“Jai Bhim! Jai Martin Luther King!” So began Professor Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s address to a packed audience at the Michigan League on Saturday, October 12. Invoking Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and Dr. Martin Luther King—two stalwarts in the global struggle against racism and casteism—Professor Shepherd kicked off a full-day of presentations and discussions for the symposium “Dismantling Casteism & Racism: Continuing the Unfinished Legacy of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.” The event was a first-ever collaboration between the Ambedkar Association of North America (AANA) and University of Michigan’s Program in Asian/Pacific Islander American (A/PIA) Studies. Aimed at building solidarity and examining issues that pertain to the Dalit community in South Asia, the symposium explored the politics of dignity and equal rights for marginalized communities in a global context with an emphasis on intersections with issues of gender, race, and religion. As the organizers put it, “We seek to strengthen conversations between scholars, activists, and practitioners in analyzing caste-based discrimination and violence in South Asia and beyond.”
The Vandenberg room of the Michigan League was filled with nearly one-hundred audience members, including guests from California, Chicago, Toronto, Indiana and Kentucky. Two longtime activists of the Ambedkarite movement, Dr. Velu Annamalai (Washington, DC) and Dr. Gary Bagha (Sacramento) were also in attendance. During a reception held in Sterling Heights on Friday, Dr. Annamalai—the former executive director of the International Dalit Forum—spoke about his early years as an activist for the Dalit cause when he first immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1960s.
Dr. Annamalai described his efforts lecturing across the country to African American audiences about the struggle against casteism and penning editorials in Indian-American newspapers that challenged the benevolent image of Gandhi by highlighting his record of anti-Black racism and his role in undermining Dalit self-determination.
The Saturday morning session featured speeches from Professor Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, who recently retired from the Center for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at Maulana Azad University, and Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the director of Equality Labs and former director of AANA in the U.S. One of India’s most prominent anti-caste intellectuals, Shepherd spoke about the “spiritual fascism” that undergirds caste practice and sharply criticized the virulent Hindu nationalism of modern India that continues to persecute and disenfranchise the Dalitbahujan community. Continuing these themes, Soundararajan discussed the role of “Hindu fascism” in proliferating a climate of violence and hatred towards Dalits, Muslims, Christians, and other nonupper-caste communities. Her presentation displayed examples of the proliferation of hate speech against Muslims and Dalits on social media as well as the bipartisan inroads that the Hindu Right have made in U.S. electoral politics. Her presentation asked a captivated audience to consider, “What does it mean to be an Ambedkarite during a time of fascism?” “It means more than just coming to a conference,” Soundararajan explained, imploring the audience to consider how to
continue the struggle against casteism and Hindutva outside of ivory tower spaces.
An afternoon session featured three panelists who discussed more personal impacts of casteism, colorism, and racism by focusing on the role of mental health. Ankita Nikalje, M.S., M.Ed, a doctoral candidate at the College of Education at Purdue, described her personal experiences of living as a Dalit woman and connected her narrative to recent studies which highlight the rampant caste-based discrimination in the Asian-Indian immigrant community in the U.S in education, employment, local businesses, places of worship, and interpersonal relationships. Professor Ronald Hall from Michigan State University, whose scholarship has focused on the role of “colorism” in the African American community, drew connections between colorism and caste in South Asia. The final panelist, Professor Gaurav Pathania from George Washington University, explored the ways that student activism in India has empowered Ambedkarite scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and OBC students to construct a new narrative to counter the mainstream narratives of Hindu mythology within the sacred spaces of higher education. He closed the afternoon panel with a recitation of his poem, “The Moon Mirrors a Manhole” (“चाँद मैनहोल सा लगता है”). To conclude the event, Mahesh Wasnik, a co-founder of the AANA and symposium organizer, presented plaques and a copy of the Indian constitution to each of the panelists.
The symposium was the culmination of a conversation that began in January 2019, initiated by Mahesh Wasnik and Vivek Chavan of AANA in coordination with Professor Manan Desai of UM’s A/PIA Studies program. In the end, the symposium brought together a number of communities not only at the University of Michigan and Metro-Detroit region, but nationally. It was sponsored by community organizations including the Periyar-Ambedkar Circle, the American Federation of Muslims of Indian Origin, and the Association for India’s Development. A long list of University of Michigan sponsors also generously funded and supported the event, including A/PIA Studies, the Department of American Culture, the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Rackham’s DEA Programmatic Support Fund, the LSA Humanities Institute Mini Grant for Public Humanities, the Center for South Asian Studies, the Department of English Language & Literature, the Department of Comparative Literature, the Center for South Asian Studies, the Department of History, the Global Scholars Program, and the Barger Leadership Institute.
The organizers especially thank the following individuals who made the event possible: Vivek Chavan, Rakesh Raipure, Chatak Dhakne, Prabhu Karan, Dinesh Pal, Ganganithi Sivapandian, Sandeep Kulkarni, Anshul Sontakke, Rohit Meshram, Bikash, and Bipin.