Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Editor: the following article by Isabel Wilkerson (
My flight to India landed in a gray veil that hid the terminal and its tower at the international airport in Delhi. It was January 2018, my first moments on the subcontinent. The pilot searched for a jetway through the drapery of mist. It was 2 in the morning, and it was as if we had landed in a steam kettle, were still airborne in a cloud, the night air pressing against cabin windows, and we could see nothing of the ground. I had not heard of rain in the forecast and was fascinated by this supernatural fog in the middle of the night, until I realized that it was not fog at all but smoke — from coal plants, cars and burning stubble — trapped in stagnant wind. The pollution was a shroud at first to seeing India as it truly was.
At daybreak, the sun pushed through the haze, and once I connected with my hosts, I raced along with them to cross an intersection, an open stretch of asphalt with cars hurtling in every direction with no lanes or speed limits. We made our way along the side streets to the conference we were attending. I saw the wayside altars and mushroom temples with their garlands and silk flowers to the Hindu deities at the base of the sacred fig trees. There, commuters can pause for reflection as they head to work or an exam or a doctor’s visit. The sidewalk shrines seemed exotic to me until I thought of the American ritual of spontaneous altars of flowers and balloons at the site of something very different, at the site of an accident or tragedy, as for Heather Heyer, the counterprotester killed at the infamous neo-Confederate rally in Charlottesville, Va., just months before. Both reflect a human desire to connect with and honor something or someone beyond ourselves.
The United States and India are profoundly different from each other — in culture, technology, economics, history, ethnic composition. And yet, many generations ago, these two great lands paralleled each other, each protected by oceans, fertile and coveted and ruled for a time by the British. Each adopted social hierarchies and abides great chasms between the highest and the lowest in their respective lands. Each was conquered by people said to be Aryans arriving, in one case, from across the Atlantic Ocean, in the other, from the north. Those deemed lowest in each country would serve those deemed high. The younger country, the United States, would become the most powerful democracy on Earth. The older country, India, would become the largest.
Their hierarchies are profoundly different. And yet, as if operating from the same instruction manual translated to fit their distinctive cultures, both countries adopted similar methods of maintaining rigid lines of demarcation and protocols. Both countries kept their dominant caste separate, apart and above those deemed lower. Both exiled their Indigenous peoples — the Adivasi in India, the Native Americans in the United States — to remote lands and to the unseen margins of society. Both countries enacted an amalgam of laws to chain the lowliest group — Dalits in India (formerly known as the untouchables) and African-Americans in the United States — to the bottom, using terror and force to keep them there.
“Perhaps only the Jews have as long a history of suffering from discrimination as the Dalits,” the American civil rights advocate Yussuf Naim Kly wrote in 1987. “However, when we consider the nature of the suffering endured by the Dalits, it is the African-American parallel of enslavement, apartheid and forced assimilation that comes to mind.”
The United States and India have since abolished the formal laws that defined their caste systems — the United States in a series of civil rights laws in the 1960s and India more than a decade before, starting in 1949 — but both caste systems live on in hearts and habits, institutions and infrastructures. Both countries still live with the residue of codes that prevailed for far longer than they have not.
In both countries and often at the same time, the lowest castes toiled for their masters — African-Americans in the tobacco fields along the Chesapeake or in the cotton fields of Mississippi, Dalits plucking tea in Kerala and cotton in Nandurbar. Both worked as enslaved people and later for the right to live on the land that they were farming, African-Americans in the system of sharecropping, Dalits in the Indian equivalent, known as saldari, both still confined to their fixed roles at the bottom of their respective societies.
While doors have opened to the subordinated castes in India and in America in the decades since discrimination was officially prohibited, the same spasms of resistance have afflicted both countries. What is called “affirmative action” in the United States is called “reservations” in India, and they are equally unpopular with the upper castes in both countries, language tracking in lock step, with complaints of reverse discrimination in one and reverse casteism in the other.
There are many overarching similarities to the countries’ caste systems, but they are not the same in how they are structured or operate. The American system was founded as a primarily two-tiered hierarchy with its contours defined by the uppermost group, those identified as white, and by the subordinated group, those identified as Black, with immigrants from outside Europe forming blurred middle castes that sought to adjust themselves within a bipolar structure, and Native Americans largely exiled outside it.
The Indian caste system, by contrast, is an elaborate fretwork of thousands of subcastes, or jatis, correlated to region and village, which fall under the four main varnas — the Brahmin, the Kshatriya, the Vaishya, the Shudra and the excluded fifth, the Dalits. It is further complicated by non-Hindus — including Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians — who are outside the original caste system but have incorporated themselves into the workings of the country, at times in the face of resistance and attack, and may or may not have informal rankings among themselves and in relation to the varnas.
The Indian caste system historically has been said to be stable and unquestioned by those within it, bound as it is by religion and the Hindu belief in reincarnation, the belief that a person carries out in this life the karma of the previous ones, suffers the punishment or reaps the rewards for deeds in a past life, and that the more keenly you follow the rules for the caste you were born into, the higher your station will be in the next life.
Some observers say that this is what distinguishes the Indian caste system from any other, that people in the lowest caste accept their lot, that it is fixed and unbending, that Dalits presumably live out their karma decreed by the gods and do their lowly work without complaint, knowing not to dream of anything more. In order to survive, some people in a subordinated caste may learn and believe that resistance is futile. But this condescending view disregards generations of resistance, and the work of the beloved Dalit leader Bhimrao Ambedkar and the reformer Jyotiba Phule before him. It was also wrongly assumed of enslaved Africans, and it disregards a fundamental truth of the species, that all human beings want to be free.
The Dalits were no more contented with their lot than anyone would be. In a caste system, conflating compliance with approval is dehumanizing in itself. Many Dalits looked out beyond their homeland, surveyed the oppressed people all over the world and identified the people closest to their lamentations. They recognized a shared fate with African-Americans, few of whom would have known of the suffering of Dalits. Some Dalits felt so strong a kinship with one wing of the American civil rights movement and followed it so closely that in the 1970s they created the Dalit Panthers, inspired by the Black Panther Party.
Several years ago, a group of largely African-American professors made a trip to a rural village in the Indian state Uttar Pradesh. There, hundreds of villagers from the lowliest subcaste, the scavengers, came together for a ceremony to welcome the Americans.
The villagers sang Dalit liberation songs for the occasion. Then they turned to their American guests and invited them to sing a liberation song of their own. A law professor from Indiana University, Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, began a song that the civil rights marchers sang in Birmingham and Selma before they faced sheriffs’ dogs and fire hoses. As he reached the refrain, the Dalit hosts joined in and began to sing with their American counterparts. Across the oceans, they well knew the words to “We Shall Overcome.”