Organic Resistance — Relevance of Ambedkar, Du Bois and Garvey to Diaspora, Caste, Race and Women’s Liberation
This article explores similarities between BR Ambedkar’s struggle against the caste-based subjection of Dalits in India and WEB Du Bois’s and MH Garvey’s resistance to racial oppression of African Americans in the USA. It also examines caste and class issues within the South Asian diaspora and how Ambedkar’s ideas may help this community to face its many challenges.
The paper begins with the author’s personal journey and experience of attending the same college as Ambedkar, followed by a discussion of hinduism and migration. It next looks at caste and migration in the indentured South Asian diaspora, and how they differ from the more recent migrants to the west who now form a powerful interest group that is driving conservatism and casteism in India.
The article then looks at whether overseas hindus are integrating into their host societies and how Ambedkar’s ideas may help them to improve race relations with other groups. The paper turns to explore similarities in the approaches used by Ambedkar, Dubois, and Garvey to resist cultural oppression in India and the USA, and concludes with a discussion of women’s role in the movements led by the three men.
Ambedkar, My Mentor At Columbia
Overseas South Asians constitute the world’s largest diaspora. I am part of this dispersion, born in Guyana, South America, six generations removed from South Asia. I am part of an Indo-Caribbean and United States South Asian population that number in the millions. The diaspora contains thousands of Dalits, however only a few will openly admit to being Dalit. There is a deep stigma that comes with being poor and lower caste in the diaspora, as in India.
I did not feel like a interloper growing up in South America since my ethnic group forms the majority in that country. I felt fairly normal until I encountered Indian merchants from South Asia in their stores, who acted superior to Guyanese Indians. I knew caste had something to do with it, but for the most part, I tried to ignore caste hoping that it would go away.
My surname, Seenarine, is derived from an 18th century, South Indian Dalit group that advocated conversion and migration to free themselves from caste. I should have been pleased about my family’s long history of Dalit resistance, but instead I considered my Dalit surname name as a mark of disgrace. I preferred my mother’s Ahir family name, Satrohan, with its slightly higher caste status.
My working class family migrated to New York when I was 15, and I tried to distance myself from South Asians and Hinduism through westernization. Being brown-skinned, I was treated like an African and I identified as being part of the African diaspora. I studied the history of European colonialism and immersed myself in socialist philosophy, however caste hung around my neck like a yoke. For example, I quickly became defensive whenever I encountered Hindus in the USA. Far from camaraderie, I dreaded the ubiquitous question, ‘Where are you from?’ since it invariably revealed my ascribed low caste identity.
I became the first on both sides of my family to graduate from college, an achievement I am proud of. I was educated but I still suffered from low self-esteem due to feelings and oppression related to caste and location in the diaspora. At the age of 30, I attended graduate school at Columbia University determined to find out more about my Dalit heritage.
Columbia is a mostly white and emotionally sterile space. The South Asians I encountered were upper caste and middle class and upon learning my diaspora origins, they acted like I was a clueless Dalit. I felt as much and so began to research the history of caste and untouchability in South Asia.
You can imagine my surprise with I first learned about the name Ambedkar, the foremost authority on caste, and discovered that he also attended Columbia, 75 years earlier. My first encounter with Bhim Rao Ambedkar (BRA) changed my life forever and I became re-born as an Ambedkarite immediately as I stood in the library staring at his books. Ambedkar’s mere existence, and his enormous political and social accomplishments, meant that I would never again be disgraced simply for being a Dalit.
BRA demonstrated that Dalits are capable of greatness, and eons of religious oppression was finally eased from my shoulders. I emerged from a cave of social and intellectual darkness into a blinding light that only BRA made possible. After a lifetime of embarrassment and self-doubt, with his book in my hands, I was finally able to stand up and breath freely,
From Ambedkar, I discovered that Dalits are not low or impure in any way. According to his historical and social research, Dalits are the indigenous people of South Asia who converted to Buddhism. They were subsequently out-casted as punishment in an epic conflict between Hinduism and Buddhism that saw the latter practically wiped out in South Asia.
Dalits were not always forced to become ‘polluted’ scavengers, and to the to work caste Hindus refused. Two thousand years ago, Dalits were the ordinary villagers whom Ashoka influenced to become plant-based and to live ethically. And before Buddhism, Dalits were the originators of Harappan civilization, and earlier still, they lived peacefully in egalitarian clans for millennia. Casteism changed all this, and Hindus and their religion are at fault.
Being at the Columbia became a magical experience for me as I imagined myself walking in the footsteps of Ambedkar. We frequented the same halls and may have held the same books in the libraries. The university had many of BRA’s books and I was astounded by the breadth and depth of his writings on caste and other topics.
I emerged from the ignorance of caste shame into normality and was influenced by BRA to further his work on social justice. I am proud of my Dalit roots and of Dalit’s affiliation to Africans, Native Americans, and other oppressed cultures and minorities across the World. As I researched West Indian history, I noted that early egalitarian Dalit cultures in the diaspora were gradually replaced by a homogenized, un-egalitarian Hinduism,i just as they were centuries earlier in South Asia.
I was excited to learn more about Ambedkar’s impact in India and spent a year conducting fieldwork among Dalit women in northern Karnataka. I learned that they too were enormously inspired by BRA and wanted to work on social justice. I was able to share my deep gratitude and appreciation for BRA, and I was encouraged by the vast numbers of Dalits in India who were becoming Ambedkarites. Back at Columbia, I completed a dissertation titled, “Voices from the Subaltern: Education and Empowerment Among Dalit (Untouchable) Women in India.” In the thesis, I argued that knowledge of Ambedkar and his life were critical to the self-esteem and educational ambition of Dalit women and girls in rural India.
Along with BRA’s emotional and psychological value, Ambedkar’s scholarly influence is equally profound for me. BRA was brilliant, honest, humble, and remained dedicated to removing the burdens of caste from Dalits to his very end. Ambedkar was an organic intellectual who acted with integrity, and was therefore beyond corruption. His deep conscientization, or critical consciousness, is a huge source of guidance for me.
Hindu Taboo: Crossing the Black Water
The Wikipedia entry on “Caste system in India” dismisses and excludes all of Ambedkar’s insights on caste.ii The page describes this social and political stratification as primarily caused by developments during the post-Mughal period and under the British colonial regime. The impression the Wikipedia page creates it that casteism is the fault of the British, and that Hindus are largely innocent of bias, harassment, and atrocities that occurred during colonialism and centuries earlier.
This commonly referenced page on caste ignores evidence before the 17th century of casteism, including anti-caste movements dating back thousands of years. Caste-reform movements include Buddhism and Cārvāka in the 6th century BC; the Bhakti movement in the 7th century with Dalit poets like Chokhamela, Soyarabai, and Ravidas; the Lingayat movement in the 12th century; and Sikhism in the 15th century. These movements and many others flourished long before any European colonists arrived. Some scholars even argue that colonialism allowed Dalits to finally break the caste mold by enlisting in the British military and administration.
Historically, both varnaiii and jatiiv were fluid for some groups, yet impoverished Dalits and Adivasis were continuously out-casted. From the very emergence of varna, powerful groups have used religiously-sanctioned ostracism and hierarchy to exploit the poor among their own group. Those with privilege asserted a sense of superiority, and the impoverished were deemed ‘lower’ over time but still maintained varna status.
‘Upper’ varnas could only exist if the are ‘lower’ ones, and so fostered division and competition. The whole varna system was maintained by social and political boundaries that excluded ‘outsiders.’ Even though they exist within the local environment, Dalits and Adivasis are perpetual outsiders that serve to reinforced the status for all Hindus. This misbegotten religion is based on discrimination and the fear of ‘excommunication’ keeps each varna in their place. Eons of Dalit resistance and decades of activism by caste reformers has had little influence on Hindus, who remain casteist and exclusionary. Consequently, there has been little change in the ‘polluted’ and de-humanized condition of Dalits.
India now has over 1.3 billion people, and close of 80 percent are Hindus. Casteism and untouchability negatively affects the lives of over 300 million Dalits and Adivasis in India, and millions more in the diaspora. Hindu supremacy marginalizes a further 170 million Muslims, and millions more Christians and Sikhs. With the popularity of right-wing Hindu leaders and government, a nation that has not known social tolerance for 2,000 years is rapidly becoming even more militantly narrow-minded.
One glaring inconsistency in this immoral religion is the ancient brahmanical taboo of Samudrayana, or prohibition against overseas travel. Samudrayana is forbidden to an observant Hindu because it involves interaction with non-Hindus, which is almost an ‘uncleansable’ defilement. To have contact with foreigners, with the Dasyu, and their food, is a fundamental violation of Hindu brama, or purity of being.
‘Making voyages by sea’ causes pataniya, or loss of caste. It is arduous to reclaim varna, so in ancient times few dared to ignore the taboo. Even today, the Tirupati Temple still does not allow a priest who has crossed the seas to enter the temple’s sanctum sanctorum, and in recent times foreign travel was cited as a reason for denying brahmin priests temple entry and leadership positions.
‘Mobility,’ that is, leaving the community and being exposed to external influence can translate into loss of caste for members of even the highest caste, brahmins. Mobile priests in the service of foreign rulers like the Mughals or European companies were deliberately ostracized by their ‘fixed’ priestly peers. In some cases, whole families were denied shares to ancestral properties and incomes. Sati or the burning alive of Hindu widows were encouraged primarily by the fixed priestly class, in part to assert independence from mobile clans.
Some mobile clans banded together into popular associations, or Sabhas, to oppose these un-Brahminic practices, thereby colliding head on with the orthodoxy of ‘fixed’ Hindu society. This dynamic between diaspora and local competition for power is being repeated in the 21st century by non-resident Indians (NRIs), and it involves all castes. One possible difference, however, is that the orthodoxy may now reside in the diaspora.
Coolies to NRI — Arc of the Diaspora
The overseas Indian population is over 30 million, representing the largest diaspora in the world. From sojourners to settlers, Hindus form a potent force abroad and at home. Religious restrictions against traveling beyond the sea means NRIs technically cannot be considered Hindus, since in the strictest sense, Hinduism cannot exist outside of South Asia. The Samudrayana taboo is selectively applied, however, and overseas Hindus simply ignore this and other restrictions, like those against eating meat, certain vegetables, and so on.
There are many contradictory narratives that exist within diaspora communities, and caste is one of them. For example, in the west, middle class Hindus may be considered more ‘foreign’ than working class Dalit Christians. The status of being part of the upper caste gets lost in translation and brahmin superiority is not automatically transferred to the west. On the contrary, many found that they were now considered as ‘blacks’ and treated as Dalits by the majority white population.
Up until 1965, Asians were largely excluded by law from emigrating to the USA, nonetheless, a few managed to travel the country starting in the 1700s. With the ending of enslavement in the 1800s, there was a larger presence of South Asians in the Americas, especially indentured coolies in the Caribbean.
Starting in 1838, hundreds of so-called ‘Hill Coolies’ or Adivasis from Bihar were taken to British Guiana and elsewhere to replace formerly enslaved Africans on colonial plantations. Coolies worked as indentured laborers for 10 or more years under similar conditions as enslavement. By 1917, when the indentured system was finally abolished, some 429,286 South Asians had been transported overseas, of whom 238,909 went to British Guiana, and 143,939 to Trinidad.
Indentured laborers were primarily Dalits as they were the most receptive to ‘pull’ factors to emigrate and they also cared the least about Samudrayana. Dalits were more easily ‘pushed’ to leave via entrapment and capture as well. The descendants of formerly indentured Dalits and other South Asians now comprise 65 percent of the population in Mauritius, and 45 percent in Fiji, Guyana, and Trinidad. In addition, they are over 30 percent of residents in Suriname and Réunion,
The taboo against migration is fairly obsolete, and economic pull factors are stronger than ever. Millions of Indians serve as temporary workers in other parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the Americas. For example, Indians comprise over 30 percent of the population in the UAE at any given time.
Compared to 18th century indentureship in the Caribbean, the first wave of South Asian immigrants who landed in the USA 70 years later in 1907, were not that better off. The migrants were predominantly Punjabi Sikh farmers who worked as agricultural workers. Their ‘foreign’ presence was strongly opposed by white Americans and immigration restrictions specific to South Asians began to be introduced two years later. Consequently, only sixty-four hundred migrated. The 1910 US census was the first to count South Asians, and it recorded 2,545 ‘Hindus.’ The Cold War caused a huge demand for skilled workers, and restrictions began to be loosened in the 1950s for South Asian students and professionals. With the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, a wave of educated South Asian immigrants began arriving on American shores.
By 2000, Indian Americans nearly doubled in population to become the third largest group of Asian Americans, after Chinese and Filipinos.v This group has increasing visibility in high-tech communities such as the Silicon Valley and the Seattle area. Indian Americans have some of the highest rates of academic achievement among ethnic groups in the USA. Most Hindu immigrants to the west speak English and are highly educated which gets translated into class privilege at home and abroad.
NRIs — The Indian 1%
Nonresident Indians (NRIs) are the 1% of the sub-continent with enormous influence in society and politics. Overseas Indians send US $70 billion (Rs. 4.2 lakh crores) every year to India. That amount is just 25 percent less than the total Indian government’s plan expenditure of US $94 billion. A small community of NRIs transfer money equal to 75 percent of the whole of the Indian central government. They also invest in homes, businesses, organizations, and contribute to the country’s technology exports. The enormous wealth of NRIs drives national and regional parties to lobby for their support.
National parties like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have established overseas groups in more than 30 major cities in North America to encourage NRIs to contribute. For example, Indians living abroad donate 30 percent of the AAP party fund. Regional parties like SAD, TDP and DMK are close to their respective diaspora, and NRIs play a major part in Punjabi politics. Since the 1990s, NRI influence have led a shift to the right in Indian politics, away from democratic socialism.
Social media reach has increased the diaspora’s utility for Indian political parties. The Overseas Friends of BJP use Google hangouts to connect with members across the World, and live-stream conferences to discuss political ideas in India. And, Indian-American supporters of the AAP volunteer for the party’s phone bank to call potential supporters and voters.vi
NRIs are defining Indian policy as well. For example, the Telugu Association of North America as well as US-based Telugu professionals were active in Naidu’s ideas for re-shaping Hyderabad. There is high visibility of the diaspora in Gujarat policy, which may be behind Hardik Patel and OBCs’ demand for increased reservations in this and other states.
One acknowledgment of NRIs’ standing is the central government’s establishment of a Ministry for Overseas Indian Affairs with a mandate to assess, examine and address issues and concerns of Indian citizens abroad, and to cement partnerships which would benefit both. In 2003, Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Non-Resident Indian Day) was celebrated in India on January 9th to mark the contribution of the overseas Indian community to the development of India. In 2014, the annual event was attended by 1,500 delegates from 51 countries and President Pranab Mukherjee gave awards to distinguished NRIs. At these gatherings, representatives from indentured and working class communities like Fiji, Mauritius, the Caribbean, and the Gulf, complain that their issues are ignored as the events mostly cater to the interests of wealthy western NRIs.
Another sign of conservatism among NRIs is their financing of orthodox Hindu organizations and cultural associations overseas and in India. There are elaborate Hindu temples in many cites in the USA, Canada, UK and Europe, and these institutions are contributing to sanskritization and retention of casteism in the diaspora. NRIs have led to right-wing Hindu political and social domination in the form of the BJP, Modi wave, anti-beef movement, increased violence against women, Dalits and minorities, and so on. The effect of NRIs foreign interference is normalization of Hindu supremacy and further entrenchment of casteism in the sub-continent. The BJP’s appointment of the militant Adityanath as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2017 is another ominous sign.
The NRI-1% are out of touch with the situation on the ground in India. This elite group operates with completely different priorities and interests than the average Indian voter. Indian citizens primarily focus on local issues such as housing, land, crop prices, and safety. In contrast, the economy, trade and business regulation receive are the focus of Indians abroad. The extreme poverty and corruption experienced daily in India does not affect the diaspora in any way. Living in the secular west, the problems of casteism are swept under the rug in NRIs’ prevailing narrative of India as the World’s largest ‘democracy.’ Buried also is the fact that India has the largest population of poor on Earth.
In the past decade, Hindu artists and entertainers have become a more visible presence in the western media. Sanitized Hindu cultural practices, such as food, yoga, meditation, classical music, Bollywood, and more, have gained large followings in the west, and have led to increased tourism at home. In western politics, NRIs are beginning to have an impact as elected leaders and grassroots organizers. The US India Political Action Committee, for example, is influential in US elections and American foreign policy.
After the events of September 11, 2001, Hindus in the west, and in particular, Sikhs, have become the victims of religious and racial profiling and violence. In response, a few political organizations have rallied to bring awareness to the issue and defend the rights of immigrants. In general though, South Asians identify more with dominant Europeans than with other minority communities, and have chosen to ‘lean-in’ to an unjust economic system rather than trying to reform it.
Plural Society or Melting Pot?
Diasporic South Asians are typically one of several minority groups in their home countries and are the subjects of religious and racial prejudices. For decades, anthropologists have debated whether Indians in the diaspora are retaining Hindu customs or adapting to local cultures. Some point to the ongoing process of assimilation and ‘creolization’ occurring among overseas Indians in terms of language, dress, food habits, social customs, and so on. There are numerous advantages to blending in with the local culture, and 2nd and 3rd generation NRIs tend to socialize and inter-marry with non-Indians more.
However, diaspora youth and adults face immense social pressures within their family and community to maintain caste, religious, national, and ethnic identity via dress, friendship, dating, marriage, and so on. In addition, they are larger structural forces that foster retention of Hinduism and casteism in the diaspora, and help to maintain Hindus as distinct cultures in a plural society. There are variations in observance of Indian traditions, however diaspora Hindus have resisted ‘creolization’ and merging into the melting pot of their home societies.
The low frequency of inter-marriage with other religious and ethnic groups reflect cultural persistence and a separatist framework. Additionally, the retention of Hindu customs and casteism may have a strong influence on NRIs’ race relations with the majority and other minority communities, and could be contributing to raising tensions among Indians and non-Indians.
The religion has been transformed in the diaspora into a homogenized form of Hinduism that outwardly claims the nonexistence of caste. And, starting in the 1960s, anthropologists have argued that the caste system cannot survive outside of South Asia. However, elements of caste do survive, such as a tendency toward informal relations of superiority-inferiority, a sense of ‘difference’ among sub-groups, family traditions of caste identity, and a preference for marriage within caste. Carolyn Henning Brown shows that in Fiji, as caste populations increase, so too does the frequency of endogamy.vii
After fieldwork in Trinidad, Morton Klass argued that “the primary determinant of status among rural Hindus is caste membership.” He observed, “Education, occupation, and wealth are also important, but they all tend to cluster along with high-caste membership… in the rural village, leadership, wealth and high-caste membership go hand in hand.”
In terms of politics, Klass wrote, “an examination of the caste affiliations of Hindu members, of whatever party, of the Trinidad Legislative Council reveals that almost all are of the two highest castes, Brahman and Kshatriya.” The same is true for Mauritius, Guyana, Suriname, and other former indentured communities.viii In Mauritius there are the four-fold Maraze, Baboojee, Vaish, and Dusadh castes, as well as Chamars.
Even after six generations, many NRIs profess ‘awareness’ of their caste. Caste endures in the diaspora and along with it, casteism, the oppression of Dalits, and the marginalization of Dalit cultures. There is a close connection between class and caste privileges, and ‘brahmins’ and maulavis are held in high regard. Correspondingly, non-brahmins priest are rare, and women priestesses rarer still.. The Hindu diaspora are still embroiled in caste and Ambedkar’s call for its annihilation is as relevant to overseas Indians as it is to Indians in the motherland.
Ambedkar’s Relevance to Indian Diaspora
While NRIs are able to become highly successful in western secular sates, their sponsorship of religious nationalism is having the opposite effect in the sub-continent. Reinforcement of cultural and social boundaries is one of the main obstacles towards economic progress, and one sign is that entrepreneurs and corporations in India are small in comparison to those in China and other Asian countries.
Reinforcing the secular state and rolling back the move towards the right culturally and politically offers NRIs an unprecedented economic opportunity in India, but their caste bias takes precedence over progress. In fact, NRIs’ oversized influence may doom India to remaining a sink of ignorance and den of religious intolerance for decades to come. There are key social and political issues affecting diaspora communities that are ignored in the process as well.
Almost all overseas Indians face some form of race conflict in their countries of residence. For example, there was the 1907 Bellingham riots against Indians in Washington, USA; the 1964 riots in Guyana; the 1972 expulsion of Indians from Uganda; the 1987 riot against Indians in Fiji; and the 2009 violence against Indians in Australia. These polarizing events point to the widespread and persistent nature of racial conflict facing the diaspora.
Three shootings in America during 2017 further reinforce the vulnerability of overseas Indians to bigotry in the west. The first one, in Kansas, involved a white army veteran who opened fire on two Indian tech workers in a bar, while shouting, ‘Go back to your country.’ The second shooting involved a Sikh man in a Seattle suburb who was injured in his driveway after a gunman opened fire while yelling the same thing. And in the third case, a South Carolina business owner was gunned down outside his house for no apparent reason.
Hindu supremacy and Indian national pride may be useful psychologically for NRIs, but they do little else. The diaspora in the west need to recognize that they cannot pass for ‘white’ and may always be viewed as ‘untouchables.’ For example, Romas have lived for over 1,000 years in Europe and are still considered ‘outsiders.’ NRIs are trapped within caste and regional boundaries and this limits vision of a way forward.
Ambedkar’s ideas of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ can help NRIs to build a bridge between different caste, religious, regional and language groups, and with other non-Indian communities. Ambedkar writes, “fraternity… is only another name for democracy. Democracy is not merely a form of Government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen.”
NRIs do practice fraternity, but only in relation to their varna and jati. They need help extending beyond their narrow circle to others in their plural societies, and to people living in South Asia. Seeped in education and class privilege, diaspora Indians lack compassion towards others less fortunate. Ambedkar addresses privilege when he asks, “shall we treat them as unequal because they are unequal?” This is a question which the opponents of equality must answer.”
Ambedkar argues further, “if it is good for the social body to get the most out of its members, it can get most out of them only by making them equal as far as possible at the very start of the race. That is one reason why we cannot escape equality.” Secular organizations in can help privileged NRIs to contribute to their professions and help disadvantaged communities overseas and in South Asia. If the diaspora becomes more involved in social and economic justice, this will greatly reduce the racial tensions they face.
The diaspora will significantly be impacted by climate change. A vast number of overseas Indians reside on islands and in countries below the sea level. Will India allow millions of climate migrants to return from overseas communities? Diaspora organizations should include climate change in their agenda and help communities where they live, and in affected countries, to become more climate resilient.
India is already experiencing a warming climate. The former union environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, admitted that India is the most vulnerable country in the world to climate change. For one, no country in the world has the demographic expansion which India is experiencing. Around 60% of India’s agriculture is rain-fed and the number of rainy days have decreased which lessens ground water recharging. India is subjected to irregular monsoons, flooding, and higher temperatures. The Himalayan glaciers are receding which impacts the perennial rivers of north-India. And rising sea-levels will adversely affect millions of people living along the country’s 7,500 km of coast line.
The reason India is so vulnerable to climate change is because it is a large country with many living in poverty, inadequate infrastructure, and lack of government planning to deal with complex weather systems. Social and cultural boundaries also hinder planning for mitigation and disaster relief. Climate change in South Asia may necessitate fraternity with India’s traditional rivals, China and Pakistan and a belligerent Hindu government may prove disastrous for tens of millions of climate migrants. India needs to remain secular, democratic and cooperative with its neighbors to survive this impending crisis.
Shared Burden: Caste and Racial Subjugation
Before indentured Dalits and South Asians, there were millions of enslaved Africans exploited for centuries under European colonialism. Afro-Guyanese scholar, Walter Rodney, argued that Europe under-developed Africa and the brutality of the colonial encounter still persists. The Atlantic trade in bondage humans occurred from the 15th through 19th centuries. This inhumane practice involved over 36,000 European slaving voyages that forcibly removed 12 million Africans to the Americas. During the treacherous middle passage across the ocean, up to 25 percent of the enslaved died, well over two million people. Millions more were killed and internally displaced in Africa.
Enslaved and free African laborers built the plantations, roads, canals, tunnels, ports, railroads, cities and economic engines of the west, but their contributions are rarely acknowledged. America’s position as the sole superpower in the World was built on the backs of free African labor, just like the hindu economy was built on bonded Dalit workers in India.
Historical and current caste and racial oppressions are similar and form a basis for mutual alliances. The issues of struggle and programs taken for liberation by African Americans and Dalits are also important to consider. Both movements share a long standing history, have gone through many ups and downs, face numerous internal and external conflicts, and are searching for new programs and ways to face them. Interestingly, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the two issues were connected in the minds of American leaders who spoke out against enslavement.
The caste school of race relations connected the two forms of oppression, and the term caste was used in the writings and speeches of prominent opponents of enslavement like Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Horace Greeley, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Segregated churches proved especially vulnerable to accusations of harboring the insidious caste spirit.
After legal enslavement was abolished in the Americas,ix African Americans continued to experience decades of racial oppression under Jim Crow laws. Even though blacks served in the American Civil War, World War I and World War II, they still faced racism, segregation and lynching by whites. Separate and unequal access to public facilities and resources was the norm until the 1960s civil rights movement brought changes. However, race, like caste, continues to be a critical factor in the lower educational achievement, income, health, and life expectancy of African Americans and Dalits, compared to whites and hindus respectively.
One prominent civil rights leader was William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868–1963) who strongly protested against lynching, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination in education and employment. His cause included people of color everywhere, particularly Africans and Asians in European colonies. Du Bois was an early proponent of Pan-Africanism and helped organize several Pan-African Congresses to fight for the independence of African colonies from European rule.
Another powerful African American leader in the 1920s was Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr. (1887–1940), promoter of the Back-to-Africa movement and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The leaders differed significantly in the solutions they offered and this limited mutual support. Garvey denounced Du Bois’s efforts to achieve equality through integration, and instead endorsed racial separatism. The elder Du Bois initially supported the concept of Garvey’s Black Star Line, a shipping company that was intended to facilitate commerce within the African diaspora, however his enthusiasm soon waned.
With UNIA’s raising influence, Du Bois considered Garvey’s program of racial separation implausible and a capitulation to white supremacy. It was a tacit admission that Blacks could never be equal to whites. More infuriating, Garvey tried to engage with the enemy, white supremacists, in their mutual goal of separation. Noting how popular African repatriation was with racist thinkers and politicians, Du Bois feared that Garvey threatened the gains made by his own movement. Yet over time, Du Bois became increasingly frustrated with the lack of racial progress in the USA, and towards the end of his life he too decided to separate and migrate to Africa, where he died.
Like Du Bois and Garvey, Ambedkar struggled deeply with the issues of separation and civil rights for Dalits. Born in the Indian heartland, Ambedkar was a true nationalist. He wanted all of India to develop, especially rural areas. But despite the legal and policy safeguards he struggled to enshrine in the Constitution, the’ lack of progress for Dalits made him consider separatism as a means to an end. Like Du Bois and Garvey, BRA was also an internationalist and sought the aid of the British and United Nations to reform casteism.
In the 1946, Ambedkar wrote to Du Bois to inquire about the National Negro Congress petition to the UN, which attempted to secure minority rights through the UN council. Ambedkar explained that he had been a ‘student of the Negro problem,’ and that ‘There is so much similarity between the position of the Untouchables and the position of the Negroes of America, that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary.’
Du Bois responded by telling Ambedkar he was familiar with his name, and that he had ‘every sympathy with the Untouchables of India.’ Throughout his career, Ambedkar turned to US history, particularly to the Abolition Era and the Reconstruction period after emancipation in 1863, for inspiration and for cautionary lessons about how a society might become intolerant and fall into disarray.
Organic Intellectuals: Ambedkar, Dubois, and Garvey
Ambedkar, Du Bois and Garvey were distinguished leaders who lived in the shadow of legendary predecessors. For Garvey and Du Bois, there was Paul Bogle (1820–1865), Sojourner Truth (1797–1883), Frederik Douglass (1818–1895), Harriet Tubman (1822–1913) and many others. Ambedkar looked to Jotirao Phule who titled his major anti-Brahman polemic “Slavery” (1873), and dedicated it to Americans.
The long history of Dalit and African American resistance was critical to Ambedkar, Du Bois and Garvey in building their movement. Each edited and published newsletters to disseminate subaltern history and revolutionary ideas to the masses burdened by color and caste. The three figures were organic intellectuals who held an opinion of their movement similar to those of the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci — that their followers “contained the embryo of a socialist state.” The oppressed held the key to their own future, but to attain that, they must first look upon themselves with respect.
Ambedkar, Du Bois and Garvey based their education on ‘self-respect,’ and captivated the minds of Dalits and African Americans in the same way that Gramsci encouraged the Italian working class, by expressing to them that they were the key to the developing state. The three leaders created organizations and curricula that emphasized to Dalits and African Americans that they were as dignified as any hindu and white person. They remained grounded in the reality of everyday Dalits and African Americans, and focused on creating their own parallel resources of knowledge to end their cultural exploitation.
Like Gramsci, the three men of color operated in the shadow of Marx and each embraced various forms of social programs, community projects, and state-sponsored aid. They created programs for the oppressed related to the culture of collectivity and egalitarianism which came from the pre-caste and pre-enslavement period. Du Bois taught courses on Marx and believed that capitalism was a primary cause of racism. He and Ambedkar were disappointed with mainstream socialists who they saw as prejudiced and one-dimensional. Both remained steadfast in the need for safeguards and affirmative action since they realized that simply leaning-in to private enterprise through Dalit and African American capitalism would perpetuate inequality and likely result in elite members getting co-opted.
Like Gramsci, Du Bois and Ambedkar were rigorous sociologists and political theorists while Garvey stressed African history. Du Bois and Ambedkar were brilliant intellectuals and prolific authors whose works remain relevant and well-read. Du Bois wrote one of the first scientific treatises in the field of American sociology, was a expert on the Reconstruction period, and developed many useful theories, such as ‘the wages of whiteness.” He worked with scholars and activists to establish the Niagara Movement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization that was influential in the civil rights movement for decades. Du Bois fostered several Pan African Congresses, was an ardent peace activist, and advocated for nuclear disarmament.
For Garvey, the emphasis was on self-help, mutual aid, economic development, and encouraging Africans to replace ethnic and regional identities with pan-African ones. His motto was ‘One God! One Aim! One Destiny!’ Garvey and Du Bois understood that divisive issues within Africa and its diaspora limited unity and resistance to centuries of racism and colonialism. Both viewed the African diaspora as fertile ground for developing organic African intellectuals who could articulate the ideas of pan-African consciousness that could serve to unite the continent and its people worldwide.
Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), African Communities League (ACL), and the Black Star Line. UNIA claimed four million members in 1920 and Garvey continues to be a hero in the Caribbean, especially in Jamaica. Garveyism inspired other movements, like the Nation of Islam and Rastafari groups that proclaim Garvey as a prophet.
Ambedkar was a great legal scholar and active legislator who focused on labor and gender issues. Regarded as the chief architect of India’s constitution, Ambedkar crafted reservation polices in the public sector for Dalits, women and other marginalized groups which have led to significant changes in educational access and achievements. Perhaps Ambedkar’s greatest achievement was his conversion to Buddhism and re-establishment of the religion in India among Dalits. Ambedkar’s popularity is growing and is considered a legendary hero for tens of millions of Dalit women, children and men.
Women’s Role in the Revolution
Ambedkar, Du Bois and Garvey were ardent supporters of women’s rights. Each viewed the role and liberation of women as vital aspects of their movement against subjugation, and created a space for females in their organizations and programs. The symbolism and values in women’s liberation songs and music formed an alternative culture for expressing joys and sorrows that were integral part of these movements.
Du Bois, like Frederik Douglass before him, was an ardent ally of American feminists, and wrote a famous essay, “The Damnation of Women” in 1920. In Garvey’s UNIA, women formed the backbone of the benevolent and community service functions of the organization and of its female auxiliaries, including the Black Cross Nurses crops. Ambedkar, Du Bois and Garvey were warmly nourished by women in turn, who were instrumental in the leaders’ private and public work.
Du Bois’s first wife, Nina Gomer, was devastated after losing her first child to racism among white doctors who refused to see the sick infant. She remained tireless in her devotion and managed the details of the private sphere. Du Bois had serial affairs with many accomplished women, including his second wife, Shirley Graham (1896–1977). Graham embraced Malcolm X like a son, introduced him to President Kwame Nkrumah, and was helpful in his success.
Garvey’s first wife, Amy Ashwood (1897–1969), served as the organization’s first secretary and co-founder. His second wife, Amy Jacques (1896–1973), was one of the key political leaders, archivists, and interpreters of the Garvey movement. Amy Jacques frequently represented the movement at public meetings and events and was a regular columnist in UNIA’s newspaper, The Negro World. She was a forceful advocate of women’s rights and participated in the famous Fifth Pan-African Congress held in Manchester, England, in 1945. Her 1963 book Garvey and Garveyism was partially responsible for reviving interest in the UNIA and the Garvey movement.
Garvey’s movement has separate but parallel women’s and men’s auxiliaries such as the Black Cross Nurses and the Universal African Legions. UNIA had Ladies Divisions under women’s leadership and established women’s positions on local executives and in the celebration of Women’s Day. This dual-sex UNIA structure afforded women a separate sphere of influence as well as leadership roles within the hierarchy of the women’s wings of the divisions.
Ambedkar tried to enshrine women’s rights in the political vocabulary and constitution of India and resigned from India’s Parliament to protest blockage of his bill on women’s rights. At the state level, Ambedkar played a major role in the first Maternity Benefits Act passed in India in 1929 by the Bombay legislature. At the national level as Law Minister, BRA introduced the Hindu Code Bill to Parliament in1947, the most formidable women’s rights legislative measure of modern India. The Bill sought among other reforms, to put an end to a variety of marriage systems prevailing in India and legalize only monogamous marriages. The Bill also sought to confer on women the right of property and adoption which had been denied by Hindu texts and traditional laws. The Hindu Code Bill put Indian women and men on an equal level in all legal matters.
The Bill was a threat to the male status quo and hindu patriarchy on which the traditional family structure rested, and these forces were its main opposition. A few years after his resignation, the Hindu Code Bill was later split in to four Bills, and put into law by Parliament. BRA’s focus on women’s equality provides a platform for females in the global south and global north to work together.
Women and children comprise three-quarters of the South Asian diaspora, and reproductive rights are increasingly being challenged by a resurgent Christian-right in the west and elsewhere. The 20-year sentence given to Purvi Patel for a stillbirth in the USA in 2015, and the death of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland from denial of an abortion in 2012, show that the lives of NRI women are under increasingly threat. NRI organizations can help by embracing feminist issues and mobilizing Dalit and African women to defend reproductive rights, reservations and social services globally in the face of austerity and religious attacks.
This paper explored the Indian diaspora and compared the movements led by Ambedkar, Du Bois and Garvey. People in South Asia and the diaspora are facing several existential crisis, including climate change, poverty, religious conflicts, and violence against women. With the largest diaspora in the World, there is a need for pan-South Asian, secular organizations and perspectives to address mutual survival interests.
By supporting secular institutions, the wealthy NRI community can play a positive role in developing pan-South Asian and global south connections and linkages. NRIs can help to build an alliance between African Americans, colored people, Native Americans, and white supporters in the global north and Dalits, women and oppressed communities in the global south. South Asians abroad can use the examples of Ambedkar, Du Bois, Garvey and pan-Africanism to educate and organize people in the global south and north who are subjected to sex, caste, race, ethnic, cultural and class exploitation. By coming together can, people of color can more effectively address together mutual challenges and climate mitigation.
In confronting the issue of hindu and white supremacy, both Ambedkar and Du Bois sought legal safeguards and aggressive affirmative action as solutions. Ambedkar and Garvey argued for forms of political and social separation as well. Ambedkar’s framing of systemic discrimination and his solutions to ending casteism and sexism in India can be applied to other marginalized groups around the World. In Annihilation of Caste and other writings, Ambedkar called for the State to make fundamental changes to oppressive social and gender ideologies, and to set limits on the role of religious and ideological authorities.
Ambedkar argued that the State should instead focus on equality, freedom, and community for all through education and affirmative action for disadvantaged groups. Ambedkar’s approach has relevance to women and minorities in the Global South and North, for example, African Americans. His ideas can also be used to address critical issues in North/South relations, such as economic imbalance, climate change, and migration.
i Seenarine, M. 1996. “Recasting Indian Women in Colonial Guiana.”
ii Wikipedia. “Caste system in India.” Accessed June 1st, 2017 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caste_system_in_India
iii A Sanskrit word which means type, order, colour or class. The term refers to social classes in Brahminical books like the Manusmriti.
iv Jāti is a group of communities and religions in India. Each jāti typically has an association with a traditional job function. The term is derived from the Sanskrit jāta, ‘born’ or ‘brought into existence,’ and indicates a form of existence determined by birth.
v According to the 2010 US census, more than 3.4 million people trace their heritage to South Asia, making them one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in the country.
vi Jerome Campbell. 2014. “Non-Resident Indians Influence Their Home Country’s Election From Abroad.” Annenberg Media Center, May 28
vii Carolyn Henning Brown. 1981. “Demographic Constraints on Caste: A Fiji Indian Example.” American Ethnologist, Vol. 8, №2 (May), pp. 314–328
viii R G Par. “The fallacy of the caste system in Mauritius.” Lex Press, Jun 7
ix In 1888 in Brazil