The Dalit Diva: A Success Story of US’ Soft Power

By Sandhya Ravishankar 

Thenmozhi Soundarrajan is no ordinary activist. She has already tasted success in getting passed the controversial laws banning caste-related discrimination in Seattle first and then in California

This 45-year-old is a full-time professional activist since she was at university and is now a co-founder of Equality Labs. Either she got incredibly lucky straight out of college, or she was talent spotted, groomed and funded exceedingly well by powerful people in the US. Which begs a few questions – why her? And, to do what? 

To do what is relatively easier to answer – Soundararajan has been extraordinarily visible in the past year, protesting and lobbying aggressively to push through anti-caste legislation in Seattle and California in February and May respectively. Equality Labs has been the key pressure group behind the introduction of the anti-caste laws. 


What’s so bad about anti-caste legislation, you may ask.

The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) as well as the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA) hotly contested the passing of this legislation. Their arguments provide a coherent explanation as to what Thenmozhi Soundararajan has been groomed and funded for. 

Look at what the HAF had to say against the legislation in Seattle. 

  1. The law and its subsequent amendment “paint Indians, Hindus and all immigrants from South Asia as especially and inherently bigoted” and violate the non-discrimination policies of the State. 
  2. The law “violates the city’s existing non-discrimination policies by seeking to treat disparately people on the basis of their ancestry and national origin.” In other words, Hindus and Indians become targets solely due to their birth and choice of religion. 
  3. The people of Indian descent comprise less than two percent of the population of the US and Washington state. “No other ethnic minority is being similarly targeted or subjected to separate proposed policies that would only apply to their community.” 
  4. A study carried out by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace showed that “discrimination on the basis of caste is exceedingly rare,” about 2.5% of those surveyed. 
  5. The survey by Equality Labs which was the basis for the anti-caste legislation “contains serious flaws, including manipulated and falsified data, selection and confirmation bias, amongst other fatal errors that render its finding unreliable.” The survey submitted by Thenmozhi Soundararajan’s Equality Labs and its methodology have been debunked by the Carnegie Endowment Report as well.
  6. Equality Labs has “frequently sought to demonize common Hindu cultural and religious practices and traditions, such as vegetarianism, celebration of holidays like Diwali and Holi, or even simply worshiping at a Hindu temple as casteist practices.” 

In California, members of CoHNA attempted to stop the legislation from being passed. This led to both sides protesting outside the Fremont City Hall. 

CoHNA’s arguments dovetail with those of the HAF. In addition, the group outlined the risks to Indian Hindus if the legislation was passed. 

  1. “Puts Hindu children at greater risk of bullying. Subjects them to trauma by portraying that “caste” discrimination is an essential and intrinsic part of their religion. Hindu children may even be called descendants of “casteist parents” who discriminate against others, as well as the adherents of a religion that “spiritually sanctions” discrimination and hate.
  2. “Defines “caste” using racist and colonial theories about native populations.”
  3. “Creates perpetual suspicion against Hindu Americans – CEOs, business leaders, entrepreneurs, professors, international Indian students and international Indian employees.”

Why such legislation is being pushed through without examining the original survey on which it is predicated, without consulting with the larger Indian Hindu American population, is anybody’s guess. 


Who Is Thenmozhi Soundararajan? 

Let us now come to the first question first – Why Thenmozhi Soundararajan? To do this, we head back to her childhood and attempt to piece together her journey to becoming an activist. 


Soundararajan was born in the US to doctor parents. From her various writings and talks, what emerges is that her parents were both born into a Christian Paraiyar family and became doctors in Tamil Nadu. Following this, they migrated to Orange County in the US where Thenmozhi and her sister Theeba were born. 

Source: Trauma of Caste authored by Thenmozhi Soundararajan
Source: Trauma of Caste authored by Thenmozhi Soundararajan

Soundararajan describes how there were not many Dalit or Christian Dalit families in the US at the time and that her parents took to hiding their surnames among the Indian community there.

Source: Excerpt from Community Voices talk by Thenmozhi Soundararajan; dated March 13, 2013

When Soundararajan was 12 years old, her parents divorced, pushing the mother and daughters into a difficult economic situation. The stigma of Indians divorcing in the US also seems to have worked on the young girl’s mind, causing enough trauma to make her vulnerable to experienced and powerful people to groom her to their agenda. 

Soundararajan made her way to the University of California at Berkeley in 1995 and studied art and music. Her activism began at this age – she refers to at least two activist groups called Culture Unity and Third World Majority. She has chosen activism as a career since. 

Thenmozhi Soundararajan participating in a protest in 1998 at UC Berkeley; Source: San Jose State University Student Newsletter

In 2013-14, Soundararajan toured India with AIDMAM (All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch) which is a ‘movement’ helmed by Paul Divakar Namala’s National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), also known as Swadhikar. 

Paul Namala, as we have seen in The Lede’s earlier series on foreign funded NGOs, is a key player in the George Soros network in India. 

It was in September 2014 that Thenmozhi Soundararajan was presented on a global stage. ‘Women in the World Summit’ was held at New York City, its chief patrons being Hillary and Bill Clinton. In one of its sessions, actor Uma Thurman introduced Soundararajan’s documentary which was played. 

Cynthia McFadden, Senior Legal & Investigative Correspondent with NBC News interviewed Asha Kotwal & Soundararajan at the summit. 

With this, Thenmozhi Soundararajan was launched and by 2015, Soundararajan zoomed in stature from being just a media artiste and documentary film-maker, to “found” Equality Labs. 

Who Funds Equality Labs? 

Equality Labs was started by Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Sharmin Hussain, an American activist of Bangladeshi origin.

When one delves into the nature and funding behind Equality Labs, a familiar pattern is found. A pattern that we saw in our series on foreign-funded NGOs – that the usual suspects are also funding Equality Labs specifically and quite heavily. 


Let’s take a look. 

Equality Labs does not seem to be a registered entity. Equality Labs’ ‘Donate’ button, when clicked, takes us to the Fractured Atlas page. “Equality Labs is a fiscally sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a 501(c)(3) charity. Contributions made payable to Fractured Atlas for the purposes of Equality Labs are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law,” states the page. 

Since 2018-19, Equality Labs has been funded by Fractured Atlas which appears to work as a kind of a passthrough to fund charities. 

S.No.Non-ProfitYearAmount (In USD)
1.Ford Foundation2020$125,000
2.Ford Foundation2019$39,500
3.General Service Foundation2019$110,000
4.Hidden Leaf Foundation2019$5000
5.Nathan Cummings Foundation2019$50,000
6.NoVo Foundation2019$175,000
7.New York Women’s Foundation2018$20,000
8.San Francisco Foundation2018$125,000
9.Weissberg Foundation2018$16,000
10.Tides Foundation2017$60,000

Source: Form 990 of respective foundations

The list of donors is revealing. The Ford Foundation, which is viewed as an extended arm of the US State Department, is a major donor. 

The Nathan Cummings Foundation which was founded in 1949 took a turn towards funding leftist activism in the 2000s under the leadership of Lance Lindblom, a veteran of Open Society Foundations (George Soros’ philanthropic arm), the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. Since 2018 the Foundation has dedicated its donations towards left-of-centre policy change.

The NoVo Foundation is controlled by Peter Buffett and his wife Jennifer. Peter is the son of billionaire investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett, also called the Oracle of Omaha. NoVo is part of the radical Democracy Alliance, a dark and secretive liberal mega-fund donor convenor. More on this Alliance in the next part. 

New York Women’s Foundation supports leftist causes relating to women. It is funded by big-name donors like the Ford Foundation and Open Society Foundations, among others. 

Tides Foundation is one of the largest passthrough funders of left-wing charity in America and perhaps even the world. This Foundation allows donors to donate anonymously to their preferred charities. Over time, Tides has become a big boon to left-leaning activists and non-profits who are able to source anonymous funding at a small cost. Tides appears to have provided the seed funding for Equality Labs – the foundation provided money to Fractured Atlas to set up “a Dalit woman-led office.” Tides is also a big donor to Paul Namala’s Swadhikar NGO. More on this in the next part. 

So how does an activist of Indian origin who works in a particularly niche segment – anti-caste activism in the US – manage to pull in funding to the tune of over USD 650,000 in 2018 alone? 

The results of that investment speak for themselves.