How prejudices rooted in an ancient social system migrated from India to Canada


When Gurpreet Singh packed his bags last fall and arrived in Ontario from India, he quickly learned that there was one thing that some other Indians in Canada had not left behind in their home country. origin: their prejudices.

The human resources management student at Durham College in Oshawa, Ont., said he was considered an outcast in the ancient South Asian social structure known as the caste system, but he faced more discrimination from Indians in Canada than in India.

“I’ve been here for about five months and I’ve faced it in a more aggressive or aggravated way in this country from my own Punjabi community,” Singh said. “They beat their chests with pride to be from such or such caste.”

India is the main source of immigrants to Canada. It’s also a huge pipeline for international students in Canada and the United States, and some universities are taking note of concerns about caste-based discrimination.

California State University, the largest public four-year university system in the United States, specifically added caste to its non-discrimination policies in January. In Ottawa, the Carleton University Academic Staff Association passed a motion in November to include caste-based discrimination in its policies.

In November, the Carleton University Academic Staff Association passed a motion calling for caste discrimination to be added to its anti-discrimination policies. (Danny Globerman/CBC)

Singh recalls a conversation with an acquaintance in Oshawa that shocked him after she used a caste slur to address him.

“I told her you’d be behind bars if you were in India right now… The girl who said that word acted like she didn’t know anything why it’s offensive etc,” Singh said. “To put it in his brain in the simplest way possible, I equated the word to the N-word.”

He said it was “strange” that she knew the N-word was an insult to black people, “but even after living in India for 23 years, she had no idea, or at least pretended not to. have no idea, of the thing she I just casually said.”

The Hindu caste system divides people into four sub-communities based on descent – Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras – and a person’s caste can often be identified by their surname. The four main castes are further divided into 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes.

Caste tradition transcends religion. Many Indians of Hindu lineage whose ancestors adopted Sikhism or Christianity retained their surnames and caste designations.

Singh belongs to a scheduled caste, the members of which are also known as Dalits. According to the caste system, scheduled castes are outcasts and do not belong to the social order.

Singh said he was asked for his full name in order to identify his caste. (Submitted by Gurpreet Singh)

According to the 2011 census, Scheduled Castes accounted for 16.2% of India’s population. From 2018 to 2020, India’s National Crime Records Bureau recorded 50,202 registered cases of crimes or “atrocities” against Scheduled Castes. Community activists have long struggled against caste oppression.

Singh’s surname was originally Badhan, which indicated his caste. He stopped using it, even on official documents, but he said that in Canada, he was asked for his full name so people could identify his community.

“I had to hide my identity many times,” Singh said. “I had to lie twice. I told them I was from the Jatt community and my last name was different because I felt I might be isolated, and no one wants to feel that way when you’re so far away. from home.”

Caste can hurt

Chinnaiah Jangam, an associate professor in the history department at Carleton University and an advocate for the rights of people from scheduled castes, believes that caste can harm immigrants in the long run.

“A student or employee from these backgrounds will not feel comfortable expressing their own identity and they will not feel comfortable being themselves,” said Jangam, who is the author of Dalits and the Making of Modern India and led efforts to add caste to the anti-discrimination policies of the Carleton University Association.

Meera Estrada, Toronto co-host of the pop culture show culture’D on Global News radio, was born in Canada but said she was aware of being Dalit from childhood. She often hid her identity because other people of Indian descent looked down on her community.

She remembered taking Gujarati language lessons and people asking her what Samaj, or community, to which she belonged. “And people were quite proud to say which group they belonged to, but it was always the Brahmin group or the so-called upper caste,” Estrada said.

India passed a law in 1955 to abolish “untouchability”, a term once used to describe the practice of ostracizing scheduled castes. But Estrada thinks the social stigma against Dalits remains, something that became more evident to her in her twenties.

“The aunts in mandirs [temples] trying to play matchmaker always said, “Oh, he’s a good boy from a good family.” The implication was that he was from an upper caste, and I would just feel like if that was the equivalent of good, who am I? I am not good ?”

Brahmin only group

A matchmaking Facebook group, the Samast Brahman Society of Canada, has 4,100 members. The description of the group states that its “goal is to unite all Brahmins under one roof while they can serve in all other Brahmin organizations”.

Its administrator, Jagruti Bhatt, said in a Gujarati interview that the Facebook group only accepts members of the Brahmin caste, although she later added that all castes are allowed at events organized by the group.

“We only allow Brahmins into the group. Different organizations exist to cater to different communities. Likewise, ours only caters to a particular caste,” Bhatt said. She refrained from commenting on the caste accusations conveyed by her group.

Estrada said it was “pretty disgusting” that such groups existed. “Imagine, for example, it being a white people-only kind of thing. I almost don’t even see the difference there,” she said.

Sailaja Krishnamurti, associate professor of religious studies and women’s and gender studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, said the impact of such networks is concerning.

“It is a well-known and well-established reality that people often use their community and family networks to help find employment while they migrate. So this can have a direct impact on what happens in terms of access employment,” she said. .

It has long been predicted that with migration, the caste would expand beyond South Asia.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, an Indian jurist who would chair the committee that drafted India’s constitution, warned in 1916 that caste could potentially become a global problem. He was opposed to the concept of untouchability and burned a copy of the Manusmriti, an ancient Hindu law book.

“If Hindus migrated to other parts of the world, Indian caste would become a global problem,” Ambedkar wrote in his dissertation. Castes in India.