Why ‘Trauma of Caste’ is another attempt to hurt rather heal

The term Dalit does not officially exist but is commonly understood to include scheduled castes and sometimes other backward castes

It seems like everywhere one turns, caste” is in the news these days.

First, there was Isabel Wilkerson’s book on “caste”, promoted by Oprah Winfrey. Then came the lawsuit against Cisco by California’s DFEH alleging “caste discrimination” in the workplace. California State University system declared “caste” to be a protected category.

The latest to climb on the “caste” bandwagon is Brown University.
In their announcement, Brown admitted that:

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“The previous policy would have protected people experiencing caste discrimination, but we felt it was important to lift this up and explicitly express a position on caste equity.” 

In other words, Brown made an unnecessary policy change without regard for consequences, just to make a political point. 

Much of this action on “caste equity” in the United States has been triggered by the efforts of Equality Labs and its founder Thenmozhi Soundararajan. Her long quest to make “caste” an issue in America has culminated in her book, “The Trauma of Caste”, released recently.

When a book makes extraordinary claims and becomes the basis for real-world action that affects real people, it is our duty to examine it and verify the claims. This is especially true of academic institutions which are supposed to be guardians of truth. But when they fail in that fundamental task, when they put politics over integrity, that task falls on others. 

What follows is a multi-part series that closely examines various claims in the book. In the current environment, any attempt to apply the lens of logic and data is likely to be dismissed as an attempt to hide the fragility of the oppressors. 

But we must soldier on and ask the foolish question:  Is it really true?

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Act 1 Scene 1: What is in a name?

There is a remarkable description at the beginning of the book.
The author asks her mother ‘What Caste am I”?

She whispered, “We’re untouchable.”

Suddenly, so much began to make terrifying sense: Why my parents were mysterious with all the other South Asian families we knew? Why my dad always evaded questions meant to locate us socially, like where we were from, our last name, and who we knew? He went by T. S. S. Rajan, or “Raj,” refusing to tell people his full name, which I had always found weird and embarrassing.

At the Hindu temple, around the other uncles, he was the master of the cough that changed the conversation and the joke that turned to lighter matters. I was so frustrated by him when he would do that, thinking he was obtuse, obnoxious, and arrogant.

He wasn’t any of those things.  He was deeply afraid and in hiding. His full name would have revealed his caste in an instant, reflecting the name of the Dalit village his people were from. And the consequences of that were too much for him to bear, for we would have been cut off from other Indians who would no longer want to be in a relationship with someone who was caste-oppressed.

(Soundararajan, Thenmozhi. The Trauma of Caste (pp. 13-14). North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.)

She makes the claim here that her father’s last name (presumably hers as well) – Soundararajan – was so caste-revealing that people would have instantly known where he was from, he was an untouchable – a Dalit – and therefore to be socially ostracized.

His full name would have revealed his caste in an instant, reflecting the name of the Dalit village his people were from

Thenmozhi Soundararajan

This is widely offered – from the Cisco case in CA to the various anti-caste resolutions rattling around the country.
But is it true? Can it be supported by data?

Her family is from Tamil Nadu, a state on the southern tip of India.  Ask anyone who grew up in Tamil Nadu in the 70s and 80s, to name the first person who comes to mind when they hear the name Soundararajan.

The most common response will be T M Soundararajan. Indeed his is among the first names that pop up on an internet search for ‘Soundararajan’

T M Soundararajan (TMS, as he was fondly known everywhere) was born in the Indian city of  Madurai, Tamil Nadu. A household name in Tamil Nadu as a playback singer in practically every Tamil movie made between 1950 and 1990. The voice behind the songs for the superstars of the time, MGR and Sivaji Ganesan. With an amazing vocal range and hits like “Paattum Naane “ (Thiruvilayadal) and thousands of other songs in Tamil films.

According to Thenmozhi Soundararajan, this last name instantly identifies caste, but Thoguluva Meenachi Iyengar Soundararajan was a Brahmin.

A Brahmin from Saurashtra (modern-day Gujarat) whose ancestors likely migrated to Tamil Nadu a couple of centuries earlier. Probably during the rule of the great patron of the arts, Thirumalai Naicker, whose dynasty ruled Madurai from the 16th to 18th centuries.  Before the colonial British ossified the social structures, people migrated freely to India.

So, the very first premise in the book is a lie.

While there are names that tend to be favoured among certain castes, there is no way to definitively determine someone’s caste from names like Soundararajan, Somasundaram, Saravanan, Panneerselvan, Ananthakrishnan etc. They are found in all castes.

What then are we to make of this story, that her father’s name would cause consternation among the horrified upper caste brahmins at the temple he went to? Is the whole incident ginned up to bolster the premise that revealing the last name is a definitive way to identify caste?

This particular claim that names are caste markers is a constant theme in all of Ms Soundararajan’s theses (Equality Labs) – that Dalits in America are terrified that their last name would point to their caste. That theory was pushed prominently at the DGH conference last year as well. It is a key argument in the Caste Survey conducted by her organization.

By her own theory, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Dalit Diva, bearer of millennia of trauma caused by Brahmins, is herself a Brahmin.

Act 1 Scene 2: Hiding in plain sight

Here is how she describes her mother’s Christian religious observances

Soundararajan, Thenmozhi. The Trauma of Caste (p. 14). North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.

It beggars credulity to think that a family would be afraid to live openly as a Christian in the United States, in a city named Los Angeles, in a country where the President is sworn in on the Bible. Why would anyone hide their Christian belief in a nation that has a church of every denomination in every city? Where every child in public schools swore to live under “one God”? Does anyone find that claim credible?

“… Having grown up hiding her religion in India, at a time when it wasn’t safe to be out as a Christian”

Why did she hide her religion in India? Why was it not safe to be out as a Christian (note the not-so-subtle reference to persecuted LGBTQ community as fellow sufferers)

She carefully avoids calling the system what it is and instead uses a term – affirmative action – that is specifically American. This is not a coincidence. It is intended to convey the idea that the Indian system is the same as the American system.

… specific racial quotas, such as the 16 out of 100 seats set aside for minority students by the University of California, Davis School of Medicine, were impermissible under the constitution and Title VI

Justice Powell (Bakke 1978)

But the Indian system is one that has specifically been prohibited by the US Supreme Court (Bakke, 1978) – quotas in admissions and jobs. In India, until recently, caste, as identified by the Constitution, is the only factor. As of 1990 69%  of government jobs and college admissions in Tamil Nadu were set aside or “reserved” for groups listed as disadvantaged by Indian lawmakers.

Lets read that again:

In the state where her parents went to school, seven out of ten students in colleges must be from groups categorized as backward, most backward, Scheduled or Other backward castes.

In the state where her parents went to school in India, seven out of ten students in colleges must be from groups categorized as backward, most backward, Scheduled or Other backward caste.

So, why would that be a reason to hide the Christian faith in Tamil Nadu?

When the Indian constitution codified the quota system (article 16(4, 4A, 4B)), it established the principle of quotas and left the implementation to a separate document. That separate document was the “The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950” which laid out which castes could claim allotment under the quota system.

It also limited the eligibility to Hindus (Sikhs and Buddhists were added later, in 1990)

“3. Notwithstanding anything contained in paragraph 2, no person who professes a religion different from the Hindu the Sikh or the Buddhist religion shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste.”

Based on this order,  you could not claim to be a Dalit if you also were a Christian. (The term Dalit does not officially exist but is commonly understood to include scheduled castes and sometimes other backward castes and anyone else who claims to be one even if their name is a brahmin name. The author never explains who exactly is a Dalit)

Christians in Tamil Nadu who want to benefit from the quota system cannot do so under the constitution.

What is a Christian woman who wishes to take advantage of quotas meant for disadvantaged Hindus to do?

Hide her Christianity in a closet. And ask her daughters to do the same in Los Angeles, USA even after escaping what she terms caste apartheid.

What is a Christian woman who wishes to take advantage of quotas meant for disadvantaged Hindus to do? Hide her Christianity in a closet.

But Thenmozhi Soundararajan wants her readers to think that it was because of the caste-obsessed brahmins in the US.

Authors Note: This is the first of a multipart review of the book. Throughout these reviews, I am using the word caste to mean how it is used *currently* in India and not in the sense of historical varna, jati, kula shreni etc.

NOTE: This article was first published in CoHNA and is republished here as our global collaboration series.

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