Spearheading a Survey of Caste in South Asian Diasporas
Valliammal Karunakaran, Asmita Pankaj, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, and Prathap Balakrishnan
Caste is an inherited system of social hierarchy that is pervasive throughout South Asia. At birth, every child inherits his or her ancestor’s caste, through the Hindu varna system, which determines their social status and assigns them “spiritual purity”.
South Asians are defined as peoples with ancestral roots in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tamil Eelam, and the settled diasporas throughout Africa, Canada, the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East, and other parts of Asia and the Pacific rim. There are an estimated 8 million South Asians who live in North America and Europe, almost a million people of South Asian origin in the Caribbean, another million in Australia, and the islands of the Pacific rim, 2.5 million South Asians in Africa, close to 3 million people in South East Asia and 3 million people in the Gulf States.
Caste goes where South Asians go. As an institutionalized structure of oppression it affects over 1 billion people in South Asia, but the numbers and narratives for the diasporas have always been fuzzy because while caste practices are upheld, discussion of caste is seen as taboo. Further what conversation on caste does exist, is unjustifiably centered only around the issues of Dalits, and never on the networks of privilege that sustain “upper”- caste power in the diasporas.
This is why the Dalit American Foundation has launched the first ever Caste in the Diaspora Survey. This survey is hosted in collaboration with the Ambedkar International Mission, Ambedkar Association of North America, and the Dalit American Women’s Association. As communities who face the brunt of caste oppression, we are asking South Asians from all over the diasporas to sign up and take this survey.
Caste practices are not specific to Hindus
While caste has deep roots in Hinduism where it forms a core part of religious praxis, it is still a defining feature of South Asian societies cutting across religions. Often times people who practice non-Hindu religions, may not acknowledge or even know that cultural practices they are using are in fact casteist and based on the oppression of the “lower”-castes.
Muslim Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, for example still practice forms of caste that is also continuous with Muslim communities in northern India. In this model, castes are divided into Ashraf, Ajlaf, and Arzal. Ashrafs claim direct descendancy from the Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) bloodline and therefore consider themselves superior. Ajlafs are considered below the Ashraf and Arzal Muslims are equated with Dalits. Arzal Muslims can be found still doing work traditionally reserved for Dalits, including animal carcass disposal and manual scavenging. Combine all this with a mix of local Biradaris (brotherhoods), quams (nations), tribes and the notion of kafa’as (rules for intermarrying) and you have very complex ways in which caste establishes itself in South Asian Islamic societies.
Despite the egalitarian ideals of a religion like Sikhism, Sikh communities in diasporas can often be seen divided by caste. Dalit Sikhs denounce a lack of proper spiritual recognition for Shri Guru Ravidass , religious teacher who was also “chamar” ( leather-working Dalit caste). They believe his erasure to be an outcome of persisting casteism among Sikhs. We began to see then, from Fiji to Bedford to California, Dalit Sikhs have established their own Shri Guru Ravidass Gurudwaras in resistance to this erasure and exclusion. There are several reports of brawls between members of these Sikh Gurudwaras ending in knife and gun violence.
The fact that almost all communities of the subcontinent are caste-d is evident when we see that even South Asian Atheists can’t see themselves as having transcended their caste identities.
Amongst the Periyarist atheists of the Malaysian and Singaporean Tamil diaspora, you will still find atheists who hold on to their caste identity and only intramarry within their own castes.
Caste Denial as Diasporic Norm
For each of these diasporas, caste is evolving in its own unique ways that are far from the idea of the “Kala Pani” (black water) taboo of the sea in Hindu tradition which says that crossing seas or oceans results in the actual loss of one’s caste. But pervasive caste denial has long impeded our abilities to form full pictures of how our societies’ castes evolve and function.
We see this denial again and again. In Mauritius, local populations have vehemently stood against the word “caste” even being spoken of . However, marriage and politics are still tinged with casteist fervor. A very senior politician in Mauritius is quoted as having said: ‘Over here, castes don’t matter. Castes, they have nothing to do with religion, nothing to do with God. It only matters for old people, to marry the children.’
Even Indo-Fijians, often upheld as the classic “casteless” diaspora, also hold caste complexities within. It is true that an original influx of largely male migrants to Fiji and the scarcity of South Asian women migrants, saw many people marrying across the caste and race divides. However most original migrants were “low” caste to begin with. Further migrations also told other tales. When Ravidassia Indo-Fijians migrated to places like Sacramento, California, you see, in particular, Fijian-Dalit women being rejected by Dalit and non-Dalit Fijian partners citing unfavorable gender-caste location. Many families could only find their daughters partners through arranged marriage to Dalit men directly from Punjab, India.
Why This Survey?
Perhaps the biggest drive is the fear that if we don’t obtain the data on castes of our communities, we will lose a rich narrative, a whole new lens through which we can begin to understand ourselves as immigrants, new-life seekers, as dreamers, as refugees, as indentured workers, as slaves, as soldiers — or whatever the reason for our peoples departures and arrivals. Caste is an important part of the stories of why we or our ancestors left, how they travelled, what they had with them and how they made their new lives in the new lands and left a legacy for us. It is an important part of the history we will pass down to our next generation.
Understanding caste also helps us map the wider networks of global caste-class privilege that isn’t easily revealed. How do our present caste-class networks regulate politics and society in our countries of origins? In the last decade, we have been witnessing the vigorous importing of right-wing Hindu fascism to the Indo-Caribbean through the sale of nativist nostalgia. We see caste Hindus in America, like the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), who constitute one of the wealthiest communities, use their resources to shape policy, both in America and in India, in ways that help to to perpetuate the structures of caste oppression. We also see the erasure of large-scale Dalit Bangladeshi and Pakistani genocides, Pasmanda (low caste Muslims) leadership and history in local and international platforms.
While there is much anecdotal evidence for caste discrimination in the diasporas, we see real need for hard evidence. The work of a few scholars has definitely been key to activating this discourse. Sinthujan Varatharajah, a Eelam Tamil activist of Panchamar (Dalit) origin, was the first to implement a caste survey of a diasporic populations of Eelam Tamils all over the world. The work of Dr. Meena Dandha too helped establish socio-legal framework for the drafting of a bill against caste discrimination in the United Kingdom. There is still much more work to be done.
As we grow in numbers and in influence it is imperative close the gaps in our understanding. This survey is the first step in that larger process.
Notes on the Survey Methodology
This survey aims to get an initial round of data to reveal in the diasporas- the present caste distribution of South Asians, how past and present class status or political leanings are connected to caste, how caste behaviors have changed post-immigration and to what extent caste discrimination is practiced in schools, places of employment or place of worship.
We ask friends who have experienced caste discrimination to take the time to do the survey and share your experiences. We know it’s scary and many want to not discuss it at all for fear of perpetuating caste. But it is in fact our silence that will continue to blind and enslave us.
We also request our caste-privileged friends to even maybe do a little background work to fill out the survey. If you haven’t heard much about your caste, it is likely that you own some level of caste privilege, because unlike you, those oppressed by caste bear the burden of always being aware of what they are.
Ask your family members. Find out from them caste histories in your family. Google your last name or reach out to us to help you.
Becoming familiar with your caste social locator is one way to become aware of your caste privilege. And knowing that is also part of the process of being an ally in the struggle to annihilate caste.
This survey is not affiliated with, supported by or backed by any governments. We believe that it is important that the process of mapping caste be led by Dalits who are perhaps the worst affected by all the different models of caste . To this end, the survey has been set up by the Dalit American Foundation and is co-sponsored by Ambedkar International Mission, Ambedkar Association of North America, and the Dalit American Women’s Federation. We will be running this survey through Fall of 2016. The Survey will be disseminated online and physically in South Asian community centers, places of worship, businesses and activist spaces.
Privacy: Respondents need not worry about the release of their private identifier information. All responses are anonymous, and survey results will be aggregated. No individual response will be shared with a third party. The typeform server is a secured server and data stored within are protected by technology and by law.
The survey is just an opening in our conversations about caste in the diaspora. We know that for some, this process of understanding and confronting caste is difficult but we are here if you have any questions. Please reach out to us at DalitAmericanFoundation@gmail.com
Our goal is to break the silence collectively.
The Diasporas Testify
After casteism has left us disowned and expelled, it made us seek self-isolation and erasure to avoid everyday discriminatory practices. Community spaces were spaces that were unsafe, where constant social profiling, in other words caste profiling, happened, which rendered us hyperconscious and wary of interactions within the community. If you were found out, it would lead to discrimination, shaming and isolation. To be was to not be, to erase was a diktat that we, as many other Panchamar and lower caste refugees followed. — Sinthujan Varatharajah, Eelam Tamil Dalit, Berlin/London-based
Being Indo-Fijian, and growing up in a Hindu home, caste really didn’t mean anything to me in regards to my family or my identity. In Fiji the difference and separation was due to religion, the North vs. South Indian binary, and the different islands you were from. My own direct exposure to caste happened in the US among the South Asian community. I had a large group of Indian friends and it was through them that I learned that certain friends were treated badly in the homes of upper caste friends and that dating and marriage could only happen within the same caste. Even among folks who had grown up and lived in the US for most of their lives. It was also the parents of these friends who thought that the Fijian Indian kids were bad and they did not like their children hanging out with us or in our homes. I have always felt a sense of exclusion from South Asians because they think my South Asian-ness is either not authentic or there is something tarnished about my Indo-Fijian identity. I believe this othering has to do with the fact that the majority of indentured laborers in Fiji are descendants of lower caste and class communities which is a red flag for those who don’t know or understand our histories. — Esha Pillay, Indo-Fijian, Boston, MA
It is a reality that no matter after leaving everything behind in India while moving to US/UK, one thing Indians carry with them is caste. I met many Dalits, living in UK , some for almost 50 years or so, describing most of the marriages happening within their own castes. There are separate Gurudwaras and separate temples for different caste groups. n UK, “Equality Act 2010”, which prohibits discrimination based on “caste” was stopped from implementation after so called upper castes from UK protested that implementing it will bring caste to UK! In 2015 elections in UK to elect Prime Minister, Hindu groups from London distributed pamphlets among Hindu voters to support the Conservative Party because it doesn’t want to ban caste discrimination or implement provisions in Equality Act. In the UK, caste is not only alive but kicking! — Pardeep Singh, Dalit immigrant, London, United Kingdom
“My mother asked the cleaning lady to do the dishes too. I happened to mention that to acquaintances and they stopped eating at our house.” — Shahgul Wahid, Pakistani-American, Houston, TX
After many years of discussing Caste in the diaspora I have seen it all. Desi kids using their Caste names to give them street cred, parents switching plates on me once they learn I am Dalit, Dalit colleagues facing discrimination in their workplaces for having Ambedkar or other Dalit signs up, even being shamed for eating meat by other Savarna Hindus who said I was whitewashed for not being vegetarian. So much in the diaspora that gets pushed as being “our culture” is not our culture at all it is Savarna culture. The hegemony of Savarnas is perhaps one of the most important ways caste perpetuates. Talking about caste for me is about breaking that hegemony and allowing all of our cultures and experiences to come forward. — Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Dalit American, Los Angeles, CA
“My mother refused to let her son undergo a Brahmin thread ceremony — breaking with generations of caste tradition, and angering her in-laws.” — Anirvan Chatterjee, Indian-American, Berkeley, CA
One “upper”- caste man, on seeing me eating beef asked me if I am “a sweeper”. I just said “Yes.”. — Rama Hansraj, International Worker, Kenya
“Even in “progressive” diasporic circles it is not uncommon to find almost 60–70% of the people being Brahmins and no one questioning why this is so. In the past, I was involved with a South Asian NGO in the diaspora which still organizes an annual conference where casteist practices such as having a vegetarian-only menu are unquestioningly carried out. Despite the fact there are no good caste documentation in the diaspora, I can testify that caste practices, rituals and caste-based exclusion thrives here.” — Vinay Bhat, Indian-American, CA
“When I was doing my internship at the Center for Global Development and Sustainability, Brandeis University (which mainly focuses on social exclusion in South Asia-especially India’s caste system) we were looking for some volunteers to help with caste data analysis. When I approached a fellow Indian-origin classmate to get some help, she said a big NO to me. She said, “ We belong to a Brahmin community and I don’t like getting involved in such casteist activities!” I was shocked. How can the study of caste be casteist?— Prathap Balakrishnan, First generation Dalit in America, Boston, MA
I am a casted South Asian Muslim, queer woman living in Boston, MA. I immigrated to the States 25 years ago, and spent most of my life undocumented. Though I experienced the immense injustice, danger, and instability of being undocumented in a largely Islamophobic and anti-immigrant country, I still live with privilege as a casted South Asian-American. Many of my Muslim peers argue that caste doesn’t affect us because our religion does not accept social hierarchy. However, those of us with South Asian ancestry are undoubtedly affected by caste privilege and benefit from a casted experience. I have to admit that most of my life, I was not aware of my caste privilege. In attempts to find out about my family’s caste standing and privilege, I found that there was much done to bury the truth about our privileges, as well as ignorance and a blind-eye to the ways in which we have stepped on the backs of Dalit and Adivasi people, as well as a dismissal of our own Adivasi roots. — Leila Zainab, Bangladeshi-Indian American, Boston, MA
I am an Indian, Hindu, non-Dalit who has finally come to understand the unique complexities of my family’s casteism as an adult child. My parents are an inter-caste love marriage, the only one of their kind in both families. My mom is high caste and my dad is lower caste. I have no idea what that makes me. Our blend of north and south Indian adds friction to how my parents view savarna folks. My dad’s family makes Brahmin jokes in safe spaces, despite arrange marrying their children into Brahmin families. All the while there are zero discussions of caste in my mom’s upper caste family. It’s like they aren’t even aware caste exists. Privilege is bliss. Regardless of these differences, each of my parents wishes for their children to marry only within their birth castes: Kayastha and Shimpi. — Sonalee Rashatwar, Indian-American, Philadelphia, PA
As an Illankai Tamil Vellala Catholic it’s easy to mask & distance our participation in caste oppression and apartheid as we are “supposed” to not believe in caste. Yet it revealed itself repeatedly — in the coded language of “good family”; in the narrative of of how “educated” Tamils were denied admissions into universities by the Sri Lankan state; in responding to discrimination by asserting caste superiority; in reserving a politics of self determination for ethnicity while practicing Catholic charitability for caste; in seeking to re-attain social status by associating with Whiteness, while distancing from Blackness; and typically, in discussions of marriage and children, especially as it pertained to daughters. — YaliniDream, Ilankai Tamil, Brooklyn, NY
In the United States, when my child was in second grade, she used to have playdates with an upper caste Hindu kid. Once the kid’s mother had come over to our house and in the course of conversation came to know that we follow Buddhism which is largely considered to be the religion of Dalits in India. This was the last time that that family ever interacted with us. As word that my family belongs to Dalit community spread like wildfire, this led to seclusion of my child from all other caste Hindu children. It angered me and broke my heart that my child had to face the feeling of being outcaste in the 21st century in the United States too. — Asmita Pankaj, Dalit-American, Houston, TX