Three times Indian Dalit and American POC movements were awesome together

Ed. note: This post originally included an image, by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, that we did not have permission to use. We apologize for this mistake and deeply regret the way it fits into a long history of appropriation of marginalized people’s creative labor.

Last November, a group of American and Indian student activists took to the streets in front of the American Embassy in Delhi, India to protest racial violence from Ferguson, Missouri to New York, New York. 

Consisting of international and Indian students from Jawaharlal Nehru University, they protested in solidarity with POC in the United States who were rising up against police violence. A couple of my friends — white Americans and Americans of color studying abroad, and Indian leftist student activists — organized the protest, and when I heard of it, I felt all the gooey warm and fuzzy love and exhilaration feelings that come when you know that little by little, through great effort, the world can change.

The slogan of the protest: “Black lives matter, Dalit lives matter.”

For those of us unfamiliar with Indian caste politics: “Dalit” is a political term for the group most oppressed under the hierarchical Hindu caste system. The protest was thus not only about racist violence in the United States, but about the ways that different systems of discrimination are connected around the world.

It’s a connection with a long history: American POC — and particularly Black liberation — movements and Indian Dalit liberation movements have long been in solidarity. Over the years — and still today — there have been communications between movement leaders, sharing of protest strategies and news, and general badassery.

Last week I wrote about transnational feminist and social justice solidarity as something that’s fuck necessary and fuck difficult. But never fear! Because it does happen, and it’s happening all around us, and fuck, when it does it is so beautiful. The Ferguson protest in front of the American Embassy is one of my all-time favorite personal examples of a transnational collaborative event that took into account both individual context and global connections to oppose violence.

Collaboration between American POC and Dalit activists help us understand how oppression across the world is both contextual and culturally-specific, but how it shares similar histories and operates according to similar logics — in this case, histories of forced labor, lynching, colonization and exclusion; and logics of contamination and pollution.

We can see examples of this interrelatedness in American anti-miscegenation laws and strictures against inter-caste marriage; in histories of forced Black American and Dalit labor; in contemporary debates over race-based affirmative action and caste-based reservations in university admissions and government workplaces; and in the way that sexualized violence is structured into both caste and race-based systems of exclusion.

We can also see in these collaborations, of course, examples of hope — like the nifty ones below.

Ambedkar and DuBois

In this chapter of cutest bffls the world has ever seen, did we all know that W.E.B DuBois and B.R. Ambedkar — the renowned Dalit leader and one of the most badass authors of the Indian state (move over, Gandhi) — were pen pals?

Okay, so they weren’t, like, writing long letters to each other about their daily routines and love affairs and lunch (“Hey Broster, went out for dinner, here is a selfie of me except I had to draw it because it’s the early twentieth century and selfies haven’t been invented yet”), but! We do know that there were several historical connections between the two.

Ambedkar actually got an MA at Columbia, so it’s likely he had a sense of what was going down culturally and politically in nearby Harlem. While historians can only speculate about the influence this exposure must have had on his work, Ambedkar knew what was up enough with Black Americans’ struggle to reach out to DuBois for political advice.

In the exchange, Ambedkar asks about a U.N. petition DuBois and the National Negro Congress made to the U.N., and both leaders express their political bro-crushes for each other:

“There is so much similarly between the position of the Untouchables in India and of the position of the Negroes in American that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary,” wrote Ambedkar.

DuBois responded by telling Ambedkar that he was familiar with his name, and that he had “every sympathy with the Untouchables of India.”

Not only is this exchange heartwarming as shit, it reveals that globalization is not a sudden game changer in social movements, but that marginalized groups across the world have long been aware of and in solidarity with each other’s struggles. Wahoo!

The Dalit Panthers

Yup, that’s right: There was a Dalit activist group directly inspired by and named after the Black Panthers. Founded in 1972 in Mumbai by Dalit activists Namdeo Dhasal and J V Pawar, the group was recognized by and supported by the Black Panther party. They also helped popularize the use of the term “Dalit,” which literally means “crushed/suppressed/stepped on,” rather than “untouchable” or Gandhi’s term “Harijan” (“Child of God”) as a radical, politicized way to discuss their caste oppression.

The contemporary remnants of the group still have a site, with manifesto, that you can peruse at your leisure.

The Dalit Women’s Self-Respect Tour

Lest you think Dalit-American POC solidarity is a thing of the past — enter the Dalit Women’s Self-Respect Tour. Composed of a group of Dalit women, including activists Manisha Devi, Sanghapali Aruna and Asha Kowta, the tour, or yatra in Hindi, has already traveled throughout India in 2014 raising awareness of caste-based violence. The activists seek to promote recognition of both the brutality of casteism and of the ways in which Dalit women — often left out of the feminist conversation — are disproportionately affected by and active around issues of sexual violence. The tour has already travelled through a bunch of North American cities, hosted by various American feminist, anti-racist, and social justice groups, and you can follow what they’re up to now on their Facebook.

In case you were waiting for this to get even more awesome, here is a picture of the Dalit Women activists presenting a photo to Angela Davis. 

Now let us all feel angry, happy, world-changing feelings.

Header image credit: Patheos

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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