By Karishma Luthrim | ABC Radio National |
When I was at university, another South Asian asked me what my caste was.
I replied that I didn’t know.
But as Jasbeer Mustafa, an academic from Western Sydney University, told me: “If you don’t know your caste, it’s most likely you’re upper caste.”
As a new migrant to Australia I was surprised when I learnt caste discrimination exists in a country so far removed geographically and culturally from South Asia.
I grew up in Mumbai, and it wasn’t until the Dalit Lives Matter movement was retriggered by the murder of a Dalit in India last September that I started to question the caste system and the role I played in it.
I was curious to know more about how casteism impacts people in Australia, so I started speaking to a number of migrants who had first-hand experience with the caste system.
‘Australia is no exception’
The Hindu caste system is made up of four tiers — at the very top are Brahmins or priests and teachers.
The next tier is Kshatriyas, who are the descendants of warriors and rulers or kings.
Then come Vaishyas, who are farmers, traders and merchants.
In the last tier are Shudras, or labourers.
And beneath that last tier are Dalits.
According to the system, Dalits are tasked with manual scavenging and street cleaning, are considered “untouchable” and are often outcast by India’s society.
Iterations of the hierarchy exist within most South Asian groups — from Tamils and Punjabis, to Nepalese and Bhutanese people.
Melbourne-based academic and filmmaker Vikrant Kishore says “caste goes where South Asians go”.
“Australia is no exception,” Dr Kishore says.
He says some South Asians in Australia even personalise their car’s number plate to display their caste pride.
“It is all about the privilege, it’s all about boasting of their background,” he says.
“Most of the Australians, they wouldn’t even be knowing what it is doing — but Indians generally know what the person is trying to announce to the world.”
Aparna Ramteke, a human resources professional, Dalit woman and advocate for Dalit rights, says diaspora South Asians in Australia can be obsessed with finding out each other’s caste.
She says it is common for Indians who meet in Australia to end their conversation by asking each other their last name.
“Why are we asking the last name — to understand which caste system you come from. It’s such a casual discrimination,” she says.
“It’s just amazing to note how intricately this has divided people on the basis of the caste system.”
San Kumar Gazmere changed his last name when he arrived in Australia to avoid caste discrimination among the Nepalese community in Cairns.
In Australia, Mr Gazmere manages a fast food restaurant and remembers when he first moved here people from the community laughed at his surname.
“Some Nepalese people … pronounce it in a very weird voice, and they yell really loudly with that name,” Mr Gazmere says.
“We feel embarrassed because people who had that last name have got bad memories and bad experiences.”
Mr Gazmere says people from his caste are not allowed into people’s homes in Nepal — and in Australia too.
“They keep dogs, cats, everything inside the house, but they don’t let people go inside because of only that [their] last name.”
Those who can evade discrimination, and those who can’t
I’m Sindhi, and Sindhis don’t follow a typical caste hierarchy — rather, we divide ourselves on class lines.
That’s why when I asked my dad recently what caste we were, he was really vague about it.
He said we might be Vasihyas — the traders — due to our family’s history of running businesses.
This confused me even more. If I’m not as high up in the hierarchy, how am I able to evade the impacts of the caste system?
Ms Ramteke says because of her professional HR job, she has not experienced typical caste discrimination in Australia.
“Somebody who has got a good house, a good family, they wouldn’t talk about the caste system,” she says.
She says in cases such as hers, any discrimination is not in your face, but behind your back.
But for recently arrived migrants from lower castes, casteism is not that subtle.
A Nepali Dalit man, who wanted to remain anonymous, told me he was evicted from his rental in Brisbane after the owner, an upper caste Nepali, found out he was an “untouchable”.
When he complained about the eviction, the owner told him to shut up, and that he should be ashamed about not disclosing his caste.
Melbourne filmmaker Girish Makwana had a similar experience as an international student in Australia.
“[The landlord] asked me: ‘Where are you from, what’s your caste?’ And then very nicely just brushed me off,” he says.
Mr Makwana then found out that the landlord had accepted five other applicants, but not him, because he is a Dalit.
“Later one of the guys living there told me it’s because they have a protocol in their house. Then I decided I will not live with any Indians any more.”
Dating outside of your caste
Caste also seeps into our dating lives. There is a dating app called Dil Mil, which means meeting of hearts.
The app has a filter option allowing those from top tier caste groups to find matches within their own caste — but there are no options for lower caste groups.
Rather than a meeting of hearts, it is more a meeting of castes.
On finding this out, it made me ill-at-ease. Are young South Asians so obsessed with caste that we come up with apps by upper castes for upper castes?
Kushal, whose name I have changed to provide anonymity, is a Nepalese migrant in Tasmania who fell in love with an upper caste girl.
“After a few years, maybe, her parents figured it out,” he says.
Her family would not let them get married.
“She was beaten by her parents, saying that: ‘Why do you want to stay in a relationship with those kinds of people?'”
They ran away together, but Kushal says there was no respite.
“Her parents used to call her, saying, ‘Come back, we’ll find a better guy for you.'”
Read the full story, ‘They’ve left South Asia, but they can’t escape the discrimination and division of its caste system’ (ABC Radio National, 11 Feb 2021), here.
Today marks 100th anniversary of Dalit historic re-entry in Darbar Sahib (Asia Samachar, 12 Oct 2020)