The Persistence of Caste and Anti-Caste Resistance in India and the Diaspora

The Persistence of Caste and Anti-Caste Resistance in India and the Diaspora


There is currently a popularization of South Asian culture in the West. The “dot head” or bindi is no longer a mark of gender subordination and ethnic backwardness, but a fashion statement worn by Madonna, Janet Jackson, TLC, and many other international pop stars. South Asian clothes serves as an inspiration for many top designers in London, Paris and New York, while mandis and nose rings are the envy of many Western youth who wear tattoos and pierce their bodies. From sitar and tabla, Qawwali and ragas, Bangra and Bollywood videos, there is a growing influence of South Asian music on the international music scene as well. And yes indeed, no longer a strange odor, curry is now a much in demand dish served in many five star hotels. These all represent the commendable, positive aspects of South Asian culture.

However, there are many deeply negative aspects of South Asian culture which rarely gets coverage in the Western media. Casteism, child labor, female subordination and exploitation, religious fundamentalism, discrimination and violence against tribals, Christians and minorities, language and regional conflict, and many other problems are brushed aside as multinational corporations rush to co-opt South Asian cultures for profit. Curiously enough, this is not the first time the West has fallen in love with South Asian culture. The love affair first occurred during the 17th and 18th centuries when Western intellectuals first encountered the caste system and admired it as the most ideal way of organizing a society. Their analysis of the caste system led to the development of the dominant social theory know as functionalism, which like casteism, is merely a justification for class stratification and discrimination. This paper explores the persistence of caste and anti-caste resistance in South Asia and the diaspora.

Casteism in South Asia

Nearly a quarter of a billion people born and die as untouchables in Hindu-dominated South Asia, most of them in India and Nepal. Although abolished by law, in practice Hindus continue to observe caste restrictions. For a traditional Hindu of the upper castes, untouchables or Dalits, are not Hindus since they pollute everything they touch. Most Dalits live out their lives in terrible poverty and humiliation. Many toil the land as bonded laborers in the rural areas, or migrate to the cities to work as day-laborers, sweep the floors and streets, scavenger, panhandle, wash the latrines, even haul away buckets of human excrement, or perform sex work. Moreover, caste-based violence, including the rape of low-caste women, is endemic. All over India, the lynching, beheading, and burning of Dalits and Christians is on the rise. These violations of basic human rights are not seriously investigated by caste Hindu authorities.

Without question, caste is the curse of Hinduism, and it has humiliated millions through the ages. Caste is Hinduism’s sorrow, the apartheid that makes Hindus hang their heads in shame. Caste serves as the prime reason for conversions even today. Purity is the pivot on which the entire caste system turns. Rank, social position, economic condition may all influence caste, however it remains strong and rigid because the ideas of the people regarding purity and pollution are rigid. (Ketkar 1909:121-2). The idea of relative purity and consequent social inequality underlies the cultural rules, from marriage and death, to eating and drinking together. Even Swami Vivekananda called Kerala a “lunatic asylum” for its bizarre caste-separation rules (which were later ameliorated).

Caste as an Organizing Principle in South Asia

One of the reasons for the persistence and growth of caste is the present era, is the fact that caste has turned into a vote-bank. As the concept of Hindutva permeates Indian society today, we find Hindus being mobilized into sectarian institutions for particular castes such as the Kunbis, Agris, Bhandaris, Tehs, Sutars, Charmakars, Matangs, Lohars, Dhangars, Kshatriyas, Brahmins, etc. These caste-based institutions have programs, meeting, conferences, etc., where the consideration is mainly for the problems restricted to that caste alone. Simultaneous with caste mobilization is an increase in political awareness through these caste organizations.

Maybe this form of caste mobilization would be good and politically developed if all castes have equal opportunity. However, Dalits have to fear for their very lives for the simple act of walking through an upper caste neighborhood, or entering a Hindu temple. They have limited access to education, state resources, campaign contributions, the media, and so on. So the general increase in caste consciousness among Hindus leads to growth of casteism towards Dalits.

Nonetheless, anti-casteism is also being used as a basis for organizing, in the formation of Dalit organizations, Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations from Assam to Kerala, country-wide demonstrations against caste atrocities and desecration of Ambedkar statues, the growing influence Kanshi RamÕs Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in UP and other states, support for Pholan Devi and so on. Dalit Sahitya Research Foundation in Delhi distributes throughout India and worldwide, books on Ambedkar, Buddha, Phule, Saint and Dalit Literature. National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights in India launched with an international presence through their website,

Caste Among Overseas Indians

Caste may be on the upswing in India, but many feel that at least it is limited to India alone. But is it? In 1967, Barton Schwartz published a collection of articles in a book titled Caste in Overseas Indian Communities. This book represents a high point in research of the Indian Diaspora, containing 12 field-studies of Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname, Fiji, South Africa, and East Africa. Although the field is a growing one, SchwartzÕs book is the only edited collection to ever focus on caste in the South Asian Diaspora. Interestingly, the researchers in SchwartzÕs book conclude that caste is still important in the countries which had a more recent history of “passenger” or non-indentured migration, such as those in East Africa. For example, in Uganda, Morris argues that the “need for caste exclusivenessÉ was one of the most important structural principles in organizing Indian social life” (:276).

In contrast, caste was unimportant in the countries which have had a history of indentured migration,. For example, Smith and Jayawardena argues that within the Guyanese Indian community, economic, political, and juridic relations “are not structured on caste lines” (:88). Benedict declares that “caste is not a very important phenomenon in the social structure of Mauritius or even of the Indian section within it” (:40). For Trinidad, Niehoff claims that “caste is functionally a matter of little concern in this Hindu community” (:162). And in South Africa, Kuper finds that caste “does not necessarily operate as a clearly defined system of structured social relationships” (:244). All of the researchers agree that local caste groups could not exist due to the lack of local caste-based authorities, and the impossibility of maintaining ritual purity under indentureship.

What are the reasons for this difference in caste among these two groups of Diaspora countries? As Mayer points out in the introductory chapter of the SchwartzÕs book, the variation in emphasis on caste “also arises partly from the different uses of the term ÔcasteÕ by the different writers” (:2). According to Mayer, who has conducted fieldwork in Fiji, caste refers to endogamous and hierarchical groupings, and both factors were present during in the South Asian Diaspora during the 1960s when the book was printed.

Since the 1960s, a lot has changed in the social sciences and in the Diaspora, so there is an important need to update SchwartzÕs focused collection. The new theories which have emerged like feminist and cultural theories, could be used to re-look at the old data. Also, the many changes which have taken place in the Diaspora need to be addressed. For example, the former indentured populations in Trinidad, Guyana, Surinam and Fiji have achieved political ascendancy, while on the other hand, the East African Indian community in Uganda were forced to leave the country.

Gender and Anti-caste Resistance

Using feminist theory, an analysis of gender relations could help us to understand the variation in caste between indentured and passenger countries. A caste is maintained by marriages taking place within the group, or endogamy, and the Indian caste system is structured around the control of female sexuality within a patriarchal system. If Indian men are unable to control female sexuality, and women do not voluntary practice caste endogamy, then is impossible to maintain caste boundaries.

As equal workers on colonial plantations, South Asian women had more freedoms and control over their own sexuality, and so were able to de-stabilize Indian patriarchy, with some help from the colonial system, in the form of transfers, etc. The destablization of Indian patriarchy during the indentureship period, evident in male resistance and the high number of wife-murders, in turn lead to a breakdown of the caste system. Indentured females preferred to marry men who were settled and relatively well-off; men who may not necessarily belong to a similar caste or varna.

Culture and Anti-caste Resistance

There are cultural explanations for this variation in caste as well. A majority of migrants under the indenture system came from the lower castes and Dalit groups, and their resistance played a major part in the diffusion of caste in the indentured societies. As victims of the oppressive caste system, the lower castes and Dalits had a vested interest in destabilizing it. Women were also trying to resist the system which was restrictive to them. At the same time, since there was a shortage of females in the colonies, especially upper caste women, it became impossible to maintain upper caste endogamy. The East African migrants, on the other hand, usually returned to India to get married, and so could more easily maintain caste endogamy.

How did this resistance against casteism occur among the lower caste, Dalit, and inter-caste groups (the bahujans)? Through sanskritization among lower caste Hindus, santalization in the case of Madrasees, conversion to Christianity among Dalits and Tribals, caste amnesia among inter-caste groups, and so on. As a measure of their success in resisting and changing caste, just three generations after the end of indentureship in the Caribbean, there are few religious groups and families who still claim Untouchable origins, and the vast majority of Hindus claim middle caste origins. To call someone a Chamar (Untouchable tanner caste) is a “blasphemy” in Trinidad, and can lead to legal action in Mauritius.

The negative effects of sanskritization and hindu homogenization in the Caribbean are more significant than the status gains made by individual families. For example, caste resistance through sanskritization leads to reinforcement of the vary same unequal caste system, albeit in a changed form. Homogenization resulted in a lost of Dalit and lower caste identities; and both process had led to increased subordination of women through more patriarchal, north Indian cultures. The hiding of Dalit identities further leads to shame and uneasiness among Indo-Caribbean people, regarding their actual history and culture, in relation to Indian nationals and other ethnic groups. This unwillingness to embrace lower caste ancestry also leads to dishonest and mediocre thinking, which explains why inspite of their relatively large numbers, Indian people have failed to make any important contribution to Caribbean culture.

The Significance of Caste in the Diaspora

The Laws of Manu forbade the higher castes to reside outside the land of their birth, and this injuction is still observed by orthodox circles in India today. In view of this prohibition, Brahmins or any good Hindu becomes polluted for simply existing outside of India. Settled Hindus in the diaspora simply ignore this fundamental contradiction in their religion. Although caste-based groups no longer function as important units in the former indentured colonies, it would be a mistake to say that caste is no longer important. According to Singer, Hindu identity in Guyana is very similar to that of India. First of all, there is a concern with status and prestige in both countries, shown in India by caste conflicts and in Guyana through eye-pass disputes. Second, there is a “remarkable similarity” between the “specific personality characteristics” of Hindus in India and Guyana. And third, there is a conscious effort to make a Hindu identity through socio-religious organizations such as the Maha Sabha. However, Singer concludes that in Guyana caste is not basic to the new Hindu “dharma” or duty.

Resistance against caste is equally evident in the Diaspora, for example in the continued popularity of the Arya Samaj in the Caribbean and the growing influence of Ambedkar in Malaysia, Mauritus, North America and Europe. The Arya Samaj advocate monotheism, the abolition of untouchability, and reform of the caste system; and denounce idolatry, the evil of child marriages, and the ban on the remarriage of widows. Ambedkar was an Untouchable leader who wrote IndiaÕs constitution, and converted to Buddhism along with a million other Dalits.

After 150 years of indenture and resistance, caste has become more fluid in the diaspora, less to do with origins and more to do with wealth and religious practice. Except for marriage, caste is not the primary basis for relationships and activities. To some extent, varna has replaced caste, and although there is no strict co-relation between occupation and caste, Brahmins are an important exception. Besides, the vast majority of Hindus in the Diaspora do claim a caste or varna identity.

In the indentured colonies, caste mobility was practiced by individuals or families adopting sanskritized habits of a higher caste or varna within the system and not necessarily into a creolized noncaste world. However, a situation developed where claims of upper caste origins became viewed as dubious at best and outrightly fabricated in many instances. So, claims for upper caste status also need to be qualified with actual knowledge of the Hindu scriptures, or accompanied by class advantages or political status. As proof of this, claims for upper caste status by the middle class and upper class are taken more seriously than those made by members of the working class. Since, the number of jandi flags outside the house is co-related to caste status, with more flags translating to higher status, caste has become a consumer item which the middle and upper class can more easily afford. Over time, this process leads to class stratification, class endogamy, and the re-construction of caste among overseas Indians.

As the researchers in SchwartzÕs book documented, some form of caste endogamy was still being practiced in the Diaspora, since inter-caste unions were rare, and the children were assigned to one parent to maintain endogamy. Even if the entire Indian population in a given country may become the endogamous unit, caste is still being practiced in relation to other ethnic groups. And even though not based on purity, some notion of hierarchy do continue to exist.

There is another form of casteism being practiced in indentured societies, that between settled Indians and Indian national, sojourner business families. In the Caribbean, Indian national business families act as if they are still in India and observe caste rules vis-a-vis settled or polluted Indians. They do not do socialize with the local Indian business elite, and do not see themselves as part of an Indian business community in any of the countries. For example, recently over 40 Indian businessmen in Georgetown met to address prolonged demonstrations affecting business in the capital, however not a single Indian national attended the meeting. Nationals almost always return to India to marry, and often educate their children in India. To some extent, this form of casteism carries over to North America and Europe.

Permutations of Caste in the USA

The nature of caste relations in Europe and North America is similar to that of South Asian passenger communities in other parts of the diaspora, in the persistence of caste and caste-based organizations. There are many caste-based groups in the USA, including the Brahmin Society of America, Rajput Association of America, Patidar Samaj and other Jat associations, each with local affiliations throughout the United States. For example, the Kerala-based Sri Narayana groupÕs global convention in New Jersey attracted delegates from chapters in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and from other states and 10 foreign countries. Incredibly, the enormous amount of funding provided to caste, political and religious groups in South Asia by caste based groups in the “modernized” USA, is leading to an increase in religious fundamentalism and casteism in South Asia itself.

Even in regional and language based newspapers in the USA, caste plays a very prominent feature in matrimonial advertising. Many South Asian parents encourage their children to marry within their own caste and there are meetings held all across the North America for the purpose of getting youths to meet others from their own caste. For example, the Patidar Samaj meeting in Atlanta drew 4,000 people and resulted in 100 couplings. And, with continued migration from South Asia, caste endogamy becomes easier to maintain. Many individuals return to South Asia for arranged marriages within their own caste.

There is also anti-caste resistance in the USA. The Kanshi Ram influenced International Bahujan Organization (IBO) in New York has over 5,000 members. Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations are held in New York and other metropolitian areas of the USA and Canada, Mauritius, Malaysia and other parts of the Diaspora. There is a Dalit International Newsletter published out of Connecticut, USA., and gross atrocities against Dalits are often followed by demonstrations at the UN and in Washington, DC. There are Dalit activists and organizations in the UK, Germany, Middle East, South Korea and Japan. The First World Convention: A New Vision Towards A Casteless Society was held in Kauala Lumpur in October, 1998. The chairman, senator M.G. Pandithan, of Malaysia, brought together leaders like Poolan Devi, Kanshi Ram, and Ram Vilas Paswan, who could not meet each other in India since they were divided into different political camps run by OBC and upper caste leaders. So the diaspora is becoming an important factor in anti-caste resistance in South Asia itself.

Caste, religion, language and other factors results in fragmentation and prevents Indians in the USA from building alliances to face common issues in America. For example, South Asians do not consider Indo-Caribbeans as real Indians, and Indians and Pakistanis treat the majority of Bangladeshis, and Punjabis as somewhat “lesser” than them. Not coincidentally, the Richmond Hill community in New York is the only community of its kind in the USA that has a concentration of Punjabis, living alongside Indo-Caribbeans and Bangladeshis. This fast-growing South Asian enclave is a lower-class community, however there are also caste related issues operating here since Indians and Pakistanis are not moving there.

As further evidence of this, South Asian women organizations in New York tend to be dominated by Indian and Pakistani women, and not surprisingly divided along issues of nationality, with Indians and Pakistanis on one side and Bangladeshis on the other. In South Asian umbrella associations, from local to national, and left to right, Bangladeshi and Indo-Caribbeans are rarely included in top leadership and decision making, and outreaching effors rarely reach their communities. Of course, there has always been religious linkages, however it is always in the father/child mode and the child never grows up.

Caste in the Plural Society

South Asian Diaspora communities all exist in racially diverse, multi-ethnic societies. In perhaps the most important section of MayerÕs excellent introduction to SchwartzÕs book, the researcher explores the significance of caste for the IndianÕs communityÕs place in the plural society. According to Mayer, there are two separate issues to consider.

The first is “to what extent are the plural societies themselves caste societies, with the different ethnic communities occupying castelike positions?” (:11). This is a very important question, especially since it extends the debate on caste to other ethnic groups and to the plural society itself. With the ending of the colonial state, this question assumes more importance for formerly enslaved and indentured groups, as well as indigenous peoples. For example, what is the hierarchy of status accorded to various ethnic groups in an independent society? How does relative ethnic status co-relate with political power? How are the offspring of inter-ethnic marriages treated by members of each ethnic group?

In the same volume, Speckmann implies that Surinam has a hierarchy of communities since the Indian population has crystalized itself into on “national Indian caste” which is endogamous. Crowley observed that in the Caribbean, Indians “are using Indian culture and often mythical caste as a club with which to beat contemptuous Creoles.” Increased competition for control over the state has led to increased communal consciousness. Increased competition for control over the state has led to increased communal consciousness. In Guyana and elsewhere, there are signs of militant Indianness.

The second point is to “what extent are caste differences within the Indian community reflected in relations with other communities, and do these relations accentuate or influence caste differences inside the Indian community?” (ibid.:11). These are important questions since caste operates inside and outside of Indian culture and politics. Clarke observes that wider community affairs in Trinidad are dominated by upper-caste members. Mayer argues that the supposedly casteless local Indian organizations in the Diaspora “does not preclude some caste bias, insofar as their leadership tends to be in the hands of higher-caste members Ð who are at the same time upper-class men. Éusing the Ôbonus of esteemÕ which higher caste provides” (:10).

The majority of lower class/caste Indians may have more issues in common with other working class ethnic groups than the business elite and middle caste/class Indians who are anti-labor, for the most part. The lack of working class awareness, and allegiance to middle-class groups and norms do have some historical precedence. Although comprising a majority of the Indian population in the indentured colonies, and resistant to casteism, bahujans lacked a common language, and once again became dependent on the educated upper castes who acted as intermediaries between various bahujan goups, and between Indians and other ethnic groups. This dependency coupled with the common practice of sanskritization, over time led to homogenization along middle-caste/class values.

The Buddha and Anti-caste Resistance

The Buddha condemned the caste system, which he considered unjust. Over 2,500 years ago he allowed entry into a Buddhist Stupa (temple) to members of all castes. The Buddha introduced the idea of placing a higher value on morality and the equality of man instead of into which family or caste a person is born. It was also the first attempt to abolish discrimination and slavery in the history of mankind. The Buddha said: “By birth one is not an outcaste; By birth one is not a brahmin; By deeds alone one is an outcaste; By deeds alone one is a brahmin.” According to the Buddha it is the good and bad actions of a person, and not his birth, that should determine a person’s caste.

Despite this, various forms of the caste system are practised in several Buddhist countries, including Sri Lanka, Tibet, and Japan where butchers, leather and metal workers and janitors are sometimes regarded as being impure. However, the system in these countries has never been either as severe or as rigid as the Hindu system and fortunately it is now beginning to fade away. The exception to this is Nepal where Tantric priests form a separate caste and will neither initiate into their priesthood or allow into their temples those of other castes (Malalasekera and Jayatilleke 1968). Today caste is consciously practiced by hundreds of millions of Hindus in India, Nepal, Bali, and countries of the Diaspora.

Hindu Reformist Sects and Anti-caste Resistance

Since Buddhism there were thousands of Hindu reformist sects formed in opposition to the caste system. The Lingayat sect, for example, which arose in the twelfth century, had as one of its objects the abolition of caste distinctions; besides this, it was so imbued with the spirit of reform that it repudiated the practice of infant marriage and allowed the marriage of widows. By the seventeenth century the sect had introduced caste divisions, and had split up into sections which allowed no intermarriage. They still deny the religious supremacy of Brahmans, but they are not singular in this respect, for certain artisan castes in Madras also contend that there is no need for the religious services of Brahmans and themselves claim the status of Brahmans

The Significance of Caste in Nepal

In ancient times, Muslim armies attacked Hindu rulers in India causing many to move east into Nepal. Slowly they came into contact with native tribes (most of Mongolian descent) of modern Nepal. There were 36 tribes at that time, and they became classified into 36 Varnas. Since then, the caste system was practiced as in India, until in 1962, a law was passed making it illegal to discriminate against the untouchable castes. However, discrimination still continues today. In the past, when Brahmins and Chetris came in contact with Sudras, they used to bathe. Now, some people just sprinkle water on their body and some do not even care at all. Previously, Brahmins were not subject to the death penalty but now, all castes are equally treated by the law. Education is free and open to all castes and discrimination is only done socially.

The Significance of Caste in Bali

The Balinese are Hindu, however their religion is very different from that of India. They do have a caste system but there are no untouchables or occupation governed by caste. In fact the only thing that reflects the caste system is the language which has three tiers; 95 percent of all Balinese are Hindu Dharma & speak Low or Everyday Balinese with each other; Middle Balinese is used for talking to strangers, at formal occasions or to people of the higher Ksatriya caste; High Balinese is used when talking to the highest class, the Brahmana, or to a pedanda, priest. Interestingly, most of the words at the low and medium levels are the same, but High Balinese is a mixture of Middle Balinese and Kawi, the ancient Javanese language.

The Significance of Caste in Pakistan and Bangladesh

Caste exist in a subconscious manner amongst Muslims in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Despite their conversion to Islam, Pakistani Muslims still refer to themselves as Jats, Gujjars, Rajputs, and so on. This is especially so during match-making in an arranged nikah (marriage). One instance of the visibility of casteist feelings among Pakistanis is the reference Benazir Bhutto makes in her book ‘Daughter of the East’, when she says, “In my veins runs the blood of a Wadhera.” Wadheras are a Rajput clan from the Punjab and Sindh. In Bangladesh, Saiyids have objections to women of their families marrying Sheikhs, though they will take wives from the latter, whom they raise to their own level. There are further two main social groups caled Ashraf and Ajlaf, and as a rule a member of the former will not willingly give his daughter in marriage to a man of the latter. (Talke 1914:12-13).

The Significance of Caste Among Christians and Sikhs

Similarily, Goans and East Indian Christians still refer to themselves as Bamons (Brahmins), Bhandaris, Kolis, Prabhus, and so on. The Sikhs too refer to themselves as Jat Sikhs, Mazabhi Sikhs, and Ramgarhia Sikhs. Jat Sikhs profess surnames like Chauhan (Jagjit Singh Chauhan), Dhillon (Ganga Singh Dhillon), Arora (Jagjit Singh Arora), Oberoi, Saini, and so on, that display caste backgrounds. Ramgarhias and Mazhabis have generally no surnames as Sikh tradition recommends.


Casteless Hinduism is a social aim, a social ideal. However, things appropriate to the present climate have to be done, otherwise the idealism would meet the same fate as the Gandhian philosophy did when Gandhi made Hindu-Muslim Unity. The propositions of Gandhi in economics, social sciences and in particular in the field of Hindu-Muslim unity, all have become not just impracticable but redundant. Dr. Ambedkar started with elimination of castes and accepted the practical approach of capturing power. The backward classes must get their share of political and economic power was the main thought in his political activity. The political awareness present in the backward classes is the direct result of Dr. Ambedkar’s work

by Moses Seenarine






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