Statement from North Atlantic Books: We Stand with Thenmozhi Soundararajan
As the movement for caste equity goes national—with the first statewide bill just introduced in California and a historic caste discrimination ban set to take effect in Seattle—The Trauma of Caste author Thenmozhi Soundararajan and her organization, Equality Labs, have faced renewed attacks of vitriol, defamation, and anti-Dalit abuse.
This abuse has also been targeted at the women of color organizers and elected officials spearheading caste discrimination legislation, including California State Senator Aisha Wahab (D-Hayward), who has just introduced the historic new California bill SB 403: Discrimination on the Basis of Caste. SB 403 has been endorsed by United Nations Special Rapporteur K.P. Ashwini, and aims to clarify existing state law and specify that discrimination based on caste is illegal.
Caste is a system of social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy, and social exclusion. It impacts over 1.9 billion people in South Asia and 5.7 million South Asian Americans. While caste discrimination is rampant in South Asia, it also exists here in the United States—where Equality Labs’ data have found that 1 in 4 caste-oppressed people have faced physical and verbal violence; 1 in 3 education discrimination; and 2 out of 3 workplace discrimination.
In the United States, caste discrimination occurs across industries, including technology, education, construction, restaurants, domestic work, and medicine. Caste discrimination against Dalits—people formerly called “untouchables” by dominant castes—is characterized by bullying, harassment, bias, and wage theft.
US-based Dalit civil rights organizations like Equality Labs are leading the fight for caste equity, and their win alongside many Dalit civil rights organizations in Seattle—the first major US city to ban caste discrimination—has unleashed a campaign of smearing, disinformation, and online violence. This violence has now escalated to bigoted anti-Dalit and derogatory vitriol: caste equity opponents are flooding the feeds of civil rights organizations and elected officials working to end caste discrimination in American institutions.
These attacks are as predictable and invalid as they are dangerous. Coordinated casteist and discriminatory disinformation against Senator Wahab, Thenmozhi, and Equality Labs attempt to downplay the realities of caste—while also threatening violence against Senator Wahab and her team; Thenmozhi and the team at Equality Labs; the Californians for Caste Equity Coalition, other Dalit civil rights organizations; and their families. This bigotry is as shocking as it is senseless, and is completely out of bounds in any civil rights advocacy.
Senator Aisha Wahab has also been targeted with discriminatory and misogynist attacks. By misdirecting the discourse with abject falsehoods, opponents of caste equity attempt to deflect outrage anywhere but the place it belongs: on the real and urgent issue of caste discrimination. Her office has received threatening calls. As TIME reports, rogue men have come to her office yelling at her staff, asserting they are “Mughals,” “Wahhabist,” and other, unmentionable slurs. Opponents to caste equity have even filed a complaint against Senator Wahab for bringing this bill.
It is necessary that in any debate around civil rights, the discourse remains on the facts—not redirected to inflict harm on the vulnerable leaders and communities who courageously break the silence on caste discrimination and build necessary paths forward.
The widespread vitriol embodied by caste equity opponents further proves: this bill is needed. Immediate safety measures must be taken to protect Soundararajan, Senator Wahab, their teams, and all caste-oppressed civil rights advocates targeted by intimidation and threats of violence.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan is a renowned Dalit author and civil rights leader whose ongoing commitment to upholding equity, justice, and liberation is borne out each and every day in her work—which has been recognized by the U.S. Congress, The Atlantic Fellowship for Racial Equity, South Asian Bar Association of America, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, the Sorbonne, the National Center for the Humanities, the Producers Guild of America Diversity Program, and more.
Despite these attacks, she remains centered on healing: “We will meet our opponents with love and empathy. For the caste equity movement is centered on healing from the trauma of caste, and that begins with the remedy for discrimination. We hope the opposition will denounce the political violence unleashed by their members and take responsibility for the caste bigotry they have enabled and join us in ending caste discrimination in the state of California.”
Senator Aisha Wahab is the first Afghan American elected to the California senate. “Her courageous flanking of caste-oppression issues embodies the kind of leadership that BIPOC women take around issues that matter to our communities. And the political violence elected officials like Senator Aisha Wahab face should not be endured,” says Soundararajan.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Equality Labs, Californians for Caste Equity, and the countless others fighting for caste equity will not be silenced or intimidated. Now more than ever, NAB stands firm in our commitment to uplift authors, leaders, and elected officials like Soundararajan, Senator Wahab, and the entirety of the caste equity movement. We ask all to stand with freedom of expression and civil rights.
To learn more about caste equity work—including what you can do—please visit https://www.equalitylabs.org.