Kshama Sawant, who was declared as Radical Desi Person of the Year 2023 for being instrumental behind the historic ordinance to outlaw caste-based discrimination in Seattle, making it the first city outside India to do so, has carried forward the legacy of two great men.
April being the birthday month of the Ghadar movement – cofounded by Sohan Singh Bhakna and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar – it is important to recognize the Seattle City Councillor’s work as a continuation of what those giant leaders stood for.
It might be a coincidence that Sawant was honoured in Surrey on the first day of Dalit History Month in April, but her activism and alternative politics cannot be delinked from the mission of Bhakna and Amebdkar. In fact, there are many striking similarities between her and those two icons of social justice.
Like Bhakna, who first came to Seattle in 1909, Sawant made this city her home after migrating from India.
Bhakna, who started his career as a sawmill worker in Portland, was the first President of the Ghadar Party which was created in the US on April 21, 1913, by those seeking to liberate India from British occupation through armed revolution to establish a casteless and classless society. Later, he returned to India and spent many years in jails during the freedom struggle. At one point he went on a hunger strike against the practice of serving separate meals to the so-called untouchable or Dalit prisoners as part of the brutal caste system within Hindu society. Early this year, Sawant did something significant to bring an end to similar discrimination against Dalits abroad.
Sawant, who grew up in Maharashtra before coming to the US, had learnt a lot from the inspiring story of Ambedkar, an undisputed Dalit leader and thinker. After all, Amebdkar was from Maharashtra, where the Dalit emancipation movement has always been very strong.
Born on April 14, 1891, Amebdkar had to face caste-based discrimination from a very early age. In spite of many challenges, he grew up as a scholar and also came to the US for studies. He was the architect of the Indian constitution. But he never gave up on his crusade against the caste system, which he challenged until his last breath. Sawant’s anti-caste initiative was the culmination of his battle.
It is equally important to see that Sawant has an intersectional lens, much as Bhakna and Ambedkar had. Neither Bhakna nor Ambedkar limited themselves to the fight against the caste system; both also raised their voices for the women, the toiling masses and other minority groups. Likewise, Sawant has been in the forefront of the campaign for raising the minimum wage, and is known for her advocacy for gender equality and the rights of the underprivileged and marginalized.
It is not surprising to see Sawant under constant attack from groups owing allegiance to the ruling right wing Hindu nationalist BJP in New Delhi. Instead of seeing her as an enemy of India, she should rather be seen as a daughter of the soil who has done India proud by upholding true secularism that was deeply cherished by Bhakna and Ambedkar.
Gurpreet Singh is a journalist