Shlok Talati, CBC, May 16, 2022
When Gurpreet Singh packed his bags last fall and arrived in Ontario from India, he soon learned there was one thing some fellow Indians in Canada hadn’t left behind in their home country — their prejudices.
The human resource management student at Durham College in Oshawa, Ont., said he is viewed as an outcast in the ancient South Asian social structure known as the caste system, but faces more discrimination from Indians in Canada than he did in India.
“I have been here for roughly five months and I have faced it in a way more aggressive or aggravated form in this country from my own Punjabi community,” Singh said. “They beat their chest with pride that they come from this caste or that caste.”
India is a main source of immigrants to Canada. It’s also a huge pipeline for international students both to Canada and the United States, and some universities are taking note of concerns around discrimination based on caste.
California State University, the largest four-year public university system in the U.S., specifically added caste to its non-discrimination policies in January. In Ottawa, the academic staff association at Carleton University passed a motion in November to include caste-based discrimination in its policies.
Singh recalled a conversation with an acquaintance in Oshawa that shocked him after she used a casteist slur to address him.
“I confronted her that you’d be behind bars if you were in India right now … The girl who uttered that word acted as if she didn’t know anything, why it’s offensive, etc.,” Singh said. “To put it in her brain in the easiest possible way, I equated the word with the N-word.”
He said it was “strange” that she knew the N-word was a slur for Black people, “but even after living in India for 23 years, she had no idea, or at least pretended to have no idea, about the thing she just said so casually.”
The Hindu caste system divides people into four sub-communities based on ancestry — Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras — and the caste of a person can often be identified by their last name. The four main castes are further divided into 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes.
Chinnaiah Jangam, an associate professor in the department of history at Carleton University and an advocate for the rights of people from scheduled castes, believes casteism can hurt immigrants long term.
“A student or an employee coming from these backgrounds will not feel comfortable to express their own identity and they won’t feel comfortable being themselves,” said Jangam, who is the author of Dalits and the making of modern India and spearheaded the push to add caste to the anti-discrimination policies of Carleton’s academic association.
One matchmaking Facebook group, the Samast Brahman Society of Canada, has 4,100 members. The group’s description says 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 an interview in Gujarati 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.
It’s long been predicted that with migration, caste would reach beyond South Asia.
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, an Indian jurist who would chair the committee that drafted the Indian constitution, warned in 1916 that caste could potentially become a global issue. He was opposed to the concept of untouchability and burned a copy of the Manusmriti, an ancient Hindu law book.
“If Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem,” Ambedkar wrote in his thesis Castes in India.