The Legacy of Gender and Caste Discrimination

In October 2019, the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs supported an intensive workshop for emerging scholars and leaders called “Toward Equal Dignity and Equal Rights: Global Dalit Change-makers.” A selection of papers presented during the conference that followed was further developed for inclusion in the peer-reviewed journal CASTE: A Global Journal on Social Exclusion, in a special issue focused on the legacy of gender and caste discrimination.


From the issue’s introduction by guest co-editor Ashok Gurung

The annihilation of caste-based injustice is one of the most pressing challenges facing humanity. The caste system directly dehumanizes over 240 million Dalits worldwide and sustains a complex system of graded exclusions and highly skewed privileges that benefits a select few while harming more than one billion people within and outside of the caste system in South Asia. Caste, in its myriad forms, enables and sustains a dense web of systemic inequities tied to one’s birth and endogamy. For millions of Dalits, the weight of the caste system is like a millstone around the neck, slowing grinding away at their future. Any meaningful engagement with a deeply entrenched and inter-generational caste-system must wrestle with fundamental questions such as what is caste and why does it persists. Most importantly, we need new narratives that can help us move beyond a casteist world.

Following debates on the persistence of caste-based discrimination, which was also the theme of the inaugural issue of J-Caste, this special issue on the Legacy of Gender and Caste Discrimination curates a set of multi-disciplinary research with a particular focus on Brahmanical patriarchy. It is also important to note that many of these authors are the first-generation of graduates in their communities, making their work even more noteworthy and important for expanding our discussions on caste.

This special issue consists of thirteen academic papers, a poem, an essay, a policy paper, and three book reviews. They underscore the central role of caste, as a distinct social category, in understanding the injustices and inequities experienced by Dalits, and in particular Dalit women.

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In 2018 I was Senior Director of the India China Institute at The New School, and in that capacity I was able to persuade my friend and long-term collaborator Toby Volkman at the Henry Luce Foundation to provide some modest support for a week-long workshop with over a dozen young scholars and leaders, as well as an international conference, focused on Dalit issues. That crucial support from the Luce Foundation helped galvanize and mobilize additional support from the India China Institute, Brandeis University, Barnard College, Columbia University, the University of Massachusetts, the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, the Samata Foundation, the University of Cincinnati, the International Ambedkar Mission, the Boston Study Group, and the Julien J. Studley Graduate Programs in International Affairs at The New School. Thanks to this amazing network, we were able to host a week-long workshop in New York City from October 21-24, 2019 titled “Toward Equal Dignity and Equal Rights: Global Dalit Change-makers.” The workshop was convened right before the Fifth Annual International Conference on The Unfinished Legacy of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, “Dalits in Global Context: Rethinking Religion and Gender” (October 24-26, 2019), which was also held at The New School.

There was a large outpouring of interest in our call for papers for the conference, and we received over 360 abstracts from across the world. Out of that pool of abstracts, we invited 26 emerging scholars and activists and 12 established scholars and experts from South Asia, Europe, and the United States to join for a one-week intensive workshop prior to the conference. The papers featured in this special issue were initially presented by the authors at the Fifth Annual International Conference on The Unfinished Legacy of B. R. Ambedkar. We then invited select emerging scholars to incorporate conference feedback on their papers as well as insights from deliberations at the workshop and conference in New York. Sunaina Arya and I reviewed these draft papers, and with inputs from the larger editorial team of the Journal, they were sent out for additional double-blind peer-reviews. Some of the papers retain much of their original form from when they were presented at the conference, while others were significantly transformed into entirely new works, we believe for the better.

View the full issue

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