'I feel free': South Asians in WA celebrate Dalit History Month

For communities in the Puget Sound region, it's their first commemoration since Seattle banned caste discrimination.

Alok Kumbhare at his home in Sammamish

Alok Kumbhare at his home in Sammamish on Thursday, April 27, 2023. Kumbhare was born Dalit, a group sometimes pejoratively called “untouchables” in the caste system that many South Asians uphold. Kumbhare, who says he has also experienced casteism in this country, joined a citywide push led by Councilmember Kshama Sawant to ban caste discrimination in Seattle. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Growing up in India, Alok Kumbhare’s teachers discouraged his interest in music and, later on, his college ambitions. As a teenager, Kumbhare was kicked out of a room he was renting after an argument with his landlady who, amid the fallout, disparaged his caste. 

“It was a very traumatizing experience for me,” said Kumbhare, who now lives in Sammamish and works for Microsoft.  

He was born Dalit, a group sometimes pejoratively called “untouchables” in the caste system that many South Asians uphold. Kumbhare, who says he has also experienced casteism in this country, joined a citywide push led by Councilmember Kshama Sawant to ban caste discrimination in Seattle. 

The Council passed an ordinance in February designating caste as a protected class. This law took effect in late March, just in time for Dalit History Month, an annual commemoration in April established by a collective of Dalit women seeking to recognize those most oppressed under the caste system. This month, Kumbhare and others who pushed for Seattle’s ban reflected on their own relationships to the caste system, which some people continue to adhere to in the U.S. 

In the Seattle City Council chambers, Amer Mohammed celebrates the Feb. 21 passing of an ordinance, proposed by Councilmember Kshama Sawant, to add caste to Seattle's antidiscrimination laws. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

A 2016 Equality Labs survey on caste in the United States found that many Dalit respondents have experienced verbal and physical assault, unfair workplace treatment, and discrimination in education.

After Kumbhare came to the U.S. in 2010,  a teacher’s assistant at the University of Southern California – who was from a higher caste – accused him of cheating on an exam. Kumbhare prepared for the exam with a friend, so they had fairly similar answers. 

“I asked [the teacher’s assistant], ‘Why do you accuse me and not him?’” Kumbhare said. “His answer was, ‘I just know.’”

While Kumbhare has dealt with the ramifications of being Dalit, he made clear these hardships only scratch the surface of what others have endured. 

“This victory is important not only in itself, which it absolutely is,” Councilmember Sawant, who grew up in India as part of the Brahmin caste, said in an interview with Crosscut. “We need this victory to be replicated in other cities and states.” 

At City Hall, Seattle Council Member Kshama Sawant talks to supporters after the Feb. 21 passage of an ordinance she sponsored to add caste to antidiscrimination laws. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

Being Dalit in the U.S.

Ankit tries to avoid working under other people from India. No matter how well he performs, he’s still Dalit.  

“Your skills and your credibility [won’t be] looked at the same way,” said Ankit, of Lynnwood, who also pushed for Seattle’s ban, but asked to be identified by his first name because he works alongside other South Asian community members at Amazon and wants to avoid retaliation. “You would be looked down upon.” 

In the Equality Labs survey on caste in the United States, two-thirds of Dalit respondents said they had experienced unfair treatment in their workplace; 60% reported experiencing derogatory comments or jokes based on their caste; and half lived in fear of having their caste “outed.” 

Seattle’s push to ban caste discrimination empowered Rita Meher to publicly announce her identity as Adivasi, which broadly refers to indigenous people in India. Meher, who has lived in the greater Seattle area since the late 1990s, described her experiences of caste oppression in a message asking City Council members to support the ban. 
Watching Seattle pass the ordinance – and entering the first Dalit History Month since it passed – has made her proud to live here. 

“It’s just a very healing process,” she told Crosscut. “I thought, after coming to [the] U.S., I will bury this identity deep down somewhere and never talk about caste … I feel free.” 

On Feb. 21, people react to the passing of Councilmember Kshama Sawant's proposal to add caste to Seattle's antidiscrimination laws. (AP Photo/John Froschauer) 

Allies celebrate Seattle’s ban 

South Asian communities will celebrate the 132nd birthday of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a staunch advocate for Dalit people, this Saturday in Kirkland.

“This celebration of Dr. Ambedkar’s birthday will be very special because of the Seattle ordinance,” said Prashant Nema of Bellevue, who grew up in a middle-tier caste in India and pushed for the ban. 

For years, Nema, a software engineer at Meta, didn’t give much thought to the hierarchical system. This began to change over time as he learned more about white fragility, systemic oppression and the hardships that lower-caste groups face. 

Similarly, Raghav Kaushik, who was born into the Brahmin caste, became more conscious of this hierarchy through the years and joined the push to ban caste discrimination in Seattle. Kaushik noted that the new law legitimizes peoples’ experiences, but also offers them a concrete legal option: “It gives them a tool to hold people accountable.” 

Now advocates are hoping to make similar strides in places like California and British Columbia, both of which Councilmember Sawant has publicly supported.

While these bigger pushes are underway, Ankit is getting ready for Saturday’s celebration, which he helped organize. 

“We met so many people who didn’t know about this and now are coming out to celebrate Dr. Ambedkar’s birth anniversary with us,” he said. “Because that’s what unites us. Dr. Ambedkar  unites us beyond our religions and castes.”

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