Where There are Indians, There is Caste: A Reading List on Denial in Diaspora

A reading list discusses how caste manifests in Indian diasporas and how the fight against caste discrimination has played out globally.


When Ahmed Kathrada, a senior Indian leader of South Africa, was asked about the caste system, he remarked with some discomfiture, “Please don’t bring Indian problems here.”

Do Indians shed caste when they cross borders? Last month, a US based organization, Equality Labs released data from a community-driven survey that highlighted how caste based practices are prevalent in South Asian institutions and society in the USA. 

In March 2017, Theresa May’s government launched a public consultation on Caste in Great Britain and Equality Law. However, British Dalits who have been demanding protection from caste discrimination for many years, face opposition from savarna South Asian communities. 


How does caste manifest in Indian diasporas?

1) For diaspora Punjabis, caste consciousness can be more important than race

Paramjit S Judge’s study (2002) in two cities, Birmingham and Leamington Spa, focusing on the experience of  members of the ad-dharmi community showed that caste continues to have relevance across the community. The respondents revealed that caste trumped race and economic status as a social category within the Punjabi community.

Among the ad-dharmis the pattern of most marriages is not different from other caste groups in the Punjabi community. All the ad-dharmi respondents were in favour of caste endogamy. They said that one should marry in one’s own caste, because it helped in the adjustment of the spouses. One major problem they pointed out in the case of an intercaste marriage was in the symmetrical interaction among the relatives. The upper caste relatives did not regard a dalit as equal.


 2) No one can claim that we do not have caste here

Suraj Milind Yengde (2015) contextualises the issue of caste among the Indian diaspora in Africa. He delves into how Indians were categorised as a “race” by South Africa’s oppressive regime, thus uniting them in their fight against this regime. However, he argues that Indian activism in South Africa, and Africa in general, is premised on, and inspired by Gandhi's ideals and Gandhi’s disinterest towards the lower caste Indians is a legacy that South African Indian leaders perpetuate even today. 

Once they started getting wealthy, the Mochis in South Africa insisted that they were Kshatriyas and not low-caste cobblers.  They adopted Rajput surnames like Chauhan, Chavda, Jagas and claimed Kshatriya status. They also turned to vegetarianism, essentially a higher caste (Brahminical) tradition. 


3) Opposition to legislation is connected to the fear that the routine ways of practising caste-based identities will come under scrutiny

Meena Dhanda was part of a team of experts drawn from different research institutions to carry out an independent study on caste in Britain by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. In this article  (2017), she maps out a spectrum of opinions about caste and finds a dissonance: on one hand respondents claim to live in a society without caste tensions, on the other, the examples of their daily lives show that caste affects status, marriage, social networks and formal institutions. She also details the vehement opposition to the efforts of British Dalit groups such as CasteWatch’s campaign to mention “caste” in the Equality Act 2010: 

It has been argued that caste legislation “could introduce and reify caste boundaries,” “induce caste based-thinking” and “induce tensions between groups which have never been felt before…… [however] How can the legislation “introduce” what is already present as a valued source of self- esteem?


How has the fight against caste discrimination played out globally? 


4) There is no acknowledgement that discrimination on grounds of caste might be a genuine issue for anyone in the UK

In Britain, the Equality Act 2010, introduced by the 2005–10 Labour government, does not specifically prohibit caste discrimination. British anti-discrimination legislation has never been all-encompassing; it prohibits discrimination on grounds of certain personal characteristics in certain defined areas, outside of which discrimination is lawful. 

Annapurna Waughray (2018)  unveils how many UK based people of Indian origin claim that  pushing for legislation against caste discrimination  will “bring to the surface” “irrelevant social forces” and undermine “community cohesion.” 

Opponents of legal protection against caste discrimination claim that legislation threatens “Indian associational needs,” for example, the existence of organisations “based on an extended kinship structure like a jati,” that it will undermine Indian communities in Britain, and will result in spurious and malicious claims of caste discrimination against Indian businesses and community organisations... Such arguments position Indian organisations, businesses, and employers as the victims of legislation, which is depicted not as a source of protection from caste discrimination but as a threat to the continued existence of Indian communities.


5)It is only because of lack of democratic social conditions in Indian society that we have lagged behind

Vivek Kumar (2004) writes that the dalits abroad did not remain aloof from each other though they migrated from different parts of India and belonged to different sub-castes. Detailing how they have created their own organisations to develop social solidarity with different Dalit Communities, he highlights how the whole process has broken national boundaries and taken the dalit movement to international levels.

The mobility which dalits have attained in different countries has motivated them to assert that they are not inferior to any one. They have argued, “look we have demystified the ideal type image of dalits as dirty, drunkard, devoid of any merit, beast of burden, etc, by developing ourselves without any governmental help”. In the same vein, “by attaining the mobility in different realms of foreign society without the help of the protective discrimination we (dalits) have made a point that nothing is inherently wrong with us. It is only because of lack of democratic social conditions in Indian society that we have lagged behind.


6) Dalit activists want to see caste as a fragment of race – not conceptually, not analytically, not even empirically but legally

Shiv Visvanathan (2001) writes about how, at the United Nations World Conference on Racism held in Durban, South Africa in August-September 2001, Dalit groups across the world had fought a battle for the inclusion of caste into the official charter on race as a form of descent-based discrimination.

The argument [made by Indian bureaucrats]  is that caste is an internal matter and that raising the issue only creates a source of divisiveness and embarrassment.  Dalits argue that the current objections to the welding of caste and race and the attempts to raise caste at the Durban conference on race, has a similar ring.

7) How do diasporic upper caste Indians try to control the narrative of caste and the community?

Chinnaiah Jangam (2016) writes about how in 2016, the South Asian diaspora protested the way in which the Indian subcontinent's history, culture and people were represented in school textbooks in California. How did this controversy reflect the anxiety of the caste Hindu diaspora surrounding its own identity, history and culture?

Interestingly, the caste Hindu diaspora in North America is trying to carve out a niche as spiritually-minded Hindus and victims of colonialism and racial prejudices. They argue that the representations of Hindu religious and social practices in school textbooks—especially of caste inequality, practice of untouchability and the treatment of women—place them in a negative light and that their children get bullied as a result. The argument of victims of imperialism emanates from the postcolonial theory, which holds that the European Enlightenment through its master narrative assimilates and violates the histories of non-Europeans. The ensuing argument is that this master narrative effectively leads to the denial of history and agency.


Read More:

Gujarati Business Communities in East African Diaspora :Major Historical Trends | Makrand Mehta

The Ravi Dasis of Punjab: Global Contours of Caste and Religious Strife | Surinder S Jodhka

Dalit Movement and Dalit International Conferences | Vivek Kumar

Caste Discrimination and UN | Ambrose Pinto

Caste on the International Stage | Nivedita Menon

Caste on UK Shores: Legal Lessons from the Diaspora | Sameena Dalwai


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