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Ambedkar's Children: Annihilating Caste In Western Academia

Claiming their rights, reclaiming identities, occupying spaces, and taking charge of their own leadership, Outlook speaks with three Dalit scholars studying abroad, who shared how caste operates in the western educational spaces and talk about their journey in a casteist society.

Supporters and opponents of a proposed ordinance to add caste to Seattle's anti-discrimination laws.
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In September 2022, the US embassy in Delhi stated that it issued more than 82,000 student visas to Indians, a record-breaking number even surpassing that of China. However, Dalit, Adivasi, and OBC students comprise a minuscule percentage of these Indian students studying abroad. 

As Seattle became the first city in the United States to ban all forms of caste-based discrimination on February 21, 2023, a global Ambedkarite movement caused ripples across India and overseas. A new generation of Dalit academicians and scholars have broken the glass ceilings and entered the western academia space, making the 'abroad return' tag no longer exclusive to the Indian upper caste and brahmins. 

Caste and class have operated in alliance and shaped the dynamics of socio-economic-political dynamics in India. An ancient birth-based hierarchy system in India, often defended by its proponents as an occupation-based hierarchy, caste is an evil social practice, embedded in the ancient Hindu texts like Manusmriti, Vedas, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Dharma Shastra, etc. 

"Caste is a phenomenon that moves along with those who grow up in caste societies. One cannot do away with caste by being outside a caste society, Caste then just operates in a different manner," Dalit queer activist, Aroh Akunth.

Claiming their rights, reclaiming identities, occupying spaces, and taking charge of their own leadership, Outlook speaks with three Dalit scholars studying abroad, who shared how caste operates in the western educational spaces and talk about their journey in a casteist society.

A Young Dalit Feminist And A Seasoned Ambedkarite

Referring to frequent caste and sect-based battles across India in the recent past, 22-year-old Nidhi Kanaujia says that the Seattle caste discrimination ban plays a poignant role in the western context as it gives more legal visibility to the issue of caste. A student at the University of Goettingen, Germany, Kanaujia is pursuing her master's in Modern Indian Studies.

"I feel there is no mechanism in my University to address the experiences of caste discrimination, unlike India where you have redressal cells or some system into place." She, however, makes it a point to add that these systems obviously fail in their purpose in India but have largely been missing altogether in the west.

She calls herself a 'first generation learner', a young Dalit woman, who wouldn't ever dream of pursuing higher studies abroad, given her caste and class position in India, had it not been for the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Foundation Scholarship. Nidhi says that the degrees of caste discrimination in a first-world country vary from her horrific encounters in the Indian academic spaces. She shares episodes of sheer caste blindness with her fellow mates in their regular conversations, who come from upper-caste upper-class backgrounds.

Nidhi adds that a lot of students at the university and even outside are resistant to the idea of talking and discussing caste, something that does not concern or affect them. At one point, speaking of caste practices she says, "The comfort of some comes with the discomfort of many." Nidhi also highlights how students living abroad work as daily wage earners in order to support themselves, yet they would never do the same in India as their caste and class entitlement does not allow them to work as a cleaner, labourers, caregivers; etc.

Lastly, she mentions that the Centre for Modern Indian Studies in her university is currently planning to come up with certain caste guidelines, which she hopes would prove effective in combatting caste discrimination.

Academician and a student at the Teachers' College (TC) at Columbia University, Vikas Tatad is the only Dalit student in his school which comprises around 7,000 students including around 40 to 50 per cent of South and East Asian students. "When I first came to the university, I looked for Dalit Adivasi and OBC students, only to find that there were none at TC," Tatad says. He feels no sense of belongingness with his fellow Asians and Indians who celebrate Holi, Diwali, and other popular Hindu festivals but take no cognizance of Ambedkar Jayanti, a day that marks the foundation of Dalit and non-Savarna pride.

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Caste is not "our" problem but that of the Brahmins and the UCs (Upper Castes), he says emphasizing that it is time that the non-Savarnas should now be in power. Tatad was elected the chairperson for the University Policy and Rules Committee which recently was asked to formulate and review a policy on harassment and discrimination. "There were multiple categories enlisted in the policy but caste." Upon his suggestion, two days ago, the committee is in the process to adopt caste as a protected category.

Tatad does not mince his words when he talks about Indians who have migrated abroad and carry their caste identities with them. The young scholar, whose journey entails from the slums of Siddharthnagar in Amravati to Columbia University, also the alma mater of his ideal, Ambedkar, calls the upper caste Indian diaspora in the US and abroad protesting against the Seattle Caste discrimination ban a "sick" lot. "They can only be cured with the medicine of Ambedkar's ideals," he says. For him, Ambedkar is a humanist, liberal, and democrat whose position must be advanced internationally as an academician, responsible for the conscious liberation of the marginalized. 

Caste And Queerness

Based in Germany at present, Aroh Akunth is a Dalit trans-feminine writer-performer and student at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies at the University of Göttingen. Speaking with Outlook, Aroh says that India constitutes around 17.7 percent of the world population, while the Dalits are about 17-20 percent of the Indian population according to varying estimates, which makes Dalits of India one of the world's largest populations living in segregation. However, the recognition of what this aspect means for international politics is slow and the reparations bleak.

The politics of caste is entrenched in communities being forced to perform jobs that are considered ‘impure’ generation after generation as theorized and enforced by Hindu scriptures. Aroh’s work uses queerness to imagine possibilities for surviving caste. Acknowledging that the scope of Caste and Queerness is vast they say Dalit-Queer thinkers are just starting to scratch the surface as far as the potential of the framework is concerned, they hope the mainstream academic spaces in some time will begin to operate from a critical caste studies standpoint. Aroh also notes that, unlike the critical race theory, critical caste studies as an interdisciplinary field are still being developed. They also added that this late development is the possible result of where Caste is located geographically and because of how cruel the system has been, hence taking much more time to be addressed.

"But there is hope that once critical caste studies take centre stage, especially in research dealing with South Asia(ns), diaspora or wherever casted relations exist- There will be better conditions for engagement, shifts in existing academic understanding, that will inspire positive social change elsewhere,” Aroh says.

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Drawing a parallel with the Anti-Racism movement in the United States to highlight the relevance of dalit-queer thought Aroh argues it is impossible to teach Critical Race Studies without works of intellectuals like James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Angela Davis: all of whom were black, queer and part of organized struggles. 

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