Benson Neethipudi MPA ‘21, a student in Economic and Political Development at SIPA, is the current president of the SIPA Student Association (SIPASA). Neethipudi grew up in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, India, and is a vocal advocate for equity and justice—especially as it relates to caste. He recently spoke with SIPA News about caste in India, how his personal background informs his work, and his hopes for the future.
What issues are you passionate about?
Identity, representation, and the socio-economic liberation of marginalized people are issues that are very close to me. I’m generally interested in diversity and equity and lifting the voices of oppressed groups in policymaking and other spheres. One of the issues I engage with most often is that of caste in India.
Can you say more about caste and how it plays out in modern India?
An Indian caste society is built on the concepts of purity and pollution. Upper castes are the supposed bearers of purity and lower castes are deemed polluting. One way caste purity is upheld is through the tradition of endogamy, or marrying within your caste. That big, fat Indian wedding you may have attended with glee is mostly likely one big, fat celebration of caste purity and supremacy.
A lot of caste practices have been normalized as culture. In the United States, the Indian diaspora is primarily made up of emigrants from dominant castes. So when people in the U.S. think about India, the cultural symbols that they immediately reference are Bollywood, yoga, and vegetarianism. In reality, these traditions don’t represent all of India; they’re very much rooted in upper-caste versions of Indian culture.
In India, many Dalits [members of the castes forced to the bottom of the social order] are relegated to ghettos in cities, or to certain professions, like working as manual scavengers, domestic help, or drivers. And then there is the constant direct violence that Dalit communities face, which you see in the newspapers every day. To fully combat these issues, we need a paradigm shift that centers Dalit voices in the analysis of caste and in the annihiliation of caste.
Despite everyday oppression, Dalit communities have persisted with their way of life and rich cultural traditions. Dalits fall in love, thrive in academic and professional spaces, practice arts, and live their best lives despite being surrounded by a casteist society. There’s a lot of violence in a caste society, but that has not held us back from celebrating life. I didn’t plan to come to Columbia — the intergenerational journey of my family that set me up to be in this position is something I celebrate everyday.
What brought you to this work?
I feel like I have a responsibility to my community back home in India.
Before I came to SIPA, I worked as a management consultant in the United States. I vividly remember the day when I thought about just how different my social bubble in the U.S. was compared to my bubble back home. My office was at Seven World Trade Center, New York. I would take a high-speed elevator to the 50th floor, and look out the windows to Midtown on one side and Lady Liberty on the other. Taking in this view one day, I asked myself, “how many people from my background are in places like these?”
My mother is a doctor, her brother is a truck driver. My father is an engineer, his cousins work as domestic workers in the Middle East. And my own cousins work as carpenters and farm laborers. My social mobility is rooted in education. Today, I am here at SIPA because of the sacrifices of my family, because of the path that was laid by Dalits who came before me. So, I find it my duty to raise the Dalit community through my academic and professional endeavors.
My grandfather is another inspiration. He was a revolutionary poet in India and his work is well-known in Telugu Dalit literature. I learned more about his life after his death. I read his works, I read about him in the newspapers and asked myself, “when I die, what will be written about me?” In comparison to most people who come from similar family (caste) circumstances, I’ve been given so much more, so what I do with this opportunity I’ve been given is extremely important to me.
What would you like to do after graduating from SIPA?
Broadly speaking, I’m interested in educational equity, public interest technology, and good governance. But I also want to continue speaking my truth and creating platforms for Dalits and other marginalized people. I would challenge my colleagues at SIPA to do the same. As students at SIPA who will be going on to occupy very important positions in the world, we should actively and constantly be incorporating marginalized voices in our thought processes, decision making, and the choices we make in our careers. To be at SIPA is a great privilege and opportunity. Can we challenge ourselves to center justice and equity in our work?
This interview, conducted by Aastha Uprety MPA ’21, has been edited and condensed.