July 13, 2020
Last month, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued the prominent American tech multinational, Cisco Systems, for caste discrimination against an employee of Dalit Indian origin. In the light of what is being viewed as a landmark move, we interviewed Sujatha Gidla, the author of the acclaimed non-fiction book, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, which released in 2017. The book, a memoir of her family told against the backdrop of the Telangana struggle. In this email interview, the US-based author of Dalit Indian origin speaks about the systematic harassment faced by the Dalit-Bahujan community in America, their desperate attempts to hide their identity and why she believes the move by California state may not yield the expected results.
Interview by Dipti Nagpaul|July 10, 2020
How do you view the recent development with Cisco? It is being hailed by many as a landmark move given that caste discrimination is not legally recognised under the American law.
People didn’t see it coming, so they tend to view it as a landmark move. But there has been a precedent in the UK where the lawmakers considered making caste discrimination illegal. Things in this direction have been happening over the last few years. For instance, the publication of Ants Among Elephants, Yashica Dutt’s Coming Out as Dalit. The publication of such books in English language, personal stories of Dalits, have succeeded in a modest way in making the existence of caste known to the world outside India. However, seeing caste as being akin to race is very natural and spontaneous. People see them as similar without thinking. Both Yashica Dutt and I didn’t need to analyse. As soon as we came to America and saw the Black people and their status in this society, we immediately thought of ourselves and our caste status. Race and caste are that similar. So once when someone takes the step of addressing caste discrimination, like the California lawmakers did, they have a readymade place under which to stick it — race. That was how they came to file a case under the Civil Rights law regarding discrimination at work place.
Do you believe the movement that emerged after the killing of George Floyd may have proved a trigger for the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing to act against the systematic discrimination?
Yes. Unlike the other cases of racist police brutality, George Floyd’s murder triggered unprecedented reaction. One of the unprecedented things that has been happening is politicians, irrespective of whether they are in office or not, are tripping over each other to show how much they detest racism. New York City mayor is launching a 90-day “review of symbols of hate in the city”. What he means is removing statues/busts of certain White men who thus far were revered as great Americans despite being pro-slavery, and adding more statues of famous Black personalities. I guess California, considered more liberal than most other states, wants jump on the bandwagon. The Cisco case gave them the opportunity.
At the same time, certain anti-caste activists in the US believe that the American law may provide larger provisions against discrimination to Dalit-Bahujans since the judicial agencies are not led by people with a Brahmanical mindset.
I disagree. The US lawmakers have no natural interest in correcting caste discrimination. However, every now and then, they make some gestures. But at the end, they always fold; they yield to pressure from the powerful Hindu groups. After all, these groups are the ones with money and people in high places. They are the ones who can lobby both parties, the Democrats as well as the Republicans. Dalit organisations don’t have that, let alone the will to win. One can not underestimate the influence of Hindu chauvinists in America.
Do you see this move by California law regulators having a larger impact in corporate America?
I don’t think so. Corporations see victims, not the perpetrators, as nuisance. They don’t like people who dare to report unfairness, whether it is racism or sexism. It won’t be different in case of caste. You can see this in the Cisco case. The company is solidly behind those Brahmin bigots. Quite shamelessly, Cisco asserts they were right and will continue to defend their actions (of isolating the Dalit employee) vigorously. Even more brazen was their justification that caste discrimination is not illegal and therefore they are not obliged to take action against the accused.
Are the Indian offices of American companies likely to be more sensitive to caste discrimination? And Indian companies?
No, no, and no. There is an economic basis underlying the perpetuation of caste discrimination; it isn’t just ideological. Maintaining casteism is useful for the Indian companies, and the Americans are at best indifferent. They will remain indifferent as long as it doesn’t hurt their profits. If anything, caste discrimination is going to worsen because of high unemployment. California law regulators threw a stone in the pond and many people, especially Dalits and their supporters, are expecting great ripples.
Do you see any possible repercussions?
Maybe. Caste Hindus will probably retaliate. They will definitely retaliate. In the first place, they will fight legally. Then, they will continue their usual harassment, perhaps with more subtlety. Or they might step it up. The most that will happen is the victim will win and there will be some reparations. Nothing more. No sweeping changes.
While we laud the move by California, their state board, in the year 2018, had approved the text books to carry a Hindu nationalist and Brahmanical version of South Asian history.
Not ironically. The governments of the US or the UK have no interest in curbing race or caste discrimination because it is unjust. They do it because it makes them look good. Once their action begins to have repercussions for them, they give in to the more influential Hindu chauvinist groups. In the UK, caste discrimination was going to be made illegal (the conversation was on between 2017-18). When the caste Indians protested, they quietly shelved it. The same thing happened with the case of caste in California school textbooks. The Hindu American didn’t like it, so the mention of caste was removed.
It is wrong to think that these entities are fair for the sake of fairness. If it were possible, American ruling class would very much want to reverse even the gains of the Civil Rights movement. The government is not going to spend as much resources as the Hindu associations can and would. California lawmakers are not going to be as aggressive because they have no stake in standing on the side of Dalits who have no money, no numbers.
You were in India until the 1990s before you moved to the US to work in the software industry. How stark were the two experiences? Did life in the US come as a relief?
There is no difference. Wherever there are Indians, the harassment will continue. In fact, it is worse here. It feels worse here because at least in India we have our communities to share experiences, commiserate with and to find solace. There is no such thing here; you are on your own. Of the Indian immigrants, Dalits are mere 1.5%. And on top of that, they are spread across America. Some places probably have one Dalit family. Imagine their troubles trying to fit in with other Indians at work and socially. Either you admit you are a Dalit and act in servile or try to hide your Dalit identity; those are the only two choices. A Dalit can’t be openly Dalit and at the same time have a respectable place among Indian immigrants. There are some Dalit/Ambedkarite groups, but I am not part of them.
Have you been exposed to caste discrimination in the US?
Yes. There were some incidents which are too shameful to talk about publicly. The least shameful thing that happened to me was an Indian woman who worked as a cashier at the cafetería in Bank of New York refusing to accept my money from my hand.
So it is common for members of the Dalit-Bahujan communities to keep their caste hidden or avoid diaspora in the US?
Yes. Totally. I once wanted to start a Dalit Meetup group when I saw how a Dalit family suffered isolation. No one wanted to join for the fear that their coworkers or neighbors would find out.
How does caste impact the economic status of members of the Indian diaspora?
Look at the demographics: Brahmins, Iyers, Iyengars, Guptas, Senguptas as TV personalities, newspaper editors, district attorneys, professors, scientists. Then Sikhs as taxi drivers, small business owners, and Patels as grocers. Dalits, who managed to make it here, not through IT, but by some other means, are nurses, drivers, and employed in other low status jobs. I saw this in a church, and I saw this in an Ambedkar group. High caste Hindus that come here, not through IT, are in import-export business, IT consulting firms, etc. This is not to say that there are no Dalits working as doctors and engineers.
What about the racism against South Asians?
South Asians do talk about their experiences of anti-immigrant bigotry. It exists. But at a gut level, as a Dalit, personally, I feel like saying, “What are you talking about!”. I know this is wrong; politically incorrect. I once was personally verbally attacked by an American. It made me cry for days. This was in my early months in this country. And yet, I feel like pooh-poohing high caste South Asians complaining about discrimination. That said, I would never engage in actions that trivialize their experiences. I would be outraged. I would go to protests. As a Dalit South Asian, my bad experiences come more frequently from other South Asians, based on caste, than from Americans based on nationality or ethnicity.
I especially hate it when comedians, such as Nancherla or Hari Kondabolu (who sometimes does gigs with his mother), go on about the “White people this, White people that”. If you listen to his comedy, you’d think he’s Black. These South Asian comedians are totally silent on caste — what their own caste people back in India do to Dalits. There is an aspiring Brahmin hip-hop artist named Raja Kumari who wrote a song the lyrics of which contained the line, “untouchable with the Brahmin flow”. Totally oblivious to the implications.
How was your book received by Americans? How do they view the caste system?
Very well. To them, caste makes no sense (racism does) because there are no physical differences between high caste and untouchable Indians. People who read the book were appalled. They would ask me, “Tell us what we can do.” Caste is also fascinating to them; it is exotic and enduring. The gigantic scale of it affecting more than 260 million Indians, the brutal nature of violence, and the twisted ways of psychological torture.
In an interview, you spoke of your sister who lives in the US felt compelled to keep her relationship with you hidden after the release of your book.
Yeah. I thought that this should strike people as terribly tragic. Here I am, from a background that has not produced many writers, getting published in America by the most prestigious publisher, to international acclaim. Yet, my nieces and nephew were not able to boast to their friends. Because the immediate question would be, “Oh yeah, what did your aunt write about?” I saw my niece posting a picture of my book on social media, with only “Ants Among Elephants” visible but not, “An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India.” How horrible is that!
Do the Blacks in America view Dalit-Bahujans as allies? Are there prominent American voices speaking against casteism?
No, they don’t. India and Indians are extremely successful in hiding the issue of caste from the outside world. Even when someone knows, Indians, including many Dalits tell them, “It used to exist, but not anymore.” I think some Blacks know, like Runoko Rashidi. But otherwise, not. Secondly, what happens in a Third World country gets little exposure compared to things that happen in the first of the First World countries. But I am sure if American Blacks witness caste or learn about it, they will immediately see the similarities.
What lessons from the BLM movement can we borrow in India to drive the Dalit movement?
Nothing. I don’t support BLM. During the Obama era, racist police murders were rampant. Michael Brown shot dead in Ferguson, Trayvon Martin in Florida. People — both Black, White and others — were outraged that this was happening under the Presidentship of a Black man. In fact, Ferguson Unrest (with capital U) is a thing. Unrest it was.
Seeing the seething discontent, the henchmen of the racist-capitalist rulers came up with a plan: Not to attack (or, in addition to physical attacks) but to co-opt the anti-racist protests. That’s how BLM was born.
Dalits borrowing this? I hope not. But, some Dalit organizations in America have already adopted it, “Dalit Lives Matter” slogan exists. Just as the founders of the BLM, these “Dalit Lives Matter” people are careerists — people seeking careers designing and leading fake movements. They are supporters of the Democratic Party, a party of the propertied, same as the Republicans. They don’t mind joining hands with RSS elements on occasion.