Enduring Caste Surviving thousands of years of social and religious change, invasions, colonialism, independence, migration and more, caste is an aspect of South Asian culture that refuses to go away when the cafe or restaurant isn’t serving South Asian food, or owned by a South Asian person.
hy do people migrate to Australia? So many migrant stories are about hope, the potential for a better life, for better opportunities, for oneself and for one’s family. For some, it might even be a chance to escape the constraints and restrictions of life back home. And yet we find South Asian migrants have brought to Australia the darkest aspects of our culture back home - casteism. Does Casteism exist in Australia? Just like discrimination in India, instances of casteism range from the blatant to the subtle. Bhanu Adhikari, a retired public servant based in South Australia, reported the first legal complaint of caste discrimination in Australia. When Mr Adhikari’s mother passed away, four Hindu pandits refused to perform her final rites because Mr Adhikari’s family welcomed people of all castes into their house, thus rendering it “impure”. South Asian students of lower castes report that housemates of higher castes separate cooking utensils and show disrespect and contempt when they learn of their friends’ caste status. There are even examples in Sydney of South Asian job applicants telling cafe and restaurant owners that they refuse to work with people of lower castes - even
Why are we hearing about it now? Earlier waves of migration from South Asia to Australia favoured a narrower group of migrants, mainly upper-caste, tertiary-educated professionals. With more recent migration patterns, a more diverse range of South Asian migrants have entered Australia, providing an opportunity for social stratification to become more obvious here. South Asian migrants from different caste groups, class backgrounds and regions have settled in Australia, invoking age-old prejudices in the diaspora, both settled and recent. With a more diverse diaspora, as well as a larger population, there is more visibility of this issue. Along with online media, people are able to tell their stories and highlight these problems more easily than before. How to identify casteism As with all types of prejudice - sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and others - those who are on the receiving end of discrimination are acutely aware of its existence, while those of us with privilege have the luxury of denying it. People from upper-castes can claim ignorance, especially those born and brought up in Australia. But the simple fact is that until your caste becomes a problem for you, it is unlikely it has ever been brought to your attention. That’s how discrimination works. If you look closely however, you find everyday examples of casteism all around. Throughout the South Asian diaspora we see people seeking
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out friends and prospective marriage partners in the same caste groups. We also hear caste-based jokes, as well as caste-based insults. People’s surnames are used as barometers of their social standing. Even cultural practices, such as jhoota reflect the caste logic of purity and pollution. These everyday microaggressions can be even more damaging than explicit forms of discrimination, as they are harder to identify and address. How do we stop it? At its core, caste is about community. Your caste denotes your lineage, your regional heritage, your culture. It is impossible to eradicate people’s histories. There are examples of individuals trying to escape their caste through changing their surname or religion, yet this requires elaborate lies and concealment of one’s family, one’s heritage, one’s ancestral home. While people can do this on an individual level, an entire society cannot. What we need to do is eradicate the hierarchical nature of caste. Being conscious in choosing more diverse friends, colleagues and partners rather than sticking to people who are comfortable and familiar. Challenging caste-based stereotypes, along with caste-based jokes and insults. Our culture is constantly evolving, we have seen great movements in South Asia and the diaspora on issues such as genderbased discrimination, and recently with same-sex marriage and relationships. Eradicating caste prejudice is an issue we are yet to commit to with the same conviction. After all, why did we all go through the challenges of migration, if not for better lives and futures?