Dismantling Casteism & Racism Symposium

Continuing the Unfinished Legacy of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

Saturday, October 12, 2019 (10AM – 3PM)


“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 Asian/Pacific Islander American (A/PIA) Studies Program and the Ambedkar Association of North America (AANA). 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.  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 casteism 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 non-upper-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 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.

In the end, the symposium brought together a number of communities not only at the University of Michigan and Metro-Detroit region, but from across the country. 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.