#DalitWomenFight Comes to NYC

Members of the #DalitWomenFight arriving at Queens Museum on Sept. 20 (Photo by Rahimon Nasa for Voices of NY)

Members of the #DalitWomenFight arriving at Queens Museum on Sept. 20 (Photo by Rahimon Nasa for Voices of NY)

Echoes of the Dalit greeting Jai Bhim could be heard in the lobby of the Queens Museum as a group of Dalit activists made their way through the borough for a panel on Sept. 20.

The panel occurred in conjunction with the first photo exhibit in the U.S. focused on the experiences of Dalit women. The event at the Queens Museum was co-sponsored by a number of local organizations, including Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), SEVA Immigrant community advocacy project, and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. The exhibit has been traveling with a group of Dalit activists, who are members of the Dalit Women’s Self-Respect movement in India, as they tour major American cities to raise awareness of the injustices Dalits face.

“Dalit,” a Hindi word, translates to “oppressed” in English and refers to what has traditionally been known as the “untouchable” caste in India. The Indian constitution also recognizes Dalits as the historically disadvantaged “scheduled castes.” Dalits make up more than 16.6 percent of India’s population at about 167 million people. Because Dalits hold the lowest rank in the caste system, they face severe discrimination in Indian society, despite special laws against caste-based discrimination and untouchability.

“When you have a complete failure of the rule of law in a country that is supposed to be the world’s largest democracy then it is time for the world to act,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a multimedia artist whose work was present at the exhibit and one of the main organizers of the event.

She compared the impunity the Indian government showed in not charging or trying perpetrators of caste-based violence with the failure of prosecutors in the U.S. to hold police officers accountable for killing unarmed black and brown people.

Images from the Dalit exhibit at the Queens Museum (Photos by Rahimon Nasa for Voices of NY)

Images from the Dalit exhibit at the Queens Museum (Photos by Rahimon Nasa for Voices of NY)

“We’re asking you to hold hands with us, to get into the trenches with us, to stand shoulder to shoulder and take the Indian government to task with us,” she said.

Soundararajan called on the audience to stand in solidarity and support the work Dalits have been doing to end caste-based discrimination and violence. She stood behind a podium draped with a poster of B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit politician and chief architect of the Indian constitution, widely revered by the Dalit community for advocacy work to end discrimination against the Dalits. Blue is a significant color to the Dalits because Ambedkar frequently wore blue suits during his final years.

Despite Ambedkar’s efforts to end caste-based discrimination since India’s independence in 1947, it remains prevalent in Indian society. The Dalit Women’s Self-Respect movement gained traction in 2014 in response to the Indian government’s continuous failure to punish perpetrators of caste-based sexual violence. Activists finally had enough and hopped into their cars, bikes, and rickshaws and traveled to different Indian states demanding justice for victims of caste-based violence and discrimination. This movement has been the largest historic challenge to caste-based violence and discrimination in contemporary India.

“This is an issue that seems far away, but caste still exists in the diaspora in many ways,” said Vee Kay, one of the Dalit activists who spoke at the panel. “People in the diaspora need to understand that they didn’t just immigrate from nothing and that they immigrated with caste privilege.”

Thenmozhi Soundararajan closes the panel by asking the audience to join the activists in a song. (Photo by Rahimon Nasa for Voices of NY)

Thenmozhi Soundararajan closes the panel by asking the audience to join the activists in a song. (Photo by Rahimon Nasa for Voices of NY)

The first wave of South Asian immigrants who came to the United States were mostly upper-caste Indians. This privilege allowed them to define what Indian culture and history looked like for non-Indians, Kay said. She pointed out, for example, that Gandhi is widely praised as an anti-colonial savior, rather than criticized for his racism and caste-ism.

Dalit history and culture are neglected by the Indian media even though Dalits make up 16 percent of the population. Kay said that by finding solidarity with an international audience, Dalits hope to get the media coverage they aren’t getting in India, and to make sure attention is paid to crimes against the Dalit community.

For many in Queens, where much of the city’s South Asian population is concentrated, the issue hits close to home.

“My neighbors have always been South Asian and we’ve always coexisted,” said Denise Romero, a Mexican immigrant who lives in Jackson Heights and attended the event. “This issue touched me because in Mexico we are dealing with a similar type of impunity in the government.”

Romero described the failure of the government to punish policy brutality in indigenous communities in Mexico that are marginalized economically, socially, and politically. She had attended a similar delegation weeks earlier that focused on state violence in Mexico and kept hearing similarities between the two events.

“Just the way I want justice for those in Mexico, I want the same for those in the communities I have grown up in,” said Romero.

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