Boston event links Black Liberation and Palestinian movements with the Anti-Caste Struggle

September 24, 2015 by  
Filed under newsletter-india

Anti-Caste-StruggleBoston, September 21, 2015: The #DalitWomenFight United States tour reached Boston on Saturday, September 19th, 2015 with a panel titled “Dalit Women Fight – Moving Beyond Caste Apartheid” at Encuentro5, a collaborative project and space for progressive movement building in downtown. An estimated 70 people attended.

The speakers were Yamila Shannan – a Harvard educated Palestinian teacher and activist, Nina LaNegra – an Afro-Mexican-Indigenous leader who produces a long-standing Boston-based radio show and open mic, and Brandi Artez, an activist with #blacklivesmatter and Mass Coalition Against Police Brutality. They were joined by Asha Kowtal, Vee Kay, Manisha Mashaal and Anjum Singh from the Dalit Women Fight collective, who are promoting awareness about and fighting caste-based sexual violence against women in India. The panel was moderated by Dolly Arjun, a Boston based activist and member of Survivor Theater Project.

Yamila Shannan said from her experience with oppressive systems in Palestine, the U.S. and Latin America, those in power build an ideology of the ‘other’ – and give it different names but the power group themselves remain nameless and are never a subject of study. In this way the powerful want to remain unnamed because their culture, ideology, and way of life are the “normal,” and so the ‘other’ is abnormal. In this system everything that the oppressed group does is subject to comment, analysis, scrutiny, and diagnosis and are often blamed for their plight. However, the power group escapes the same scrutiny because they are ‘the normal’. She said this invisibility and normalization is ‘perfect power.’

Dr. Shannan also cautioned that the role of the state in oppressive systems is sometimes overlooked or underestimated or sometimes oppressed groups look to the state for justice; the same state that sanctions their oppression. She reminded that the key functions of the state (health, schooling, housing, judiciary, policing, etc.) are in hands of the powerful groups and are thus designed and administered in ways that make it inevitable that the benefits of access to those resources accrues to those groups. Emphasizing the centrality of land ownership as a key course and indicator of power, Dr. Shannan argued that calling the judicial system a ‘justice’ system masks the role of the law and the state in creating and sustaining oppressive systems and structures.

Vee Kay, who is a transnational activist with All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch, and is coordinating the North American Self-Respect tour, explained that caste originated in Hindu scripture in Rig Veda which describes that Brahmins were formed from head and Dalits from feet. She said hierarchy is intrinsic in this system. She explained that knowledge, wealth, power and land are concentrated in the top of the caste hierarchy even though they are a numerical minority.

Nina LaNegra shared that as a practicing Buddhist for last 40 years she was horrified to see a system like caste which does not even believe in the basic principle that all humans are equal. She continued that it was sad to see that Buddhism which believed in equality was overthrown by Hinduism in India and caste was introduced in the land where Buddhism was born. Ms. La Negra said that maintaining independent self-identity of oppressed groups is a crucial part of the struggle and was interested in learning more about the ‘Mulnivasi’ or ‘original inhabitant’ discourse in the anti-caste movement.

Asha Kowtal said that they have been working on sexual caste atrocity cases for the last four years and are confronted repeatedly with systematic caste bias in India’s judiciary and law enforcement system from the top to the bottom. She stated that while the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocity Act was a progressive law passed 25 years ago, the conviction rate for cases of violence against Dalits remains less than one percent. Dalit women continue to face direct threats, harassment, negligence, and non-cooperation from the law enforcement and judiciary. She said that they were now at a crucial juncture and thinking about how to proceed because the legal system is proving time and again to be hostile and unable to serve the quest for minimum justice for those who have experienced the brutalities of caste-based sexual violence.

Ms. Kowtal added that being a Dalit woman multiplies the effect of belonging to only one category. She said that the feminist movement In India primarily articulates the concerns of upper-caste women and the caste question is never seriously on the agenda. Similarly, within the Dalit movement, she said that the caste-gender intersection was often invisibilized.

Brandi Artez from Black Lives Matter Boston said that she was inspired by the Dalit women led movement in India and hoped that Black Women could form such national movements to articulate their interests independently. She said Black Women’s concerns are often not given proper space in the movement. She emphasized that a member of an oppressed group can behave in oppressive manners too. She said that as a Black woman the oppression from the system was very similar to the stories of Dalit women in that their communities were subjected to ideological violence because the dominant culture is attempting to erase their history permanently.

Manisha Mashaal, a state leader, said that she became involved when there were incidents on 40 gang rape cases of Dalit women and girls reported over a period of only 1 month in Haryana. She was shocked to find that in most of the cases even a simple FIR (First Information Report) has not been filed by the police and the families were living in fear. In one case, to persuade the authorities to conduct, what should have been a routine autopsy, on a Dalit girl who was raped and killed they had to protest for seven whole days. She contrasted this to the Delhi rape case of a dominant-caste girl that elicited international outcry and coverage and where the body was flown to an international hospital for autopsy.

Anjum Singh described working in remote areas in Uttar Pradesh where extreme caste-based feudal systems prevailed. There were entire villages where there was not a single person of any age who was literate and in these areas there was extreme vulnerability to sexual violence from dominant castes.

Both young activists described many instances where they were threatened and intimidated by dominant castes collaborating with police who followed them constantly. Their vehicles had been attacked and they operate in a climate of fear even to go on a fact-finding mission after an atrocity case. However, Ms. Mashaal said that she was not prepared to stay at home out of fear and that if she was killed tomorrow she would rather die as a leader than as a victim. She also said that if she is killed for speaking up about caste-based atrocities in India she hopes that before she dies she will inspire a thousand other such Manishas to raise their voices.

The panel was followed by a question and answer session where attendees wanted to learn more about the caste system and other aspects of Dalit struggles. The standing-room only audience was diverse and the majority was not South Asian. Audience members were visibly moved and many stayed afterwards interacting one-on-one with panelists. Critically acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning Dominican-American writer, MIT Professor, and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Junot Díaz was also in the audience and expressed his admiration and support for the panelists. Díaz said that the event was “profoundly important on one level – a master class in the kind of community education and solidarity building that keeps so many of us alive in our communities, but also for the important knowledge about Dalit Women’s struggles without which I am not sure one can really understand what’s going on in the “Shining India”.

The event was locally co-sponsored by the Association for India’s Development Boston, Dorchester People for Peace, FANG North East, Grassroots International, Haley House, Survivor Theater Project and Activist Calendar, who provided financial, logistical and outreach support, and co-organized by Pampi and Loreto Paz Ansaldo, local community artists, activists and educators.

– tcn

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