Our Statement on Caste
The following is written by Ananya Rao-Middleton, Creative Director at Expert by Experience. Ananya has a background in History and Anthropology, where she specialised in understanding the role of caste and gender in Hindu nationalism.
As a platform dedicated to mental health from an intersectional lens and as activists who stand against all forms of oppression, we cannot go silent on the subject of casteism.
Caste has recently come into the limelight in the diaspora due to the new Netflix show ‘Indian Matchmaker’. As the title suggests, the show focuses on a matchmaker who looks to find the right matches for prospective Indian men and women to be wed. The reason the show has gained a lot of attention recently is due to the fact that marriage and matchmaking in a South Asian context are aligned with casteist ideas around ‘finding the right person’ and ‘keeping it within the community’. Whilst several people have pointed out the casteism embedded in ‘Indian Matchmaker’, many South Asian viewers have shown reluctance in condemning it.
We are very much aware that the reluctance to engage in critiques of the show is situated in the privilege many South Asian viewers share when it comes to their caste. Upper-caste South Asians are the voices that are platformed within our communities, and they are also the ones who refuse to see casteism as an issue worth tackling within their intersectional praxis of activism. As upper-caste (or Savarna) South Asians, we absolutely must be ready to have uncomfortable conversations with ourselves, our families and our communities around caste. We must ask ourselves why it is easier to talk about white supremacy as a system of oppression, but not casteism - when both operate in very similar ways.
The truth is that upper-caste South Asians are reluctant to see themselves as perpetrators of oppression. At Expert by Experience, we think that it is very important to understand ourselves, particularly in the diaspora, as people who can very well experience oppression through racism, whilst ALSO upholding oppression through casteism. And yes, casteism does exist within the diaspora. Many Dalits who live in the diaspora are forced to hide their identities for fear of being ostracised and discriminated against by their upper-caste peers. In the UK, the Conservative party and the Hindu Forum of Britain have worked hand-in-hand to secure upper-caste Indian voters by promising them that they would prevent casteism from being recognised as discrimination. If you are unaware of these things happening, it is likely because you benefit from the caste system as an upper-caste person (in the same way that a white person benefits from white supremacy). Remember, casteism perpetuates itself everywhere where there are South Asians.
Based on caste discrimination, Dalits are prevented at every level from accessing basic healthcare, resources and opportunities. Casteism today results in Dalits occupying the lowest socio-economic rungs in society, where they are forced into roles deemed specific to their caste status. These roles including scavenging and sanitation cleaning, which are hazardous and labour-intensive, resulting in uncountable deaths each year. Similarly to how white supremacy keeps black and indigenous people in poverty, caste does the same thing to Dalits in a South Asian context. Even when a handful of Dalits do make it into college education, many of them end up committing suicide at university due to the unbearable casteist discrimination they experience at the hands of their peers, professions and the institution itself. The rise of Hindu fascism in recent years has also worked to violently quash anti-caste dissent and solidify Brahminical-Hindu structures of power in politics and Indian society as a whole.
We realise that we have a spectrum of readers from across religious lines, and therefore need to assert that: you can perpetuate casteism even if you are not a Hindu/come from a Hindu background. Whilst the concept of caste certainly emerged from Hinduism (read about the Purusha/‘cosmic man’ and the Varna system in Hindu mythology), casteism has become embedded as a societal system of oppression that is not locked into any one specific religion. This is because most South Asians regardless of whether they are Hindu, have a caste identity. As a result, caste is practised across religious groups, including Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. Similarly to the way white supremacy operates in terms of skin colour, caste is not something that you can change or shed in a life time.
Whilst it is frustrating to see that it has taken a Netflix series to fuel a much needed discuss on caste, when caste atrocities are being committed every single day both in South Asia and abroad, we will be here to engage with discussion and provide a platform for Dalit and Adivasi voices to speak about their experiences of casteism, particularly in relation to their mental health.
We realise that we have fallen short here at Expert by Experience by not pushing to amplify marginalised groups who are affected by casteism. We understand that revealing one’s caste identity can be dangerous and potentially life threatening, and so we would like to encourage anyone from a Dalit/Adivasi background to feel free to pitch to us anonymously.
We also pledge to release more content and resources specifically looking at mental health in relation to casteism, and the impact caste discrimination has on the mind.
In the meantime, we highly encourage you to further educate yourself on casteism by learning from the following resources below. Jai Bhim!
On caste and mental health - https://thewire.in/caste/mental-health-caste On Rohith Vemula’s suicide due to casteism at the University of Hyderabad - https://thewire.in/caste/rohith-vemula-letter-a-powerful-indictment-of-social-prejudices ‘The Death of Merit’ documentary series on Dalit student suicides - https://thedeathofmeritinindia.wordpress.com/2011/04/24/‘the-death-of-merit’-a-documentary/ Race and caste oppression and their similarities - https://theconversation.com/racial-and-caste-oppression-have-many-similarities-37710 Annihilation of Caste by Dr B R Ambedkar - https://www.marxists.org/archive/ambedkar/2015.71655.Annihilation-Of-Caste-With-A-Reply-To-Mhatma-Gandhi.pdf Understanding Caste by Gail Omvedt - http://www.arvindguptatoys.com/arvindgupta/gail-caste.pdf 36 Dalit writers to read now - https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2017/07/36-dalit-writers-you-should-definitely-read/ Dalit Literature from South India - https://feminisminindia.com/2020/01/31/dalit-literature-south-savarna-saviour-complex/ Dalit women writers exploring the intersection of caste and gender - https://feminisminindia.com/2017/04/18/six-books-dalit-women-writers/