The recent controversy around actor-comedian Vir Das’s show ‘I come from two Indias’ sparked a debate around the perception of India on the international front. While Vir talked about various issues in the 6-minute monologue, he did not utter a single word against the darkest reality of India – caste dominance. In another old video that trended recently on Twitter, Vir can be seen passing sexist and casteist comments against a Dalit leader. Both Indias that Vir talks about intersect at casteism. Ambedkar, in his thesis ‘Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development’, had talked about the diaspora of caste from India to other countries. “It is a local problem, but one capable of much wider mischief…. if Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem,” Ambedkar identified in his thesis. This migration of caste and upper caste dominance has now been traced from countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, giving an all new traction to the debate on caste and discrimination.
Caste as a social structure of dominance continues to operate in the US. When the rigid immigration policies based on race were relaxed during the second half of the 20th century, there was a huge influx of immigrants from South Asia, especially India, into the US. It served as an opportunity for the rich and educated upper caste people from India to move to the US under the umbrella of racial minorities and gain influence. However, the discriminated and oppressed castes who reached the US devoid of similar resources became a minority within the minority. The caste discrimination within this racial minority became evident to the world following two lawsuits.
The first was a discrimination suit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing in mid-2020 on behalf of a Dalit engineer against Cisco Systems Inc and two former managers in the company. The Dalit engineer’s co-workers had allegedly ‘outed’ him on the argument that he could only secure admission into the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) through the affirmative action policy. According to the plaintiff, appropriate action was not taken by Cisco. As per John Rushing, a lawyer representing Ambedkar International Centre, “Cisco’s position, by filing the demurrer, is that California law does not prohibit caste discrimination.”
In May 2021, in another case, a federal lawsuit was brought against a Hindu organisation called Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS). BAPS allegedly exploited more than 200 Dalit workers in the US by paying them only $ 1.20 an hour for years to build a mammoth Hindu temple in New Jersey. The alleged pay was lower than the prescribed federal wages of $7.25 per hour. The lawsuit also alleges that a worker named Moham Lal died while being subjected to forced labour in the temple.
The American saga of caste oppression manifested through these two historic lawsuits sheds light on the pattern of repression and its dimensions – economic, mental and physical. It shows the extent to which caste has penetrated American society. In a report by Dalit civil right organisation Equality Labs, about 25% of Dalits who participated in a survey on caste said they had faced verbal or physical assault based on their caste. One in three Dalit students reported discrimination during their education while 60% of Dalits reported experiencing caste-based derogatory jokes or comments. The discrimination based on caste in the US instilled a fear of being ‘outed’ – about one in two Dalits and one in four Shudras responded affirmatively to this fear. This stratification has engulfed American society, and its residues could be traced to other places as well, the United Kingdom being one such example.
The question of caste has appeared over 2,200 times in the Parliament of the UK. In Tirkey v Chandok, an Adivasi woman from India employed as a domestic worker in the UK brought a claim against her upper caste Indian employers for unfair dismissal, unpaid wages and caste discrimination, amongst other things. The Employment Tribunal deciding in favour of the woman also answered that caste discrimination falls within the ambit of Section 9(1)(c) of the Equality Act, 2010. The study, No Escape – Caste Discrimination in the UK, which focuses on domestic discrimination, confirms the ingress of caste into the UK. Ram Lakha, the former Mayor of Coventry, told the researchers about discrimination against him by upper caste Hindus. Another study sanctioned by the UK government, Caste discrimination and harassment in Great Britain, focused upon caste as means of prejudice in education, employment, supply of goods & services, and other activities. It reports numerous eye-opening instances of discrimination in schools and workplaces.
American universities have started addressing the issue of caste seriously. Recently, the University of California, Davis, added caste to its anti-discrimination policy. However, the evil that caste is, this is not enough. Now that caste has inundated the world by spreading its wings, it must be condemned internationally, the same way racial discrimination is condemned. The International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) – to which India is a party – prohibits racial discrimination in all its forms.
Further, Article 9 of the Convention mandates the parties to submit a report to a committee formed under Article 8 of the Convention, referred to as the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). ICERD defines racial discrimination as any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life. The Convention does not define ‘caste’ explicitly.
To its advantage India has maintained the position of keeping caste out of ICERD’s purview, calling it a ‘local problem’. In 1996, India, for the first time, clarified its position that ‘descent’ under ICERD does not cover caste. In 2002, CERD recommended that descent include caste as a form of discrimination. However, India has repeatedly reiterated its initial position. India shields itself by using the Indian Constitution which uses the terms ‘race’ and ‘caste’ separately. Soli Sorabjee, former Attorney General, clarified it as: “Race and caste are mentioned separately in the Indian Constitution... they are not considered interchangeable or synonymous”.
However, this defence seems hyperbolic since the Constituent Assembly Debates do not provide much clarity on the said distinction. Also, during the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), India pitched for the inclusion of caste in the draft. In 2012, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on caste discrimination in India under rule 122, which included solid calls for action by the Indian government to protect its citizens against caste discrimination. Subsequently, in 2013, the European Parliament adopted resolutions on caste discrimination and urged the European Union to strengthen its policies on the issue.
The internationalisation of caste will open the gates for international scrutiny. Thus, India would be held accountable for the inaction of the domestically enacted sanctions, which have failed miserably. Further, the recommendations by CERD will drastically improve the position of Dalits. As part of its policy, India does not allow Dalits who convert to Christianity or Islam the benefits of affirmative action. CERD, on the other hand, has urged to entitle converted Dalits to affirmative action. The logic behind this policy approach is antithetical to the idea of affirmative action – affirmative action is provided to undo the historical wrongs done against them. However, debarring Dalits from the entitlement based on the converted religion fails to explain this logic. Further, the Supreme Court in Soosai v Union of India also held that Dalits continue to face discrimination even after such conversions. Among other things, CERD has also advised extending affirmative action to the private sector amid concerns over the use of laws against Dalits, which remains arbitrary.
The idea of identifying caste as a global concern would not automatically eradicate caste but would be a catalyst in triggering the process of eradication. India has for long safeguarded itself from any international discourse on caste. However, the real question is – for how long and at what cost? It is now evident that Ambedkar’s prophecy is accurate, and caste has migrated beyond India. Especially after the lawsuits against Cisco and BAPS, it’s time that caste is struck down with a vision of eradication and not camouflaged as an internal matter. Internationalisation will protect Dalits worldwide and possibly push other countries to adopt caste in domestic anti-discrimination laws.
At last, hiding from caste is not an option for India. Caste is a global shame for India – harbouring it will only bring more shame. Not addressing caste as a menace against humanity will only undermine the sacrifices made by the anti-caste heroes. Society must not be selective in a manner that George Floyd’s tragic death garners worldwide outrage, but heinous crimes against Dalits like the Khairlanji massacre and the Hathras rape case remain an ‘internal matter’.
Views express are the author’s own.
Shaileshwar Yadav is a student research fellow at the National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi.