(Episode 3) Caste
It all started when…
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India's Dalit revolution l 101 East, Al Jazeera, March 3, 2017 : 26 minutes
Satyamev Jayate S1 | Episode 10 | Untouchability | Full episode (with English subtitles), Aug 14, 2016 : 1 hour 25 minutes
Spike in caste based violence in India, CBS, Nov 21, 2018 : 11 minutes
History of Surveillance - Thenmozhi Soundararajan - The Laura Flanders Show
Standing up to Big Brother - Thenmozhi Soundararajan - The Laura Flanders Show
No Escape From Caste on These Shores, 'Untouchables' From India Say, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
Tell Everyone We Scalped You!’ How Caste Still Rules in India, New York Times
Who are the Dalits?, Dalit Solidarity
Writing Our Own Histories – Why We Need Dalit History Month - Feminism India
Dalit History Month Is A Love Letter To Our Ancestors - Huffington Post
The Dalit History Month Series - The News Minute
How to Fight a Deadly Caste System - Colorlines
New Series: Dalit History Month – We Are Because He Was - Crunk Feminist Collective
April is Dalit History Month - The Ladies Finger
Erasing Caste: The Battle Over California Textbooks and Caste Apartheid - Huffington Post
I'm A Proud Dalit-American And This Is Why I Marched - Huffington Post
The Black Indians - Outlook India
Writings/books of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, founder of the Dalit movement in India
Annihilation of Caste by B. R. Ambedkar; Mulk Raj Anand (Editor), Arnold Publishers,1990
The Essential Writings of B. R. Ambedkar by B. R. Ambedkar; Valerian Rodrigues (Editor), Oxford India, 2002
Who Were the Shudras? How They Came to be the Fourth Varna in the Indo-Aryan Society by B. R. Ambedkar, Thacker, 1946
The Untouchables; Who Were They? And Why They Became Untouchables (Reprint), Kalpaz Publications, 2017
Against the Madness of Manu: B.R Ambedkar's Writings on Brahmanical Patriarchy, Navayana (2013)
TS: I was in junior high, and I was having dinner or lunch with a classmate whose family was Brahmin. At the time, I just had offhand mentioned that I was from an untouchable caste, because I was young, I was born in the United States, I didn't think it was anything of it. As soon as the parent of that child heard that story, she just very subtly took out the china that she had put out and she replaced it with paper plates. The way that she did it, and how quickly she did it as soon as she heard my story, it just made me feel so deeply ashamed.
I remember talking to my mom about it. I said, "Why would that aunty do that?" " She was so mad. I just remember her like clanging the pots and pans as she was cleaning up dinner, because she was so upset.
KC: If you weren’t listening closely, this story might sound familiar to you. A parochial notion of racial contamination, buried deep in America’s racial past. A story of passing, only to be discovered to be a despised other. The story of a girl in a marginalized group who visits a friend, only to find her friend’s mother unwilling to share the same utensils because of racism. You might imagine these bodies to be Black and white bodies. You might say, thankfully that doesn’t happen anymore
If that’s what came to mind listening to my guest’s story, you’d unfortunately be wrong on all counts. This isn’t about Black/white racism, and it’s not a story of racial humiliation from the mid-20th Century. This is a contemporary story of caste based racism that impacts more than 260 million people around the globe. And, perhaps surprisingly, it reaches people born and raised here in the US.
TS: It's hard when I think about my parents, they emigrated across all sorts of risk to escape caste apartheid. That was one of the first stories that they had heard that reminded them about how active it was. You don't want to have your child live under what you've survived. She just didn't have words to explain it. She just said, "You just never go to that aunty’s house ever again.
KC: I first started working with Dalit activists in the mid-90s on questions of Affirmative Action. Then in 2001, I attended the World Conference Against Racism, a global conference to create an international consensus to address and repudiate racism, xenophobia, and related forms of domination. My experiences at the World Conference gave me an opportunity to understand caste dynamics from a more decidedly intersectional lens, its global dimensions and importantly, it’s intersections with patriarchy.
My guest today, Thenmozhi Soundararajan is a Dalit Indian-American activist, storyteller, technologist, and journalist, and the Executive Director of Equality Labs, a South Asian organization that uses community research, socially engaged art, and technology to combat caste apartheid, Islamophobia, white supremacy, and religious intolerance. In our conversation she talks about the realities of caste-based violence and oppression, not just in India, but also here in the United States. She also tells us about the intersectional erasures Dalit women face fighting against both patriarchy and casteism -- erasures that in many ways mirror those experienced by women of color in the US.
What, then, is the significance of understanding why intersectionality matters to Dalit Women? What does it tell us about the obvious links between feminisms that are separated by region and history and why there is an imperative that they be brought together?
All around the world, we’re witnessing a seismic shift to the right and electoral efforts to reverse these trends are not at all guaranteed. This month in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an ally of Trump’s, is running for reelection. And of course, 2020 is just around the corner. Efforts to reverse these trends by tying together struggles against racisms, nationalisms, and patriarchy have never been more urgent, but in order for these mobilizations to be effective and sustainable, we need to unite around more than a common enemy. As Thenmorri tells us, this requires a certain level of literacy and intragroup interrogation. Plus, it involves the ability to name how different subordinating politics come together, discover what has to be done within women’s mobilization and within mobilizations of subordinated people.
Clearly the moral imperative to stop the global rise of the Right is more of an intersectional feminist story than the current public discourse would suggest. Which in turn may be one reason to lay the groundwork for the need to center the political activism of Dalit women, Black women, and other multiply marginalized women in all of the regions that are undergoing this political transformation.
KC: Thenmozhi We both participated in the WCAR and I distinctly remember learning a lot more about caste, it’s global reach, it’s intersectional dimensions, but especially learning about the denial about caste that was playing out in the World Conference. Particularly, I recall that there was a lot of pressure that we organizers were trying to put on the South Asian governments to include caste in the World Conference Declaration, in the platform for action, there were protests to include it, there was a lot of information being shared about the level of violence that still plays out against Dalits, atrocities that were occurring pretty much every day, and the response of the South Asians governments was that caste was not race, it was not racism, it wasn’t a related form of intolerance, so they really held firm to the idea that caste had no place there.
So for those who might be puzzled about caste, can you explain what caste is and how it operates?
TS: Sure. I think that what's interesting about caste is caste is a social category similar to race, in that it basically determines the whole of your life. What happens is you're born into a caste and it basically determines your spiritual purity and therefore the job you have in society and also the structural access you have in every Indian institution. So it determines where you live, where you worship, what kind of food you eat, even the person you love and marry. I think similar to the systemic discrimination we see around race, those who were born into the lower caste, or otherwise known as "Untouchables," we face discriminatory, structural discrimination that is vast.
Every hour, we see two Dalits murdered, three Dalit women raped, two Dalits assaulted, and two houses burned, and we’re structurally excluded from many of the institutions within Indian society. I think when you hear the scope and the scale of the violence that we face, I think most people think, "Oh, maybe this is just like a small group in some small corner of the world. Actually, in India alone, we're over 260 million people.
The fact that we live under caste apartheid, but nobody is talking about it really has to do with the large networks of impunity that the Indian government has really pushed around the issue of caste globally.
KC: Yeah so, I was stunned when I read first of all, how many people around the globe are subject to caste violence, caste discrimination, 260 million people, far more than the level of attention that caste actually receives. And then even within that, what really surprised me is the level of anti-caste violence and particularly the level of violence against women. So in writing a report for the WCAR about intersectionality, gender and race discrimination, I started collecting stories about the kind of violence that Dalit women face, and I was simply stunned at the many occasions when Dalit women experienced violence- collecting water, having their shadow cross someone else’s. Can you tell us a little bit more about the nature of the violence that Dalit women experience, and in particular, how intersectionality is a prism to help frame it?
TS: Sure. It was interesting for me, because I resonated so much with your work, and the need to call for intersectionality. Because I think that the Indian Women's Movement really failed Dalit women in not really highlighting the fact that when we talk about needing to end violence against women in the Indian context, we cannot have a conversation about patriarchy without talking about the end of caste.
This is so true in our context, because caste is enforced through Dalit women's bodies. When we see the high rates of sexual violence and gender-based violence against the women in our community, these aren't accidental one off acts of violence. These are really targeted assaults that are meant to dishonor and shame our community in retaliation for acts of assertion. Anytime a member of our community might be trying to vote, or maybe going to school for the first time, or possibly buying an extra piece of land, or trying to add a second story even to their house, all of these show a growth of the Dalit community, and a positive flow against the discrimination.
Often times, Dalit women's bodies will become the battleground within which to say, "Don't step out of your lane. If you do, we will do whatever it takes to shame and dishonor you." There's an entire spectrum of violence that Dalit women face that include physical assault, the shaving of your head, the stripping of your body naked to sexual assault and murder. I think that for me, what I saw, and I think this is very similar to what Black women experience in the United States is that you might be victimized first by a perpetrator, but the larger harm doer in this situation is actually the system.
Because every aspect of Indian institutions that are set-up to support survivors fail you. For example, the first point of contact might be the medical institution where you want to go and get treatment for your wounds and evidence collection, so that you might be able to help build a case. A lot of times, doctors in India, particularly in rural India where a large amount of these crimes happen, the doctors more often than not are corroborating with the caste perpetrators.
Not only really they barely minimally treat you if at all, but also they'll do this very vague and insulting test called, "The two finger test," where they'll put two fingers into the vaginal canal of a survivor to make some phony record of how promiscuous the survivor is.
KC: I wanna just underscore -- this is still happening today?
TS: Absolutely. It happens to survivors that are minors, to survivors that might be grandmothers. This level of contempt for women and for Dalit women in particular is outrageous.
KC: So just to be clear, the inference is what? The two finger test is meant to say what about the abuse?
TS: That these women are already promiscuous. So, therefore they're just lying about the crime in order to get compensation from the government, or they couldn't be raped, because they're already quote unquote slutty, or already have lost their respect or honor. So, how on earth should we believe them?
KC: So this is what was so stunning for me, especially given the claim that caste is so different from race. The fact that the stereotypes are so analogous. So the fact that the same kind of discourse is applied to Dalit women seems to make the claim that race and caste are completely distinct less persuasive
TS: Yeah, I think that what I found in interviewing many survivors across the country is that the culture of impunity is really rooted in the structural obstruction of our communities being able to get justice for these caste crimes. Even though the Indian government has plenty of laws to protect both Dalits and women against atrocities, there is not the political will to implement them. I think this is also where I saw so much resonance with the pursuit of justice by Black women to address the issues of sexual violence in the United States is that nobody believes women of color anywhere.
And the fight to be able to retain our dignity, and to fight for just the basic implementation of the rule of law is part of our core battles for justice.
In India, there is this process where when for many, many agricultural Dalit women workers, the first person you sleep with on your wedding night is not necessarily your husband but your landlord. There's this practice of the landlord leaving his sandals outside of your house to signify to your husband and the other male members of your family that the landlord is "visiting" the Dalit woman for sexual favors. Everyone has to be complicit with it, because if you aren't, you could lose your work position and the land that you're sharecropping on essentially.
I think that when you have such a long history of sexual violence, being connected to the holding of caste apartheid, the pursuit of justice by Dalit women to address these structural crimes is really at the core of being able to address the impunity of caste apartheid itself. I feel that whether it's the failure of the medical institutions or additionally I think both the police and the judiciary, we continually see a failure of these institutions to be survivor-centered.
If by chance your case even gets to the court, we have numerous examples of the judiciary being really bias towards Dalit women survivors. There is this one case in Haryana that just really haunts me where this woman who had been gang raped, and her video had been videoed by her perpetrators, and they've shared it throughout the entire district. So, hundreds of people saw it, and saw her family shame, because it was spread virally as part of the process of shaming her and her community.
She bravely testified against her perpetrators in court. She submitted the video of her rape as part of her evidence in Haryana. And the judge's response when he saw the video was he just started laughing. He said, "Great. We finally have proof now that you enjoyed yourself. You should be honored that this man touched you."
KC: When did this happen?
TS: This happened about four, four and a half years ago. It was one of the first cases that I had heard about that just impressed to me the enormity of the problem, and how vast the impunity was. My sense also was that the larger Indian feminist movement was not hearing and centering the stories of violence of Dalit and tribal women. That's where intersectionality was so crucial.
KC: That's exactly what I wanted to focus on. So we know about the vulnerability which is giving us a sense of the magnitude of the abuse that Dalit women face, and that’s a particular dimension of intersectional forms of subordination. But part two is the response of “would-be” allies, both feminists and also Dalit men. So how much can we expect that the vulnerability of Dalit women shows up on the agenda, the feminist agenda or the anti-violence agenda among Dalits? So just first with respect to the feminists, in the Indian feminist movement, how much are they present or responsive to the level of violence that Dalit women are facing?
TS: I think that the Indian feminist movement has really been the slowest to respond to the needs of Dalit women. I think just like it took radical agitation from women of color in United States to keep the larger feminist movement accountable to our issues here, I think the same thing has happened in India where the Indian feminist movement largely tried to create a caste-less conversation about sexual violence. Even as they were fighting for this one, you know, there's a very famous rape case a couple years ago about the woman that was raped on the bus, the Nirbhaya rape case.
Again, in that process they had millions of people marching for sexual violence. At the same time, in the state next door in Haryana, you had 40 to 50 Dalit women who were raped that got no attention. I think the lack of a structural analysis-
KC: Just to put a point on it for historical purposes, it's like in the US when there was so much attention given to the Central Park jogger. During the very same week that the Central Park jogger was raped, there were more than a dozen women of color in New York City that were also raped. Now all of the attention was placed on the Central Park jogger. I think some people might remember that that’s exactly when Donald Trump bought a full page ad in the New York Times calling for the death penalty for the young men who were, as it turns out, falsely accused of having raped the Central Park jogger.
So there was a lot of attention paid to the racism that was inherent in that claim and in the false accusation, but what wasn’t really paid attention was that no one really cared about all of the women of color who were raped in NYC that very week. So it sounds to me as though you’re sharing with us a very similar pattern in India. That there’s a lot of attention paid to a few cases of Indian women being raped, but at the exact same time, there are Dalit women being raped in high numbers and there’s very little traction that their rapes bring to bear.
TS: Absolutely. I also think that there's a moral call I think that as a feminist movement, there will never be an ability to end violence against women when we have such a huge group of women that are vulnerable under caste to widespread impunity, which is why if you are serious about wanting to end violence against women in the subcontinent, you have to end caste. This has been one of the longstanding calls of the Dalit women's movement has been we need an intersectional analysis, but we also need an intersectional practice.
I think this is where, particularly in the last couple years with the rise of Dalit feminist voices in digital spaces, there's been a real counter to the upper castedness of the Indian feminist movement and calling for parity and equity in terms of the movement. This means not just-
KC: So what is the reaction then to it?
TS: I think no one publicly ever wants to be seen on the wrong side of a history, right? It's a structural process, because so much of what equity in the feminist movement looks like means parity at the table, not just a singular inclusion on a panel. Dalit and other minority women's movements whether they're Indian Muslim, or Indian tribal and Adivasi movements need to be at the table in terms of strategy and parity of political participation. I think that the only reason we've started to see equity is because we no longer allow the Indian feminist movement to broker our international relationships of solidarity. We're just brokering those solidarity relationships ourselves.
I think without the middlemen of those upper caste feminist gatekeepers, we're starting to see so many different kinds of relationships blossom. I think this is again some of the possibilities that happened under an intersectional platform for solidarity is oppressed peoples can see each other directly is with equity as opposed to having gatekeepers from each of our nation states determining what gets to be seen as an official feminist position or an official justice position.
KC: Right, in fact, one of the wonderful things about the World Conference on Racism was the experience of building solidarities between subordinated people. We didn’t have to worry about the gatekeepers. I mean, they were there, it’s not like they weren’t there, but we were able to navigate around them and build what I call global literacy. I really think there’s an urgent story to be told about how that whole process got utterly derailed and what might have been if the World Conference process might’ve been able to continue. But what I did take from this, and I’m wondering if you saw the same thing, the ability to see how elites in all of our nations were able to work together to suppress certain stories, to deny particular demands. All of this gave me a sense about how global power works. What would you say about what caste tells us about the globalization of power?
TS: Actually ironically the World Conference against Racism was one of the most pivotal moments in terms of my organizing, particularly in building global solidarity to end caste apartheid. It was a powerful thing to see Dalit people stand alongside Palestinians and Black folks asking for recognitions from our governments for the incredible structural racism, xenophobia and anti-Dalitness that we saw in the policies.
While we were learning solidarities of each other on the ground, I also think what was so apparent was that those countries were also complicit with each other in terms of hiding that violence. I remember very distinctly the US shaking hands with Israel saying, "Okay, we won't mention the occupation if you don't mention reparations. Then those two countries making those same negotiations with India and being very clear while actually we'll make sure that caste doesn't get included if you also don't allow reparations and the conversation about Palestine to enter the beat.
As a Dalit, a young Dalit organizer who was growing up in the United States, my experience of caste was definitely not as severe as someone who grew up in India, but I experienced caste discrimination by upper caste Indian-Americans who discriminated against me in school, who switched out plates when they found out that I was Dalit, and they didn't want me to share their same cutlery.
KC: Yeah, when you talked about this earlier I got a flashback to some stories my mom used to tell me. Whenever we were out and about running errands or whatever, she would point out to me places that wouldn’t serve her or her parents when she was growing up. One time, I asked her to take me to a root beer stand. I really liked those frosty mugs with the foam of the root beer on top. So we went in and ordered the root beer, and she took the occasion to tell me that when she was a kid and wanted to go to that root beer stand, her parents took her there and when they brought the root beer out, at first they were just using a plastic cup or something. And her parents complained about not getting the glass mug, so they went back and brought the root beer out in the glass mug. And my mom noticed when they were leaving, the busboy took their mugs and put them in a completely separate container. I still think about that whenever I go back to that root beer stand. I remember all the places my mom told me were discriminating places. I suspect that people hearing my story, probably people hearing your story, probably would say, that doesn’t happen anymore, why are you still focusing on that, that’s ancient history. I wonder what you say to people who would say that to you, that the story you’re telling about caste has no contemporary relevance, especially here in the United States. So what would you say to them?
TS: When I think about caste reorganizing itself from the diaspora, these are upper caste interests, they really have a strong interest in bringing their caste politics and making them American politics. A lot of the Hindu extremist networks in the United States are in fact upper caste political networks.
We've seen them take really after stands, and I remember talking with you about at in UCLA a couple years ago, that they took a very hard stand about wanting to erase the facts from California textbooks. Some of the positions that they took there was that they wanted to say that caste no longer exists, that caste doesn't have any impact in the diaspora, and that also you couldn't make analogies with that caste was not the same as slavery, and that it was offensive to black communities to say that caste was analogous to slavery even though black and Dalits have said that for years. In fact, you are sold into indentureship and slavery to upper caste for centuries. There's all sorts of nonsense that was put forth in that process, but you know-
KC: One issue that you've touched on that really puzzles me--it’s a contradiction that plays out in both the stories of Dalit women being sexually abused by higher caste men and Black women being sexually abused by white men. I have to put it this way- there’s always this line that justifies racism and anti-casteism as this notion of avoiding contamination, yet this fear of contamination has never protected Dalit women or Black women from sexual abuse, from rape, from violence. So it seems as though the logic is, you can't use the same cutlery that I use, but you have no problem raping me.
That contradiction just seems to be accepted, there’s really no way of making sense of it. I’ve just never been able to understand how the two things go together. I've read stories, for example, about how Dalit women have been beaten for even their shadows crossing the shadow of someone of a higher caste. I’ve read about Dalit women being beaten at public wells if they so much as touch the spicket or brush by someone else’s arm. Now I see this and I understand this as intersectional violence in the sense that first of all, it’s women who are put in the position to have to negotiate public space to have to draw water in the first place. And then as a Dalit in that public space, to have to risk being beaten or otherwise abused while they’re doing this particular job. But then on top of that, after being beaten for putting her hands on something, this same woman is fair game for the most intimate of contact. I just find that mind boggling.
TS: Yeah, it just shows you what a convenient fiction it is in order for them to other, a massive group of people and exploit them for their bodies, and their labor, and their intellectual capital. That's why I said, it's like whether it's anti-blackness or anti-Dalitness. The social categories of race and caste, they just don't exist. They're not genetic categories, they're political fictions created for the hegemony of dominant groups.
I think that the other thing that I really learned from the practice of intersectionality is that we have to not only talk about the consequences of these systems, but we have to talk about who benefits. I think that in global conversations, people are able to name, "Okay, the source of anti-blackness is whiteness." In looking at white supremacy, we see the construction of the category of race to allow for the colonial theft of so much African land and African bodies, and African futures.
I think that when we talk about caste apartheid, the networks of impunity have really occluded who benefits from caste apartheid. I think this is where we need to really start to have global conversations about Brahmanism. In the case of how we understand the intersection of caste and gender in the South Asian context, we talk about Brahminical patriarchy. It's really the caste that developed and created these scriptures that have now become the system that so many caste like now perpetuate. That is called, "Brahmanism," and Brahmans with a priestly caste and wrote the scriptures, which is why it's referring to that.
This is why in our context, our sense of intersectional feminism, names that nexus of caste and gender as Brahminical patriarchy. That's one of the reasons why I've made this poster called, "Smash Brahminical Patriarchy," so that people can really understand within the language of global feminist solidarity, that we have to see these systems as linked, and we have to name who benefits, and that's what allows us to get free.
KC: One of the things I remember so distinctly about the World Conference on Racism was the diasporic expression of caste, even beyond the way that caste was being expressed back home. I was invited to a dinner by one of the Dalit activists who herself was from India, but she was being invited there by South African people of Indian descent. They were several generations removed from India, but what was really surprising to her and to me was the kind of caste-inflected rituals that were still performing, some of them being performed in ways that hadn’t been performed back at home in generations. It was additionally surprising that this would get expressed because the person I was accompanying to this dinner was herself in South Africa to advocate against caste at the World Conference. So these expressions of caste sometimes get integrated to a notion of performing one’s culture, of really being Indian, despite some of the dimensions of caste that are obviously subordinating.
So this actually brings me to a sticky question-- because when we were coming home from this, I was talking to her about whether she was going to say anything about it. Because we didn’t say anything, or I didn’t notice anything being said at the time. And it reminded me of how much easier it is to call out upper caste people, or in my context white people, for doing things that are oppressive, but it’s way harder to call out friends or people who are “in the family” as it were.
I was thinking about this in regard to the similar challenge we have, often as subordinated people, calling out intragroup patterns of oppression. So for example, in the last episode of Intersectionality Matters, we were talking to Kenyette Barnes, one of the organizers of the Mute R Kelly campaign, and we were talking about the two decade long struggle to hold R. Kelly accountable for the many, many allegations of sexual abuse of Black women and girls.
Also in a future episode we’re gonna talk about how Muslim feminists in France, two leaders, were called out for supporting Muslim women who made allegations that a well-regarded Muslim scholar had persisted in a pattern of sexual abuse against Muslim women. So it raises a question about whether this is a pattern that all subordinated groups have to grapple with. How we talk about sexual abuse and patriarchy inside of our own communities. So, is there a parallel situation for Dalit women? And is this a problem that’s central on the agenda of Dalit feminists?
TS: No, it absolutely is, it would be impossible for us not to have some sort of internal dimension of that problem as well in our community. I think that Dalit feminists have the incredibly difficult responsibility of both standing against the attacks from outside of our community as well as supporting survivors from harm doers who are inside of our community.
But as someone who's the executive director of a Dalit feminist organization, I think that we do our best to support those survivors and try to create conversations of accountability and trauma-informed spaces for those survivors to not leave the moment, or to not leave their communities. I think that's really hard, because there's such a pressure to silence those survivors, because they’re a threat to the movement, because they're going to damage the career of a promising leader, or they're hurting the movement by playing into stereotypes that exist about over-sexualized Dalit men.
My feeling is, I think all of those things are responses of a community that has been shaped by violence by centuries, and who has learned a process of complicitness when it comes to sexual violence. Because as you know from so much trauma literature, I think almost everyone has three to four different kinds of responses to violence. They either fight, they either freeze, or they flee. I think that we become inured to how systemic this violence is that when we see it in our own movement institutions, many people don't feel like there is a radical possibility to challenge it.
And I think the call from Dalit feminists has been, we must challenge it, because we are not breaking the movement by supporting these women. We're actually building the movement, because we're not losing half of our people to this violence. It's a serious concern. I think that especially with the rise of Me Too, I feel that more survivors are coming forward, but we don't have the structures to support them.
And this is why I think that only a part of the problem is solved when people come forward. The other part is the investments and restorative justice, and healing, and processes that center the rehabilitation of the community as opposed to simply calling out a perpetrator. Because usually in more instances than not, when it's just focused on the call out of the perpetrator, nothing is healed. The survivors end up bearing their wounds publicly, but there's very little support for them afterwards, and very little consequences of following up.
So I think it's our job to push something more holistic so that we can have a future for our people.
KC: Right and at the same time there’s this huge challenge of sustaining the work when our sense of coalition that has been shaped so long by what I call asymmetrical patterns of solidarity. In my own experience, it seems like the pressure and expectation that we silence survivors really weighs heavily, it weighs heavily on activists, it weighs heavily on our organizations. Often the refusal to be quiet really threatens to undermine even our organizational survival. How do you handle this as an organizer of Dalit feminists?
TS: I know that for myself, I have faced personal boycotts for standing with survivors who were calling out for accountability processes, for leaders within our movement. It was an incredibly difficult process, but it was because of feminist solidarity that we had with other Black and brown organizers that we were able to sustain during that time period.
Again, I think that the questions of gender-based violence and sexual violence as a whole, they're so deeply triggering for everyone in our communities. I think that when we don't have conversations that are trauma-centered and trauma-informed, people just don't know what the right way to behave around these issues, and how does an appropriate response then lead to structural accountability. One that's rooted in compassion, but still addresses the harm that was done. I think that's part of the line that we've really tried to grapple with is that we have empathy for the violence that our community has gone through, and that that does not allow for the continued harm against Dalit women when we see these gender-based infractions happen.
KC: One of the most significant questions is how do you sustain. So, you mentioned being subject to personal boycotts, and I would also imagine that there are many other consequences of the activism that you do. You wrote about some of that in the New York Times piece a bit ago. What have been some modalities of being that help you sustain?
TS: I think that the Buddhist Peace Fellowship has this really powerful organizing model called, "Build, Block and Be." They basically breakdown organizing strategies into blocking strategy. So, strategies that block harm that come from the community. I think a lot of our work around atrocity and accountability definitely fall within that. Then they talk about strategies that are building strategies, which are the visionary strategies that help us imagine the world beyond the violence that we might see, and being strategies, which are the strategies of the cultural workers, the healers, and the mothers and the aunties that knit those care webs for us that allow us to be beyond this violence.
I think for me, what I try to do to sustain is to make sure that I'm investing, and building, and being in strategies as much as I'm invested in blocking strategies. That's hard, because as an organizer, I'm an excellent….I think the strategy that I almost always go to is stop the harm, stop the harm. I think that when you're only working on atrocity, and violence, and impunity, there's a part of you that gets deeply depleted because you can't see the possibilities that could happen that are visionary for your community.
It's been a really restorative practice to try to split my time, at least a third of my time, whatever I'm doing in something that's visionary, whether that's art making that help see Dalit feminist futures or being strategies. So, I've been working on a cookbook with my mom that helps to translate a lot of her knowledge into a cookbook that also tells us stories of her mother, and her grandmother. The nourishment of so much of, so many of our community movements came from my mother's cooking practice.
It was also the way that our Dalit mothers also nourished our community in a time of famine and violence. The love that goes into all of that being, I feel like that's actually what's allowed me to be here. I think just trying to balance between the being and the possibility with also stopping the harm has really helped me stay grounded in a time of like increased attack.
KC: Tell us the last thing that you've done most recently to take care of yourself.
TS: That's a good one.
KC: Yeah, I'm so glad that you've responded that way, because I get that question all the time, and that's exactly what I do, I have a moment of, "what?" I'm glad to know that I'm not alone in that. But I'm going to do to you what they do to me, which is press.
TS: Yeah, you know what's funny is I think that for me, especially in the wake of a lot of trolling I've received recently, I tried to do a lot of embodied practices. Because especially when you're facing a lot of intense castest trolling, which is I think one set of trolling messages I got last week was basically she's a subhuman piece of S-H-I-T or this is why this person needs to be killed. I think that even though these are online attacks, they really get to you physically and materially.
What I do when I'm facing that intense vitriol is I try to do something nice for my body. I'll either go and I'll take a bath, or my mom when I was younger, she used to do hot oil on my body. It was her way of pressing love into my hand, and my muscles, and just letting me know that I was safe. I think I replicate some of those processes of oiling, and doing an oil massage, or a bath. I draw a bath and I put salt and ginger powder, and I just let myself relax into the water, and that also very soothes me because you're protected by water.
I do a lot of nurturing practices for my body that help me feel physically safe and remind me that I have some ability to control like how my body reacts to these very violent attacks.
KC: I love that image of pressing love into your body. I love that. Thank you so much for spending time with us, and for just helping us understand the global scope of violence against Dalit women, and the struggle that we are all a part of across the diaspora.
TS: Yes, it was wonderful to talk to you about it. It's also really incredible to see the length of your solidarity with Dalit people and Dalit women. So, to be able to continue this conversation and hopefully provoke some of your listeners to thinking about global intersectionality, all of those things are my pleasure. So thank you for having me. In the Dalit movement, we always end our movements with a salute of justice. I would just like to say to you and to all of our listeners [get this translated]
KC: Keep listening, and support us on our Patreon page for bonus content from all of our interviews. You can find us at @intersectionalitymatters on social media, at aapf.org, and everywhere podcasts are available. You can email us at email@example.com.
Intersectionality Matters is produced and edited by Julia Sharpe Levine. Additional support was provided by G’Ra Asim and Michael Kramer. Special thanks to Derrick Clements for recording today’s episode, and to Thenmozhi Soundararajan for allowing us to interview her. I’m your host, Kimberle Crenshaw.