Aathira Konikkara

On 11 May 2023, the California State Senate passed SB 403, a bill introduced by Senator Aisha Wahab. It aims to add caste as a protected category to the state’s existing laws that prohibit exclusionary practices in housing, employment, and education.

It was approved with a near-unanimous vote of 34-1 and is currently in the state assembly for consideration. If the bill is also approved by Governor Gavin Newsom, California—which is home to nearly two million people of South-Asian descent—will become the first state in the United States to effectively ban caste-based discrimination.

The bill was met with virulent opposition from far-right Hindu groups that portrayed it as a cultural affront. A collective backed by the Vishva Hindu Parishad of America claimed that “the bill perpetuates the colonial narrative of ‘caste,’” and would “lead to harassment, discrimination, bullying and violence against Hindus.” In April, the Hindu American Foundation, a non-profit that claims to advocate for Hindus in the United States, argued in a letter to Wahab that the proposed legislation could potentially deny “due process as a result of prejudicial presumption of wrongdoing for those South Asians not identifying as nor perceived to be ‘caste-oppressed.’”

Wahab is the first Afghan-American and Muslim person to be elected to California’s state senate. She faced violent threats and Islamophobic slurs soon after she introduced the bill in March. Vinod Kumar Chumber—the chairman of the San Francisco Bay Area’s chapter of the Shri Guru Ravidass Sabha, or SGRD Sabha, which derives its name from the fifteenth-century saint and poet revered by the Dalit community—recalled that such organisations, “protested outside her office saying that there is no caste in America.” Chumber told me that institutions and people who supported the bill, including members of the Ravidassia community—a caste-oppressed group among Sikhs—defended the initiative in response. “We demonstrated in support of Wahab outside her office,” he said.

By the end of April, before the state senate’s Judiciary Committee voted in favour of the proposed legislation, hundreds of people, both supporters and opponents of the bill, appeared at the hearing. Individuals from caste-marginalised communities provided powerful testimonies about their experiences of systemic social exclusion. “All the gurudwara committees coordinated with each other. We organised meetings and educated our people, saying that this is what is going on and that we need to get ready to go the State office to vote for SB 403,” Chumber recalled.

The passage of the bill in California reflects the success of a constellation of diverse organisations and individuals working towards caste equity in the United States. As Thenmozhi Soundararajan—the co-founder and executive director of the Dalit civil-rights organisation Equality labs—noted in an essay for The Caravan, the movement is “inter-caste, inter-faith and multi-racial, with Dalit Ambedkarite feminist activists at the core.” Chumber hailed the development as a major achievement when I spoke to him a few hours after the state senate voted in favour of the bill. Maya Kamble, a founding member and president of the anti-caste organisation Ambedkar Association of North America, hoped that the victories achieved through the work of anti-caste activists in the United States would infuse fresh momentum into such efforts in parts of India, where she believed the movement was not as active has it had once been under the stewardship of the iconic Bahujan politician Kanshi Ram. “What we see is, when there is a reform happening in the United States, it builds the movement, it builds the self-esteem for our people back in India,” she said.

“What we see is, when there is a reform happening in the United States, it builds the movement, it builds the self-esteem for our people back in India,” Maya Kamble,  founding member and president of the anti-caste organisation Ambedkar Association of North America.

Wahab’s bill is among the latest strides that the anti-caste movement in the United States has made over the last few years. In February, Seattle became the first city in the country to prohibit caste-based discrimination by law. In 2020, the state of California sued the technology conglomerate Cisco Systems when it allegedly failed to protect a Dalit employee from harassment by his Brahmin colleagues. A year later, the Hindu sect BAPS came under scrutiny when a lawsuit was filed against it for the alleged exploitation of Dalit workers employed to construct temples across the United States.

Positive outcomes have also been visible across the country’s universities, where long-drawn efforts led by Bahujan students have borne fruit. In December 2019, Brandeis University, Massachusetts became the first American higher education institution to prohibit caste-based discrimination. Institutions including the University of California, Davis, and Colby College, and Harvard University followed suit. By 2022, California State University added caste to the non-discrimination policy applicable across its 23 campuses.

In its early years, the Ambedkarite movement in the United States focused its efforts on drawing global attention to caste discrimination, seeking out individuals from caste-marginalised identities, and building communities through social events such as meetings that highlighted the contributions of BR Ambedkar—the architect of the Indian constitution, often called Babasaheb. It did not follow a linear path, nor was it contained to any one individual or institution. The current movement for caste-equity built on and expanded this crucial work. “If we don’t have the advocacy or awareness about caste, if we don’t have the awareness about Babasaheb Ambedkar and his work, then it is very hard to come up with caste as a protected category,” Kamble noted.

As anti-caste activists in the United States successfully influence political change, they have drawn their strength from a set of principles reflected in the origins of such efforts as well: diverse solidarities, ideological clarity, and an indefatigable spirit for organisation. “I never ever thought that I would be … partnering with all these organisations that we are partnering with now,” Roja Suganthy-Singh, a New York-based academic who co-founded the Dalit Solidarity Forum in 1999, told me. “Collective identity is so important and that has always been the way in which Dalit communities and any indigenous communities have survived all these years.”


Four decades ago, it was a daunting task for Ambedkarites settling in the United States to band together as a community. Immigrants from marginalised castes were forced to conceal their identities because of the constant threat of facing hostile treatment from dominant-caste people in their vicinity. The Volunteers in the Service of India’s Oppressed and Neglected, or VISION, established in 1978 in New Jersey, was among the first anti-caste organisations in the country. It was founded by Shobha Singh, a physicist, to call attention to caste violence against Dalits in India.

PN Arya, an 86-year-old former engineer, was among VISION’s founding members. After he moved to the United States in 1970, Arya worked with the Consulate General of India. He found that he shared his Dalit identity with some of his colleagues. They gradually forged deep connections and reached out to other residents in the United States from Scheduled Caste communities. “We did a demonstration when Indira Gandhi came in this country. We demonstrated in front of the White House when she met the President,” Arya told me, referring to the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s visit to the United States in the summer of 1982 and her meeting with the-then President Ronald Reagan, during which VISION led a protest against the Indian government’s apathy towards caste violence. Before the gathering, Dr Laxmi Berwa, an oncologist and one of VISION’s co-founders, wrote to Gandhi, seeking a meeting to discuss issues pertaining to Dalit communities. Her response was a rebuff. “It does not help for those who are living in affluence abroad to comment on situations about which they have little knowledge,” Gandhi wrote back. Later that year, Berwa became the first person to appear before the UN Sub-commission on Human Rights to testify to the prevalence of caste atrocities in India.

Resistance to Dalit assertion in the United States also assumed other forms. Arya recalled that VISION organised annual celebrations on 14 April, Ambedkar’s birth anniversary. This congregation was crucial to their efforts in building support structures for Dalit immigrants. The organisation tried to place an announcement with an Indian news channel in New York to publicise the event. “They did not take the advertisements,” Arya recalled, “It took some five years for them to finally take advertisements for Dr Ambedkar’s birthday.” He said that VISION grew to around two hundred members. The organisation was active for over a decade.

“In the United States, it has been, and still is, difficult to identify people who belong to a Dalit community or people who are Ambedkarites,” Manoj Shambharkar, a Texas-based executive in the IT sector who moved to the United States in 1997, told me. Since he was active in organisations working for the welfare of caste-marginalised communities in Maharashtra, Shambharkar was able to reach out to fellow Ambedkarites abroad with relative ease.

One of them was Yogesh Varhade, a businessman who established the Ambedkar Center for Justice and Peace, or ACJP, in Toronto in 1991, the year of Ambedkar’s birth centenary. Varhade ran an automobile dealership in Toronto then. But he would travel to New York every month to meet fellow Ambedkarites.

Varhade recalled that he started ACJP to draw global attention to the brutal and frequent incidents of caste violence in India. In 1991, he visited the United Nations headquarters in New York and met members of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations. “I did not have an invitation. I just took a chance,” Varhade said. It paid off. He became an accredited participant of the Working Group and regularly joins world conferences hosted by the UN, where he presents evidence on the oppression of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in India.

An article published in the New York Times in 1996, reported on Varhade’s efforts to build international pressure and “force the Indian government to respect its own Constitution and international human rights laws.” It noted that his interventions prompted a UN body to seek an explanation from the Indian government on what it was doing “to educate Indians about their rights and to guarantee constitutional protections.” But these are questions that different governments—irrespective of their stated political ideology—have historically evaded. In 2001, for instance, the AB Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance government refused to include caste as a topic of discussion at the UN’s World Conference against racial discrimination in Durban, South Africa.

During the early nineties, another activist, Rajkumar Kamble, emerged as one of the key pioneers of international anti-caste initiatives. “Raju Kamble deserves a lot of credit for the movement in the United States … he is the one who connected most of us,” Shambharkar told me. Maya agreed. “He was a big motivator for all of us,” she said, “So many of us know each other because of him. Without him, we wouldn’t be so glued up together.”

A chemical engineer, Rajkumar Kamble spent his initial professional years in Delhi, where he was also active in the All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation, or BAMCEF, established by Kanshi Ram in 1971. In an interview to the Nagpur-based Awaaz India TV, he said, “When I started working outside India … I felt that I should work for Babasaheb’s mission no matter where I am.”

In April 1994, while he was based in Malaysia, Kamble founded the Ambedkar International Mission (AIM). He and his colleagues mobilised the Malaysian-Indian diaspora, a large number of whom hailed from Dalit communities. In October 1998, Kamble and MG Pandithan—the founder-president of the political party All Malaysian Indian Progressive Front—organised the first World Dalit Convention in Kuala Lumpur.

During his address as the chief guest of the conference, Kanshi Ram said, “I believe that until the time we are not able to form a casteless society, we need to use caste to annihilate caste. If Brahmins can use caste for the benefit of their society then why cannot we use it for the benefit of our society?” The conference shaped the international identity of Ambedkarism, Milind Awasarmol, who was closely associated with Kamble, told me. “This is where things started getting into accelerated mode,” Awasarmol said.

Other efforts were underway as well. In 1999, Roja Suganthy-Singh co-founded the Dalit Solidarity Forum, or DSF, a non-profit organisation, which hosted seminars and workshops to raise awareness about the caste system in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, and worked on increasing access to education for Dalit communities in India.

Singh recalled that her parents—who moved away from their caste-segregated village to Chennai, where she grew up—refrained from discussing caste and the family’s Dalit identity with their children in an attempt to shield them. Several years later, when she moved to a village after marriage, she was regularly confronted with discriminatory practices. “That is where I started questioning my own identity and my ancestral geography. I realised, through a conversation with somebody, that my grandparents came from the same area,” Singh said. She got involved in Dalit-rights work, primarily focusing on the educational requirements of children from Scheduled Caste communities. After she moved to the United States for her postdoctoral studies, she wanted to use her “privileged position to be able to be involved with social activism in India.” This desire led to the creation of the DSF.

“In the United States, it has been, and still is, difficult to identify people who belong to a Dalit community or people who are Ambedkarites,” Manoj Shambharkar, a Texas-based executive in the IT sector who moved to the United States in 1997.

There were not many Dalit scholars in the United States at the time, Singh said. The DSF would invite Gail Omvedt and Eleanor Zelliot—American academics who researched the life and works of Ambedkar—to participate in its events. “The unfortunate thing was that every time we spoke about this with Indian communities here in the United States, we did not get any support. They were very dismissive of the whole thing, like, ‘Why are you talking about this here in the United States?’” Singh said. She observed this among Hindus as well as Christian adherents of the caste system. “People who worked with us on this very sincerely were White communities and African-Americans,” she recalled.

In the early 2000s, Singh was invited to speak at a women’s leadership programme as a representative of the philanthropic organisation Ford Foundation. “They did not expect me to use the platform to talk about Dalit identity. I knew that they were Brahmin women and other caste women and I didn’t want to lose that opportunity,” Singh said. She questioned the audience about their indifference to caste in contrast to their strident views on other issues. Before the event, other attendees had interacted with her warmly. “After I got off the stage, I was standing alone and having my tea. I remember that.”


Through the nineties and early 2000s, the liberalisation of the Indian economy brought multinational companies to the country and opened more doors for Indians to work and settle abroad. Awasarmol recalled that when he moved to the United States, the global IT industry was overcome by a fear that came to be known through the moniker “Y2K”—the belief that a change in the last two numerals of the year, marking the year 2000, would lead to a technological glitch and the collapse of tech-reliant infrastructure worldwide. Consequently, IT sector companies hired extensively to contain the potential fall-out.

“That’s where the floodgates opened for the Indian diaspora to come into the United States for those IT jobs,” Awasarmol told me. He said that while caste considerations may have decided a job applicant’s fate until then, “Now, the requirement itself was so overwhelming that recruitment happened at all levels.” Prejudicial impulses were subsumed by the desire for profit. “People with surnames like Kamble, Maske—undeniably Scheduled Castes—were also recruited,” he said.

The increase in employees from caste-marginalised communities in the United States changed the demographics of the workplace, which had, till then, been the stronghold of upper-caste Hindus. But since most employees moved to the country on an H-1B visa—a temporary work visa—they were unable to exert any significant influence. “The assertiveness and the imposition of your own convictions gets constrained in these situations. You are trying to make sure that your immigration status doesn’t get impacted,” Awasarmol said.

The influence of caste was evident in professional settings, particularly in private conversations. Dominant-caste employees would, for instance, make casual remarks against those who availed reservations, prompting their Dalit colleagues to conceal their identities. “It was pretty much a hushed identity just to make sure that you gel with the crowd. In a foreign land, you don’t want to stick out as a sore thumb,” Awasarmol said.

As upper-caste immigrants increasingly occupied powerful positions, caste became a stronger force. “Earlier, what would be a part of a hushed lunch-table conversations among a group of friends now became more vocal,” Awasarmol said. He witnessed interview panels reject candidates with Dalit surnames on the argument that they supposedly lacked merit.

This was the environment within which activists such as Rajkumar Kamble were attempting to mobilise an anti-caste crusade. After setting-up the AIM in Malaysia, he established its chapters in the Middle East in the late nineties. While working in Dubai, Kamble spent his weekends traveling to neighbouring countries to reach out to Ambedkarite families and eventually brought them together for meetings. “It was an exemplary commitment to just identify our community’s people. He would look at the directory, look at the last names, make cold calls,” Awasarmol recalled.

Years before the AIM’s formal registration in the United States in 2003, Kamble also made regular trips to different parts of the country to connect with those from caste-marginalised communities. “We started coming together for some programmes, typically for Ambedkar Jayanti and Constitution Day,” Manoj Shambharkar recalled. The events involved conversations on Ambedkar’s philosophy as well as about prevailing caste atrocities in India. According to Shambharkar, Kamble would organise such gatherings “even if it was just five people.”

In 2004, for instance, Shambharkar recalled that Yogesh Varhade organised the first Ambedkar Jayanti celebration in Detroit, for which they had gotten about five-six families together. “I drove from Wisconsin to Detroit. It was a 17-18 hours drive. And he [Varhade] came down from Pennsylvania,” Shambharkar said. Kamble was present during this event, as was Anil Wagde, an activist with the Washington-based Ambedkar International Center. “I remember we created pamphlets and posters and put it up in Indian grocery stores saying that Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations will happen in so-and-so place. If you want to reach out to somebody, here is a contact number,” Wagde said. He recalled not wanting his name on the posters; he was anxious about the professional implications of his caste being publicly-known.  The following year, the celebration in Detroit attracted a larger audience of about fifty people. The attendees contributed money to purchase bicycles for students residing in remote villages in Maharashtra.

By 2005, Maya Kamble—a data scientist who migrated to the United States in 2002—became involved in anti-caste activism as well. That year, “I and a couple of people went to the United Nations World Summit on Information Society in Tunisia. We were trying to advocate for caste equity even at that point of time,” she recalled.

A year later, DB Sagar—a Dalit-rights activist from Nepal, established the International Commission for Dalit Rights, a Washington-based advocacy group for caste-marginalised communities from across South Asia. “The Dalit movement or the anti-caste movement was defined only at the national level from the Western perspective,” he told me, “But this is not just an Indian issue or a South Asian issue. This is a global issue.”

That same year, Rajkumar Kamble moved to Houston where he built on solidarities between Ambedkarites and members of the Ravidassia community. “The Ravidassia community are here in great numbers, in the US and Canada,” Awasarmol said. In fact, on India’s Independence Day in 2007, it was the Shri Guru Ravidass Sabha in New York that arranged a float dedicated to Ambedkar for the parade in the city.

By 2008, activists including Shambharkar and Maya Kamble formed the Ambedkar Association of North America to mobilise support for people from caste-marginalised communities in India. The AIM was already active in the United States then, but a single Ambedkarite group covering the entirety of the country was impractical given considerations such as time-zone differences. Over the years, Shambharkar worked with different Ambedkarite organisations in the United States. “I don’t look at the banner. I just look at the people who are following Babasaheb Ambedkar’s ideology. That is the only common thread which binds everyone,” he told me. Wagde echoed this sentiment. “While people keep saying that there should be only one united organisation, there are multitudes of people, wavelengths, thinking. Those differences show up in some of these formations,” he said.

In 2012, Mohan Nirala, who acquired a plot of land of over thirteen acres in Maryland, established the Ambedkar International Centre. “He gave the idea that we should build Dr Ambedkar’s memorial near Washington DC, so that we are able to do civil rights activism and brief Congressmen,” Wagde told me. Following a legal dispute over the land, Nirala quit the organisation. The plan to build the memorial is still underway. It will include a conventional hall, a library, and guest rooms.

There is a similar plan in Houston, where Rajkumar Kamble and other AIM members raised funds to purchase about two acres of land. It will soon be home to a research centre named after Ambedkar. Shambharkar told me that a memorial dedicated to Kamble—who passed away in 2018—will also come up on this plot.

In October 2014, the heinous murder of a Dalit couple and their son in Javkheda in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district led to significant agitations in the United States. Around two hundred people protested outside the UN’s headquarters in New York City, which Awasarmol said was unprecedented till then. Ambedkarite organisations have since regularly organised protests against caste-based hate crimes in India. “That becomes a pressure group kind of a thing for Indians to not sweep this under the carpet,” Awasarmol told me.

According to Sagar, this form of global Dalit activism took shape fairly recently. “Until 2014, some Ambedkarite organisations used to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti in their private houses or university buildings. But now you can see the movement coming out on the streets,” Sagar said.


Many Dalit people in the United States continue to refrain from attending celebratory occasions and protests because of the anxiety that their identity may become apparent to dominant-caste people in their spaces. “They fear that if their caste gets exposed, they may get laid-off or that they may have to go back to India. That is a very valid fear,” Shambharkar said.

Several activists pointed out that immigrants from Shudra communities—which are included in the category of Other Backward Classes—have largely stayed away from the Ambedkarites’ efforts to further anti-caste activism. “They feel that they are superior to the Scheduled Castes. That is how the caste system works. OBC communities in general have not come out in support of this movement in the United States or even in India,” Shambharkar said. Awasarmol noted that the divisions between the dominant three Varnas and the Shudras, “is much less compared to the differences and disabilities and the privileges that come into play between the entire Savarna fold and the Avarnas.” This likely contributed to their lack of will to join the Dalit movement, he said.

Shambharkar highlighted the ways in which Indian dominant-caste communities formed networks in the United States. “Any temple you look at in the United States, the common thread you will see is that the Brahmin doctors have been donating a lot of money to these temples,” he said, “They want to preserve that caste system in the name of culture.” Many children from these communities, he noted, are enrolled in classes where they are taught about the Bhagwad Gita and Vedas, which essentially sanction caste practices. “When they say, ‘I don’t believe in caste system’, maybe you don’t believe in untouchability. But caste is there. If you call yourself a Brahmin, then you are believing in the caste system,” Shambharkar said.

A key component of the opposition to anti-caste legislation in the United States, Manoj Shambharkar noted, is the disingenuous assertion that any critique of the caste system is ostensible “Hinduphobia.”

In Seattle, as in the case of the opposition to the bill in California, the Hindu American Foundation was at the forefront of efforts to lobby against the anti-caste ordinance introduced by city council member Kshama Sawant. The HAF, Shambharkar told me, is just the “tip of the iceberg.” According to him, many organisations—several among them aligned to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—have been opposing anti-caste legislations in the United States. A key component of such opposition, he noted, is the disingenuous assertion that any critique of the caste system is ostensible “Hinduphobia.”

This argument holds little water. Ambedkarites have routinely described caste as a South Asian phenomenon, not limited to Hindus, but present across religions and regions. The roots of such caste denialism among dominant-caste people can be traced to “the privileges that they get out of the caste system,” Awasarmol said.

In 2018, for instance, The Caravan reported on how right-wing Hindu groups were pressurising the California education board to remove references of caste. As the story detailed, the HAF and the RSS-affiliated Hindu Education Foundation lobbied to remove material they claimed denigrated Hinduism. Maya Kamble, who participated in the efforts to counter the HAF and HEF then, recalled, “They came up with students saying that, ‘We are getting bullied because you are teaching caste.’”

“Through the educational curriculum, they are trying to misguide, mislead a foreign society,” Awasarmol said. “I cannot forget my caste. How much so ever I forget it, the moment it comes out that I am from a Scheduled Caste, I will be reminded by the same people who keep on proclaiming that you should forget caste.”

According to Roja Suganthy-Singh, the pushback from right-wing Hindu groups has only gotten stronger in recent years. She believed that it is too premature to say whether the accomplishment of the anti-caste law in Seattle could be replicated in other regions in the United States. Before the ordinance introduced in Seattle was passed, Wagde remembered being concerned about its success. A similar attempt to introduce such a bill in California’s Santa Clara county, in 2022, had failed. “A lot of Ambedkarite people didn’t know the process. We kind of lacked the mobilisation and the know-how,” he said.

In Seattle, movements calling for taxation on big businesses such as Amazon, and protests against the discriminatory citizenship laws introduced by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in India, ensured a higher level of preparation among activists there. As Wagde noted, the journey to ensure the eradication of caste would be a long one. He recalled a friend saying, “Seattle toh abhi jhaanki hai, US abhi baaki hai”—Seattle was just a glimpse of what the Ambedkarite movement hopes to achieve in the rest of the United States.

Aathira Konikkara is a staff writer at The Caravan. has pictures

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