Skip to main content

Casteism 'not confined to' Hinduism, India; cuts across nations, religions, diaspora

A Dalit Christian protest in Delhi
By Aseem Hasnain, Abhilasha Srivastava*
The California State University system, America’s largest public higher education system, recently added caste, a birth-based social hierarchy system, to its anti-discrimination policy, allowing students, staff and faculty across its 23 campuses to report caste bias and discrimination.
CSU’s move has drawn a sharp response from some in the Indian diaspora: About 80 faculty members of Indian heritage, as well as the Hindu American Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, have opposed the decision, claiming that it is potentially stigmatizing for persons of Hindu or Indian heritage. They have also threatened a lawsuit against CSU if this decision is not revoked.
The caste system is often conflated in Western media with Hindu religion and India alone. However, as social scientists specializing in South Asian Studies, we know that the caste system is neither exclusive to Hindu religion nor is it endemic to India.

Caste in South Asia

While the caste system originated in Hindu scriptures, it crystallized during British colonial rule and has stratified society in every South Asian religious community. In addition to India, it is present in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Bhutan.
Social, economic and political status in this pernicious system is tied to traditional occupations fixed by birth. Brahmins, for example, who are assigned priestly work, are at the top, and Dalits, relegated to the bottom, are forced into occupations that are considered abject in South Asia, such as cleaning streets and toilets, or working in the tanning industry. Caste-based rules of marriage maintain these boundaries firmly.
Caste organizes social life not only among Hindus but also in Muslim, Christian, Sikh and Buddhist communities in the region. It is an intergenerational system based on birth into a caste group. Caste identities stay even generations after someone converts out of Hinduism and into any of these faiths.
Among South Asian Christians, Anglo-Indians are at the top of the hierarchy. This small community includes individuals of mixed descent from Indian and British parents. Those who converted to Christianity, even generations ago, from middle level Hindu castes come next, followed by those from Indigenous backgrounds. Those who converted to Christianity from Dalit castes are placed at the bottom.
Muslims across the region are organized with the minority Ashraf communities at the top. The Ashraf community claims noble status as the “original” Muslims in South Asia, due to their descent from Central Asian, Iranian and Arab ethnic groups. The middle in this social hierarchy is comprised of Ajlaf, considered to be “low-born” communities that converted from Hindu artisanal castes. The group at the bottom includes converts from Dalit communities who are identified with the demeaning term Arzal, which means vile or vulgar.
In the Sikh community, the powerful land-owning caste, Jat-Sikhs, are at the top, followed by converts from Hindu trading communities in the middle and converts from lower caste Hindu communities, Mazhabi Sikhs, at the bottom.
While Buddhism in India is close to being casteless, its dominant versions in Sri Lanka and Nepal have caste-based hierarchies.

Caste carries over after conversion

While many of the so-called lower caste groups converted to escape their persecution in Hinduism, their new religions did not treat them as fully equal.
South Asian Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists with Dalit family histories continue to face prejudice from their new co-religionists. They are excluded from or experience segregation at shared places of worship and sites of burial or cremation across all these regions.
Social scientists have shown that strict caste-based rules continue to regulate social organization and everyday interactions. Intercaste marriages are rare: In India alone, they have remained at about 5% of all marriages over the past several decades. When they take place, the couples risk violence.
While urbanization and education have normalized everyday interactions across caste groups in shared urban spaces, entertaining lower caste individuals in upper caste households is still taboo in many families.

Dalit Sikhs protest in Delhi
A 2014 survey found one in every four Indians to be practicing untouchability, a dehumanizing practice in which people from Dalit castes are not to be touched or allowed to come in contact with upper caste individuals. Untouchability was prohibited in India in 1950 when its egalitarian constitution came into force. However, home ownership is segregated by caste, and religion and caste discrimination is pervasive in the rental market where residential associations use flimsy procedural excuses for keeping lower caste individuals out.
Lower castes are expected to defer to the higher status of upper castes, refrain from expressing themselves in shared spaces and avoid displaying material affluence. They risk being punished by socioeconomic boycotts, which could include ostracizing the Dalits or keeping them out of employment. It may even include assault or murder. In Pakistan, anti-blasphemy laws are used as a pretext for caste violence against Dalits, many of whom have converted to Christianity.

Caste and life outcomes

Studies show that caste-based identity is a major determinant of overall success in South Asia. Upper caste individuals have better literacy and greater representation in higher education. They are wealthier and dominate private sector employment, as well as entrepreneurship.
While affirmative action programs initiated by the British and continued in independent India have made improvements in the educational levels of lower caste groups, employment opportunities for them have been limited.
Studies also demonstrate how caste identity affects nutrition and health through purchasing power and access to health services.
Most socioeconomic elites in South Asia, regardless of religion, are affiliated with upper caste groups, and the vast majority of the poor come from lower caste groups.
Caste in the diaspora
Scholars have documented similar discriminatory practices in the diaspora in the U.K., Australia, Canada and the African continent.
Caste has started getting recognition as a discriminatory category, especially in the U.S., in recent years. A 2016 survey, “Caste in the USA”, the first formal documentation of caste discrimination within the U.S. diaspora, found that caste discrimination was pervasive across workplaces, educational institutions, places of worship and even in romantic partnerships.
In 2020, the state of California sued Cisco Systems, a technology company in the Silicon Valley, on a complaint against caste-based discrimination. Harvard University, Colby College, UC Davis and Brandeis University have recognized caste as a protected status and have included it in their nondiscrimination policies.
These developments in the U.S. have put the spotlight again on this centuries-old system that denies equality to large populations on the basis of an oppressive and rigid hierarchical system. It is up to the American diaspora how they commit to engage with it, as they themselves strive for equality and fairness in their new multicultural society.
---
*Respectively: Associate Professor of Sociology, Bridgewater State University; Assistant Professor of Economics, California State University, San Bernardino. Source: The Conversation

Comments

TRENDING

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

How lead petitioner was rendered homeless when GM mustard matter came up in SC

By Rosamma Thomas*  On January 5, 2023, the Supreme Court stayed a December 20, 2022 direction of the Uttarakhand High Court to the Indian Railways and the district administration of Haldwani to use paramilitary forces to evict thousands of poor families occupying land that belonged to the railways.  Justice AS Oka remarked that it was not right to order the bringing in of paramilitary forces. The SC held that even those who had no rights, but were living there for years, needed to be rehabilitated. On December 21, 2022, just as she was getting ready to celebrate Christmas, researcher Aruna Rodrigues was abruptly evicted from her home in Mhow Cantonment, Madhya Pradesh – no eviction notice was served, and nearly 30 Indian Army soldiers bearing arms were part of the eviction process. What is noteworthy in this case is that the records establishing possession of the house date back to 1892 – the title deed with the name of Dr VP Cardoza, Rodrigues’ great grandfather, is dated November 14

Savarkar 'criminally betrayed' Netaji and his INA by siding with the British rulers

By Shamsul Islam* RSS-BJP rulers of India have been trying to show off as great fans of Netaji. But Indians must know what role ideological parents of today's RSS/BJP played against Netaji and Indian National Army (INA). The Hindu Mahasabha and RSS which always had prominent lawyers on their rolls made no attempt to defend the INA accused at Red Fort trials.

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Tax buoyancy claims when less than 4% Indian dollar millionaires pay income tax

By Prasanna Mohanty  In FY18, the last year for which disaggregated income tax data is available, only 29,002 ITRs declared income above Rs 5 crore, while Credit Suisse said India had 7.25 lakh dollar millionaires (the wealth equivalent of Rs 8 crore and above) that year. Often enough, the Centre claims that demonetization in 2016 raised tax collections, improved tax efficiency, and expanded the tax base. Now RBI Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) member Ashima Goyal has also joined their ranks, attributing the “claims” of rising tax collections in the current fiscal year to “tax buoyancy” brought by the demonetisation . Do such claims have any basis in official records? The answer is unequivocal. The budget documents show the tax-to-GDP ratio (direct plus indirect tax) increased from 10.6% in FY16 (pre-demonetization) to 11.2% in FY17, remained there in FY18 (demonetization and GST fiscals), and then fell to 9.9% in FY20. In FY22, it improved to 10.8% and is estimated to drop to 10.7% in

Gandhian unease at Mahadev Desai book launch: Sabarmati Ashram may lose free space

By Rajiv Shah  A simmering apprehension has gripped the Gandhians who continue to be trustees of the Sabarmati Ashram: the “limited freedom” to express one’s views under the Modi dispensation still available at the place which Mahatma Gandhi made his home from 1917 to 1930 may soon be taken away. Also known as Harijan Ashram, a meeting held for introducing yet-to-be-released book, “Mahadev Desai: Mahatma Gandhi's Frontline Reporter”, saw speaker and after speaker point towards “narrowing space” in Gujarat for Gandhians (as also others) to express themselves. Penned by veteran journalist Nachiketa Desai, grandson of Mahadev Desai, while the book was planned to be released on January 1 and the meeting saw several prominent personalities, including actor-director Nandita Das, her scholar-mother Varsha Das, British House of Lords member Bhikhu Parekh, among others, speak glowingly about the effort put in for bringing out the book, exchanges between speakers suggested it should be rele

Civil rights leaders allege corporate loot of resources, suppression of democratic rights

By Our Representative  Civil rights activists have alleged, quoting top intelligence officers as also multiple international forensic reports, that recent developments with regard to the Bhima Koregaon and the Citizenship Amendment Act-National Register of Citizens (CAA-NRC) cases suggest, there was "no connection between the Elgaar Parishad event and the Bhima Koregaon violence." Activists of the Campaign Against State Repression (CASR) told a media event at the HKS Surjeet Bhawan, New Delhi, that, despite this, several political prisoners continue to be behind bars on being accused under the anti-terror the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Addressed by family members of the political prisoners, academics, as well as social activists, it was highlighted how cases were sought to be fabricated against progressive individuals, democratic activists and intellectuals, who spoke out against "corporate loot of Indian resources, suppression of basic democratic

Kerala natural rubber producers 'squeezed', attend to their plight: Govt of India told

By Rosamma Thomas   Babu Joseph, general secretary of the National Federation of Rubber Producers Societies (NFRPS) at a recent discussion at Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, explained that it is high time the Union government paid greater heed to the troubles plaguing the rubber production sector in India – rubber is a strategic product, important for the military establishment and for industry, since natural rubber is still used in the manufacture of tyres for large vehicles and aeroplanes. Synthetic rubber is now quite widespread, but styrene, which is used in making synthetic rubber and plastics, and also butadiene, another major constituent of synthetic rubber, are both hazardous. Prolonged exposure to these even in recycled rubber can cause neurological damage. Kerala produces the bulk of India’s natural rubber. In 2019-20, Kerala’s share in the national production of rubber was over 74%. Over 20% of the gross cropped area in the state is under rubber cultivation, with total

Why no information with Assam state agency about female rhino poaching for a year?

By Nava Thakuria   According to official claims, incidents of poaching related to rhinoceros in various forest reserves of Assam in northeast India have decreased drastically. Brutal laws against the poachers, strengthening of ground staff inside the protected forest areas and increasing public awareness in the fringe localities of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries across the State are the reasons cited for positively impacting the mission to save the one-horned rhinos. Officials records suggest, only two rhinos were poached in Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve since 1 January 2021 till date. The last incident took place probably in the last week of December 2021, as a decomposed carcass of a fully-grown (around 30 years old) female rhino was recovered inside the world-famous forest reserve next month. As the precious horn was missing, for which the gigantic animal was apparently hunted down, it could not be a natural death. Ironically, however, it was not confirmed when

Lack of welfare schemes, BSF curbs force West Bengal farmers to migrate far away

Counteview Desk  In a representation to the National Human Rights Commission chairperson, a senior West Bengal based activist has complained that villagers living near the border with Bangladesh are forced to migrate to as far away as Mumbai and Kerala because of lack of government sensitivity towards their welfare in original villages. Giving specific instances, Kirity Roy, secretary, Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), said, if the Border Security Force (BSF) had not put any restriction on agricultural activities, and if villages had properly implemented welfare schemes, these people would never migrate to other States. Text: I want to attract your immediate attention to the inhumane condition of the migrated workers of Gobra village, Swarupnagar Block in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal to seek your urgent intervention to protect the rights of these people. Gobra is a village situated near the Indo-Bangladesh Border where the border fencing is about 500 meters i