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Caste In America - A Panel Discussion At WGBH

Ranjani Saigal

On March 21, 2019 at the Newsfeed Café, WGBH News Senior Investigative Reporter and award-winning journalist Phillip Martin led a discussion at the Boston Public Library about his most recent series “Caste in America.” In collaboration with the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, this multi-part examination explores the discrimination Indian immigrants face in the United States as a result of this ancient hierarchical system of human classification.

Martin led a conversation about the role of caste in the United States with Suraj Yengde, Laurence Simon, Kavita Pillay, Swami Venkataraman and Tarun Khanna.  

The panel discussion presented a variety of views on the topic of caste.  The panelists were in complete agreement that discrimination based on caste needs to be eliminated.  The discussion opened with each sharing their opinion on what caste means to them and why it is important to have such a discussion. 

“People in America think of Indians as one homogenous entity. Indians come from a variety of backgrounds,” said Yengde. A Dalit himself, he emphasized the fact many like him have built in inferiority complex because growing up their parents told them that they belong to the lower caste. They often do not feel at home with other upper caste Indians. 

Swami Venkataraman stated clearly that Hindu philosophy is antithetical to discrimination based on caste. “Hindu scriptures clearly state that divinity is present in every living being, not just amongst humans.”  The reservations and other actions taken by the government of India had helped bring empowerment to many of the Dalits while much work still remains to be done. Venkataraman is the author of the paper Not Cast in Caste: Seeking an End to Caste Based Discrimination.

Prof. Simon from Brandeis University emphasized the need to include studies on caste in South Asian studies. “People who migrate from other areas into America often bring their old country prejudice to this country and we need to understand that” said Prof. Simon.  

Venkataraman countered the view that Caste is not discussed in American educational system. “Often teaching about Hinduism even in middle school starts and ends with Caste. We have even heard of stories where teachers make the Hindu students in the class pretend to be members of different castes and be mean to each other. On the other hand there is no mention of racism and slavery when it comes to Christianity” said Venkataraman. 

Kavita Pillay, a documentary film-maker described her own upbringing in an inter-caste family. “My father comes from a Nair family which is higher caste than my mother’s family which is Ezhava. However growing up in the US I did not think about caste but much rather was dealing with being a minority as an Indian American. We all hear about the tales of our parents coming to the US with one suitcase but we do not realize the different resource and privilege each may access”.  

“Discrimination based on caste or anything else it wrong. I am always one who believes in trying to do my part to solve problems. I am on the board of advisors for Aspiring Minds, a company that creates tests that allow companies to choose people purely based on their talent” said Prof. Tarun Khanna, who is a faculty member at the Harvard Business School. 

Khanna  spoke about his own research work that indicated that while politically Dalits had made tremendous gains, there was not enough progress made in entrepreneurship. Venkataraman spoke about efforts on the part of the Hindu American Foundation to work with organizations that provide capital to Dalit entrepreneurs in India. Khanna emphasized that while access to capital was extremely important, there was an equal need for Dalit role models and mentors who can encourage other members of their community to become entrepreneurs.

As the conversation turned to discrimination in America on basis of caste, a couple of cases were brought up where it was not clear if the issue was caste or actually a disagreement between parties. “A girl from the higher caste was in one of my classes and she rudely refuted my points,” said Yengde. When pushed by the moderator on whether there was any evidence that this was indeed caste based, Suraj could not prove it and said he felt it subconsciously.  Khanna said he has been teaching for 25 years and he never once has noticed or checked the caste of any of his students. 

The panel proved clearly that some people carry over their prejudices from back home and perhaps a healthy conversation on the topic is indeed important. Indian Americans need to ensure that their children understand the basis for caste. Hindu Americans should take the time to understand scriptures and teach their children that discrimination is antithetical to Hindu values.  Discrimination a phenomenon that plaques every community in the world,  was in terms of caste in India. The non Hindus in India also follow the caste system with the upper caste converts to other religions looking down upon the lower caste converts.  It is a social evil which has no sanction from Hindu scriptures. All of humanity needs to work hard to remove discrimination. 

About the Panelist

Suraj Yengde is an inaugural postdoctoral fellow at the Initiative for Institutional Anti-racism and Accountability, Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Suraj is India’s first Dalit Ph.D. holder from an African university in the nation's history.

Laurence Simon is Professor of International Development and Director of the Center for Global Development and Sustainability at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis. Since 2018, he also serves as the Joint Editor-in-Chief of CASTE: A Global Journal on Social Exclusion.

Kavita Pillay is a documentary filmmaker and reporter. She has reported from Singapore, Poland, India, and Finland for PRI's The World.

Swami Venkataraman is a member of the National Leadership Council of the Hindu American Foundation and the lead author on HAF's report, Not Cast in Caste: Seeking an End to Caste Based Discrimination.

Tarun Khanna is Director of the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute & Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor, Harvard Business School.

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