Caste in America

By Teja Pallikonda

Art by Sukhsagar Chauhan. Follow his work here.

TEJA 1: When Anil Wagde described what it was like to grow up in the slums of Nagpur, Maharashtra, his first mention wasn’t of any hardship. He doesn’t mention the 2-300 square foot home he had to share with his parents, four siblings, and grandparents. He doesn’t describe the humid air blowing from the nearby cotton mills mixing with the stench of clogged sewage drains that ran outside his door. He doesn’t mention the incessant cacophony of shouting, fighting in the street, and the clanking of pots and pans from his neighbors’ homes. 

When Anil talks about Nagpur, he emphasizes the sense of community living. 

ANIL 1: You can walk into each other’s house without knocking.The doors will always be open. There is no locking doors mechanism. Kids will simply be streaming out of each other’s houses. That’s how it was. It was very, it was community living. 

TEJA 2: During those sweltering summers, when temperatures would reach upwards of 110 degrees, at night everybody would gather under the stars and sleep outside, sharing stories about their lives and Nagpur. One such story was the 1956 Buddhist conversion that took place there, where activist Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, father of the Indian constitution, converted nearly half-a-million people to Buddhism.

ANIL 2: The people were asked to attend the ceremony, conversion ceremony, in white dresses. So people congregated in diksha bhoomi. All the gods and goddesses, the photographs, all the paraphernalia for the magic things they would do to get rid of diseases, all of that – we just threw it all away in the river. 

TEJA 3: What was the reason for this massive, religious transformation? India’s caste system, and that’s what today’s story is about. 

I’m Teja Pallikonda and you’re listening to Telling True Stories in Sound. 

You may have learned about caste in some history of ancient civilizations class, but let me break it down for you. 

The caste system is a complex social hierarchy that dates back hundreds of years in South Asia. 

Caste is hereditary. It’s something assigned to you at birth based on your family’s ancestry and occupation. There’s also a correlation between caste and skin color, with lower castes tending to have darker complexions.

Caste is also fixed. Whatever group you belong to, that is your caste for life. There’s no moving up. In the past, what you were born into largely determined what role you played in society. Upper caste people are often priests, merchants, warriors, while lower castes were considered to be impure. Untouchable. And subject to the most undignified jobs in society. 

ANIL 3: The people with lower caste can only be carrying the dead animals carcasses and things things of that nature. They will be living on the leftovers of the upper caste.

TEJA 4: In today’s day and age, caste groups are now divided into socio-economic categories known as General Category, Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribes, or Other Backward Classes. 

According to the Pew Research Center, 68% of Indians identify as lower caste, and unfortunately, the struggles of coming from a low caste community still existed while Anil was growing up.

ANIL 4: Everybody is from the government school, these schools do not have do not really have any any kind of support. They are in some rack shack kind of places. Then there is no guidance. There is no English. A lot of people, not trying to pull you down, but because of the sheer fear of where you want to trade in so, to say, in your fields, in higher education, people will tell you to be cautious, it’s difficult to can’t get there, because nobody has been there.

TEJA 5: Even after surpassing society’s expectations and earning seats in the nation’s top engineering colleges, students like Anil faced incessant hazing from upper caste students.

ANIL 5: Everybody’s focus is on finding out. Some of my Uttar Pradesh colleagues, they do not have surnames, because they are from the scheduled caste. So, they will ask their name. So he will say “Kamal Kumar,” then they will immediately they will say “Kamal Kumar what?” That means, if you are if you are upper caste, then it will be Kamal Kumar, Mishra, Kamal Kumar Gupta or whatever the one of those things. But if you’re a scheduled caste, you are not allowed to keep this.

TEJA 6: It was common for scheduled caste students to be harassed on a daily basis, sometimes getting beaten. Even in the classroom, professors were well aware of who was upper caste and who was lower caste, and were known to give lesser marks to scheduled caste students. In his final semester of school, Anil was almost expelled after getting into an altercation with a professor over his grades.

ANIL 6: She hadn’t graded my test results, for the entire class for that matter. And she had given pretty low marks. I went and confronted her. Her husband was also a professor. So he caught my collar. Grabbing the collar of a student is not a joke. I just couldn’t take it. I said “I’ll beat the bugger up.” And that just came on my mouth saying, “saale tere ko dekh lunga.”

TEJA 7: Which basically means “Bastard, bring it on, let’s settle this.” 

ANIL 7: Then he started chasing me, and I ran away.

TEJA 8: Luckily, Anil was not expelled, and went to work in a massive multinational tech company in America, Infosys. A dream gig for any aspiring engineer. But coming to America didn’t mean he had a clean slate. As Anil puts it…

ANIL 8: You can never leave your caste behind. The moment there are more number of Indians, you have a trouble. As the group increases, then they want to find out, Oh, you eat non-veg? Oh, I didn’t see you in the temple. Oh, I didn’t see you in the festival. 

TEJA 9: Are you vegetarian or not?

What’s your last name? 

What do your parents do?

What religion do you practice? 

These questions are the subtle, insidious ways upper caste people try to uncover others’ caste. People like Anil will do their best to hide in plain sight. Never openly saying their caste, never associating with names like Ambedkar, never revealing a surname or talking too deeply about their religion –  all to avoid the risk of facing the same discrimination they got at home. 

ANIL 9: Till then you’re a good guy. You know your stuff. You’re a good consultant. You are nice. Go to each other’s houses, invite and what not. But the moment when they find out, all that will go.

TEJA 10: In October 2016, the nightmare of being outed came true for one employee at Cisco Systems in San Jose, California. I don’t know this employee’s name, but in court documents he’s identified asJohn Doe. This John Doe is currently suing his supervisors at the company, Sunder Iyer and Ramana Kompella, for caste based workplace discrimination. According to court documents, here’s what happened: John Doe and Sundar Iyer were classmates at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. Iyer was an upper caste student, and was confident that Doe was lower caste, so when he came to work at Cisco, Iyer outed Doe as scheduled caste to their colleagues.  A month after being outed, Doe confronted Iyer and filed a discrimination claim with human resources. An internal investigation was conducted, and Iyer admitted to outing Doe’s caste. But it didn’t matter. Cisco’s Employee Relations staff didn’t find caste discrimination unlawful and closed the case. For the next two years, Iyer continued to make Doe’s life miserable. He disparaged Doe to his colleagues, complaining that Doe was not performing adequately and employees should avoid working with him. Doe fought to re-open his earlier investigation, and in 2017 found even more evidence. Colleagues admitted to witnessing Iyer treat Doe unfairly even though Doe was doing good work. The investigation even uncovered a spreadsheet that showed anticipated yearly raises, bonuses, and stock awards Iyer had promised to Doe, but they never materialized. Still no action was taken. Finally, in October of 2020, John Doe and the California Department of Fair Housing and Employment filed a civil suit against Cisco for unlawful workplace practices. 

JOHN 1: This is an historical moment in the history of this country and in the history of civil rights law in this country.

TEJA 11: That’s attorney John Rushing. When Cisco was attempting to dismiss the case, Rushing and his partner wrote an amicus brief on behalf of the Ambedkar International Center to explain why caste was included under protections in California law. 

JOHN 2: Like other forms of discrimination that we’ve seen in this country, caste discrimination is tied to ancestry, and it is tied to immutable characteristics that are unrelated to merit and are outside of a person’s control. And such discrimination is anathema to the American experience.

TEJA 12: Whether John Doe will get his day in court is still being decided. But there’s no two ways about it: caste exists in America.

ANIL 10: Many of these upper caste will say caste doesn’t exist. For them, the caste doesn’t exist, because it doesn’t impact them. If they can only tout about it, they can be proud about it, why in the Cisco case, the person who is victim wants to remain anonymous is named as a John Doe And that was challenged by the perpetrators, so to say, saying his identity should be revealed? Because they want to shame him, they want him to be exposed among the Indian colleagues thereby now he will become kind of, again back to untouchable.

TEJA 13: It took me months to even find someone like Anil who was willing to speak about caste openly. Most have accepted that they will always have to live looking over their shoulders. In 2018, Equality Labs conducted a survey of Dalits in America. Dalits are members of the lowest caste, and here’s what the survey found: One in three Dalit students reported being discriminated against during there education. Two out of three Dalits reported being treated unfairly in their workplace, and 40% felt unwelcome in their place of worship because of caste. Proportionally, lower caste people are more outnumbered here than in India, and have less legal protection.

But Anil had this to say to those who are still afraid: 

ANIL 11: In the Hindi there is a saying: “Nange se khuda dare.” 

TEJA 14: Even God fears the shameless.

ANIL 12: Unless you stand up and say that you are going to take head on, they will try to kind of shut you down all the time.

TEJA 15: In America there is the saying: “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” But if you think about it, it’s actually impossible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It requires relying on something, someone, to help you overcome the pull of gravity. So who’s gonna be there to help pull up the John Does and the Anil Wagdes? Will it be the American justice system, fellow South Asian Americans, or outraged Americans who may not understand caste, but can understand what it’s like to be regarded as second class citizens? 

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