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Indian-Americans, Caste Politics and Development [An Essay]

April 4, 2012

“Caste cannot be abolished by inter caste dinners or stray instances of inter caste marriages. Caste is a state of mind. It is a disease of mind. “— Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

At a Democratic fund-raiser in 2010, President Obama made the point that there was no caste system in America. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was talking to a group of wealthy (and upper-caste) Indian-Americans.

The caste system is a regimented, ritualized and brutally efficient social and economic system of racial inequality. American industrialization and productivity has deep roots within such a power structure. It has a long-lived tradition of linking skin color to labor. Land and property rights have always been key struggles for black Americans, Native Americans and other racial minorities. Social and economic struggles disproportionally affect racial and ethnic minorities. We have a culture that staunchly adheres to a standard of beauty and cultural cognizance that is dominated by a hegemonic white culture.

There are very few Dalit or even lower caste Indian-Americans in the US for reasons related to class and the global movement (and value) of labor. As one of the most educated and richest immigrant groups in the US, Indian-Americans are, among other things — doctors, IT professionals, investment bankers, engineers and business owners.

Indian matrimonial ads are littered with “fair skin” and even more explicitly “No SC” (no scheduled castes) and are accepted as the standard, unquestioned norm — a relic of old India. How many of us know an Indian-American friend who claims to be from the “warrior clan” or have been part of casteist discussions on north versus south Indians? The familiar Bollywood trope of using racist caricatures of black people are essentially casteist depictions of dark-skinned people. For most Indian-Americans, issues related to caste are comfortably far away and even quaint. Caste-ism usefully re-packaged into a small, exotic box that describes out-moded religious rituals, as opposed to tools of systematic oppression.

As a racial and cultural minority, Indian-Americans in the US face the daily struggles of a marginalized community, which in turn makes it that much easier to forget our own racial privilege. Underlying the vacuum of political awareness, is the diasporic need to believe that India is “developed” and “modernized” enough for a western hegemony. A desire to contribute and participate in the development of India becomes a matter of our collective Indian nationalist pride and even duty. In this context, it is useful to abandon any challenges to our own social conditioning and biases around caste. “Improving” poor adivasi, tribal and lower caste communities become a shining example of our technological and financial benevolence. Consequently, crimes committed in Chhattisgarh, Manipur, Kashmir, Assam and other state sanctioned atrocities get white-washed away. If at all acknowledged, state violence is an inconvenient side story, an example of a lumbering bureaucracy as opposed to a systematic, deliberate and profitable abuse of power.

Exotification, nationalism and development all collude to help us erase the political histories of tribal people, adivasis, dalits and other racial and cultural minorities in India.

Indian Nationalism


In the 2007 NRI-targeted, Bollywood movie, Namaste London, a triumphant scene shows Akshay Kumar’s (upper caste) character extolling India’s virtues to a leering, racist white man. “[Indians] come from a nation in which we allow a lady of Catholic religion to step aside so that a Sikh can be sworn in as Prime Minister by a Muslim President run by a government for a nation that is over 80% Hindu.” Akshay Kumar goes on to express (dignified) contempt that India is associated (by white people) with street-based snake charmers, when in fact, India is filled with “doctors, scientists, engineers and the world’s third largest army”.

While obviously oversimplified and filmy, Akshay Kumar’s remarks help clarify a type of nationalism, informed by both privilege and marginalization. Progress and development measured in the post-colonial diaspora, pushes aside “street-based snake charmers” (who do not count) to make room for “doctors, scientists, and engineers” (who do count). Allowing for a totally unconscious bragging of “the world’s third largest army” in the face of alarming militarization in the Indian police state against its own citizens — who are overwhelmingly from tribal, adivasi and other vulnerable minority communities.

Akshay Kumar’s views on government do not stray too far from the opinions held by many NRIs, who are proud of a harmonious diversity they see in the Indian government (and culture). When the Indian government is criticized, the words “corruption” and “bribery” occur frequently. Corrupt ministers, corrupt processes (that lead to unexpectedly long delays in visas, PIO and OCI cards). However, these words are rarely used in reference to unconstitutional police monitoring of poor communities, compliance in mass torture, unwarranted arrests, incarcerations and illegal police operations.

In 2008, Amnesty International called the Indian government to investigate hundreds of un-identified mass graves found in India-administered regions of Jammu and Kashmir. Over 8000 people have gone missing since 1989, most are local residents and not “armed rebels and foreign militants” as claimed by the Indian army. Amnesty International has called the Indian government to condemn, investigate and ensure justice to countless victims of unlawful killings, enforced disappearances and torture in the region.

In November 2011, human rights activist, Iron Sharmila entered her 12th year of fasting, her protest has propelled a national outcry against the draconian 1958 Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). A law that confers special powers to armed forces in various parts of northeast India, plus Jammu and Kashmir, conferring legal protection to the atrocities occurring in the region.

In July 2011, a landmark Supreme Court order stated the unconstitutionality of the use of Special Police Officers (SPOs) in the anti-Maoist operations in Chattisgarh. It directed the state to stop supporting locally formed vigilante operations such as Salwa Judum, which has been responsible for the killings, rape and torture of countless tribal people as well as burning villages in that region. During the hearing of the case, in April 2008, the Chief Justice observed “You cannot give arms to somebody (a civilian) and allow him to kill.” Since the court order, there is little progress demonstrating that the government has complied with the directive (notably to disarm the Salwa Judum).

The immigrant experience in the US has meant that many of us have retained a cultural identity rooted in Indian nationalism. As assimilation gathers ever more momentum, Indian-Americans have co-opted a reflection of India that is dominated by a Brahminical Hindu cultural identity. We are unchallenged in our pride of traditions, a sense of belonging and “authenticity” that reflects a casteist history. We engage in a process of othering tribal, adivasi, dalit and lower caste people that absolves us from participating in the social movements and struggles of these communities.

Development in India

In 1987, the World Bank awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to the largest river development scheme in India — the Narmada Valley Development Project (NVDP). Work began shortly after on building one of the largest hydroelectric projects (Sardar Sarovar dam) in the world (along with nearly 3000 other large and small dams).

By 1986, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) or Save the Narmada Movement was borne, made up of villagers, organizations and activists who fought against the displacement of millions and the destruction of hectares of land and forest. After strong international pressure, the World Bank commissioned and published an independent review report on the dam project called the Morse Report (1992). The report corroborated much of the criticisms of the NBA. The World Bank would eventually withdraw from the project due to international pressure. In response, the Gujarat government raised hundreds of millions of dollars to push the project ahead anyway.

In 1995, the Supreme Court of India stopped the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam. However in 2000, it reversed the order and allowed the dam to be built again. This judgment came despite numerous unresolved issues on resettlement program for the displaced, the environment, the project costs and benefits.

“If you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country.” – Jawaharlal Nehru, speaking to villagers who were to be displaced by the Hirakud Dam, 1948.

Internationally known activists such as Arundhati Roy wrote prolifically about the Narmada Valley development disaster. The NBA brought into focus the contradictions of development in India and added to the overall debate in international development aid. As Roy points out, discussions tend to debate false positions on development — one side posed for progress and increased infrastructure while the other side fights for a quixotic, Gandhian nostalgia. Such a mis-representation (and deliberate misunderstanding) necessarily requires a privileged positioning of disregard for vulnerable communities.

Majority of POSCO Enquiry Committee Confirms that POSCO Project is Illegal.

Today, with POSCO-India’s project poised to build a 12 million tones/ per year steel plant in Orissa’s iron-ore mines, it faces a strong people’s resistance movement from villagers losing land and livelihoods. Meanwhile, in Tamil Nadu, the anti-nuclear resistance movements has galvanized a national outcry against the proposed Koodankulam nuclear power plant. These peaceful protests have continued despite the alarming use of state-sponsored, police repression.

At the heart of the conflicts in Chattisgarh and Jharkhand is the government and corporate need to control and dominate the mineral rich forests of central India-–tribal land, adivasi land. Despite special protections conferred by law to adivasis and tribals, the government of Chattisgarh has filed and closed hundreds of thousands of cases against tribals for forest misdemeanors like gathering firewood or plucking leaves. Meanwhile, since the late 1970s, the Dantewada district with the largest iron ore mines in the region have been monopolized by the National Mineral Development Corporation. The term used is “captive mines” — meaning they are dedicated mines for private, multinational corporations such as Tata, Essar, Jindal and Mittal. Needless to say, these lucrative public-private partnerships benefit from state repression of local communities. Political prisoners — like Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi — continue to be caught in a system, silenced and imprisoned by an unjust system.

In India, caste is routinely politicized in complicated ways that benefit Indian politicians and generally accomplish little for lower caste people. Due to an electoral process, which allows local political parties to take root and flourish, the government has been able to accomplish truly progressive milestones. There have been successfully elected appointees to public office from transgender women, dalits, women, Muslims and other minorities. This commendable achievement has furthered a useful notion of the Indian government as progressive and democratic. Eclipsed by this optimism, are social movements of resistance and struggle that demand and deserve better mike systems on a taller platform.

[Image used via King Me]


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