New Internationalist

Caste out

Issue 380

Blatant rather than latent, caste is still alive – and kicking – in the West. Nikki van der Gaag reports.

Davinder Prasad is very proud of his daughters. His oldest, Rena, works in the media; the second is doing a degree in fashion and the youngest, Indira, named after India’s former Prime Minister, is still at school. Davinder works as a laboratory manager in an American aerospace company and his wife Vimla is a teacher in a primary school.

They live in a detached bungalow with beautiful wooden floors. Goldfish swim in a tank in the living room and on the walls hang wooden artefacts from India and a large framed photograph of the family in front of the Taj Mahal.

They do not, however, live in India, but in Britain. And Davinder has another, more unusual, preoccupation. He is one of the founders of CasteWatch UK, an organization set up in 2003 to combat caste discrimination in Britain.

It was something he had not expected to encounter when he arrived in the country as a young man 26 years ago. When the Indian Diaspora first started settling in the West from the 1950s onwards, caste was not much of an issue. In any case, many immigrants were from the lower castes, perhaps because, technically, the ancient Laws of Manu, which many devout Hindus attempt to follow, prohibit the higher castes from living outside the land of their birth. But as Diaspora communities grew, so did caste distinctions. Sat Pal Muman reminisces at a Dalit conference: ‘I remember 30 years ago, when the numbers were small, there was a sense of kinship amongst fellow compatriots. People were simply viewed as Indians or Pakistani first and language or culture was only of secondary importance. As their numbers increased they began to establish their own news-papers – some in English, others in their local vernacular. They have established temples, businesses, and now they run their own radio and television stations.’1

When the Indian Diaspora first started settling in the West from the 1950s onwards, caste was not much of an issue

While 95 per cent of Hindus live in India and 98 per cent in South Asia, there are 4.5 million living in other parts of the world, including a million in the US. Dr Ambedkar, a Dalit leader and contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi, noted that ‘wherever a Hindu goes, he [sic] will take his caste system with him.’

Davinder feels there is ample evidence for this. He shows me a British school textbook on Hinduism, which describes caste without challenging it in any way. ‘If I were writing that book I would point out that caste was not a part of Hindu society to begin with. I would say that it was a form of racial discrimination and that it was not acceptable.’ He also says that he was surprised to find caste discrimination among Sikhs who traditionally reject such distinctions.

He has a file bursting with details of incidents, radio programmes, newspaper cuttings and even a glossy leaflet from a Hindu temple in London, all evidence of caste prejudice or discrimination. There are as yet no statistics on this in the West. Stories remain anecdotal, like that of the man, recently arrived in Britain from India, who had a surname that belonged to a caste higher than his own. The people he was staying with offered him all the help they could give – found him a job, supported and encouraged him. A few months later, however, during conversation, it came out that he was actually of a lower caste than his name suggested and as soon as this was known he was given the cold shoulder. It was a complete rejection. All of a sudden, the support he had come to rely on was yanked away, he lost his job and ended up looking for another place to stay.2

Caste permeates the whole Diaspora community. Everywhere in the West, advertisements aiming to arrange marriages among the Hindu community will advertise caste as part of the package – age, height, caste, nationality, educational qualifications, profession, hobbies. Some will state ‘caste no bar’; others, including those from so-called ‘untouchable’ castes, will make statements such as ‘Prefers a Ravidassa girl, but will welcome other castes’; ‘Khatri Family seeks’; ‘Jat Sikh educated family seeks …’

Marriage matters

In North America, large meetings are held with the purpose of getting young people from the same caste to get to know each other. In Atlanta, the Patidar Samaj meeting drew 4,000 people and resulted in 100 marriages. Many people return to South Asia to marry someone from their own caste. Parar Bagawar of the Suman Bureau, a matrimonial agency in Britain, says: ‘People are still mentioning the issue of caste and bringing it up when it comes to marriage and generally… people don’t want to marry into a lower caste. We also find that those who originate from a lower caste prefer to meet someone of the same background because they know that they may be victimized because they are of a lower caste.’ She says that only 25 per cent of marriages take place across caste barriers.3

But Balbir Grewal of the Sikh Guru Granth Sahib temple in London says: ‘Everybody should be proud of whatever creed or caste they are and I think we should stick to it. It’s like roots. How can you plant a tropical plant into a cold country? If this carries on, the time will come when nobody will know which background, religion or caste they come from’.3

Many from the former ‘Untouchable’ castes disagree. Their concern is that as identity (both religious and ethnic) becomes increasingly important, caste becomes more entrenched. Davinder Prasad says: ‘Children today are asked at school: “What is your caste?” If they don’t want to say, then they are asked: “Why not? Is there something wrong with your caste?”’ Vimla tells of an incident in school where one little boy was biting his shoe and she overheard another teacher say: ‘Stop it, you chamar [Dalit sub-caste]!’ She added: ‘I was shocked that this still continues.’

‘Children today are asked at school: “What is your caste?” If they don't want to say, then they are asked: “Why not?”’

Increasingly popular among the young, Punjabi bhangra music often celebrates the pride of jat or caste. (Jats are also a particular land-owning feudal caste). Bobby Friction from BBC Radio 1’s Asian underground music programme notes: ‘There are many songs about jat pride, about the life of a jat… jat nationalism is running rampant in bhangra music now to the point where every bhangra album that comes out in Britain has at least one track that alludes to the power of the jats.’3

Religious fundamentalism

In the US, there are now many caste-based groups, such as the Brahmin Society of America, the Rajput Association of America, Patidar Samaj. Substantial amounts of funding are provided by them to caste, political and religious groups in South Asia. Many fear that their support for right-wing Hindu groups such as the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) is leading to an increase in religious fundamentalism and reinforcing caste in India. Angana Chatterji, Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, notes that such groups ‘are utilizing religion to foment communal violence toward organizing ultra right, non-secular and undemocratic nationalism in India.’ In addition, ‘justification of caste inequities, subordination of Dalits, women, adivasis (indigenous peoples) and other minorities, and the consolidation of a cohesive middle-class base are critical to its momentum.’4

But, as in Britain, there are movements to combat caste in both the US and Canada. The Chetna Association of Canada documents incidents of caste discrimination. In the US, the International Bahujan Organization (IBO) in New York has over 5,000 members.5 There is a Dalit International Newsletter published in Connecticut, US, and one in Britain published by the Dalit Solidarity Network. The first World Dalit Convention was held in Kuala Lumpur in October 1998. It was chaired by Senator MG Pandithan of Malaysia, and brought together Indian Dalit leaders as well as many from the Diaspora. Following on from the 2001 World Conference on Racism in South Africa, where Dalits ensured that caste was given high priority, the European Union and the United Nations have put caste issues – or ‘discrimination based on work and descent’ on their agendas. Dalits in the Diaspora have also lobbied to ensure that international aid agencies employ Dalit staff in the countries where they work.

They also want to ensure that discrimination on the grounds of caste is against the law in Western countries. Davinder Prasad notes that in Britain, where there are laws against discrimination on grounds of race or sex, it is not unlawful to call someone an ‘Untouchable’. He proposes that the Race Relations Act 1976 should be amended and brought up to date to include casteism. ‘One of the main objectives of CasteWatch UK is for there to be laws against caste discrimination. If we could get it outlawed in the UK it would send a signal around the world that this is not acceptable.’

He continues: ‘In this country we are British – and a Briton cannot be an Untouchable. I want my children to think of themselves as British. I want them to have the values of this society, this country. I want them never to have to fear discrimination because of their caste. And I want them to be aware of human rights, equality and justice.’

Telling tales

These are just a few specific examples of caste-related incidents in the West:

Arun K Sinha, a member of the kurmi caste, is the owner of a food store in Manhattan, New York. He complains that wholesalers from a ‘higher’ caste insist that he pays cash rather than extending to him the credit they give to merchants from their own caste.

E Valentine Daniel, a Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, says some Indian executives will not hire ‘Untouchables’, no matter how good their qualifications. ‘It’s even more than a glass ceiling, it’s a tin roof,’ he says.

A shopkeeper in Wolverhampton, England, tells of an incident where a customer insisted that their change be placed on the counter to avoid contact with someone from a lower caste.

On a factory floor, in Wolverhampton, England, women from so-called upper castes will not take water from the same tap as a lower caste person.

www.ambedkar.org/WorldwideDalits/castein_britain.htm

  1. International Dalit Human Rights Conference, London Sept 2000. www.ambedkar.org/WorldwideDalits/castein_britain.htm
  2. Pashori Lal, Chairman of CasteWatch UK.
  3. ‘The Caste Divide’ Naresh Puri, BBC Radio 4 April 2003.
  4. www.dissidentvoice.org/Articles/AChatterji_DissentAgainstHinduExtremism.htm
  5. New York Times, 24 October 2004.

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