Approximately 50 people gathered in the Vandenberg Room at the Michigan League  Saturday to discuss the ongoing role Hinduism plays in casteism both in India and abroad. The event, “Dismantling Casteism and Racism: A Symposium,” was organized by the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Program and several other University of Michigan organizations in cooperation with the Michigan chapter of the Ambedkar Association of North America. 


The symposium aimed to celebrate and continue the work of B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit Indian statesman famously known as the Architect of India’s Constitution. Dalits, otherwise known as the Untouchables, are considered excluded or at the lowest level of the Hindu caste system and face discrimination and violence in South Asian communities. Ambedkar sought to fight caste-based discrimination through activist and legal processes, becoming a leader for the movement in opposition to casteism. 


Manan Desai, assistant professor of Asian/Pacific Islander studies and American culture, moderated the panel, providing opening remarks on the importance of analyzing the complacency that gives rise to Hindu oppression of different ethnic groups. 


“For those of us who have historically enjoyed the privileges — the generational privilege approved of being the right color, or holding privileged caste and racial identities — it is an important time to consider what it truly means to commit to dismantling the institutionalized forms of oppression,” Desai said. “What are the harsh truths that we need to hear internalized and be mobilized by? While progressive-minded South Asians might challenge white supremacy, in what ways can they or we turn a blind eye to Hindu fundamentalism, which is responsible for the ongoing atrocities and lynchings of Dalits and Muslims?”


Desai introduced the panel’s first speaker, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, who is the current director of the study of social exclusion and inclusive policy at Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad, India. Shepherd explained activists and South Asians in the United States influence protests and debates in India.


“It is very significant that in America, whatever happens makes news in India,” Shepherd said. “And whatever happens here impacts our lives on almost (a) daily basis. It is in this situation where India is going through a crisis with the coming of the most rapid anti-human forces in power. This battle has to carried to (a) logical end … therefore this conference is very, very important.”


Shepherd, a member of the Sudra caste, commented on Ambedkar’s legacy in supporting those like him who were members of a lower caste. He described Ambedkar’s philosophy that underlying beliefs in Hinduism support caste discrimination.


“Annihilation of caste, or destruction of caste, as Ambedkar said, is not possible without dismantling or destroying Hinduism as a religion … Hinduism does not reform, does not change because of the structural problems in the religion,” Shepherd said.


These problems, as Shepherd argued, include Hinduism’s theory of the origin of human existence. He described Buddhism and Christianity as religions that both function as a “spiritual democracy” in which divine forces create all humans indiscriminately. Hinduism, Shepherd claims, is a system of “spiritual fascism” inasmuch as it alleges God only created Indians and created each caste from a different part of the human body, establishing a system of inequality inherent to the religion.


Shepherd continued his criticism of Hinduism by arguing other countries prospered because “dignity of labor” was integral to their religions. He described how Brahmins — considered high caste citizens — lack this sentiment and enjoy the production of other castes.


“Brahmins never worked in the field in production from childhood onwards,” Shepherd said. “But they consume the best food. They drink the milk of both cows and buffalos and abuse buffalo and bison … therefore Ambedkar said, ‘All this philosophy needs to be rooted out.’ Then caste begins to dismantle.” 


The symposium featured four other speakers, including activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan and three other speakers from universities in the United States. 


Rackham student Shalmali Jadhav came to the event because her research centers upon the intersection of racism and casteism, and Desai, one of the organizers, is her adviser. Jadhav expressed appreciation for the decision to include both a researcher and a professor in the discussion.


“I think it’s always really important for researchers and activists to be in conversation so that researchers can provide the kind of frameworks that activists need and also figure out how to make their research relevant to the ground reality,” Jadhav said.

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