Seattle City Council and the Toronto District School Board recently made the unprecedented decision to recognize and address discrimination based on the caste system — and now some British Columbians are pushing for similar recognition in the province.
The caste system is a form of social hierarchy in India that is passed down through families. The system dictates the occupation a person can have and who they can marry.
It was banned in India in 1948, but members of the South Asian community say it continues to affect lives in North America, often in unspoken or hidden ways.
Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra, a Parks Canada historian based in Abbotsford, BC, describes a mixture of “shock, disbelief, excitement, [and] hope” when she learned of the decision in Seattle last month and the Toronto school board following suit last week.
“In terms of the North American diaspora context, it’s about time. Many of us [in the South Asian community] is advocating for awareness of the system of violence that exists worldwide because of this hierarchy,” she said, adding that the silent “violence” of this discrimination can be just as damaging as physical violence.
Sandhra and members of the South Asian community are calling on the provincial government and school boards to create awareness about caste oppression.
A silent system
The system originates from the Hindu religion, with Brahmins, or priests, who take the highest place in the hierarchy. At the bottom was Dalitsor untouchables, who were forced into unwanted jobs such as sewer cleaning and field work.
Sandhra says the caste system is not isolated to Hinduism, but has filtered into other faiths over thousands of years, including her own Sikhism.
“One of the main principles of [the Sikh] faith is that we should not believe in the caste system… and yet it is still practiced in silent ways,” she said.
It includes stigma over certain surnames that may indicate caste in some cultures.
“I’ve heard stories of people who have changed their last name moving to Canada because of the fear of the stigma behind it [the caste system]Sandra said.
Sandhra says it’s hard to quantify how widespread caste discrimination is in BC, but you can spot it if you know how to identify the language.
“In times of marriage, you see the language come up around wanting ‘someone from the upper caste’ … And in the Sikh tradition, … we even have a separate gurdwhara, a sacred space, for people who is not from ‘the high caste,'” she said.
“It’s not like there’s been a study done where you can say it’s happening in a violent, outward way, and it’s actually more damaging because it’s silent,” Sandhra said.
“Got to Start Somewhere”
Seattle County. Kshama Sawant said the city’s ban on caste-based discrimination is the first of its kind outside South Asia.
“It has really electrified and sent a message of empowerment for caste oppressed people,” she said.
Having grown up in India, Sawant says she was aware of the inequality around her and was surprised to see the same inequality in the US
“The concentration of South Asian immigrant workers has expanded over the past couple of decades in the United States, as has the incidence of caste discrimination in the workplace,” she said.
“We especially have data and also a lot of personal testimony from hundreds of workers from the technology sector,” she said.
Sawant says she has heard of bosses treating employees badly, or even denying them raises or promotions, if they are deemed to be of a lower caste.
When the law comes into effect towards the end of the month, workers will be able to sue their employer if they feel caste discrimination is being used against them, she said.
In Abbotsford, Sandhra draws inspiration from the changes to co-curate an exhibition on caste discrimination at the Sikh Heritage Museum.
She hopes presenting the problem publicly will make people understand the damage of the system.
“You’d be shocked how few people know this history of caste and how it’s kind of infiltrating Canada,” she said, adding that the first step has to take place in the classroom.