Content Warning: This piece contains descriptions and statistics concerning the physical and sexual violence against and the murders of Dalit people.
Dalit women all over South Asia are starting and leading historic movements to end caste-apartheid and caste-based sexual violence. The #DalitWomenFight United States tour began in September, and self-organized Dalit women like Anjum Singh, Manisha Mashaal, and Thenmozhi Soundararajan have been sharing their stories no matter how persistently Hindu fundamentalists have tried to silence them.
I attended a die-in in Times Square on October 17, standing in front of the Red Steps, listening to these women’s stories and recognized that caste is something so much larger than religion. The caste system is racist, classist, and colorist. Caste apartheid is anti-blackness and anti-indigenous. An institutional system of violence, caste is a death sentence from birth, with your family’s caste ranking determining your entire life, including your job, spiritual purity, and social standing. Those at the bottom are condemned to a life of exploitation and violent discrimination. The caste system has a death count, and it is not a small one. In 2014, over 744 Dalits were killed, many of them children burned alive at the hands of Hindu fundamentalists.
Caste is everywhere in India and even more intensified in the diaspora, where Hindus facing xenophobia and racism, cling to fundamentalism and traditionalism for safety. Unfortunately, for Dalits and Adivasis, this foundation of the caste system in diasporic life results in an apartheid that has simply translated into a different language. In India, upper-caste Hindus, often light-skinned, receive lower interest rates for loans, better-paying jobs, and occupy most political offices. In North America, South Asian institutions carry over job discrimination, with only a handful of Dalit faculty in the over fifty South Asian and Asian Studies college departments.
India’s Hindu varna, or caste, system has been under scrutiny for decades. Divided hierarchically into five groups, the caste system consists of the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Sudras, and the so-called “Untouchables.” These pariahs have given themselves the name Dalit, meaning “oppressed,” or more specifically, “broken by oppression, but defined by struggle,” to call for the abolition of this system. Hierarchically, this system is ordered by race or color, light-skinned Brahmins at the top and Black, dark-skinned, and indigenous Dalits and Adivasis at the bottom.
The Dalits are numbered at about 260 million in India’s 1.3-billion person population, by no means an invisible number. However, they live segregated lives, residing in separate villages, praying in separate places of worship, drinking from separate water fountains, and learning in separate schools. They are not allowed to wear shoes in the presence of upper caste people or to drink and eat from the same utensils. The caste system is a lethal one, in which Dalit women are raped, murdered, and burned, where Dalit men are castrated, where the Dalit people are slaughtered, lynched, and brutally assaulted time and time again. According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, two Dalits are assaulted every hour and four Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and two Dalit homes are torched every day. This violence is meant to silence Dalit communities, to keep Dalit women from receiving justice.
But they cannot silence Dalit women.
I myself have a complex, yet privileged, caste identity, coming from a light-skinned Brahmin father and a darker-toned Vaishnavi non-Brahmin mother. Walking in the dusty streets of India, I would be perceived as Brahmin walking alone next to my father, yet non-Brahmin while accompanying my mother. Beyond that, I am gender nonconforming, or third-gender, unsure of my place in India and existing outside of a caste system that has yet to accommodate people like myself. It is vital, however, that I use my caste privilege to bolster the voices of Dalit women, who do not have and have never had the same opportunities as myself, let alone the privilege to ignore their caste identities as I have until now.
Only in liberation for the Dalits and Adivasis of India can we all achieve liberation. Until Dalit women are free, no woman is free.