In 1955, the Constitution of India enacted the Untouchability Act, which was later renamed as the Protection of Civil Rights Act, which abolished the caste system. Yet, despite this legislation caste still appears to be a central prejudice which affects many people. Moreover, this shadow of casteism has followed many South Asians to the United Kingdom, Canada and elsewhere around the world. The Indian caste system is one of the oldest forms of social stratification that continues to exist today. The caste system essentially divides Hindu people into hierarchical groups. The hierarchies are formed on the basis of ones karma (work) and dharma (duty). The Hindu caste system has…
…four main categories, and in top down order: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras. Historically, the Brahmins were viewed as the teachers and the intellectuals of society. The Kshatriyas were viewed as the warriors or rulers of society. The Vaishyas were viewed as the traders of society. Lastly, the Shudras were the ones who did the menial jobs for society. Moreover, the Dalit’s also known as the “untouchables” of society are considered to be outside the caste system. The untouchables were considered impure, and that any contact with them by a caste member was considered contamination. The untouchables were the ones who would do the work that no one else would do, such as scavenging.
These main caste groups are then divided into over 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes. The caste system has been a form of systematic oppression for over 2000 years, essentially privileging certain groups over others and establishing discriminatory practices that continue to exist today.
Many South Asians have claimed that they have been discriminated by other South Asians, more so than other groups, due to their level in the caste. I recently spoke with a woman who I will refer to as Priya, who stated that “despite being a lawyer and [her] family converting to Christianity, [her] family name is still seen as [her] main ‘weakness’ in the eyes of many Indians.” Priya comes from the Dalit community, also known as the “untouchables.” Priya’s family converted to Christianity in order to remove themselves from the stigma of caste, and when they immigrated to the United Kingdom this stigma followed them over. The issue of caste discrimination appears to be a hard hitting issue within the British Indian community, so much so that the U.K. recently moved towards making caste discrimination an aspect of race discrimination. This would make caste discrimination a criminal offence, through the Equality Bill.
I also met with a young Sikh man, who I will refer to as Raj, on my trip home to Vancouver recently. Raj comes from the “Tarkhan” caste and he told me that he had previously dated a “Jatt” girl for two years. However, they had to call it off as her parents refused his marriage proposal due to his caste. What is interesting is that Sikhism rejects the caste system and recognizes all human races as one. For example, the Sikh Gurus established langar (the food hall in the Gurdwara), in order to create equality. Langar was meant for people of all walks of life, despite caste, color, religion or gender to gather together and eat while sitting amongst each other, equally, on the ground floor because there is nothing lower than the ground floor itself. Moreover, all Sikh men and women were to take on the surnames of either Singh or Kaur, in order to eliminate discrimination based on a family name.
In spite of the progressiveness in law, on a global front, caste is still a rampant issue in the Indian community. Irrespective of which country; whether it be India, the United Kingdom or Canada, this is a narrative that sadly still exists.
Human Rights Activist, and a PhD student
Sunny Mangat is a Human Rights Activist, and a PhD student researching sexual violence against women in India.