Shunned in India, shunned in Canada. What it’s really like to face casteism

Of note:

Segregated. Landless. Unpaid. Shunned. Shamed. Bonded in perpetuity. While these conditions may well describe the enslaved people of the Antebellum South, they are but some of the markers of another brutal system that is the world’s oldest surviving structure of discrimination.

A Canadian scholar argues in an upcoming book that the caste system of the Indian subcontinent, which established Brahminical supremacy there, was a template for the racial caste system that established white supremacy here.

“Caste is a template for race,” says Chinnaiah Jangam, a historian at Carleton University.

One week after the Toronto District School Board’s historic vote in March that marked the first time that caste as a basis of discrimination was formally recognized in Canada, a human rights tribunal awarded a B.C. man more than $9,000 after finding that he had been a victim of casteism. 

Meanwhile, Seattle became the first U.S. city to ban casteism by incorporating caste into its anti-discrimination laws in February. In the two years prior, Harvard University added caste as a category to its anti-bias policies. The California State University System has joined it in making caste a protected status in its anti-discrimination policy.

Casteism, vaguely understood in the West as a backward South Asian cultural phenomenon, is finally beginning to be reckoned with in Canada, thanks to decades of advocacy by caste-oppressed people. But caste-based discrimination, which manifests in myriad ways, should not be understood or dismissed as an internal South Asian matter. 

Oppressions such as casteism and racism “need to be seen as interconnected, as part of the global empire,” says Jangam, who is one of the first Dalit scholars in the country.

“To put it simply, caste equity is a human rights issue,” says Anita Lal, a B.C. Dalit activist and founder of the advocacy group Poetic Justice Foundation.

What is caste?

Some 3,000 years ago, a system named “Chaturvarna,” or four occupation-based categories, came into being in Hinduism. It would morph into a caste system laced with harmful associations of spiritual purity and pollution. As with chattel slavery, the system decreed that the caste one was born into was fixed and passed on through family in perpetuity.

The “highest” in this caste order was the Brahmin, or the priestly class; the “lowest” was the Shudra, tasked with doing menial work. 

Outside of this four-class social framework existed humans deemed beneath even being categorized. They were the Dalits, formerly “untouchables,” and Adivasis, literally meaning Original Inhabitants, the Indigenous forest dwellers on traditional lands.

“Dalit,” or “broken but resilient,” is the cultural and political identity adopted by people from more than 1,000 oppressed castes, many of whom prefer it to the legal category of “Scheduled Caste.”

The term rose in popularity in the 1970s alongside the Dalit Panthers, who fashioned themselves after the Black Panthers. “They adopted the same form of radical protest, rejecting Brahminism, talking about abolition of caste, abolition of class and working-class solidarity,” says Jangam.

But unlike Black resistance heroes such as Malcolm X, they rejected all forms of religion, he says.

This is not surprising. Hinduism is not a centralized religion and caste as a concept seeped across the Indian subcontinent and beyond, crossing religious lines and shape-shifting to fit regional traditions.

Yalini Rajakulasingam, the TDSB trustee who brought forward the motion to ban caste discrimination, says, “If food and culture and language can travel through diasporas, of course, privileges and power can as well. No one’s going to want to let go of something that gives them privilege.”

The origins of caste may be ancient but the discriminatory effects in Canada, where the Dalit population is loosely estimated to comprise about 15 per cent of South Asians, are contemporary.

“There are many narratives within the community that have been silenced,” says Lal.

“It’s time to give voice to those stories.” 

The story of Vijay Puli 

GTA resident Vijay Puli was born to a Mala Dalit community in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh in the 1970s. 

“I don’t say I was born in the village,” he says. “I was born in the Dalit ghetto.” 

His community was segregated from the nearby village by dominant castes who practised the crime of untouchability. Dalits were forced to walk on separate paths. They were not allowed to drink water from the village well, not allowed to enter temples. Dalits were considered so polluted that the slightest touch, even being touched by a shadow cast by a Dalit, was considered to defile an “upper caste” person.

While India banned untouchability in 1950, stories of exclusions, beatings, assaults, rapes and lynchings of people from the “Scheduled Caste” form part of its daily news landscape. According to its National Crime Records Bureau, more than 180,000 criminal cases targeting Dalit communities were registered in the four-year period from 2018 to 2021.

When Rajakulasingam, the Toronto school board trustee, who identifies as a caste-oppressed Tamil, visited India in 2010, she says, “There were times when I would go to people’s homes and they would give me different (separate) utensils to use.”

Puli went to a dilapidated school in his colony in the 1970s. (Years later, Human Rights Watch researchers who visited schools in Dalit neighbourhoods in 2014 found they still lacked clean drinking water, toilets and adequate classrooms or teachers.)

Then it came time in the 1980s to go to a high school that was located in the village. 

Puli says he and his friends were very nervous about being around dominant-caste students and staff, and they sat at the back of the class. Teachers mocked them with casteist slurs if they didn’t answer questions correctly. Puli would hear slurs during playground fights, even when they were between dominant-caste kids. “Forgive me for using words like these,” he says, “but they would say ‘your mom should be f—ed by a Mala person.’ That means it’s very, very dirty.” Sometimes he would get into fights over this, he says.

This manifestation of casteism in the form of contemptuously flinging the name of a Dalit caste as a slur is a common experience in Canada. In the case that was brought forward to the B.C. tribunal, complainant Manoj Bhangu was able to prove the slur, Chamaar — the name of his Dalit caste, which is historically associated with leatherwork — was uttered by Inderjit and Avninder Dhillon during a brawl in 2018.

When Puli went to a small town for his undergraduate degree, it offered segregated hostels for students. Rather than staying in the “backward caste” hostel, his father got a room in one for the dominant castes, thinking he might learn to fit in better that way.

Fitting in or trying to “pass” as non-Dalit is a common coping strategy. In “Coming Out as Dalit,” the award-winning journalist Yashica Dutt writes how her Dalitness weighed heavily on her as she worked hard to hide it. “I dragged its carcass behind me through my childhood and adulthood,” she writes.

Cows, considered holy for Hindus, and beef — considered taboo — are an unholy symbol of caste injustice. If a cow died, it would be the job of a Dalit to carry the cow off and skin it for leather, the products of which the dominant castes had no problem using. Given that the Dalits lived in grinding poverty, the meat of the cow represented survival, and they ate it.

While Dalits remained historically downtrodden under governments led by all Indian political parties, in the current reign of Hindutva-fuelled governance, even the mere accusation of slaughtering a cow risks mob violence for Dalits (and Muslims).

Puli’s parents had stopped the family practice of eating beef when he was young as it would have marked Puli as Dalit. But his attempt to “pass” at the hostel ended quickly. When his roommate — a young man Puli considered a friend — found out Puli was Dalit, he changed rooms right away.

When Puli went to the state capital, Hyderabad, for his post-graduation, he had to switch from learning in his native Telugu language to English. “On the first day they (students) started laughing at me,” he says. They jeered at his English-language skills and treated him like he was the village idiot.

Whether in a village, a town or a city, casteism manifested as denigration and mocking, Puli said. No amount of education or worldliness changed those attitudes. 

Decades later, after the birth of his first child, Puli decided to move to Canada to escape from the relentless casteist violence. He assumed the lack of casteism in the founding of institutions here would mean there would be no casteism here.

“I knew that there is this racial discrimination here, and definitely, we are ready to face it like other South Asians, you know?”

He says he thought the South Asians, having faced discrimination, would stick together as a minority community. “Once I came here, it was completely opposite.”

Casteism in Canada

While casteist practices may not be as brutally explicit in Canada, anti-caste abolitionists and grassroots activists say this predatory system stigmatizes and profoundly affects people’s livelihoods, romantic lives, education and social self-worth. People of privileged castes who dominate the diasporic culture influence language, music, films and daily practices.

For instance, the larger-than-life Bollywood-influenced Indian weddings where a flower-bedecked groom shows up on a horse is a popular cultural image. But it is an “upper caste” symbol of revelry. A Dalit groom who gets on a horse in India may be stoned or otherwise humiliated and forced down.

Similarly, the practice of yoga is deeply linked to “upper caste” practices of vegetarianism (associated with spiritual purity), use of Sanskrit (language of the gods, not taught to “lower castes”) and the concept of karma (paying for — balancing out — sins of past lives). Karma enforced caste; according to this philosophy, “lower castes,” as sinners in past lives, had only themselves to blame for their plight.

In language, the commonly used word “pariah,” for instance, is a casteist slur. “Pariyar” is a Tamil Dalit caste. During British colonization, the word was anglicized to pariah — and its meaning expanded to include all oppressed castes to mean “outcaste.”

When Puli arrived in Canada, he lived in a Mississauga basement. In his first month, a Sikh neighbour, assuming he was of dominant caste, conversationally pointed to another family in the neighbourhood saying, they were from the Chamaar caste.

“She said that they are lower-caste people. ‘We don’t go to them and we don’t associate with them. They don’t come to our temple. We don’t go to their temple. We never go to their house.’ So, yeah, that was the first incident me and my wife encountered in Canada. We thought that, wow, it is here, too.”

Although caste hierarchy does not exist in Sikh religion and scriptures, the practice of untouchability and discrimination still exists, says Lal, the B.C. activist, who identifies as a Punjabi Sikh Canadian born into a Dalit family. She is of the Chamaar caste.

Caste among Sikhs does not rely on a purity-pollution binary. Rather, power rests on ownership of land, Lal and co-author Sasha Sabherwal write in a chapter in “A Social History of South Asians in British Columbia.” This makes Jats a large and powerful caste group in Punjab and the diaspora.

“In Canada, for instance, it is predominantly Jats who step into organized state and federal politics,” they write.

It’s common to see images of men on Tinder or other dating apps with handles including caste names such as Jat. Inter-caste marriages with an oppressed-caste member remain highly stigmatized in Canada among diasporic communities, including those from the Caribbean and Africa.

Lal’s own family is inextricably linked to the history of caste-based oppression in Canada.

Her great-grandfather, Maiya Ram Mahmi, who came to Canada in 1906, is considered one of the first Dalits to come to North America. “It’s understandable that the first story of caste discrimination would be his, because caste, a system of exclusion based on purity, follows you wherever you go,” she writes in an email.

Mahmi worked in a sawmill in Paldi, B.C., where men worked during the day and ate in the cookhouses in the evening. Mahmi, “along with one other fellow Chamaar, were not allowed to eat in the cookhouse with the rest of the workers and were forced to eat their meals in their rooms,” Lal says. Only after an “upper caste” supervisor intervened and threatened the other workers with job loss did they relent.

“At a time when they were facing harsh racism from the white man, learning to live in a whole new country which was so different than their own, without their family and loved ones, building community with the other South Asians, they still practised untouchability and continued to exclude and do more harm,” Lal says.

More recently, in Toronto, Puli co-founded the South Asian Dalit Adivasi Network Canada with fellow caste-oppressed people. They mark April as Dalit History Month to honour the births and deaths of Dalit rights leaders that fall this month, including B.R. Ambedkar, the principal architect of the Indian constitution, a renowned visionary and intellectual, who is revered as an icon of resistance.

When Puli’s own daughter was cruelly subjugated to casteism by fellow students, he had had enough. He went about mobilizing support to get the Toronto school board to recognize caste as a basis of discrimination. He got in touch with Rajakulasingam, who he says “got it” at once, and the rest is — historic.

The deep roots and widespread reach of casteism in Canada make it imperative for social and political organizations to create tools to address caste-based discrimination in their own spaces. 

When organizations such as the TDSB take this step, “it allows people who face casteist discrimination to come forward, and with some legal protection in place, to feel safe to do so,” says Jangam, the Carleton historian. “This is one of the ways that Canada as a liberal society makes a path for people to be who they are.

“No human being deserves to live in fear.”

Source: Shunned in India, shunned in Canada. What it’s really like to face casteism

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: