – after eleven years of brutal and increasing oppression of women (and others) under Zia, the atmosphere shifted the sense of oppression in the streets lifted and women felt the burden lighten. And if she didn’t always deliver (and often she didn’t), as peasants said of her father, at least she made us the promises, and gave us hope.

Right now, it is difficult to foresee the future, whether and when elections will take place – what will happen during Muharram and ashura, around the corner, when nerves are ragged anyway and the menace of potential violence lurks.

We can only hope that some sense prevails somewhere, that elections are held as quickly as possible and that we find a way out of this spiral descending to madness…


Image from the Wikipedia entry on Benazir Bhutto.