Updated: Oct 16
In February, Seattle’s city council passed an ordinance to ban caste discrimination, the first city to do so outside South Asia. A 6 to 1 vote, most council members agreed that the ordinance accounted for how caste discrimination crosses national and religious boundaries. South Asian immigrants, one of the fastest growing minorities in the United States, often arrive in the United States seeking better lives and new beginnings. But Dalits, members of the lowest strata of the caste system, find that the discrimination they experienced in India follows them to the United States. As Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundarajan articulates in her book, The Trauma of Caste, caste discrimination manifests wherever the South Asian diaspora exists.
The repudiation of lower caste South Asians in American society exists across several spaces, including health care and schools. Dalits experience such discrimination acutely in places like Silicon Valley, where South Asians dominate Big Tech. Lower caste South Asians have reported being passed up for promotions by their dominant caste supervisors, undermined and overlooked at work, and even physically and verbally abused.
Casteism in the Tech Industry
In 2020, the state of California filed a lawsuit against Cisco Systems, a Silicon Valley-based Fortune 500 company, on behalf a Dalit employee there. The lawsuit alleged that the employee’s supervisors discriminated against him based on caste by paying him inadequately, failing to promote him, and retaliating against him when he spoke out against their casteist behavior. Though it remains in litigation, the case is unprecedented and spurred other tech companies, like Dell and Apple, to establish clear anti-casteist internal policies. Right wing Hindu nationalist groups state that such policies unfairly target Hindus and that evidence for widespread caste discrimination in America is scarce. Executives’ ignorance surrounding casteism as well as the dominance of South Asians in tech have allowed such views to hold significant sway. For example, proponents of Hindu nationalist values influenced Google leadership to cancel a talk by Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundarajan, stating that they felt “targeted” by the speaker and that her rhetoric would lead to “division and rancor”.
In addition to the mistreatment and censorship of Dalits, ignorance of caste discrimination by Silicon Valley leadership can have fatal consequences, especially through social media. For over a decade, hate speech has thrived on both Facebook and Twitter and has even fomented violence. The absence of regulations surrounding casteist hate speech, in part, led to the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013, where Hindus spread misinformation on Facebook to instigate attacks against lower caste Muslims. Similarly, in 2020, Twitter was used to spur widespread violence against lower caste Muslims in Delhi, where Hindu nationalists asserted that Muslims were the perpetrators of the violence, though it was their homes that were burned and families slaughtered. Both Twitter and Facebook have failed to act decisively to prevent hate speech and perpetrators of such violence from having a platform.
Why Caste Activism is Important
Though caste featured heavily in my upbringing, I rarely noticed it; my extended family would attend events within our nath, or sub-caste community, and encouraged marriages that occurred within caste lines. But outside of this, I thought that casteism and untouchability were relics of a bygone era and that certainly did not exist within the United States. My lack of awareness of, and even indifference to caste stemmed from my own privilege, having been born into a higher caste. Additionally, as a South Asian who already experiences racial discrimination in America, it was difficult for me to grapple with the reality that I, too, have benefited from upper-caste privilege. Acknowledging this privilege and educating myself about the legacy of caste oppression are crucial first steps towards becoming an ally of the Dalit cause.
Although Dalit rights activists and their supporters across the United States celebrated Seattle City Council’s decision to make caste a protected category, the ordinance has faced significant opposition within the South Asian community. Hindu nationalist groups, including the Hindu American Foundation and Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, label such policies as discriminatory against Hindus and unnecessary. In response to anti-caste movements, Hindu nationalists have doxxed Dalit activists and advocates like Thenmozhi Soundarajan and Kshama Sawant respectively. These organizations continue to influence local and national politics and present themselves as authorities on Hinduism and Hindu values.The rise of Hindu nationalism makes Dalit-allyship imperative.