from rag picking to ragging : a case of Hindu fundamentalism in US textbooks

imageThis reflection was written upon watching testimonials for textbook edits hosted by the California Department of Education @cadepted

This reflection is in support of the South Asian Histories for All @DesiHistory4All campaigners tirelessly advocating for the critical and secular analysis of caste and patriarchy in the representation of South Asia – contending the Hindu American Foundation @HinduAmerican

Please follow the handles and hashtags provided

#donteraseindia #donterasedalit #southasianhistoriesforall #islamophobiainca

A couple South Asian American school boys’ testimonies at the @cadepted hearing relating an image of a Indian ragpicker amongst heaps of trash as a bullying tactic at U.S. schools speaks volumes about caste in the diaspora

The rag picker image is a favorite go to one Indian kids are bullied with at school. I can almost roll my eyes at the number of times I’ve heard it. This joke is rooted in not only the western colonial domination of India but is also disturbing in its derision of poor people in general. Within the white supremacist rooting of the U.S. this tactic makes sense: it’s both racist and classist. What is silent is the legacy of caste behind this image cum reality.

Why does being associated with ragpickers get met with such defensiveness by South Asian children? Do whole generations choose to rag pick as a profession? Might we ask instead what conditions of socially sanctioned economic violence force whole peoples to that fate? That livelihood?

In fact, rag pickers are formally known as manual scavengers, a socially stratefied and state sanctioned group in the Hindu caste system condemning people in this caste to bleak livelihoods. Should not this impunity of economic violence be condemned?

The boys testifying were likely not of the manual scavenging caste: in fact, to even be here as Hindu South Asians there is little acknowledgement of the tremendous amount of privilege that supports such a relocation. It is not through sheer hard work that upper caste South Asians are in the top 2% of this nation’s income bracket. Migrating between countries is tough for anyone but to thrive in a new country one brings various degrees of capital: it can be traced that upper caste Hindu immigrants have substantially more capital than lower caste, Dalit, indigenous South Asian families living here. Upper caste Hindus have benefitted for millenia from a legacy of extracting resources labor and land from indigenous and people labeled undesirable at some point in history and condemned without caste.  And as the state sanction of caste is alive and well in South Asia, any living South Asian family of caste continues to benefit. Back to the image of the manual scavenger: It seems, then, Stateside, caste Hindus can’t stomach our own bad medicine when it follows us. While it might be difficult to stomach, let’s imagine being condemned to such a life of violently enforced poverty from birth. And how is this poverty policed by Hindu hegemony?

Hindu teachings are centered on an unforgiving cycle of birth, where one is born to caste or no caste based on past life doings. The evil and uncouth are born low caste or out of caste. They are deemed spiritually polluting and associated as deserving of physical defilement. Because we’re taught as casted people that we must maintain levels of purity is it surprising these boys want to distance themselves from the dirty polluting manual scavenger? The entitlement in these boys to be embarrassed at the image shows how Hindu children (boys particularly. Boys are valued over girls. Very upper caste boys become priests in South Asian versions of Hindu patriarchy.) are raised obsessing over “polluting” agents, including but not limited to, domestic workers, drug abusers, city sanitation workers, women (menstruation is apparently polluting), and meat eaters (the Hindu right is violently enforcing caste through diet by attacking low-caste and adivasi people in India known to harvest meat for their livelihoods today). In writing this article I am testifying to lived experience interacting with casteist Hindu men. I don’t tend to court Hindu peers in general so it’s especially noticeable that not an interaction happens without some offhand remark to this effect. That makes these schoolboy testimonies particularly alarming and indeed painful because these boys are growing up groomed to perpetrate these violent supremacist teachings in the name of shame and with an unacknowledged socially sanctioned agency to always sterilize in the name of cleanliness. (And this doesn’t even begin to cover the ever saturation of islamophobia.)

Where, then, is our humanity as casted people? How do we teach our children to lead with theirs?

Bullying based on race happens. I was bullied mercilessly growing up in the South and Midwest in the late 80s-late 90s both by students and administration and even beyond into my higher education studies. I have also witnessed first hand how Hindu boys in the diaspora struggle with toxic masculinity especially as they are also effiminized through orientalist iconography. They grow up to struggle as adults. As a South Asian womxn I know because I’ve had to deal with it in the most intimate spaces with casted desi men. Their fragility, especially those who are additionally upper caste, is much left to be desired. Desi womxn (including upper caste desi womxn) bear the brunt on three fronts – toxic Brahmanism, patriarchy and white supremacy. It’s a terrible cocktail and one faced by many other diasporic communities, each with their own brand.

Bullying happens at the intersections. And there must absolutely be zero tolerance for it. However, let’s not use white supremacist bullying as a guise to raise Hindu children into becoming fundamentalist bullies. There are ways to model how to handle bullying. Why must we be embarrassed when we as South Asian Americans could use the opportunity that is a racially-motivated bullying incident to acknowledge a violent caste history instead? How else to eradicate this horrible legacy of the hegemonical cisheteroendogamopatriachal supremacy that is Hindu caste? And white supremacy with it! Let’s embrace it as a challenge. Denial with power behind it is willfully hateful to those that power was and continues to be leveraged against.

Update since hearing: the 5 edits removing islamophobic content were all adopted. Only 4/5 regarding caste denial was corrected, the most important one: keeping caste rooted in Hinduism. Further action being planned. Stay tuned.

You can find me tweeting @thirdeyefell