The Cultural Erasure of Caste: Ambedkar, Dalit Panthers, and Global Networks of Solidarity
As Hindus across the world celebrated Holi last week, few contended with the anti-feminist and caste-ridden roots of this internationally observed spring festival. According to the Puranas (sacred literature written by the ancient Hindus), Holi commemorates the immolation of a Bahujan woman, Holika, by a racially pure, morally virtuous, upper-caste male Hindu deity. As part of contemporary Holi festivities, in several regions of India, a scarecrow is set on fire the night before Holi—a practice called Holika-Dahan—to recreate the mythological burning of Holika. On the morning of Holi, the smearing and drenching of colours wash away the sins of the past. The popular lore of Holi symbolises a neat victory of the racially pristine and morally virtuous Aryan Hindu over the evil of the indigenous, local, and ‘lower’ races—the ancestors of present-day India’s religious and caste minorities. Especially ironic is the memorialization of the violent death of a minority woman through boorish revelry on what happened to be International Women’s Day in 2023. As the uncomfortable relationship between Holi and sexual harassment—non-consensual touch in the spirit of festivity and fun—begins to gain social credence in the light of #MeToo, it is crucial to reflect upon the pervasive presence of anti-caste violence within dominant religio-cultural practices.
Pradnya Waghule, of Bahujan Lives Matter, writes of their family history surrounding Holi:
“Though my family makes puran poli (a sweet flatbread usually made with milk) for Holi and celebrates Holi—Brahminization in full display—there is a reason we make gulavani (non-dairy syrup) with it, while my savarna (upper-caste) friends do not. They have puran poli with milk. Our gulavani is a carry-over from the times when my family did not have access to milk. Because the culture around me is silent on caste, I could not make sense of my own life practices.”
Despite the cultural erasure of caste within our communities, there is a global reckoning of the structural subjugation of lower castes in politics, law, and academia. Last month the city of Seattle in Washington state became the first jurisdiction in the United States to add caste to its list of categories protected against discrimination. In 2022, Brown University became the first of the Ivy League universities to add caste to its campus-wide non-discrimination policy (Title IX), following in the footsteps of Brandeis, California State, and others. Such legal outcomes are the concerted efforts of grassroots anti-caste organizers in South Asia and the diaspora—including groups such as Equality Labs, Bahujan Lives Matter, and the International Dalit Solidarity Network. Their activism is rooted in the legacy of the Dalit Panthers, a political organization that was inspired by the Black Panthers’ revolution against racial apartheid in the U.S. during the Civil Rights era. The Dalit Panther manifesto, published in 1973, paid tribute to Babasaheb Ambedkar and interpreted his ideals of strategic political confrontation as a call to action against Hindu feudalism and American capitalism, and rejected the Hindu ideology and cultural symbolism upon which the caste system is predicated.
Today, history textbooks are all too hasty to paint a decontextualized, white-washed, and nationalistic picture of Ambedkar as the Father of the Indian constitution with no allusion to his role in building the anti-caste movement. Meanwhile, civics and political science textbooks discuss constitutionally mandated reservations for caste minorities without unveiling the historical, cultural, and religious structures that deem such protections necessary.
Ideas and Resources for the Classroom
This week, we bring to you two teaching resources on caste from History for Peace. First is a classroom module titled Shades of Resistance, that connects the revolutionary Black Panther movement against the racial caste system in the US to the Dalit Panther movement against Hindu cultural and social oppression. Developed by our former associate, Ranita Ray, this module encourages you to sensitize your students on transnational and intersectional solidarity networks and collectively reflect upon the violent relations between resistance movements and the structures of power they oppose. Through this module, by nurturing empathy for caste and race minorities and fostering the pursuit of restorative justice for their histories, you can raise a collective conscience within the classroom against all forms of contemporary political, social, and cultural marginalizations.
Second is a lesson plan based on a workshop facilitated by History for Peace titled Engaging with Bhimayana: An introduction to the life and work of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Through the world-reputed graphic novel on the life of Ambedkar, this lesson plan seeks to contextualize and nuance the monolithic narrative on Ambedkar and constitution writing that is commonly relayed in the classroom. This module will help you discuss the role of art and literature in history writing, complicate the nationalistic portrayal of heroic historical figures, confront ideas of cultural, religious, and social power—such as that of caste—within the classroom and explore how they affect your positionalities as history teachers and students.
Here are some related teaching–learning resources that may also interest you: Equality Labs: Why Do We Say No to Holi? A Guide to Challenge Casteism Dalit Panthers Manifesto The Indy: The Utopian Snare—Racial and caste capitalism’s tussle with Dalit liberation in India NYU Archives: India's Dalit Panthers CNN: Seattle becomes the first city in the US to ban caste discrimination
Share your Classroom Practices and Ideas with us!
Grounded in contemporary events that are of interest and knowledge to your students—be it a family ritual at Holi, a recent incident of caste-based lynching that hit the headlines, or a legal victory for caste minorities in the diaspora—you can find several inroads to raising this crucial conversation on caste in your classroom, and embed it into your courses on the history of Indian culture and constitutionalism.
We urge you to use these modules in your classrooms and we look forward to receiving your perspectives, and the insights of your students. Please feel free to share with us alternative ideas about teaching modules, dialogues, and formal and informal discussions through which you communicate about caste with your students. As always, we eagerly await your feedback!