Join the fight against casteism in the Diaspora!
On June 30, 2020 a landmark case was filed by the California Fair Housing and Employment office in the federal court in San Jose against the IT giant Cisco, Inc. The case, filed on behalf of an employee (John Doe, a pseudonym) of Cisco, charges his immediate supervisors of discrimination against him on the basis of his caste. John Doe was a principal engineer at Cisco when his supervisor (a Brahmin) ‘outed’ him to colleagues as a Dalit – an action whose context meant an immediate ‘lowering of status’ of John Doe due to assumptions being made about his abilities and capabilities. This led to John Doe filing a complaint with Cisco’s HR who did not find anything the matter – since ‘caste’ does not exist as a protected category under any anti-discrimination law in the USA (federal or state). A series of retaliatory actions then followed. Two of John Doe’s supervisors (both from dominant castes) acted in ways that created a hostile workplace for John Doe that included denial of raises, promotion, and leadership positions. A good synopsis of the case details and the larger context of discrimination at the workplace against Dalits in particular are available here and here and some scholarly evidence on discrimination here.
What does this case mean for the Indian and broader South Asian diaspora in the USA? The importance of this case can be seen in the series of mobilizations that have occurred in its aftermath. Dalit, Ambedkarite and anti-caste organizations have condemned casteism within the workplace, but also pointed out the prevalence of casteism within everyday life of Indians. Casteism has been denied in public by the ‘model minority’ Indian community, while being practiced with impunity in multiple sites of everyday life such as temples, caste associations, marital practices, but also social networks, restaurants. One of the clearest and strongest set of initiatives has been made by the California-based Ambedkar King Study Circle (AKSC). Started in the same year that John Doe experienced his stigmatized ‘outing’ (2016), and made up in large part by workers in the high-tech industry (especially Silicon Valley), AKSC has quickly grown to become one of the leading progressive voices in the Indian diaspora – consistently taking thoughtful stands challenging “caste, class, race, gender and religious oppression and oppressors on ideological, political and social fronts” (see more on AKSC).
Taking a broad view of the issue of casteism, AKSC has launched a multi-pronged campaign. It first put out a public appeal for solidarity against caste practices in Silicon Valley and the USA (as a mark of solidarity, ICWI has hosted the solidarity statement here). This was followed by a call for testimonials from ordinary people who have witnessed or experienced caste practices. Titled in the radical tradition of Ambedkar as “Let’s Talk About Caste…To Annihilate It” this call has generated some examples of the banality and brutality of caste practices in the diaspora. A third initiative from AKSC with co-sponsors including ICWI is the Practice of Caste in USA: Discussion Series which features a weekly discussion led by scholars and activists. Now in its fourth week, it has also featured ICWI’s core member Balmurli Natrajan who spoke about “Conceptualizing Casteism: Cause and Effect”. Making a case that casteism is a set of practices that aids the monopolization of power and wealth on the basis of status claims, Balmurli laid out a number of points about how casteism works to produce ‘differences’ in order to create inequality. He also drew out the implications of his view of casteism for an anti-caste politics that is committed to an annihilation of caste.
ICWI looks forward to working in solidarity with AKSC and other like-minded collectives in being pro-active and reflexive about the ways that caste/casteism, gender/patriarchy, sexuality/heteronormativity and other forms of social identity-based inequalities continue to plague our communities including progressive collectives. Jai Bhim, Lal Salaam.
Balmurli Natrajan, ICWI core collective.
Poetry and Resistance
It is that moment when you suddenly wake up from a deep sleep and can’t remember who you are and where you are. Even the dark sky with twinkling stars does not make any sense. Why is the big dipper all upside down? Wouldn’t its contents spill all over, all over the universe? Racing and disoriented mind calms down slowly and I realize the world where everything is upside down. The poet, Varavara Rao, who dreams of a just world for every human being is punished with desolation and neglect while criminals are being celebrated with garlands and worshipped like heros.
Varavara Rao spent more than 60 years of his 80 year life fighting for the marginalized and oppressed people. As if to punish him for giving his life for other people, he is put behind bars under fabricated charges. The world seemed to stand still when the news broke that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and was found unattended on a hospital bed in despicable conditions.
In my utter hopelessness I hear the poet. It is the “Odd Hour”, the poet whispers. It is the hour when
“Living world terrorizes itself
Imagining ghosts out of
Unquenched fire of hunger
Left in the bones of people burnt by starvation
Goodness in a person has exhausted
Monstrosity flexes its muscles for a brawl”
Varavarao’s poetry brings up the startling visions of reality. In the same poem he says,
“Municipality mosquitoes sing noisily
In a crazy man’s unoiled rumpled hair
And the moonlight loses itself in his warm embrace”
Varavara Rao is not a poet who merely tells the world all its wrongs. He also sings a ‘Sweet Song’ to the oppressed, calling them to rise up and fight to right the wrongs.
“Ten people sit on the breath
of half the people of this enormous country’
This time the tax minister writes his budget
Not on a paper but on the entrails of the destitute
How long will you still call on ‘Lord Rama’ in anguish
Open your eyes
Become an Alluri Sitaram* and revolt”
(*Alluri Sitarama Raju was an adivasi revolutionary leader who was martyred in the freedom struggle against the British)
Varavara Rao was arrested at least 25 times in his revolutionary life. But he knows that sacrifices will have to be made and he declares, “Blood for Light”
“He who desires freedom
Is always found in a jail
Without putting shackles on a free man
The imperialist can’t sleep
Iron shackles that restrain
human rights must be smashed
Revolutionary light will not flow along the way
Unless fighters who travel in this severe trail
Stand like lamp posts at every corner”
He proclaims in a “Song I am Going to Write for the Future”
“Light that hides in teary eyes
Strength in the sweaty hands of the laborer
Blood that you and I have spilled for freedom
In all that mixed experience and exasperation
With life in front of my eyes
I am writing the revolution”
The fascist, brahmanical regime in India might be celebrating that it has diverted people’s attention from its blatant disregard to basic human rights, failed policies, crumbling economy and rampant corruption by shackling the dreamers of a just world. On the other side of the world, in Brazil, ex-president Lula declared to thousands of people protesting his arrest, “There is no point in trying to end my ideas, they are already lingering in the air and you can’t arrest them. There is no point in trying to stop me from dreaming, because once I cease dreaming I’ll keep dreaming through your minds and your dreams. There is no point in thinking that everything will stop when I have a heart attack. That’s nonsense, because my heart shall beat through your hearts, and they are millions of hearts.” Revolutionary poet Varavara Rao declares in the same vein in ‘Siren’
“You are still alive
If you can imagine that even the sky is in a lockup
You are still alive
If you consider you are being shamed
for wanting freedom for people locked up
in khakee dress and prisoner’s clothes”
Into my desperate heart, the poet breaths fire in this ‘Odd Hour’
“… Wiping my eyes that teared in anguish
With frills of the moonlight
And putting them to sleep under the eyelids
I shall conjure up a dream for a magnificent future – Good Night”
Mamatha, ICWI Core Collective. Poems translated from Telugu. Poem selected from Varavara Rao Kavitvam 1957-2007 (Varavara Rao’s Poetry 1957-2007)
Pulse on BK-12 and the police state
As the tide of outrage grows around the incarceration of social workers, lawyers, and poets in the BK-12 dragnet, the Modi regime continues to escalate its repressive streak. Last week it was reported that Professor Hany Babu, a respected scholar and teacher in Delhi University was arrested by the NIA, on the claim that he was part of the so-called ‘conspiracy’ behind the violence that unfolded in Bhima Koregaon, violence orchestrated by local Hindutva leaders close to Modi. It was further revealed that Dr. Babu was subjected to intense interrogation over several days, and pressured by the NIA to falsely implicate others. Further, Dr. Apoorvanand, another professor has been questioned by the authorities in an ever-widening campaign by the Modi regime to target any intellectual associated with taking public positions to advance social justice. Meanwhile, Delhi’s Muslims – whether students, faculty or otherwise – continue to be targeted by the police under the false claim that they engineered the violence in Delhi through the anti-CAA protests (while in reality the Hindutva mobs and Delhi police were responsible).
Protests turn Sangh’s saffron splash in Times Square into a puddle
On August 5th, Hindutva groups in New York City attempted to conduct a big celebration in Times Square – by displaying Hindutva imagery on gigantic billboards – in coordination with the inauguration of the so called ‘Ram Temple’ India (a shameless celebration of the 1992 destruction of Babri Masjid, and the Hindu supremacist agenda led by Modi today). ICWI joined several other allies including Coalition Against Fascism in India, Indian American Muslim Council, Ambedkar King Study Circle, Boston Coalition and Hindus for Human Rights in quickly mobilizing public opposition, successfully turning the proposed grand celebration into a damp squib, after several companies canceled plans to display Hindutva imagery. A vociferous protest by hundreds in Times Square brought hundreds to the streets, marking an important watershed moment, with the Sangh in the U.S. publicly challenged, as they tried pathetically to spin their celebration of bigotry and genocide as a religious celebration. In our statement at a Press Conference organized by the Coalition Against Fascism, ICWI made it clear that the August 5th inauguration of the so called ’Ram temple’ was an attempt to cover up a historic crime: the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the genocidal violence that followed. It was also cynically timed to commemorate the first anniversary of the abrogation of Article 370, intensifying the brutal subjugation of the Kashmiri people under Indian military occupation.
OBITUARY: Chinmoy Banerjee (10 January 1940-29 July 2020)
Note: Dr. Chinmoy Banerjee was also a new member of ICWI, having joined us a few months ago.
VANCOUVER, BC (July 30, 2020) – It is with profound sadness that the Dr. Hari Sharma Foundation announces the passing of the Foundation’s President, Dr. Chinmoy Banerjee on July 29, 2020.
“Chin da”, as he was affectionately called, was a son, dad, brother, husband, grandfather, a poet, teacher, mentor, an activist, comrade, and leader, stellar in every aspect and impacting the lives of many. He was born on the 10th of January 1940 in Baidabharty, Bengal, and completed his undergraduate and Master’s degrees in English Literature at Delhi University where he met his first wife. In 1966, their son Anand was born, and soon after, Chin moved to Kent State University in the U.S. to do his PhD in 18th Century English Literature.
Chinmoy was actively involved in progressive politics, such as protesting against the US invasion of Cambodia and the American presence in Vietnam. Whenever protests arose in India, he was always the first to lend his voice to the indignation and outrage, spearheading solidarity. In 1970, the family moved to Canada where he started teaching English at Simon Fraser University. Later that year, daughter Nandini was born. After receiving tenure in 1975, Chin joined Dr. Hari Sharma, Dr. Daya Varma, and Dr. Vinod Mubayi, as a leader of the Indian People’s Association of North America (IPANA), an advocacy organization of progressive Indians who supported democratic rights and social justice in India, and wrote for its two publications: New India Bulletin and India Now. Having engaged in struggles against racism in the 1970s, Chin, with IPANA, became a primary force in the formation of the British Columbia Organization to Fight Racism (BCOFR: 1980) and the Canadian Farmworkers’ Union (CFU: 1980).
Chin was a founding member and leader of the Non-Resident Indians for Secularism and Democracy (NRISAD) which morphed into South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy (SANSAD). He also founded the South Asian Film Education Society (SAFES) and was the first president of the Dr. Hari Sharma Foundation (HSF). The HSF sponsors cultural events for many local and international organizations, international conferences and cultural events on migrant labour, Sufi thought, racism, and the environment.The HSF also funds multiple research projects and scholarships.
Patricia Gruben, Vice-President of the Dr. Hari Sharma Foundation, said, “Chin was the driving force behind setting up the Foundation in 2009 and keeping it active and productive as President for the past eleven years. He felt that film screenings, music concerts, literary events and gallery shows were just as important as the academic research and progressive political conferences that we funded; they were all part of a continuum of appreciation for South Asian culture and society that we aimed to support. “
Chin taught English literature, literary criticism, and postcolonial studies at Simon Fraser University for 35 years, voted and celebrated by students as the “best teacher” and received the 1991 Excellence in Teaching Award at SFU. His life was dedicated to learning, and his approach to understanding society was not limited to reading; he breathed poetry, history, music, and appreciated the medium of film. Though he enjoyed the films of Satyajit Ray, Hitchcock, and so many others, the dearest to his heart, was Charlie Chaplin. He was deeply concerned about the systematic attack on the pluralist society and culture of India since Narendra Modi came to power with a Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) majority in 2014. With the rise to power of the BJP, a secular, democratic republic with guaranteed citizenship rights and constitutional protection of minorities is turning into a state serving a majoritarian agenda that is identified with the “nation.” As public intellectuals are arrested, institutions are subverted, dissent suppressed through violence and intimidation, and Dalits and minorities increasingly subjected to mob violence encouraged through impunity, Chin knew that India is well advanced on the path of building a fascist theocratic Hindu Rashtra.
Chin leaves behind a legacy of activism in the service of the humankind. He inspired hundreds of people to fight for human rights and a better world without suffering or oppression with equality regardless of religion, caste, race, or gender. He left a better world for us where we have learned to fight battles for justice, stand on principles, and to be more compassionate. His life and legacy will continue to inspire.
He lived a dignified life, while striving to achieve the same for everyone. And, in a dignified manner, with the assistance of his health professionals, in the presence of his beloved children and a few lifelong comrades, surrounded by laughter and love, passed away peacefully on July 29, 2020, wearing his much-cherished Charlie Chaplin shirt listening to Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”.
Dr. Chinmoy Banerjee is survived by his wife of 25 years, Robyn Kathleen Banerjee, son Anand Banerjee (wife Beth), daughter Aedon (“Nandini”) Young (husband Rob), grandson Max and granddaughters Alexandria and Maya. A celebration of Chin’s life will be held when COVID19 restrictions are relaxed.
For further information, contact:
Patricia Gruben, Vice-President, Dr. Hari Sharma Foundation