A History of Pride
Being a Visible Ambedkarite
By Dadasaheb Tandale |
FEBRUARY 10, 2021
I distinctly remember a conversation in my 4th grade classroom in which the teacher asked everyone their caste in order to fill out a form for the upcoming state board exams. When my turn came, I innocently told him that I did not know what “caste” meant. Irritated, he asked me what god I prayed to in my home. “Dr. Ambedkar,” I said. My classmates laughed; I really did not know why. My cousin, who was a year older than me and in the same class, came to my rescue, saying, “We are Mahars.” The satisfied teacher decided to move on, but just then another of my classmates looked back at us and sniggered: “Oh Mahars—they come to my house to clean cow shit every day.” Another roll of laughter from my classmates. That was the last day I spoke to that “friend.”
Later that evening, while being comforted by my father, I was told about my real identity. My father said to me, “Our family converted to Buddhism with Dr. Ambedkar. We have left our Dalit-hood behind; we are not Mahars anymore. If we are anything, we are Ambedkarites and Buddhists. You believe that no matter what anyone else says.” And that has stayed with me. But so, has my caste identity, whether I like it or not. From trying to be a support for students from Dalit and Tribal (indigenous) communities during my undergraduate years, to fighting against discrimination in the Chennai disaster relief programs after the 2004 tsunami as a volunteer, the demon of caste has continued to cross my path. Just as Dr. Ambedkar said it would.
As a true Ambedkarite, I have always actively resisted caste, which is a derogatory, hierarchical system of oppression that denies the humanity of a whole section of the population. My own ambition was to come to the U.S. to do a Ph.D., just like Dr. Ambedkar. When I was asked about my motivation to apply for the Ph.D. program at the School of Global Inclusion and Social Development at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, I said upfront, “I want to experience a caste-less society for once in my life.” To some extent, that is something I have experienced, with my peers, with my faculty, and in my day-to-day encounters with strangers. It has been liberating to my soul.
But I have also realized that most South Asians who migrated to the United States after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act were from the dominant castes and class, for obvious reasons of social and economic capital. The second and third generations of South Asians do not know much about the heinous caste system at all; either they were protected from their low caste identity from their parents due to fear of being “outed” or their dominant caste privilege meant they did not care about caste discrimination ongoing in various parts of the world. Collectively, knowingly or unknowingly, they have been painting the South Asian diaspora with colors of “traditional culture” and “festivals” which invisibilize my existence, just as my peers did in 4th grade. Only this time, I am stronger and know better than to be confused and scared. I refuse to be invisiblized anymore.
In my Archival Fellows project, I will work with Ambedkarite community members from different walks of life including students, working professionals, faculty members, entrepreneurs and artists; bringing in individuals from different castes, classes, religions and geographic regions to build a rich oral history project of the Ambedkarite movement in the U.S. I intend to explore individual and communal senses of Ambedkarite identity, various forms of discrimination faced by the community, and the forms of resistance adopted and enacted against the oppressive caste dynamics in the U.S. The experiences of Ambedkarites are unique to the South Asian American community, as they navigate their life with both a sense of oppression and the determination to resist that oppression.
With oral narratives and physical records from community members, I intend to create a rich history of the Ambedkarite movement that captures the stories of struggle and labors of love building the Ambedkarite movement. The project will not only help in preserving the legacy of Ambedkarite struggle for the next generations, but also build a sense of pride in the community.
My aim is to counter the erasure of the Ambedkarite community. I refuse to paint all South Asians with the same brush of “brown people.” It is easier to take the label of “oppressed” than to own one’s privilege. I want to actively act against the privilege which prevents some from fighting a system which dehumanizes their fellow beings. I want to contribute to the creation of a counterculture in which Ambedkarites are celebrated and in which new subjects believing in the values of equality, fraternity, and liberty are formed.
Over a century ago, a strong-willed anti-caste advocate came to the United States. He changed all of our lives, including mine. If Dr. Ambedkar could openly stand up against the injustice of caste, making connections with communities working towards the uplift of the most vulnerable when he arrived in the United States in 1913 all alone, I too can make a change in the visibility of Ambedkarites today. Jai Bhim!
Dadasaheb Tandale (he/him) is an advocate for social justice and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at School of Global Inclusion and Social Development at University of Massachusetts, Boston. He is a part of the Board of Directors in Boston Study Group, a U.S. based Ambedkarite organization. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation