Caste acts

By Malcolm Knox

What if people refused to touch you because of your ancestry? India’s outlawed caste system is alive and well in Australia, say those once considered ‘untouchable’. Denied entry to homes, refused service by priests, they’re calling for Australia to take action.

Bhanu Adhikari thought he had escaped discrimination when he came to Australia in 2008.

His family was the first of 4000 Bhutanese political refugees resettled under an agreement with the United Nations, but it was not long before Adhikari discovered that leaving political statelessness had freed him from a potent, deep-seated and largely unacknowledged form of discrimination.

When his mother-in-law, Beni Maya Rai, turned 84, Adhikari promised her a Chaurasi, a traditional Hindu religious celebration of her seniority.

“At that age, the person can no longer participate in economic activity such as earning money, or taking care of children or doing household chores,” he says. “They are expected to be more religious from then on and to think more of God.”

Four Hindu priests, or Pundits, in Adelaide, agreed to perform the ceremonies. But a month before the chosen date, they all refused religious services for him or his family, saying that recent deaths and births in their own family prohibited them from performing the rituals. A dubious Adhikari questioned one of the priests, who admitted, “Whatever the case may be, I would never [perform the rituals] for your family”.

The priest’s sister added, “How can the Pundits read at your place if you allow just about anyone to enter your house and you eat whatever you like?”

The outburst left Adhikari feeling “disgusted and humiliated”.

“These statements come from age-old feudal expectations of superiority to not eat, drink, sit or touch people of the so-called low castes,” he says.

“The reason why they discriminate against me is because I associate with people of lower caste.”

A retired public servant and former ombudsman for the Bhutanese-Australian Association of South Australia, Adhikari has since lodged Australia’s first legal complaint of discrimination on the basis of caste, in the Equal Opportunity Commission of South Australia.

“The reason they discriminated against me is not because I am lower caste,” he says. “In fact, I am high caste and almost equal to them. But because I don’t discriminate against others – I and my children eat with whoever we like to eat with, of all castes – the reason why they discriminate against me is because I associate with people of lower caste.”

Bhanu Adhikari was refused a ceremony for his mother-in-law, Beni Maya Rai.

“They don’t like higher caste people mixing with lower caste people. Your house has to be ‘pure’. As soon as a lower caste person goes through your gate, your house is impurified… So they may not have shunned me personally, but I find it difficult now to face up to people who perceive that I have been shunned and looked down upon.”

Adhikari refused to perform a ‘Chandrayan’, the purification process required after low-caste people have entered a high-caste house.

Facing the camera, Adhikari said: “Do not call yourself Hindu if hatred is your religion”.

“Our main objection against purification was while we can purify ourselves, low caste community members can never be purified and will have to forever remain untouchables,” he wrote in his submission to the Commission.

During mediation attempts, the priests denied discriminating against him, but acknowledged ill-feeling after Adhikari appeared in a video made by a group opposing discrimination on the basis of the Hindu caste system. Facing the camera, he said, “Do not call yourself Hindu if hatred is your religion”.

The Pundits told him he had caused offence by appearing in the video.

One of the organisers of the video was young Bhutanese-Australian law graduate Avishek Gazmere, who began gathering evidence of shocking caste discrimination in Adelaide after his arrival in 2009. He found plenty.

At a public gathering in 2010, a Bhutanese priest ordered that worshippers be separated into different areas based on their caste. The same year, an elderly woman in north Adelaide was ostracised, told that fellow Bhutanese people could not eat or drink in her house because she was low caste. In 2010, children and adults were excluded from two weddings because they were low caste.

“I thought this was just happening in the Bhutanese community,” Gazmere says.

Bhanu Adhikari (right) says he was told a priest 'would never' perform rituals for his mother-in-law Beni Maya Rai (left).

He recorded that in 2012, two young men were barred from using gym equipment in a friend’s house because the family priest had warned against ‘untouchables’. Another two acquaintances were only offered food outside a friend’s house, not inside, because the parents “believed in caste and untouchability”.

At a citizenship ceremony in Salisbury in June 2013, an old man drank from a teacup placed on a tray in the middle of the room. Because of the man’s caste, nobody else would then touch anything on the tray.

“My father and uncle were left to stand outside a high caste person’s house because if they entered, it would impurify that house.”

Gazmere responded by founding the Alliance Against Untouchability and Caste Discrimination. In 2014, he made the video featuring ‘outcaste’ Bhutanese. Thirty victims of caste discrimination in Australia participated. But it wasn’t long before the exclusion touched Gazmere’s own family.

“My father and uncle were left to stand outside a high caste person’s house because if they entered, it would impurify that house and it would need to be cleaned,” he says.

“My uncle then went to a recent immigrant’s house to help him. That house was cleaned afterwards. They do this psychologically to oppress people, to say you are impure, unclean.”

“Compared with racism, which is just skin colour, caste is about your soul and leads to your exploitation.”

According to Hindu scripture, humanity is divided into four parts. When God created man, he made Brahmins from his mouth, Kshatriyas from his shoulders, Vaishyas from his thighs and Shudras from his feet. According to caste divisions, Brahmin people are the holders of spirituality and provide almost all Hindu priests; Kshatriyas are the princely warrior caste; Vaishyas are the merchants; and Shudras are the labourers. Beyond them are ‘untouchables’, or ‘Dalits’, literally without caste, or ‘outcaste’.

In India, caste traditions determined employment. The British empire adapted caste and the dozens of occupational subcaste groups, or jati, as an administrative tool to tighten the organisation of its south Asian colonies. But the Indian independence constitution of 1948 outlawed caste discrimination and provided for the legal reservation of occupations and placements for low-caste people, an affirmative action that would result in ‘untouchables’ becoming provincial chief ministers, jurists, doctors, lawyers and even prime ministers (but not Hindu priests).

According to the UN, in an average week 13 murders, 21 rapes, 77 beatings and five home-burnings are perpetrated against Dalits in India.

Economic mobility has broken down barriers between the higher castes, yet discrimination and inter-caste violence remain widespread in India against Dalits. According to the United Nations, in an average week 13 murders, 21 rapes, 77 beatings and five home-burnings are perpetrated against Dalits in India. In half of Indian villages, Dalits are segregated from water sources, while more than half a century after the constitution outlawed discrimination against them, 45 per cent of Indian Dalits are illiterate.

In Australia, the Refugee Review Tribunal has heard more than 65 cases in the past decade from applicants who fear caste-based persecution if they return to India, Sri Lanka or Nepal. They are routinely rejected, on the ground that the laws of these countries prohibit such discrimination. The applicants’ portrayal of Australia is as a place where they can escape the idea of caste, but increasingly, due to the changing nature of South Asian immigration to Australia, caste divisions are being replicated here.

Caste is, according to some scriptures, erased by overseas migration. Writer Sunil Badami says his grandfather “travelled from India to Switzerland in 1950 overland rather than by boat, because according to the scriptures, if you crossed the ocean, you lost your caste. The whole Indian diaspora was connected through caste”. Elaborate measures have been taken to preserve caste during migration. Indentured Indian labourers who travelled to the South Pacific, Africa and the Caribbean had barrels of ‘Ganges water’ taken on their ships, while ‘tulsi’ or ‘holy basil’ bushes were planted in the new countries, as the dew from the bush is considered equivalent to Ganges water.

Caste discrimination is not specifically recognised under Australian human rights law, but it is a growing reality of life for many in Australia’s half-million-strong South Asian community, particularly its newest arrivals.

Watch: Lavanya Raj tells her story of caste discrimination in Australia.

Until a high-caste flatmate in a student house in Melbourne refused to lay a hand on money or food utensils that she had touched, Lavanya Raj, a PhD student in psychology at Monash University, says she had never experienced caste discrimination before she came to Australia.

“Caste discrimination is worse than racial discrimination,” she says. “Because you are not considered just inferior, but impure.”

Avishek Gazmere agrees: “You can’t transcend it, because it is part of your soul. Compared with racism, which is just skin colour, caste is about low qualities of your soul, a low intellect, and leads to your exploitation.”

When Raj’s flatmate, a Brahmin, learned that she was an untouchable, he literally refused contact. “I threw the [rent] money at him,” she says.

“Australia wants farm workers, taxi drivers, cleaners. As this has happened, religion and caste are more necessary for some Indians.”

“As soon as Hinduism is in the mix, you have caste discrimination,” says Gazmere. Most of the cases of discrimination he has gathered from Adelaide’s Bhutanese community are on religious grounds.

“In June 2015, a family that had lost an elderly mother was denied Hindu religious services because of caste,” he says. “The people wanted to stay close to beautiful Hindu traditions, but were driven away.”

The religious discrimination reflects broader social divisions, Gazmere says.

“When somebody starts to show off his status, the key is access to religious services. Selection of priests is a means of controlling religious services. People want to show they are devout as a way of showing off their economic superiority. Their social customs become bigger and more important to them, more expensive, a way to show their power and prestige.”

Watch: Avishek Gazmere talks about fighting caste discrimination in Australia.

While caste has its basis in Hindu scriptures, it is not limited to Hindus. Neville Roach, a businessman who emigrated to Australia in 1961, had been raised Roman Catholic in the Portuguese Indian colony of Goa. He became engaged as a young man to Gladys, also a Catholic, from Mangalore.

“But I still had caste, which was Brahmin, and knew it,” Neville says. Shortly before the wedding, his father said (in relation to someone else), “What can you expect? After all, he is not even a Brahmin”.

Upset to discover his father’s persistent feelings about caste, Neville called Gladys, whom his father liked very much, in the hope that she was not a Brahmin, so that Neville could confront his father over his double standards: “Sadly, Gladys told me she was Brahmin too, so I had to let the matter rest!”

“Not that it mattered to me, but it was still strong with my parents even though they were Christian,” Neville says. “Most Christians in Goa and Mangalore would know their caste.”

“It would be easier for me to marry an Aussie girl than an Indian girl from outside my caste.”

Marriage remains a key mechanism for maintaining caste division. Pramaya, a Brisbane retail manager, emigrated to Australia after suffering caste discrimination in a relationship in India.

“Her parents told me I had to stop the relationship because I was from a different caste,” says Pramaya. “If we were in Australia, it would also be a problem, because the parents have such an influence. It would be easier for me to marry an Aussie girl than an Indian girl from outside my caste.”

Raj Kumar, a Melbourne retail worker, says marrying outside of caste is still a challenge for Indians.

“Most Indians want to marry in their caste, regardless of what religion they follow,” he says. “It just shows the real character of Indian society when they look at the caste while making important decisions such as marriage.”

Marrying outside caste can be a trigger for domestic disharmony and even violence, according to Melbourne psychiatrist and anti-domestic violence activist Dr Manjula Datta O’Connor.

“Inter-caste and love marriages are sometimes successful,” she says, but it often depends on the parents. “There is no doubt of the importance of the mother-in-law. A lot of inter-caste marriages are destroyed by mothers-in-law.”

“The caste system has made Indian culture hierarchical, so that nearly everyone is superior to someone else. The mother-in-law has been inferior to her husband and her in-laws all her life, and now she has a chance to bully her daughter-in-law. A lot of women repeat the cycle.”

“A young man will want a woman who is highly educated and earns money, but she must not show that at home, or else there will be domestic violence,” Dr O’Connor says.

“They withdrew from her, wouldn’t let her sit her Australian medical exam, and the husband told her to go back to India.”

“I saw a woman who was so suicidal, I thought she was going to do something. She was a doctor, married to an IT professional, living in the Melbourne CBD. The mother-in-law, who lived with them, decided the daughter-in-law was far too educated for her son. They were from different castes and she told her son his wife was not right for him, she had too many thoughts of her own, she was not submissive enough.

“They withdrew from her, wouldn’t let her sit her Australian medical exam, went out without her, and eventually the husband told her to go back to India.”

Marital politics show the complexity of caste and class relations. It is not necessarily the higher-caste in-laws who look down on a lower-caste daughter-in-law. In fact, the opposite may take place, as in the story of Darshak Mehta, a Gujarati businessman from the Vaishya caste, who migrated to Australia in the late 1980s to escape marriage-based restrictions.

“As a rebellious young man, I would have thought an arranged marriage within my caste was a violation of my freedom,” Mehta says. “My family, who owned a copper processing business, had enough money to own all the servants in Mumbai. But they wanted to break my wife like a servant, to be a good wife to their son.

“As far as I was concerned, she came from a superior background to us: her father had studied overseas, her mother was a university graduate. My uncle warned my father, ‘Be careful, [her family] have digested the goddess Lakshmi,’ meaning they had passed through the need for status symbols, which my parents still needed.”

This was enough for Mehta to leave for Australia, where until recently he saw little caste discrimination.

“Caste-ism is certainly alive in Australia, though if India is 10 on a scale of caste-ism, I would say Australia has been a 2 for most of the time I have been here,” Mehta says.

“Marriage is a mechanism for keeping the caste system going.”

Nevertheless, Mehta believes that in marriage, other factors cross-cutting with caste have held their grip.

“Marriage is a mechanism for keeping the caste system going,” he says. “But it’s also a mechanism of familiarity, easy expectation. Does that mean the marriage will succeed? As the father of two girls of marriageable age, I would firstly want them to marry a Gujarati.

“Two families marry, it’s not just the children, and it would be easiest when you have all those things like language, customs, culture, religious belief, cuisine, familiar to both sides.

“But I would never say this! My two daughters, who are in their 20s, would scream at me and run away if I even mentioned arranging a marriage. They would think I’m from the feudal ages… If I told either of them not to marry a man because he’s an untouchable, they would disown me – and good on them!”

Even into the late 20th century, prosperous Indian-Australians such as the Roaches and the Mehtas did not see much caste discrimination in Australia, as only wealthier Indians had the means to emigrate.

“I did not come across anybody who was a Dalit or untouchable in Australia for many years,” Mehta says. “It would be very unusual for them to come, for economic reasons.”

“There were hardly any Indians here, full stop,” adds Neville Roach. “The country still had the White Australia Policy. When I came on a seven-year visa to work for IBM, there were 26 Indians in Adelaide.”

The explosion of Indian immigration to Australia came from the widening of the pathway to permanent residency provided by student visas in the early 2000s.

“The student visas brought people from the full spectrum of castes,” says Roach. “Villages would save money to put one bright kid through university."

Inter-caste marriages still face challenges, Dr Manjula Datta O’Connor says.

Mehta says Australia became first choice because migrants saw the possibility of becoming a permanent resident.

“We are attracting students from small towns and lower castes, whose families had taken out mortgages for them and sent them out to do a course to get on the path to permanent residency,” he says. “Their families have made huge sacrifices, often lower caste families. Before that it would have been impossible for them to afford it.”

Another major influence on the broadening of Indian-Australians was the 1987 Rambuka coup in Fiji, which sent Fijian-Indians fleeing to Australia. The majority were descendants of low-caste labourers brought to the Pacific in the 19th century.

“I wouldn’t have been aware of anybody of lower caste in Australia until recently,” Roach says. “Now you meet people where you pick up those cues: they might be very dark or speak more accented English. It’s deep-seated, if not intentional.”

Discrimination is something that isn’t liked, but often can’t be helped.

“A family member recently was complaining about being in a queue at the bank, saying, ‘This [low-caste] Harijan was behind the desk and she couldn’t speak English and deal with things’, and the whole family pounced on him,” says Roach. “But he was reflecting what is normal for many Indians.”

Mehta shares that discomfort. “Would I discriminate against a lower-caste Indian? I would be insulted to be asked that, and I hope I would not, but subconsciously you don’t know. You can’t help sizing people up by all those subtle cues.

“I’m positive that caste-ism exists here, but do I practise it myself? I would be offended if someone thought I did – but you don’t know until you are in the hot seat.”

“From a young age, you can read a person’s background from his surname,” Mehta continues. “There are obvious caste surnames, such as Joshi, Prohit, Sharma, Dev – these are Brahmin surnames. Ved, Dwivedi, Trivedi, Chaturvedi – all Brahmin, all related to how many Vedas you know.

“A lot of Indians are aware from your name what caste you are. I would hope it is only a curiosity, rather than a guide to how you deal with them. Would they discriminate me because my name is Mehta? They would know from my name, my colour, my accent, where I live – all factors that people are aware of. I know I would not come in much contact with a Dalit, but at a petrol station I would pick up a regional accent, colour, which may indicate caste. A heavier accent accompanied by a particular way of saying things, a darkish look, all giveaways.

“I’m positive that caste-ism exists here, but do I practise it myself? I would be offended if someone thought I did – but you don’t know until you are in the hot seat.”

When Raj’s flatmate learned she was an untouchable, he refused contact: “I threw the rent money at him.”

It certainly does exist, according to those who have caste-ism dished out to them.

Avishek Gazmere says that name-changing, to remove the slur of caste, is common in the South Asian community. Melbourne retail worker Raj changed his surname to Kumar to hide his caste. Kumar, which means ‘unmarried’, is a common ‘new’ name because it carries no caste connotations. But this has not stopped Raj from being targeted because of his caste, even after moving to Australia.

“It is a general mindset of most Indians that the Indian diaspora in Australia belongs to rich class or upper middle class, who are mostly the so-called high caste people,” he says.

“In terms of getting to the managerial positions, it is again a general assumption that a high caste person would be a viable manager. I was asked about my caste once at my workplace by a team member who worked under my supervision. He belonged to high caste, as suggested by his last name.

“Unless we raise consciousness, people will not know it’s happening”: Avishek Gazmere.

“When I answered him, he first laughed and asked if I was serious.”

But discussing caste remains a discomforting issue for many Indians. Professor Kama McLean of the University of New South Wales has written extensively on the history of religion in South Asia and says it’s difficult for a non-Indian to get the full story.

“Those who practise caste discrimination are embarrassed to admit it, and those who are victims of it are ashamed,” Professor McLean says. “So it’s very hard for them to talk about it to non-Indians.”

This silence is compounded within the community, says Raj Kumar. He is a member of a group of lower-caste Indians who have grouped together to hold regular gatherings and work with local councils and government organisations to raise awareness of caste discrimination.

“But we cannot openly discuss our issues at places which are of high caste dominance or ownership as, according to them, we are in a perfect world and there is no caste discrimination anymore, as it has been abolished a long time ago,” he says.

It is the temples, and other Hindu religious strongholds, which stand accused both of denying and maintaining caste separation. Nataranj Iyer is a computer electronics engineer who, after migrating to Australia in 1969, became one of the founders of the Sri Venkatswera Temple in the southern Sydney suburb of Helensburgh in 1978. He now conducts Hindu weddings there.

“Eight out of ten marriages mix caste. There is a trend happening.”

The temple is a magnet for Sydney’s devout Hindu community. It attracts up to 18,000 people for New Year’s Day celebrations and seven to eight thousand for Hindu festivities such as the birthday of the god Ganesha. Iyer maintains that caste is increasingly a thing of the past.

“Eight out of ten marriages mix caste,” he says. “There is a trend happening. Brahmin boys marry Shudra girls in love marriages, rather than arranged marriages within castes. Fifty years ago, that was taboo, but in the years I have been here, that has changed a lot.”

However, the priesthood itself remains a virtual closed shop.

“The priesthood is a way of life,” Iyer says. “The vedas go back two or three thousand years, and the boys that study them come out of 2000-year-old educational institutions. I would say that 99.9 per cent come from those institutions.”

As the socio-economic base of the South Asian diaspora in Australia has broadened, caste distinctions have become more important rather than less, according to Manjula Datta O’Connor.

“Previously, the Australian government only wanted to let in highly educated and skilled migrants,” she says. “That has changed, so that they now want people to do jobs that others won’t do – farm workers, taxi drivers, cleaners – and this has let in huge numbers of unskilled people. As this has happened, religion and caste are more necessary for some Indians.

“I don’t take notice of caste, but some people are increasingly aware of them, particularly the Brahmins, who can take this very seriously because they are not necessarily wealthy and this is where they find their status. They are reaching back for what gives the status. Brahmins are in the temples and they have no interest in changing the system.”

Victims of caste discrimination, such as Bhanu Adhikari, Avishek Gazmere, Raj Kumar and Lavanya Raj, also ridicule the idea that it is fading.

“The people who say that – have they ever faced caste discrimination?” Kumar asks. “Do they even know what is to live the caste-related prejudice? Who are they to decide how does it feel to be a victim of caste discrimination? It is people like me you need to ask this question, whether caste discrimination and racial discrimination are the same or different.

“A child has no control over which caste he or she will be born into. If you happen to born among the low caste, you remain low in India society all of your life, regardless of educational, social, economical, political achievements.”

A low-caste friend was denied Hindu funeral rituals for her deceased mother: “The priests pretended to be too busy.”

Lavanya Raj compares caste discrimination to white privilege.

“A person from a Brahmin community has been taught it from childhood and seldom has a chance to question it,” he says. “It’s very similar to white privilege, in that it is unquestioned and it seems natural; they can’t see it. Discrimination happens in different ways for a lot of different people. The pain of the community is what I feel more than myself.”

Lavanya Raj never experienced caste discrimination until she came to Australia.

High-caste individuals sometimes take responsibility for the fight against caste. Jeevan Koirala, a Bhutanese Brahmin living in Cairns, was appalled when a low-caste friend was denied Hindu funeral rituals for her deceased mother.

“The priests pretended to be too busy,” he says. They eventually solved the problem by persuading a liberal priest in Adelaide to conduct the services over the telephone. But Jeevan then found himself ostracised.

“When we came to Australia, we all signed an Australian values statement which says we will follow the laws and not discriminate.”

“I am from a Brahmin family and my uncle, cousin and grandfather were priests,” he says. “Unfortunately, many people from my own family believe in caste discrimination. Because we are not wealthy, like many Brahmins they have a fear of social exclusion and preserve these distinctions. Caste discrimination is spoiling all the good qualities of the priests’ spiritual journey.

“And when we came to Australia, we all signed an Australian values statement which says we will follow the laws and not discriminate.”

Jeevan joined Avishek Gazmere’s group, believing communal action is unavoidable, but after he appeared in the contentious video, he was named by priests as being unacceptable for religious ceremonies.

While Australian law would classify caste discrimination as a form of racial discrimination, according to ANU law professor Simon Rice, no caste-based matter has been brought before the courts. More concerted action has been a long time coming, an absence which, according to Gazmere, confirms the oppression of low-caste victims.

“Religion and culture are still not considered to be separate in South Asian cultures,” he says. “Low caste people feel their religion also belongs to them, and they belong to that culture and religion. And they usually point their finger at the people, not the system.

“If they point their finger against the system, they will have to point the finger against religion and their own understanding of their culture…. Many people lack an understanding of the relationship of their labour – that is, their caste – with political structures, not just in South Asia but within community organisations here in Australia.

“So they simply disengage, thinking it will invite more controversy. The struggle for equality ends right there. The few who do are completely outnumbered.”

Outnumbered or not, Gazmere is determined to persevere. As a fellow community member, he offered Bhanu Adhikari informal help in lodging his application to the Equal Opportunity Commission of South Australia, the first of its kind.

“The reason for putting this application forward was because Australia is a country where people do not like to distinguish between castes,” Adhikari says.

“I don’t believe in caste. For me, everyone is equal. Everyone comes to my place and I go to everyone’s place. And I eat off everything; it doesn’t matter who has touched it.”

“I wanted to find out if the laws in this country do cover this form of discrimination. I feel that I have been suppressed, my mother-in-law has been suppressed, but do the laws and regulations cover it?”

The native American artist Jimmie Durham said “exile is the only true patriot”, meaning that groups who move to a new homeland will strive harder to maintain the traditions of the old.

“When your qualifications aren’t recognised in the new country, your traditions are important,” writer Sunil Badami says.

“When it happened to me, I was very, very angry. But now I think it’s the other person’s problem.”

Among those traditions, caste continues to persist for South Asians. Activists like Gazmere believe that, “Unless we raise consciousness, people will not know it’s happening”. For Australians from other backgrounds, that consciousness may come as a shock.

“White Australians are shocked when I tell them,” Lavanya Raj says. “They can’t think of being discriminated against because of your ancestors. When it happened to me, I was very, very angry. But now I think it’s the other person’s problem.”

Avishek Gazmere believes that legal action is necessary to nip the rise of caste discrimination in Australia. “It’s a big surprise to Australians when they hear about the existence of caste,” he says. “But it’s getting bigger and bigger.”

Gazmere has a staunch ally in Bhanu Adhikari. They are two men of different generations who have come too far in their lives to let the matter drop.

“This has to stop in Australia,” says Adhikari. “They should not be able to discriminate like this.... People have come here to be free. Australia has to take matters into its own hands and do something about this issue.”

Pictures by David Solm and Damien Pleming.

Original research by Raymond Selvaraj and Kulasegaram Sanchayan of SBS Tamil: ‘Untouchables’ amongst us

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