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Global Hindutva: Repercussions of 'strident' anti-caste narrative in US felt in India

By Aviral Anand* 

A very interesting struggle is going on in the United States right now. It is, to my opinion, a great example of a sustained and focused struggle at many levels and the utilization of a variety of tactics of resistance and voice-amplification.
While mainly Indian-origin anti-caste activists in the US have been engaged in highlighting issues of caste discrimination in India, they have been supported by anti-caste fighters from other regions of South Asia as well, especially Nepal.
For a while now they have also taken on the various manifestations of casteism in the US. This might sound strange to those unfamiliar with how caste manifests wherever those who practice caste travel. One might expect that in a foreign land, certain practices from the "old country" might have no scope of existing and flourishing. But contrary-wise, it appears that deeply ingrained biases are not shaken off even in entirely new landscapes and territories.
One of the big battlegrounds early on (2005, 2016-17) was the representations of caste and the Hindu religion in school textbooks in the state of California in the US. The anti-caste activists had pointed to the centrality of caste in the Hindu religion. 
They had appealed to the state education committee to depict Hinduism as not an egalitarian faith (which was how the proponents of a certain version of Hinduism wanted it) but one riddled with the inequalities of caste hierarchies. 
A spirited struggle was waged to enable an accurate depiction of realities of Hinduism and the battle, so to say, went to public hearings before the California education/textbook committee.
Recently, instances of casteism in practice have been reported among Indians in US work environments. The prominent case in this regard was in the computer company, Cisco.
Along with the workplace, there were accusations of casteist behavior on US college campuses as well. Both American work environments and educational institutions are home to a large number of members of Indian origin.
As a result, caste as a category of discrimination has become a topic of discussion -- and even change in statutes and laws -- in American companies and educational institutions. At both such sites, there is a process on to understand issues of caste among employees and the measures needed to prevent further occurrences of the same.
What is important to note in this regard is the persistence with which the anti-caste activists in the US have waged their struggle. Initially fighting deep-rooted perceptions in the US about a spiritual, other-worldly nature of Hinduism, they nevertheless stuck to their guns to offer the other side of the popular image.
While the forces opposing them kept organizing in retaliation and were better funded, the anti-caste activists chose methods that were simpler and proved more effective. They formed alliances with other marginalized groups in the US, especially the African-Americans. 
They leveraged social media and also carried on a strong case of advocacy among young Indian-Americans, who were anyways getting sensitized to issues of privilege as they grew up amidst the Occupy and the Black Lives Matters movements.
Such consistent outreach has proved crucial in broadening their work among the youth and even the more liberal-minded among South Asians. In addition, one cannot fail to mention the constant and dedicated ground work done in the US by various Ambedkarite organizations which have formed connections in civil society and academia, gradually spreading the message of Ambedkar and the workings of caste.
There is an alarm in caste-based and caste-minded groups in India and abroad. They have been caught off-guard
What is worth noticing is that they have managed to shift the narrative to an extent. Many forms of Hindu organizations -- from podcasters, virulent youtubers, and organizations such as Hindu Universities (yes, there is one!) -- are now featuring programs, webinars and discussions on issues of caste with an acute urgency, and one might even say, desperation.
In a globalized world, especially of global Hindutva, the repercussions of a strident anti-caste narrative is felt back in India as well. Several organizations which espouse and promote some kind of back-to-the-glories-of-Hinduism projects, if not outright Hindutva, are taking notice. 
A flurry of events -- talks, lectures, articles, conferences (links here and here, for instance) -- have come up, examining caste and Hinduism from every aspect, including nitty-gritty issues of jati and varna. The aim is the same across all these attempts -- to somehow explain away the implication and identification of caste as understood historically in relation to Hinduism.
What is evident is that there is an alarm in caste-based and caste-minded groups in India and abroad. They have been caught off-guard by the relentless organizing and the challenges posed by anti-caste activists, and they are now having to find more considered responses -- even to their own audience - to justify the social presence of caste within Hinduism. They are in crisis mode, one can quite easily conclude.
As mentioned earlier, none of this has come easy. The general image of India in the West is associated with its spirituality, the practice of yoga, kirtans etc. To show another, seamier, less savory side of that system which espouses the loftiest intellectual and human goals, is not easy. 
Yet, very slowly, this has been achieved. The dogged organizing has also resulted in attracting newer members and energy, leading to wider campaigns. It has been an uphill battle to even come so far, but the organizers never lost sight of their goals. To resist an iniquitous system and discrimination, and fight for a more egalitarian future. Dr Ambedkar would have nodded in approval.
---
*Social activist based in Delhi

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