CASTE: Ironically the US state of California has declared caste as a reserved category. It is not clear that the reserved category will get any special benefits.
By Dilip Mandal
In response to leading state in the United States declaring itself caste-less. The Modi supporters have reacted that denial of caste does not mean abolition of caste. Caste is a personal matter and cannot be banned by any government or court.
The recent passage of the anti-caste discrimination bill SB 403 in the California Senate has spurred debates surrounding the relevance of caste identity among South Asians in the United States, particularly Hindus. While the bill has garnered support from various quarters, including religious organisations in the US, academia, and workers’ unions, it has faced opposition from certain Hindu groups who argue that it discriminates against South Asians and targets the Hindu community specifically.
The claim to castelessness
In a letter to State senator Aisha Wahab, who proposed SB 403, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) raised questions regarding the determination of caste identities among South Asians in the state. “Will South Asians in California with no caste identity (emphasis added) be required to have a working understanding of Indian law and its administrative caste designation?” the letter reads.
Opponents of the bill argue that being migrants, South Asians do not discriminate on the basis of caste or pass caste-related knowledge or traditions onto their children — so why introduce such legislation at all? But some critics of this argument show what the reality looks like in California. “Every single Hindu American working in California declares that they identify themselves as Hindu Dalit. Unless the state says, unconstitutionally, that they will decide what my or my children’s religion and caste is..” tweeted Anurag Mairal, an adjunct faculty at Stanford University. Contrary to the picture of “castelessness”, various caste organisations are registered in the US and actively mobilise their respective communities for social and cultural activities. The prevalence of caste-based matrimonial services and the persistence of intra-caste marriages further highlight the continuing relevance of caste among South Asians outside India. Equality Labs’ 2016 report titled Caste in the United States sheds light on such instances.
Can’t get rid of ‘casteness’
The concept of castelessness is often associated with the dominant castes, who call themselves members of the “general caste”. Its genesis lies in India. While the Indian State endeavours to abolish caste-based discrimination and promote equality, the unintended consequences of social justice and affirmative action policies have led to the reinforcement of caste identities and the monopolisation of the ‘general category’ by the privileged ‘upper castes’ who perceive themselves as casteless. It is a form of flexible self-definition that is selectively embraced based on convenience and circumstance. Many scholars have written about this ‘outside caste’ space too.
One’s perception of the caste system can vary greatly depending on the vantage point. From the top, the caste system appears shrouded in mystery, strictly textual, Vedic/Puranic, divine, or perhaps simply as a division of labour. From the bottom, however, it looks concrete, discriminatory, hegemonic, and exclusionary.
Those at the top or even in the middle of the caste hierarchy may easily dismiss the existence of caste, as it doesn’t cause them discomfort and, in fact, empowers them. The same does not hold true for those at the bottom, who feels the sting of prejudices and raise their voices against the caste system. Joan P. Mencher authored an insightful paper in 1974 titled The Caste System Upside Down, or The Not-So-Mysterious East. Based on her extensive fieldwork in Tamil Nadu, the paper provides an in-depth exploration of this topic.
It works insidiously
While a person may project a casteless image in professional or social settings, caste-based discrimination and exclusion can persist even within these contexts. It can manifest in various forms such as unequal treatment of co-workers, biased decision-making in recruitment processes, or exclusionary practices that perpetuate social inequalities. Even if an individual chooses to not discriminate against the oppressed, the structural and systemic nature of caste can subliminally influence their actions and perceptions.
Furthermore, being casteless does not necessarily exempt an individual from benefiting from systemic privileges. These include upwardly mobile caste-based networks, connections, and social capital — all of which are deeply ingrained within social structures and can positively influence an individual’s experiences and opportunities. Caste networks play a significant role in procuring education and employment opportunities and enhancing social mobility.
In the US, there are plenty of caste-based networks that provide access to resources, information, and opportunities that may not be readily available to those outside of these networks. And casteless individuals, too, leverage these connections — willingly or subliminally — to their advantage. With the increasing population of South Asians in the US, this phenomenon is finding deeper roots.
Sociologist Satish Deshpande has argued that a notable consequence of caste blindness is its impact on social perceptions and identity formation. The upper castes, which have historically enjoyed social, economic, and educational privileges, may adopt the narrative of being casteless to distance themselves from the negative aspects of caste-based discrimination or to project a progressive image.
This is true within the South Asian community in the US. A significant section of this society has successfully leveraged the historical advantages tied to their caste identity to achieve upward social mobility. By capitalising on available opportunities and transforming caste-specific privileges into tangible forms of modern capital, they perceive themselves as having surpassed the limitations and constraints imposed by caste. And such a phenomenon is nothing new or limited to the US — for centuries, Hindu societies have evolved the same social mobility structure and then labelled its values “merit” or “talent-based”. You may read Ajantha Subramanian’s book The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India to know more.
Castelessness, moreover, isn’t a permanent phenomenon. Upper castes retain the ability to revive their caste identity when it serves their interests, such as in matters of marriage, community solidarity, or maintaining social status. This fluidity allows them to navigate different social contexts while safeguarding their privileges and status.
Caste blindness is a dangerous myth. It allows upper castes to continue to benefit from the system while denying the reality of discrimination that Dalits or lowered castes face. The claim of being casteless makes it even more difficult for Dalits to speak out and demand for justice.