How prejudice rooted in an ancient social system has migrated from India to Canada

Seeing more accounts of caste discrimination here and in the USA:

When Gurpreet Singh packed his bags last fall and arrived in Ontario from India, he soon learned there was one thing some fellow Indians in Canada hadn’t left behind in their home country — their prejudices.

The human resource management student at Durham College in Oshawa, Ont., said he is viewed as an outcast in the ancient South Asian social structure known as the caste system, but faces more discrimination from Indians in Canada than he did in India.

“I have been here for roughly five months and I have faced it in a way more aggressive or aggravated form in this country from my own Punjabi community,” Singh said. “They beat their chest with pride that they come from this caste or that caste.”

India is a main source of immigrants to Canada. It’s also a huge pipeline for international students both to Canada and the United States, and some universities are taking note of concerns around discrimination based on caste.

California State University, the largest four-year public university system in the U.S., specifically added caste to its non-discrimination policies in January. In Ottawa, the academic staff association at Carleton University passed a motion in November to include caste-based discrimination in its policies.

Singh recalled a conversation with an acquaintance in Oshawa that shocked him after she used a casteist slur to address him.

“I confronted her that you’d be behind bars if you were in India right now … The girl who uttered that word acted as if she didn’t know anything, why it’s offensive, etc.,” Singh said. “To put it in her brain in the easiest possible way, I equated the word with the N-word.”

He said it was “strange” that she knew the N-word was a slur for Black people, “but even after living in India for 23 years, she had no idea, or at least pretended to have no idea, about the thing she just said so casually.”

The Hindu caste system divides people into four sub-communities based on ancestry — Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras — and the caste of a person can often be identified by their last name. The four main castes are further divided into 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes.

The caste tradition transcends religion. Many Indians with Hindu lineage whose ancestors adopted Sikhism or Christianity retained their last names, and their caste designations.

Singh belongs to a scheduled caste, members of which are also known as Dalits. According to the caste system, scheduled castes are outcasts and do not belong to the social order.

According to the 2011 census, scheduled castes made up for 16.2 per cent of the Indian population. From 2018 to 2020, India’s National Crime Records Bureau recorded 50,202 registered cases of crimes or “atrocities” against scheduled castes. Activists from the community have long fought against caste oppression.

Singh’s last name was originally Badhan, which indicated his caste. He stopped using it, even on official documents, but he said in Canada he’s been asked for his full name so people could identify his community.

“I have had to hide my identity a number of times,” Singh said. “I had to lie twice. I told them I come from the Jatt community and my surname is something else because I felt that I might be isolated, and no one wants to feel that way when you are so far away from home.”

Casteism can cause harm

Chinnaiah Jangam, an associate professor in the department of history at Carleton University and an advocate for the rights of people from scheduled castes, believes casteism can hurt immigrants long term.

“A student or an employee coming from these backgrounds will not feel comfortable to express their own identity and they won’t feel comfortable being themselves,” said Jangam, who is the author of Dalits and the making of modern India and spearheaded the push to add caste to the anti-discrimination policies of Carleton’s academic association.

Meera Estrada, the Toronto co-host of the pop culture show kultur’D on Global News radio, was born in Canada but said she was aware she was a Dalit since childhood. She often hid her identity because other people of Indian background looked down on her community.

She recalled going to Gujarati language classes and people asking what samaj, or community, she belonged to. “And people were quite proud in saying which group they belong to, but it was always the Brahmin group or the so-called upper caste,” Estrada said.

India passed a law in 1955 to abolish “untouchability,” a term once used to describe the practice of ostracizing scheduled castes. But Estrada believes the social stigma against Dalits remains, something that became more apparent to her in her 20s.

“Aunties in mandirs [temples] trying to play matchmakers would always say, ‘Oh, this is a good boy from a good family.’ The implication there was that he is from a higher caste, and I would just feel like if that is the equivalent of good, who am I? Am I not good?”

Brahmin-only group

One matchmaking Facebook group, the Samast Brahman Society of Canada, has 4,100 members. The group’s description says its “goal is to unite all Brahmins under one roof while they can serve in all other Brahmin organizations.”

Source: How prejudice rooted in an ancient social system has migrated from India to Canada

Caste has become a university diversity issue in the US

Hard to imagine that this also happens in Canada to some extent given the large number of South Asian students and grateful for information readers may have:

Many international students from disadvantaged groups hope to leave the entrenched social structures and caste discrimination behind and start afresh as they come to the United States or elsewhere. 

But to their consternation and horror, some South Asian students have found that caste discrimination is alive and well overseas, particularly where there is a large South Asia diaspora or foreign students on campus.

Mounting evidence of such discriminatory treatment and harassment led the California State University (CSU) system to add caste to its list of protected groups in January, prohibiting caste-based discrimination, harassment or retaliation. Other universities in the US are examining whether they should do the same. 

The CSU system, with some 485,000 students and about 56,000 faculty and staff, is sending a signal out to the rest of the university sector that caste discrimination exists and that affected students and staff require protection, say inclusivity activists who have campaigned for years to include caste-oppressed students and faculty. They have called the CSU decision an important civil rights win. 

“This is very important because we can now feel safer,” said Prem Pariyar, who recently graduated from CSU’s East Bay campus with a masters degree in social work. He began the campaign for caste protection at East Bay and helped extend it across CSU’s 23 campuses. 

“At least now the university has a policy to recognise our pain and to recognise our issues,” he told University World News. “In the US people are conscious about race and religion and the like but they did not know about caste discrimination.”

“Being a protected category is important as it means people like me [and] other students will feel more comfortable to go and complain. Before adding caste as a protected category, even if students reported to the administration, they would not understand what it is. It is not racial discrimination, but it is the same logic.”

Michael Uhlenkamp, senior director of public affairs in the CSU Chancellors Office, said: “While caste protections were inherently included in previous CSU non-discrimination policies, the decision to specifically name caste in the interim policy reflects the CSU’s commitment to inclusivity and respect, making certain each and every one of our 23 CSU campuses is a place of access, opportunity and equity for all.” 

“The existing processes for reporting instances of discrimination, whether based on caste or any of the categories listed in the policy, still apply,” he added. 

‘Long overdue’

“It’s long overdue. This was a campaign that we were working on for almost two and a half years,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, a US-based civil rights organisation fighting for the rights of Dalits, a low-caste group formerly known as ‘untouchables’.

Equality Labs has been advising institutions and companies in the US. It carried out the first survey of Dalit discrimination among the South Asian diaspora in the US in 2016. In a sample of 1,500 respondents, “the numbers are high – one in four experience some form of physical or verbal assaults, one in three face discrimination in terms of their education and two out of three face workplace discrimination,” Soundararajan told University World News.

The survey was instrumental in convincing the CSU system to include caste in their policy, along with students like Pariyar, himself a Dalit, who were willing to speak out. 

“The whole process of educating and transforming these institutions towards caste equity has been one of very powerful testimony, and storytelling by really courageous and bold caste-oppressed students and faculty and campus community members. 

“And doing so under very difficult environments where caste bigots were literally intimidating, harassing and doxing them,” said Soundararajan, who is also a visiting scholar at the Center for South Asia, Stanford University. 

Soundararajan points to various types of campus discrimination – including discrimination with housing, work or student groups “openly using caste slurs and other microaggressions as well as more serious cases of gender-based violence like harassment and assault”. 

Equality Labs has been advising a large number of universities and colleges in the US, including providing advice from legal scholars “who have already done some thinking about this – we’ve worked with many institutions, large and small on these issues”.

“In our countries of origin, while there are laws to protect against caste oppression, there is a great deal of impunity and a lack of political will to enforce them. In the United States, however, because of the struggles of black and indigenous and other communities of colour, civil rights laws still have teeth,” Soundararajan explained.

“Increasingly, American institutions that are concerned about their liability related to civil rights and human rights compliance are proactively adding caste and making it explicit,” she noted. “When it’s not explicit, all the things that come from [being] a protected category don’t exist within the campuses’ or institutions’ purview.”

But universities are also key to educating society in general. “In making caste a protected category, institutions of higher learning are positioned to take the critical issue of caste oppression and discrimination seriously and to render it visible,” said Angana Chatterji, cultural anthropologist and scholar at the University of California (UC) Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender.

“Such commitment is imperative to deepening the study of caste and generative of new knowledge formations attentive to its intersections with gender and race. And to developing support systems, curricula and interventions to dismantle caste oppression and caste privilege within the university,” she added.

Often invisible

Caste harassment can often be invisible to those outside the South Asian community, but that does not mean it does not exist outside Asia. 

“I have been experiencing caste discrimination from my childhood, but I did not imagine that caste discrimination exists in the US, but then I experienced it myself. I was discriminated against within campus and outside campus,” said Pariyar, who is from Nepal. His caste are often not allowed to sit at the same table as higher castes or share food. 

Pariyar, who arrived in the US in 2015, said other South Asians “will ask your name, what does your father do. Their intention is to know my caste identity. In the beginning the conversation is respectful, but after knowing my caste identity that respect is gone,” he said.

“This is happening in California and not just in California but elsewhere in the US,” he added, saying he was left embarrassed, humiliated and depressed by these experiences and preferred not to go to get-togethers, house parties or other parties where there were other South Asian students present. 

Others who face caste discrimination are often reluctant to speak out because, in effect, it means revealing their caste origins. Some of them drop their surname or adopt a caste-neutral surname.  

“Many people do not feel comfortable talking about this type of discrimination and they want to hide their identity because they want to be protected; they don’t want harassment from dominant-caste people,” noted Pariyar, who says he is talking to other campuses about similar protections, including the University of California system – separate from the California State University system – starting with UC Berkeley. 

“We have to take it step by step,” said Pariyar, noting the victories in the CSU system and elsewhere along the way. 

The wording varies in different institutions. Brandeis University added this category in December 2019 that says caste is a recognised and protected characteristic in the school’s anti-discrimination policy. In September 2021, UC Davis added ‘caste or perceived caste’ as a category to its anti-discrimination policy. 

Colby College of Maine revised its non-discrimination policy to add caste to its list of ‘protections for the campus community’. In December 2021 Harvard, the first Ivy League university to do so, “added protections for caste-oppressed students” to its graduate student union contract.

Before CSU included it more broadly, some student and faculty organisations passed resolutions last year calling on the university to add caste to its anti-discrimination policy. These include the California Faculty Association, a CSU labour union, as part of their collective bargaining agreement, and Cal State Student Association, a non-profit representing students across the university, in April 2021.

“The student resolutions really matter because when the voice of the students from all 22 campuses say ‘we need this’, it’s huge. So that began the engagement with the [CSU] Chancellor’s office, and they have their own legal team. So they’re confident about the choices,” said Soundararajan. “But we also connected them with top legal scholars on caste in the United States.”

Periyar says it was an uphill battle. When the CSU-wide resolution came up, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a Hindu lobby group, vehemently opposed it. Its website includes a comment by Sunil Kumar, professor of engineering at San Diego State University. 

Rather than redressing discrimination, “it will actually cause discrimination by unconstitutionally singling out and targeting Hindu faculty of Indian and South Asian descent as members of a suspect class because of deeply entrenched, false stereotypes about Indians, Hindus and caste,” he said. 

HAF had been virtually silent until then, perhaps not understanding the significance of student and faculty resolutions. But Pariyar counters: “This policy is not dividing. It is a policy of inclusion. There are marginalised students and they need to be included.”

Berkeley’s Chatterji said: “Hindu nationalist organisations in the diaspora have repeatedly attempted to silence conversations around caste oppression, gender and Islamophobia. If systems of higher education in California determine to make caste a protected category, it will have an impact not just on California, but nationally.”

A ‘caste curriculum’

Becoming more inclusive is also important in the context of broadening diversity of incoming international students. 

“It is already a topic of conversation on campuses on how to diversity the pool of international students, [to know] what are the systemic forms of discrimination that exist over time and how can US institutions make sure they are reaching a broader diversity of South Asian students,” said international education consultant Rajika Bhandari. 

“On-the-ground understanding is definitely required, because if policies are not shaped by individuals who deeply understand the context, it can fall into a kind of neocolonialist framework or a very Americanised view of another countries’ social issues,” she said. 

Social stratification by caste, prevalent in India for centuries, has variations by region and community, even within India and its neighbouring countries, as well as further afield in South Africa, East Africa and Southeast Asia – particularly in Singapore and Malaysia, the Caribbean and elsewhere with communities from South Asia, often since British colonial times. Its complexity is difficult to explain to others. 

Pariyar agrees universities will need to understand caste better in order to be truly inclusive. 

“Adding caste is not enough, application is very important,” he said. “We need a caste equity action plan”. 

“We need training and a curriculum. We need to train all the diversity and inclusion committee members, all the faculty within the CSU system about the gravity of caste discrimination, what it is and how it exists. There is visible discrimination and invisible discrimination and they need to understand that,” Pariyar said, adding that the university system needs to hire experts to train staff and faculty.  

Some of this expertise is provided by Equality Labs which says it helps institutions develop better tools and know the process of how to identify discriminatory behaviour on the basis of caste.

“Institutions need to create real metrics – enrolment metrics, application metrics – to get a sense of what the baseline of crimes or incidents are, then to be able to bring it down. Data is the key – if we don’t begin with a set of really strong KPIs [key performance indicators], we can’t measure progress,” said Soundararajan.

Source: Caste has become a university diversity issue in the US

When Caste Discrimination Comes To The United States : NPR

The challenges of culture and tradition changes. Not aware of any similar studies in Canada (this one has the main methodological flaw that responses are voluntary rather than systematically collected and analyzed):

At over three thousand years old, caste hierarchy is one of the oldest forms of social stratification in the world: the community you’re born into in places like India, Pakistan and Nepal has designated where you can work, who you can marry, and what your reputation is in life. Even today in South Asia, caste conflict and discrimination remain a potent force in everyday life. In the United States, though, caste tends to be a relatively muted topic.

But a new survey, “Caste in the United States,” finds that caste discrimination is playing out in the United States as well — a finding that raises questions around how South Asian Americans understand themselves and their history.

The survey, which is the first of its kind, was commissioned by Equality Labs, a South Asian American human rights startup, and includes the experiences of about 1200 people who volunteered their answers.

The report on the survey’s results said that two-thirds of members of the lowest caste, called Dalits, said they have faced workplace discrimination due to their caste. Forty-one percent have experienced discrimination in education because of it. And a quarter of Dalits say they’ve faced physical assault — all in the United States.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan is the executive director of Equality Labs and co-authored the report. She said increased immigration from South Asia — including more and more people from lower castes — fuel this discrimination.

The South Asian American population was the fastest-growing major ethnic group in the US between 2000 and 2010. Today, India alone routinely attractsthe majority of skilled worker visas the US allots to foreign nationals, accounts for the highest number of undocumented Asians, and is one of the top countrieswhere new immigrants hail from.

This survey provides data for what many in the community already know: any time there’s a dominant population of South Asians — whether they’re living in Silicon Valley or New Jersey, or working at an office or a restaurant — caste biases emerge. It could be anything from refusing to date or marry someone from a lower caste, to being on the receiving end of a casteist slur, to being made to sit separately because of your perceived “untouchability.”

“We have people who responded who were in the assembly lines for a Campbell soup factory in Central Valley, as well as people who work for Google, Facebook and the other big tech companies,” Soundararajan said, naming workplaces that employ large numbers of South Asians.

But because most Americans don’t understand caste dynamics, it’s hard for people to speak up about it, or bring discrimination cases to court. That includes many people living of South Asian ancestry as well.

Anupama Rao is a historian and anthropologist at Barnard College who studies caste. She said for years, many of the so-called “model minority” of South Asians, who have earned the status of being “good immigrants” in the U.S., came from upper-caste families.

“Many of them, once they are upwardly mobile in the United States, tend to be extremely cagey sometimes, but most often I think embarrassed, to think of themselves as the beneficiaries of caste privilege,” she said.

And when being from a privileged caste obscures what this discrimination looks like — because it isn’t a part of you or your family’s experience — caste itself can become invisible. This is especially true in a new country like the U.S., where immigrant groups of all kinds must navigate their place in an American racial and class hierarchy.

What makes caste discrimination even harder to combat in this new context is that some lower caste people hide their identity as well — 52 percent of Dalits surveyed worry about being “outted” as lower caste.

And the issue is polarizing.

Suhag Shukla is the executive director of the advocacy group the Hindu American Foundation. She said it’s important to get rid of caste prejudice, but that this new survey unfairly essentializes and villainizes Hinduism. It’s one of the most complex arguments surrounding caste; as the survey notes, caste first appeared in Hindu scriptures. It now pervades all religions of South Asia.

“The single most problematic issue with this survey is that it traffics in the most dangerous and false tropes about Hinduism,” she said.

“So instead of demanding an honest conversation about caste and privilege, or its contested relevance among South Asian kids of the third and fourth generation who are now coming of age that are all brown regardless of caste, this report kind of alienates Hindus by scapegoating them,” Shukla said. Caste discrimination isn’t on the radar for many South Asian kids of later generations, she added. What they’re worried about is the discrimination they face for being brown in America. Hate crimes against Muslims and South Asians are at their highest levels since the year after 9/11.

Yet others — both Hindu and non-Hindu — see this defense as helping to preserve the caste system itself. It may not be exactly the same as it functions in South Asia, but a denial of accountability, they say, maintains a hierarchy of privilege.

Last month, over a hundred people packed into the auditorium of the First Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to talk about what the survey found. It was a special kind of Black Lives Matter event: an evening with Dalits.

Dr. Cornel West was part of the panel introducing the topic to the crowd, which included both South Asians and non-South Asians. He emphasized the parallels between the struggles of Black Americans and those of South Asians on the lowest rungs of the caste system.

“We will not be crushed! And we will struggle for love and justice, not hatred and revenge! Love and justice,” West roared to the crowd.

There has been a long history of Dalit and Black leaders finding common ground in their struggles. The Black Panthers in Oakland, for example, inspired the formation of another resistance group, the Dalit Panthers, in Mumbai. And Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, often recognized as the most renowned Dalit leader of the 20th century, and an architect of India’s constitution, exchanged letters with W.E.B. Du Bois in the 1940s, after seeing the similarities between the plight of India’s Dalits and African Americans in the US. This history was front and center at the event that evening in Cambridge.

“Let us never forget Ambedkar!” West insisted, as applause rung through the room. “And the spirit of W.E.B. Du Bois is here as well!”

Thenmozhi Soundararajan pointed out the shared experiences of those in the room.

“Places like this, where oppressed people are starting to build their connections, this is freedom,” she said.

via When Caste Discrimination Comes To The United States : Code Switch : NPR