Connecting the movements for Dalit and Black lives

Members of the #DalitWomenFight tour, from left, Anjum Singh, Sanghapali Aruna Lohitakshi and Asha Kowtal. The tour, which is raising awareness of caste-based violence and rape in India, made three stops in Seattle last week. (Photo by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, #Dalitwomenfight)
Members of the #DalitWomenFight tour, from left, Anjum Singh, Sanghapali Aruna Lohitakshi and Asha Kowtal. The tour, which is raising awareness of caste-based violence and rape in India, made three stops in Seattle last week. (Photo by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, #Dalitwomenfight)

Last week a delegation from India came to Seattle to break the silence on caste apartheid and caste rape.

It didn’t get the attention it deserved. The women who came representing the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM) are part of the largest challenge to caste-based sexual violence in Indian history. It’s a movement of survivors and activists who have been marching across India calling out the systemic failure of the Indian government to protect Dalit women and their families.

Dalit, which literally means “oppressed,” refers to those who for hundreds of years they were considered “untouchables” within the Hindu caste system. They number over 260 million people in India today, with more in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Dalit people have traditionally held occupations considered “ritually impure” — manual labor like removal of waste, leatherwork, butchering, and even musicians whose instrument involves an animal’s flesh (like a drum).

The atrocities committed against Dalit people are staggering, even today. On average a crime against a Dalit person happens every 18 minutes. Based just on what’s reported, three women are raped every day. Thirteen are murdered every week. A majority of these crimes are committed with impunity.

“We realize this is a battle that we cannot win by ourselves,” said Asha Kowtal, General Secretary of AIDMAM, explaining the reason for the tour. “The movement needs global solidarity from oppressed communities across the world and allies who will stand with us in this struggle to overhaul institutions reeking of caste and patriarchy.”

Last Thursday, I was lucky enough to sit in on a conversation with the Seattle South Asian Solidarity Alliance and #DalitWomenFight — the group organizing the tour. I was shocked by the firsthand accounts we heard of the atrocities that have been going on in India, including a story about a woman who was murdered and tortured with cigarette burns all over her body. Her death was ruled a suicide — an eerie similarity to what happened to Sandra Bland in Texas.

The parallels between stories of Black and Dalit struggles didn’t stop there. Manisha Mashaal, Field Organizer with AIDMAM, told this story at the event:

“In my community, there was a case of a young woman who was gang raped and murdered in Haryana on her way to school. This story sent shivers down my spine. I was so enraged that there was so much silence around the case of a young Dalit student being brutally murdered in her own community. I’m a Dalit woman student, and the story inspired me to take action. We organized family and community members to the local police station for the results of the autopsy reports. We were treated with so much disrespect at the police station, where officers kicked the dead body of the victim. We filed complaints to seek justice in courts run by upper caste perpetrators of violence, with deep solidarity for the victim and her family. We were met with so many obstacles as we navigated a bureaucratic system that is designed to fail Dalits. The violence that Dalit women face is not isolated, there are many of us who are facing the brunt of this caste apartheid and sexual violence. I refuse to stay silent because there are no people advocating for Dalit rights. We cannot let the fears of the police and state institutions silence our struggles.”

The #DalitWomenFight tour is wrapping up this week in Detroit after visiting 9 cities across the U.S. Stops on the tour are transmedia storytelling sessions where rooms are flooded with photography, visual art and a hashtag of the movement, #DalitWomenFight written in lights.

The full #DalitWomenFight delegation delegation at the Queens Museum during their visit to New York. (Photo by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, #Dalitwomenfight)
The full #DalitWomenFight delegation delegation at the Queens Museum during their visit to New York. (Photo by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, #Dalitwomenfight)

In addition to representatives from AIDMAM sharing their stories, New York based filmmaker, musician and transmedia artist Thenmozhi Soundararajan has shown pieces of her film in progress, a documentary based on two years of her journeys with grassroots leaders organizing throughout India.

Soundararajan sees direct connections to caste-based apartheid in Seattle:

“I think in places like Seattle, we’re dealing with ‘Caste 2.0’ where we’re seeing a preponderance of highly educated upper-caste Indians joining these massive tech companies, and it’s like the worst of all worlds because they are financially wealthy, incredibly arrogant and they try to recreate casteist structures within their companies and inside the South Asian institutions of Seattle. So you’ll have upper-caste people making jokes about Dalit people in corporate spaces, you’ll have job discrimination in the work force, you’ll have them hiring Dalit and lower-caste people for their domestic workers and not paying them a working wage. And they are funding through their religious networks, enormous amounts of fundamentalism in the country of India which is now destabalizing the region as a whole. Caste is here, caste is present, and we have to be able to talk about it.”

At one point during the conversation Thursday, the recent uproar over POC Yoga classes in Seattle came up, and with it a conversation that needs to be had. As Soundararajan shared a perspective I’d never heard before:

“Yoga is an appropriation from Indigenous practices of health and well-being and centeredness by upper-caste men, who codified, named and shaped the body in their own image and used that image as a form to control other bodies,” she said.

Sanskrit chants are used to open yoga practices in Seattle every day. But historically, Soundararjan explained, Dalit people would have lead poured in their ears, or their tongues cut, if they dared to listen to or speak the Sanskrit language.

“The things that we take on so neutrally, that are Hindu — like yoga — are not neutral. I think we have to know more, and not just accept the bland white supremacist understanding of multi-cultural harmony versus real political solidarity.”

The most inspiring thing that I learned at the meeting was the history of co-resistance with Black and Dalit liberation movements — and the necessity of that same connection today.

Soundararajan talked about The Dalit Panthers, a movement influenced by and connected to The Black Panther Party in the 1970’s. The Dalit Panthers organized against the varna system of social classification of Hindus, and set off a renaissance in Dalit literature.

“They had this very deep sense of internationalism where they saw their liberatory movements linked,” she said. “I think for them Dalit was not just a religious fight, it was a political and an economic fight. So they talked a lot about class and their solidarity with other international struggles.”

I asked Soundararajan what her vision of that solidarity looks like today:

“We really need to deeply understand the root causes of each of our issues and see how our shared perpetrators, or states, work with each other to keep us individually oppressed. And when we see the collaborative nature of these empires, then we can also have a collaborative trans-national strategy. The World Conference Against Racism in Durban was an amazing example of that, where you had Black, Palestinian and Dalit peoples on the outside, and you had our governments corroborating to basically derail the process because they didn’t want to be named and linked on those issues.”

Internationalism for our liberation is not an option in a hyper-capitalist world.”

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