It is hard to know what effect his exposure to the American social order had on him personally. But over the years, he paid close attention, as did many Dalits, to the subordinate caste in the US. Indians had long been aware of the plight of enslaved Africans, and of their descendants in the US. Back in the 1870s, after the end of slavery and during the brief window of black advancement known as Reconstruction, an Indian social reformer named Jyotirao Phule found inspiration in the US abolitionists. He expressed hope “that my countrymen may take their example as their guide”.

Many decades later, in the summer of 1946, acting on news that black Americans were petitioning the United Nations for protection as minorities, Ambedkar reached out to the best-known African American intellectual of the day, WEB Du Bois. He told Du Bois that he had been a “student of the Negro problem” from across the oceans, and recognised their common fates.

“There is so much similarity between the position of the Untouchables in India and of the position of the Negroes in America,” Ambedkar wrote to Du Bois, “that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary.”

Du Bois wrote back to Ambedkar to say that he was, indeed, familiar with him, and that he had “every sympathy with the Untouchables of India”. It had been Du Bois who seemed to have spoken for the marginalised in both countries as he identified the double consciousness of their existence. And it was Du Bois who, decades before, had invoked an Indian concept in channelling the “bitter cry” of his people in the US: “Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?”

I began investigating the American caste system after nearly two decades of examining the history of the Jim Crow south, the legal caste system that grew out of enslavement and lasted into the early 70s, within the lifespans of many present-day Americans. I discovered that I was not writing about geography and relocation, but about the American caste system – an artificial hierarchy in which most everything that you could and could not do was based upon what you looked like, and which manifested itself north and south. I had been writing about a stigmatised people – 6 million of them – who were seeking freedom from the caste system in the south, only to discover that the hierarchy followed them wherever they went, much in the way that the shadow of caste (as I would soon discover) follows Indians in their own global diaspora.

The American caste system began in the years after the arrival of the first Africans to the Colony of Virginia in the summer of 1619, as the colony sought to refine the distinctions of who could be enslaved for life and who could not. Over time, colonial laws granted English and Irish indentured servants greater privileges than the Africans who worked alongside them, and the Europeans were fused into a new identity – that of being categorised as white, the polar opposite of black. The historian Kenneth M Stampp called this assigning of race a “caste system, which divided those whose appearance enabled them to claim pure Caucasian ancestry from those whose appearance indicated that some or all of their forebears were Negroes”. Members of the Caucasian caste, as he called it, “believed in ‘white supremacy’, and maintained a high degree of caste solidarity to secure it”.

While I was in the midst of my research, word of my inquiries spread to some Indian scholars of caste based in the US. They invited me to speak at an inaugural conference on caste and race at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, the town where WEB Du Bois was born and where his papers are kept.

There, I told the audience that I had written a 600-page book about the Jim Crow era in the American south – the time of naked white supremacy – but that the word “racism” did not appear anywhere in the narrative. I told them that, after spending 15 years studying the topic and hearing the testimony of the survivors of the era, I had realised that the term was insufficient. “Caste” was the more accurate term, and I set out to them the reasons why. They were both stunned and heartened. The plates of Indian food kindly set before me at the reception thereafter sat cold due to the press of questions and the sharing that went on into the night.

At a closing ceremony, the hosts presented to me a bronze-coloured bust of the patron saint of the low-born of India, Bhimrao Ambedkar, the Dalit leader who had written to Du Bois all those decades before.

It felt like an initiation into a caste to which I had somehow always belonged. Over and over, they shared stories of what they had endured, and I responded in personal recognition, as if even to anticipate some particular turn or outcome. To their astonishment, I began to be able to tell who was high-born and who was low-born among the Indian people there, not from what they looked like, as one might in the US, but on the basis of the universal human response to hierarchy – in the case of an upper-caste person, an inescapable certitude in bearing, demeanour, behaviour and a visible expectation of centrality.

On the way home, I was snapped back into my own world when airport security flagged my suitcase for inspection. The TSA worker happened to be an African American who looked to be in his early 20s. He strapped on latex gloves to begin his work. He dug through my suitcase and excavated a small box, unwrapped the folds of paper and held in his palm the bust of Ambedkar that I had been given.

“This is what came up in the X-ray,” he said. It was heavy like a paperweight. He turned it upside down and inspected it from all sides, his gaze lingering at the bottom of it. He seemed concerned that something might be inside.

“I’ll have to swipe it,” he warned me. He came back after some time and declared it OK, and I could continue with it on my journey. He looked at the bespectacled face, with its receding hairline and steadfast expression, and seemed to wonder why I would be carrying what looked like a totem from another culture.

“So who is this?” he asked.

“Oh,” I said, “this is the Martin Luther King of India.”

“Pretty cool,” he said, satisfied now, and seeming a little proud.

He then wrapped Ambedkar back up as if he were King himself, and set him back gently into the suitcase.

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