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Canada India Banned The Caste System 60 Years Ago, But It Lives On For Many In Metro Vancouver


For most of her life, Kamlesh Ahir has been trying to escape the caste system that’s defined her from birth.

She went to university, abandoned her religion, and, in 1994, left India for Canada, a new land offering a fresh start.

Or so she thought.

To an outsider, Ahir is no different than the more than 200,000 people of South Asian heritage who call Metro Vancouver home.

Yet among her own people, her last name brands her as a dalit, the people formerly called Untouchables.

Dalits occupy the lowest rung in the caste system, a rigid class structure rooted in Hinduism that dictated occupation and social status.

Condemned to live on the margins of society, they used to be denied access to schools and temples. They were confined to jobs deemed unclean, such as handling human waste or dead animals, and could be punished for letting their shadow fall on someone of an upper caste.

The Indian government banned castes more than 60 years ago, and gave dalits substantial rights. But discrimination remains widespread, especially in rural areas. Even in Canada, ingrained attitudes, centuries old, are not easy to change.

“They think we are ********. We are zero. We are a dog, less than a dog,” says Ahir, born to the chamar caste.

“They think we are nothing. It doesn’t matter if we are a doctor, teacher, because we belong to the lower castes.”

“I’m in Canada,” she continues, frustration in her voice. “But the ******** castes are still here. We live it every day.”

New immigrants can face as much discrimination within their own ethnic communities as they do from mainstream society.

It’s a discrimination based not on race, but on a variety of factors such as class, colour, caste, economic status, politics, or region of origin.

It’s manifested in the stereotypes traded between Hong Kong Chinese and mainland Chinese immigrants; or when Canadian-born descendants of immigrants look down on newcomers as “FOBS” or “fresh off the boat;” or when new immigrants call their Canadian-born brethren arguably derogatory names like “banana” or “coconut.”

For the estimated 25,000 dalits in the Lower Mainland, the barbs are often subtle.

They come in seemingly innocuous questions about your family village or last name — two markers that can identify a person’s caste.

They show up in careless conversation, among friends, behind closed doors. A messy house is referred to as a chamar house. An upper-caste woman might tell her unkempt daughter to tidy herself up so she doesn’t look like a chura, another dalit group.

Some dalits interviewed, including Ahir’s husband Sutey, shared stories of how they were called slur words by fellow Indo-Canadians.

One man recounted listening to colleagues, who did not know he was dalit, exchanging crude jokes about dalit women and rape.

Another woman recounted how her best friend, a woman from what was considered a higher caste, was divorced by her husband who couldn’t stomach their friendship.

Activists say some dalits who own businesses are scared of being outed in case customers stop patronizing them. Many change their names.

Divisions on the basis of castes are also visible in the temples or gurdwaras. Ironically, Sikhism recognizes all people as equal. Officially, there are no castes. But reality is different.

The dalit gurdwara in Burnaby was founded in 1982 after dalit temple-goers felt unwelcome in an upper-caste temple.

In between preparing samosas with mint chutney and piping hot cups of chai tea, Ahir explains why she abandoned Hinduism and converted to Buddhism.

The Hindu gods kept her people down, she says scornfully.

The only reason she was able to go to school, get a passport and immigrate was because of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, the chief architect of India’s constitution, revered by dalits as a hero.

Racism is something she can understand, says Ahir, because people look different. “But god, my colour is the same. My language is the same. My living standard is the same. But still they are discriminatory to me.”

Dalit activists say casteism is worse than racism — and harder to eradicate.

“It is not easy to identify. But you feel it,” said Varinder Dabri, a Surrey veterinarian born a chamar.

“When you are working with mainstream society, no one asks you your caste. But when you are working with people from India, the first thing they want to know is the caste.”

Jai Birdi of the Chetna Assocation, which seeks to raise awareness of casteism in B.C., said it is difficult to identify the scope of the problem: “It’s like any other invisible disability. If you can’t see it, it’s hard to do anything about it.”

Nowhere is caste bias more pronounced than in marriage. Many parents still prefer their kids to marry within their own castes; matrimonial ads in Punjabi-language publications still specify castes among the must-haves in prospective spouses. Birdi believes there are more interracial marriages than inter-caste unions in the Indo-Canadian community.

Many upper-caste Indo-Canadians The Province talked to — mostly Jat Sikhs, traditionally farmers and landowners — say there is still prejudice against dalits, but its existence and depth vary among families.

Some say they use caste only as a marker of their roots, but do not use it to judge other people.

Many stress that caste bias is more prevalent among their elders and is dying out among the younger generation.

Others say education and wealth can sometimes smooth out any differences in caste.

Such an attitude is Ahir’s hope. She and her husband didn’t tell their two kids about the caste system.

They are, they tell them, simply Canadian.

Their son, who is going into his first year at university, says he has only felt “a little bit” of discrimination against him because of his caste.

Adds Ahir: “Maybe our grandkids and our great-grandkids, they won’t know what it is about anymore.”



© Copyright (c) The Province



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