Phillip Martin, Senior Investigative Reporter for WGBH News, has been to India and back. In his new series, “Caste in America,” Martin delves into casteism, prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of caste, and its continued practice in the present day in the United States and Canada. We sat down with him to learn more and hear about his travels.
Does casteism affect Indian-Americans as much as it does Indians?
Martin: Many Indian-Americans say it doesn’t affect them at all. But they tend to be Brahmin or another dominant caste, so it doesn’t really affect their livelihood. But if you are a Dalit, and you have to think about it, by virtue of your suppression or subjugation, then that’s a whole different matter. They don’t think about caste, and they correctly think it’s antiquated.
Were people open to talking about caste throughout your reporting?
Martin: No. It’s one of the hardest series’ I’ve ever done in terms of trying to get people to talk. One of the more interesting aspects of this series was getting about—I think between Tinku, myself and Kavita—maybe having 15, 16 people who agreed to be interviewed and canceled on us. It was happening so much it was extraordinary! It was almost as though they thought, “Wait a minute, what did I agree to do?”
We had a situation where one man we interviewed was a professor at Boston University, a Brahmin [an upper caste], who’s featured in one of the sidebar stories where he basically agreed to bring together friends. It started off with him, bringing together a group of Brahmin to talk about their privilege. We decided to try and modify it, to try to bring in Dalits into the discussion. The entire thing was canceled. The minute we suggested that idea, he sent me an email and said my friends do not want to participate anymore, particularly with Suraj Yengde, who they felt was an activist, as well as an academic. And even in India I had so many cancellations over WhatsApp.
There are lots of different individuals who backed out. This guy, Prasanth, who had set me up with an interview with his brother in law, told me “yes” on November 13. Three days later, he sent me this note: “Hello Phillip, Sorry for my delayed response. My brother-in-law is not keen to be interviewed. Thanks for your understanding.” Actually, I wasn’t understanding at all! But I had no choice. There were quite a few of these, where people agreed to interviewed and then said, “Oh never mind, there’s no way.” [Martin is scrolling through his WhatsApp conversations] Oh, who is this? That’s a cancellation I hadn’t even seen!
What do you hope comes from this story?
Martin: I’m hoping that there are more discussions about caste in India, especially as it manifests among South Asians in North America. That there’s discussion in this issue about the diaspora, that’s my hope.
However, America doesn’t recognize it [caste]. Legally it’s still in limbo. I do hope it will become elevated to a point where it’s a prohibitive behavior, not just on university campuses, which have more wiggle room in terms of their regulations. But hopefully it will become ensconced in U.S. law as well. Obviously not constitutionally, because it’s outside of constitutional protection. But that it is recognized in amendments, statutes, ordinances, so on and so forth around the country. The failure of the lawsuit in New York was largely due to the fact that caste is not recognized. [The lawsuit of the Dalit waiter in Curry Hill that was denied by the New York State division of human rights, on the basis caste not being recognized as unlawful grounds of discrimination. Mentioned in the series Part 4.] So, taking it to the equal employment opportunity commission, I think the lawyer hopes to use broader statutory rules to try to get them to rule on its merits.
But I also hope that it opens up a chapter of discussion about how caste also manifests in the United States among the broader population. You see it being discussed in some ways with Michelle Alexander and The New Jim Crow, with Isabel Wilkerson and her book The Warmth of Other Suns. You hear other people, academics discussing America’s caste system, a term that some historians and academicians loath to use because caste’s provenance is religious-based. Some might say the United States had slavery, which was rationalized by religion, but religion was used to rationalize it later, and caste was birthed from the faith, from varna [the original social division in Hinduism into four groups]. I’m hoping it will, as with our discussion at the Boston Public Library on March 21, foster a lot of discussion in May at the World Affairs Council in Providence, to have a broader discussion on casteism in the United States over the next year.
What’s next for “Caste in America?”
Martin: We have a fifth report that’s coming up, which is more or less a coda, and it’s called “A Street Called Ambedkar.” Ambedkar being the Dalit hero, the doctor B.R. Ambedkar. In New Jersey, there’s a street, it’s not very big, that’s named after Ambedkar. But it’s the only one of its kind in North America. The idea is to do a story about Dalit pride. I want to show this effort and belief by Dalits that they are not subhuman, so it’s almost like the equivalent of saying aloud “I’m Black and I’m proud,” but in the context of Dalits, it’s an assertion of their humanity. The reason that’s so important is because many Dalits are in the closet as many of their leaders say, changing their last names.
This last piece is going to be done by Arun Rath. He’s one of our reporters [here at WGBH News]. I really wanted him to do this report because of his voice and his own personal beliefs in non-casteism, even though he’s Brahmin. He’s a very, very good reporter. He could really dig below the surface of the shame, of the trauma, pride, assertiveness and of identity across the border.