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.
The caste tradition transcends religion. Many Indians with Hindu lineage whose ancestors adopted Sikhism or Christianity retained their last names, and their caste designations.
Singh belongs to a scheduled caste, 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.
According to the 2011 census, scheduled castes made up for 16.2 per cent of the Indian population. From 2018 to 2020, India’s National Crime Records Bureau recorded 50,202 registered cases of crimes or “atrocities” against scheduled castes. Activists from the community have long fought against caste oppression.
Singh’s last name was originally Badhan, which indicated his caste. He stopped using it, even on official documents, but he said in Canada he’s been asked for his full name so people could identify his community.
“I have had to hide my identity a number of times,” Singh said. “I had to lie twice. I told them I come from the Jatt community and my surname is something else because I felt that I might be isolated, and no one wants to feel that way when you are so far away from home.”
Casteism can cause harm
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.
Meera Estrada, the Toronto co-host of the pop culture show kultur’D on Global News radio, was born in Canada but said she was aware she was a Dalit since childhood. She often hid her identity because other people of Indian background looked down on her community.
She recalled going to Gujarati language classes and people asking what samaj, or community, she belonged to. “And people were quite proud in saying which group they belong 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 believes the social stigma against Dalits remains, something that became more apparent to her in her 20s.
“Aunties in mandirs [temples] trying to play matchmakers would always say, ‘Oh, this is a good boy from a good family.’ The implication there was that he is from a higher caste, and I would just feel like if that is the equivalent of good, who am I? Am I not good?”
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.
“We only allow Brahmins to enter the group. Different organizations exist to address different communities. Likewise, ours is only for one particular caste,” Bhatt said. She refrained from commenting on accusations casteism is promoted through her group.
Estrada said it’s “quite disgusting” that such groups exist. “Imagine, for example, it was a whites-only kind of thing. I almost don’t even see the difference there,” she said.
Sailaja Krishnamurti, associate professor of religious studies and women and gender studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, said the impact of such networks is concerning.
“It’s a well-known, well-established reality that people often use their community and family networks to help get employment as they are migrating. So, that can have a direct impact on what happens in terms of access to employment,” she said.
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.