Image via Wikimedia commons

Caste Away?

A popular reading list circulated in NRI social justice circles reads thus: “Where There Are Indians, There Is Caste.” What this list doesn’t seem to cover, however, is the manifold South Asian diasporas around the world for whom caste just kind of … isn’t a thing. Descendants of Indian indentured laborers who now live in the independent, racially-diverse nations of the Caribbean, Africa, and Pacific Ocean have seemingly jettisoned caste from their respective diasporas — so goes, too, those from these diasporas who now live in North America, Europe, and other places. But is it as clear cut as that — Indians without caste?

History tells us one thing first and foremost: for the indenture diasporas, simply crossing the Indian Ocean (the kala pani, or black waters) meant a loss of caste. This seminal point of departure on a sailing ship, within which neat caste boundaries could not be maintained, meant that the Indians who made landfall abroad already had a strike against them. Once abroad and “settled” in their place of employment, many indentured laborers held marriages across caste lines which would have been unthinkable back from where they came.

Then you have the creative phenomenon of many indentured laborers falsifying their caste background upon their migration. Let me give you an example: my ancestors were Muslim, of the ‘Mohamedan’ caste as transcribed on the ship records in Trinidad and Tobago. My last name, Ghanny, comes from Arabic  and means “wealthy.” Most indenture diasporans trace their last name from an ancestor who had that last name as a first name. So that begs the question for my family — if I had an ancestor whose name meant ‘wealthy’, why would he have indentured himself for pittance wages and near bondage? These questions are not easily answered by the diaspora now, as the last indenture contracts were ended a hundred years ago in 1920.

But this has not, perhaps, completely removed the articulation of caste in indenture diasporas — only made it less visible or less tangible. Elsewhere on the internet, the phrase “caste denial” has been used by low-caste and Dalit activists to describe this incomplete rendering of caste in the indenture diaspora. In a digital survey of caste among various South Asian diasporas, Karunakaran et al wrote:

“[P]ervasive caste denial has long impeded our abilities to form full pictures of how our societies’ castes evolve and function… It is true that an original influx of largely male migrants to Fiji and the scarcity of South Asian women migrants, saw many people marrying across the caste and race divides. However most original migrants were “low” caste to begin with. Further migrations also told other tales. When Ravidassia Indo-Fijians migrated to places like Sacramento, California, you see, in particular, Fijian-Dalit women being rejected by Dalit and non-Dalit Fijian partners citing unfavorable gender-caste location.”

This train of thought may beget another phenomenon all too common among indenture diasporas; not only“caste denial,” but “caste zombification.” That is, a member of an indenture diaspora claiming a distant lower-caste or Dalit past in order to, generally, speak over or de-platform someone else.

Ro Chanchall (they/them) is a working-class Indo-Guyanese organizer based in Queens, NY. Formerly a member of an Arya Samaj temple in Queens, their first inclinations of caste awareness came somewhat from interactions with NRIs and subcontinental media.

"I did not have discussions about that in my family that much. But, you know, watching Bollywood and stuff where they will mention things — and in very problematic, casteist ways — that’s where I started to realize this is a phenomenon.”

As the larger indenture diaspora is connected to the subcontinent largely through media, Chanchall’s experience is far from unique. But Chanchall also saw this manifest in their religious community at the time.

“Back when I was going to that Hindu temple as a teenager, people wouldn’t necessarily say that they’re identifying with Brahmin caste. But then there would be those implications of, ‘My father’s a pandit, and his father was a pandit.’ And where they’re doing all this ceremonial stuff, but kind of implying this exclusivity. Like, ‘I can do it, but they can’t do it.’ And not explaining any of this — like, I’m not understanding as a 16-year-old. But now looking back — whether they can trace direct claims to Brahmin caste or not, I think that’s what’s going on there."

Elsewhere in the world, the patterns of Indian migration before and during indenture has made for caste preservation in certain social forms. On the island of Mauritius, indentured laborers from South India followed in migration from Tamil free merchants. As the previously-settled Tamil merchants had made a place in early Mauritian society, including alliances with the colonial French, this preserved a merchant-caste mentality among the Tamil population. As Paul Younger notes in New Homelands: Hindu Communities in Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad, South Africa, Fiji and East Africa:

"Because these opportunities to identify with the established Tamil community were easier for the Tamil workers than for the Telegu workers that came with them, there did not exist the kind of solidarity among workers from “Madras” that one sees in most of the indentured societies.”

This mentality can be felt even today; per Younger: "The Tamils I have met who are descended from this early community insist that they are all Chettiars and that they marry only within their own small subgroup.”

In my father's native Trinidad, the thought of caste as “moribund” is held by the larger academic community. Though East Indians in Trinidad have arguably become largely metropolitanized and ‘Creolized’, the scores of East Indians in rural South Trinidad may still bear some markings of earlier caste divisions. N. Jayaram remarks the following in her article “The metamorphosis of caste among Trinidad Hindus”:

“The integration of the Trinidad Hindus into the wider economy of the country, and the occupational diversification that they have experienced consequent upon the expansion of the modern sector and the acquisition of educational qualifications, have generally freed occupation from the influence of caste. However, in those areas where occupation has cultural moorings and ritual significance, as in the case of the pundit, the Nao and the Chamarin, the bearing of caste is still discernible.”

However, the intertwined blemishes of colorism and casteism are not so unfamiliar to indenture diasporas. In the same article, Jayaram notes a specific type of colorism aimed horizontally, not vertically, among origin castes: "The prejudice associated with colour and rendered in a caste idiom is also found within the community of Indo-Trinidadians ... even when their ‘caste status is just as good as their own.’ In Trinidad, such an attitude is found among the descendants of migrants from north India (the Kalkatiyas) towards those from south India (the Madrassis).” The Madrassi community in the diaspora retains its own cultural presence, with organizations like the United Madrassi Association in Queens continuing the specific rites of worship and culture pertinent to its adherents.

The happenstance of racial mixing outside of South Asian communities has implications for caste. In the racially-plural societies of the Caribbean, indentured laborers and their descendants marrying and producing biracial offspring complicated casteist mentalities from an otherwise racially-homogenous British Raj. The mixing of African and Indian blood was a certain kind of taboo, one that is inextricable from past racial violence and current racial tensions especially in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. The politics and poetics of mixed-race identity are too broad to unpack here, but the legacy of global anti-blackness in colonial societies certainly has its own qualms with how caste has translated across time and regions.

Regardless of how caste manifests or doesn’t, Chanchall, who is now a practicing Buddhist, posits a different approach to tackling artifacts of caste in the diaspora.

“For me, who knows — maybe I personally do have low-caste background, but I don’t know and I have no way of tracing it. But I know that currently, right now, in the world, there are Dalit people, there are Bahujan people, there are casted people who are currently being oppressed in really severe ways. And I don’t need to know — I personally don’t need to know what my caste background is to be able to try to really unpack and act in solidarity.”