Suraj Yengde is India’s first Dalit Ph.D. holder from an African university in the nation’s history. He is currently doing a post-doctoral fellowship at the Shorenstein Center, Harvard Kennedy School. He is an associate at the Department of African and African American Studies, and a research affiliate at the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, Harvard University.
We sat down with Suraj to discuss caste, apartheid and the idea of a fourth world think tank.
Tell me about your background. I know that you were raised in India, educated in South Africa and you are now here at Harvard as a post-doc.
For my undergraduate degree, I studied law in a small town in Western India called Nanded. The Maharashtra state government sponsored me for a Master of Laws in Birmingham, England. After graduation, I got a job in London working in Southhall with the immigrant community across religion, caste and national lines. At Southhall, I was conducting research and doing community organizing work around the issue of caste discrimination in Britain. British parliament has a proposed bill about equality that covers caste-based discrimination. There is a huge friction between the people about whether or not caste discrimination should be part of the equality bill.
Since the very beginning, I was mindful of the fact that I did not want to be a product of the global north. When I went to the UN as a resident intern in Geneva, I was exposed to more than 120 nationalities, and I became friends with many of them. It was there that I first became concerned with the continent of Africa and the media portrayal of the continent. There were many civil wars happening in Africa and that began to feed into my own discourse. I saw the media fetishizing the whole continent, which is similar to what happens to South Asia. More importantly, I wanted to work with the communities in Africa and see how caste and caste discrimination function in African societies.
How well do you think caste is understood outside India?
The people who benefit from caste will never want to question or dismantle it, whereas the people who suffer the most have to bear the burden of this nasty form of discrimination. There have been Dalit movements within the diaspora dating back as far as the 1960s in England and elsewhere. Dalits organized themselves and raised their voices to express that they are still suffering under caste discrimination.
When people leave India and become de facto ambassadors, they promote India as a clichéd image of elephants on the street, yoga, meditation and other spiritual practices. In all of this, you don’t see caste being brought up and interrogated despite it being the fundamental aspect of everything that happens in India. Most of the time, caste is Orientalized and understood as India’s own creative flavor of dividing labor. It does not come across as what it truly is – as caste apartheid.
For apartheid, it’s natural to go to South Africa to look at the connections with South Asia. What did you find when you were there?
In South Africa, there is still a lot discrimination in terms of economic accessibility. The freedom movement and voting aspect of democracy have improved, but the material life has not. Scholars like Keith Beavon and Alan Mabin describe this as neo-apartheid, where apartheid by decree is finished but there is still pervasive segregation. Developing post-colonial countries like South Africa tend to have neighborhoods divided by huge walls with two or three layers of security – some of which are electrified. Often, people from predominately-white areas of town have no idea what is happening on the other side of those walls.
As a foreigner from India, I had access to a particular place in society inhabited by Indians in South Africa. Some South African Indians are bourgeois whereas others are working class Indians. I kind of had access to both lives. On one side of the fence, there was a whole new world with swimming pools and fancy parties. On the other side would be a township – ghettos – and I would relate, because I come from similar circumstances with a different name; similar to slums in India or the projects in the US. I related to the treatment that the black South Africans receive from white South Africans. Dalits also experience the inaccurate and vicious stereotypes of being lazy and not meritorious.
Given that you have experience of all of these different places, what conclusion do you draw?
When we try to understand global politics, we need to actually center and question what is happening globally. For example, Neo-liberalism has been central to the catastrophe as institutions like the World Bank and the IMF impose their exploitative policies, which is the reason that each country’s elite continue to retain power unabashed and with massive aggression. In addition, caste, like social laws, continue to dominate the societies through the affixed institutions of culture inbred into the society. Thus, structure and cultures dominate societies which have been conveniently upholded as sacrosanct in the western human rights regime, discounting the oppression it produces.
Are you saying there is institutional retention of the old structures? That there is no way you can see that they can easily be broken down because of the global institutions that impose policies and values?
India is a classic example. After Indian independence was bargained, the British left in 1947 and India had our first parliamentary elections in 1952. There was a huge gap of five years where we had to still figure out our nation. In those five years, the people with bargaining and purchasing power with the English were people who went to institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, who had gone to America. They were the people traditionally in the positions of power, such as the Brahmin community or the Baniya community in India. Gandhi and Nehru are the classic examples of Brahmin Baniya representation. When the British left, those elite Indian communities took the reins from them. That is why we still see unrest. In South Africa, the same thing happened. Many people think that the black South Africans took over but the economic policies have not reached the majority of the black South African communities.
How do you remove the structure that you describe?
This will perhaps be my next project. I want to gather the most marginalized communities, who have never had access to the precincts of power and have remained outcasts in any country. These communities exist in every country. Structures have maintained marginalization for thousands of years. The ruling classes will often give marginalized communities something along the lines of affirmative action and then believe that should suffice.
I am envisioning a fourth world, a think tank, a concept that goes beyond first, second and third world. This fourth world embraces the people who have never even participated in the project of third world because it reproduces a certain form of elitism. These marginalized folks would be invited to come and talk to each other and think of the ways that they want to live in the world, the way they want to see themselves. Currently, by virtue of non-accessibility and lack of access to resources, they cannot talk to each other. For example, conversations are extraordinarily rare between a person from an extremely rural area of South Africa and a Dalit or a Tribal from India. Perhaps if they start connecting, they could suggest ways to remove or change the structures.
Right now you are at Harvard, one of the world’s most elite institutions. Is there a conflict for you in that?
I am less concerned with Harvard than I am with some of the professors that I engage with on a daily basis. I came here for the Comaroffs, Cornel West, Skip Gates, Bill Wilson, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, and Lani Guinier. Their love to humanity is a true testament of hope. They have truly worked with the community, and their scholarship is cutting edge. When I speak with these professors, we are actually not in that bubble. However, I do recognize that there is privilege to this position. I want to use this privileged position and go back into the community. I would like to tell people about what it is like to be at Harvard and boost their confidence to apply with the hope that the next generation that comes to Harvard will be socially conscious, practically informed, and particularly armed with not only scholarship but a desire to upend the structures that they have struggled with.
What are you working on now?
By the next year I plan to finish a book project that I am currently working on entitled “Caste Matters,” which is an analysis of why caste should matter in the sub-continent and beyond. It will give a discourse on what a Dalit life is from a young Dalit’s perspective.
I have also started the Ambedkar Lecture Series, a monthly lecture series at Harvard where we invite scholars and activists to speak from across the region about various issues of interest. It is co-organized and co-sponsored by a local group called the Boston Study Group. Last March, Mittal Institute fellow Raile Rocky Ziipao spoke about Tribes and infrastructure development. Additionally, I have built an allyship with the Black Lives Matter movement – particularly with black feminists, as well as the Roma community. We are trying to put these various movements in contact with each other through these lectures as well as a Human Rights Conference.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It was taken in March 2018 when Suraj was a Nonresident fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, Hutchins Center, Harvard.