A symposium in University of Michigan discusses ways to dismantle casteism

The “politics of dignity and equal rights” for marginalized communities in a global context, including of Dalits and other minorities in India, was the focus of a daylong symposium in Michigan Oct. 12, addressed among others by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Director of Equality Labs.

Invoking Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and Dr. Martin Luther King—the two stalwarts in the global struggle against racism and casteism — writer and activist, Professor Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, kicked off the full-day of presentations and discussions at the symposium titled “Dismantling Casteism & Racism: Continuing the Unfinished Legacy of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.”

Aimed at building solidarity and examining issues that pertain to the Dalit community in South Asia, the event was the first-ever collaboration between the Ambedkar Association of North America (AANA) and University of Michigan’s Program in Asian/Pacific Islander American (A/PIA) Studies.

“We seek to strengthen conversations between scholars, activists and practitioners in analyzing caste-based discrimination and violence in South Asia and beyond,” one of the organizers said.

The event at the Michigan League was attended by nearly 100 people, including guests from California, Chicago, Toronto, Indiana and Kentucky. Also present were two long-time activists of the Ambedkarite movement, Velu Annamalai of Washington, D.C. and Gary Bagha of Sacramento.

During a reception held in Sterling Heights on Oct. 11, Annamalai, the former executive director of the International Dalit Forum, spoke about his early years as an activist for the Dalit cause when he first immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1960s.

Annamalai described his efforts lecturing across the country to African American audiences about the struggle against casteism and penning editorials in Indian-American newspapers that challenged the benevolent image of Gandhi by highlighting his record of anti-Black racism and his role in undermining Dalit self-determination.

Shepherd, who recently retired from the Center for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at Maulana Azad University, and Soundararajan, former director of AANA in the U.S., addressed the symposium in the afternoon.

Shepherd spoke about what he described as the “spiritual fascism” that undergirds caste practice and sharply criticized the “virulent Hindu nationalism” of modern India that continues to persecute and disenfranchise the Dalit/Bahujan community while Soundararajan discussed the role of “Hindu fascism” in proliferating a climate of violence and hatred towards Dalits, Muslims, Christians, and other non-upper-caste communities.

Her presentation displayed examples of the proliferation of hate speech against Muslims and Dalits in social media as well as the bipartisan inroads that the Hindutva right have made in U.S. electoral politics.

She implored the audience in her presentation to consider, “What does it mean to be an Ambedkarite during a time of fascism?” Soundararajan told the audience, “It means more than just coming to conferences.”

Three panelists discussed more personal impacts of casteism, colorism, and racism by focusing on the role of mental health. Ankita Nikalje, a doctoral candidate at the College of Education at Purdue, described her personal experiences of living as Dalit woman and connected her narrative to recent studies which highlight the rampant caste-based discrimination in the Asian-Indian immigrant community in the U.S. in education, employment, local businesses, places of worship, and interpersonal relationships.

Professor Ronald Hall from Michigan State University, whose scholarship has focused on the role of “colorism” in the African American community, drew connections between colorism and caste in South Asia.

The final panelist, Professor Gaurav Pathania from George Washington University, explored the ways that student activism in India had empowered “Ambedkarite” scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and OBC students to construct a new narrative to counter the mainstream narratives of Hindu mythology within the sacred spaces of higher education.

To conclude the event, Mahesh Wasnik, a co-founder of the AANA and symposium organizer, presented plaques and a copy of the Indian constitution, the creation of which is credited to Dr Ambedkar, to each of the panelists.

The symposium was the culmination of a conversation that began in January this year initiated by Wasnik and Vivek Chavan of AANA and coordinated with Professor Manan Desai of UM’s A/PIA Studies program.

The symposium, in the end, brought together a number of communities not only at the University of Michigan and Metro-Detroit region, but nationally. It was generously sponsored by community organizations, including the Periyar-Ambedkar Circle, the American Federation of Muslims of Indian Origin, and the Association for India’s Development.

The University of Michigan sponsors also generously funded and supported the event, including A/PIA Studies, the Department of American Culture, the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Rackham’s DEA Programmatic Support Fund, and the Center for South Asian Studies, the Department of English Language & Literature, among others.

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