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Imagine if your last name or postcode determined who you could be friends with, who you could marry, and what job you could do. A life defined by your family heritage, known, as your caste is a foundation of Indian society. It seems like a long way from life in Australia. Or is it? Some in Australia’s Indian community are warning that caste so-called untouchability is creeping into daily life here. SBS Radio’s Raymond Selvaraj and Kulasegaram Sanchayan investigate.
Raymond Selvaraj, Kulasegaram Sanchayan

1 Aug 2015 - 9:25 AM  UPDATED 7 Aug 2015 - 9:14 AM

Script transcription 

News montage
“[Female newsreader] A 29 year old Dalit man was murdered by an upper caste and OBC men near Shridi last week…[Male newsreader] She was strangled by her parents at their home and cremated, Nadha’s family had been against the marriage since Abishek did not belong to the same caste…[Female newsreader] A shocker from Karnataka where a 9 year old Dalit boy was allegedly assaulted by a temple priest when he tried to enter.. Navin Prasad is one Dalit who dared to dream, he became a rebel after his sister was raped by their landlord.”

These are all headlines from India over the past month.

For many, it would come as a surprise that the South Asian system of caste can shape lives in Australia.

What is it about caste that may allow it to grow alongside Australia’s egalitarian self-image?

Hindu Holy Scripture Manu Dharma says the untouchables, or Dalit, are outcasts and not part of the caste system.

“Indian society is divided in four parts. When god created man, he create Brahmins the highest caste humans from his mouth, Shatrayas from his shoulders, Vaishya's from his thighs and Sudras from his feet.”

The untouchables’ hereditary position at the bottom of Indian society is thousands of years old and the caste system in turn gives others the right to discriminate them.

Upper caste Hindu priest, Batuprasad Sharma Shastri (Bart-too-pras-sad Shar-maa Shas-three) from the renowned Indian temple Tulsi Manas, as featured in a Stalin Padma documentary, still believes in the caste tradition.

[Hindi then English Dub] “As a believer of the Shastras, I am a fundamentalist Hindu Brahmin. And I believe in caste and untouchability.” 

Mr Shastri says scripture dictates that untouchables cannot be educated and are barred from higher positions in society.

[Hindi then English Dub] “He does not have the right! A peon cannot become a judge, just because he has worked in a court for 40 years. He has no right to. A peon will always be a peon. A Shudra will always be a Shudra. He can't change it. He can't be educated. He has no right. He does not have it in him to study or be wise.”

“He does not have the right! A peon cannot become a judge, just because he has worked in a court for 40 years. He has no right to. A peon will always be a peon. A Shudra will always be a Shudra. He can't change it. He can't be educated. He has no right. He does not have it in him to study or be wise.”

Many from South Asia still hold onto similar beliefs.

Mitra Pariyar, a Ph.D. student at Sydney’s Macquarie University also experienced a negative reaction to his heritage.

“I realised that in Australia you cannot hide one's caste, particularly Nepalese caste because we tend to have name and surname and family names are often indicative directly of one’s caste. My name Pariyar anyone would easily guess what background I come from, my Dalit identity. In fact there is a more derogatory or more sort of an offensively used term used for Pariyar, which is Damai, and quite a few people in Britain and here as well have asked me how could I, a Damai do a PhD. I don't know whether to take it as a compliment or whatever, but it was offensive.”

While caste originates from Hinduism, it’s not only Hindus who practice it in India.

President of Peoples Union for Human Rights for Tamil Nadu Chapter in India, Professor Anthony Marx says Christians and Muslims also follow caste beliefs.

“Even the religions which don't practice discriminate on the basis of caste or race, or language when they enter to India will demonstrate caste discrimination here. Within Tamil Christianity, you can find all sorts of caste hierarchies and caste identities that is available in Hindu religion. There are Dalit Christians and untouchability is practiced against them even in some churches”

India’s increasing prosperity allows more untouchables to be educated and improve their financial positions.

Manager of a Melbourne retail outlet, Rajinder Azad says he migrated to Australia because it seemed the only way to escape caste discrimination.

However, he realised on arrival that it wasn’t that simple.

“Actually caste is a state of mind. Even though you migrate to different countries or what position you acquire politically, economically, within the Indian society you will be stigmatised.”

“Actually caste is a state of mind. Even though you migrate to different countries or what position you acquire politically, economically, within the Indian society you will be stigmatised.”

Madras Institute of Development Studies’ Professor C Lakshmanan explains the phenomena of untouchables seeking a better life overseas started during the British Raj, when untouchables migrated to the colonies as cheap labourers.

“Entire migration in the late 18th century, 19th century, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and even Burma, they wanted to escape from the rigid caste structure. Not only because of work, it’s fundamental, but the underlying belief is if they could escape from the caste structure, if they go out from the country, they felt they could get relief from the rigid oppression.”

When untouchables arrived in places like Malaysia, Fiji, South Africa, and Sri Lanka, they found that the caste system existed in the local Indian communities.

The same pattern continues in Australia as well.

Rajinder says that he’s no longer surprised when he’s addressed as an untouchable in Australia.

“People used to call me ‘son of Chamar,’ my grandfather's name was Guljai ndale. They address him as Guljai Chamar: son of Chamar. Chamar means an untouchable caste of Punjab.”

Monash University researcher Lavanya Raj arrived in Australia in 2010.

She says she was also confronted by caste discrimination.

“So it was definitely my utter shock to see ‘untouchability’ here, being followed here in Australia.”

“So it was definitely my utter shock to see ‘untouchability’ here, being followed here in Australia.”

Can’t you just hide your caste, if you’re starting a new life in a new country?

Mitra says concealing one’s caste identity is not possible.

His surname is indicative of his low caste identity and he can’t hide it anywhere, even in Australia.

Rajinder also says even if you want to start a new life, there are a myriad of ways to decipher someone’s caste.

“Indians are really good at identifying the casts of each other. First, they meet you they will ask for your last name or your full name; if you are Singh or Kumar or someone else, and then they ask the profession of your parents, what your parents do; ‘which village you are from,’ ‘Oh I’m from such-and-such village’ ‘Oh I know someone in that village, which side of the village you are from?’ And then there’s microscopically you know, they peel it layers by layers and then they come to know and that is what hurts me. If someone tries to do that with me, I tell them straight away, that I belong to those people.”

Madras Institute of Development Studies Sociologist Professor A R Venkatachalapthy (Ven-cut-touch-ala-pathee) says for many South Asians, caste is something deeper.

“It is an identity which comes from birth; you can never choose a caste; you are born into a caste; you live in caste and you die in caste.”

Caste significantly impacts on people from South Asian backgrounds in Australia.

Mitra believes being from a small Nepalese cultural group is already isolating.

He says his low caste identity isolates him socially and psychologically within the Nepalese community.

“And the discrimination or the exclusion is more subtle – they won't say ‘you are low caste, get away,’ but it’s more likely that I am not included in the family events, and functions and festivals. Because most of them are high castes and they would have their own circles and they would be married with each other and so on and I don't belong to that. But by saying that, there is more open and more formal sort of segregation as well, that’s because caste associations are creeping in in the country.”

Caste also affects Rajinder’s working life.

Indian Australians are often unable to accept that an untouchable can hold a higher position than them.

“I am a manager; the Indian employees want to know my caste and often presume I am from upper caste as they think only upper caste people in India come to managerial positions. When they come to know that I from low caste, they get shocked.”

"When they come to know that I from low caste, they get shocked.”


Lavanya Raj says when Indian Australians realise she’s an untouchable; they are often surprised and change the way they behave towards her.

She says when one of her flatmates, who was from a higher Brahmin caste, found out her caste, their once friendly relationship turned sour.

“It was when he came to know about my cultural and caste identity, that’s when his behaviour changed. So what he used to was, he would take my utensils and keep it away because his utensils should not touch mine".

"Once we were having a discussion and I was supposed to give him some money – some money that we use for the house to buy stuff. When I gave it to him, he put his hands out as if he was going to take it but then something told in his mind that he should not touch me, and he withdrew his hand and asked me to put the money on the table. Back then, I was extremely angry and I threw the money, not exactly on him but near him and I walked off.”

Caste also affects religious practices in Australia.

There are some one hundred Australian-based Hindu temples and their priests all belong to the highest caste of Brahmin.

Kanthiah Nadaraja who was born into a lower caste in Sri Lanka, feels that priests in Australian temples should come from all castes.

He says in choosing only higher caste priests, temples are reluctant to alienate their worshippers.

[Tamil then English Dub] “They are afraid that people may not come to the temple. Not only that, they are afraid that they will be accused of not finding a better person than that.”

Co-founder of Sydney’s Helensburgh Hindu temple R Natarajan Iyer says currently there’s no need to appoint lower caste priests.

“But yes, you are right. Bulk of them, 99 percent of them will be Brahmins. If there is a need we may consider it. Right now, we are not in that sort of a situation.”

Caste can also affect civil society.

Some community cultural organisations are caste based.

Organisations often encourage young members to maintain caste identity through cultural traditions and to create caste-based networks.

Founding member of community organisation Nagarathar Sangam Anna Sundaram explains their approach.

[Tamil then English Dub] “For posterity, for younger generation to know our way of life, we have created an organisation for our people. It is an exclusive organisation, but that is within Australian laws to have exclusive organisation – just like certain churches or clubs. Everyone can come for public functions we organise, but membership is restricted.”

President of the United India Association John Kennedy leads an ‘umbrella’ body which represents many Indian-Australian associations in Sydney.

He acknowledges caste is increasingly creeping into Indian communities but rejects the practice.

“Casteism, yes I can see that certain communities have started their own caste base associations in Australia, and I can see that it is being practiced in Australia. But as an Australian citizen I don't want this to happen because this country is, I believe, without casteism and I don't want that to be practiced in Australia. UIA as a community organisation. As a community organisation, every community is there, but we don't want that be practiced in Australia.”

Nadaraja says people of lower caste struggle to attain leading positions in community organisations.

In campaigning against him opponents often sighted his lower caste status.

[Tamil then English Dub] “I once stood for elections at Senior Citizens' Committee. There was a smear campaign in the background. My ability or good quality outshined those campaigns. He had gone around asking people why people should vote for me, and whether they were aware of my identity.”

Another aspect of day to day life that continues to keep the practice of caste alive is marriage.

The 2011-2012 India Human Development Survey conducted by the Indian National Council for Applied Economic Research and the University of Maryland, concluded that 95 per cent of marriages are within castes.

Could Australia’s South Asian communities be following the same trend?

Looking at Indian matrimonial announcements, the majority of marriages are arranged to match the caste of the bride and groom.

Sydney marriage arranger, Parvinder Dhillon says matching the couple’s castes is important.

“Yeah, when you go to buy an animal for like a horse, we check these pedigree. Where it comes from, which stable, whether they are good for riding or racing or pulling carts. Why take quick decisions for wedding? It's your life, your ancestry, and your new generations. So better take same way to the wedding as well. Check list, where they are from.”

“When you go to buy an animal for like a horse, we check these pedigree. Where it comes from, which stable, whether they are good for riding or racing or pulling carts. Why take quick decisions for wedding? (...) Check list, where they are from.”

Sociologist Professor Venkatachalapathy (Ven-cut-touch-ala-pathee) says some Indians marry within their caste to preserve family traditions.

He suspects there is reluctance to cross caste boundaries.

Professor Venkatachalapathy says even those who don’t concern themselves with caste differences, diligently check the caste of marriage partners.

“Marrying outside caste is, theoretically forbidden. Caste passes from generation to generation through marriage. So endogamy is the defining hallmark of caste. Caste comes from a whole baggage of lived-culture. The people who are most vocal about caste are actually people living in America and UK and Australia and other places.”

If someone feels discriminated against because of their caste, what can they do?

Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr. Tim Soutphommasane says there is no legal mechanism to address complaints for caste discrimination in Australia.

“If there is discrimination based on caste that is accompanied by racial forms of discrimination then that matter may well be considered for conciliation by the commission. But as I said, if it is something that involved caste alone, then it’s by no means clear that we would accept the complaint. Caste is not specifically covered under the discrimination law that we have at the federal level.”

Caste issues are also being tackled by governments in other countries.

UK caste discrimination researcher Sinthujan Varatharaja, says Australia can learn from how Britain has tackled the issues.

“Casteism can be seen as a form of racism with its own specific and distinct traits. In Diaspora, casteism intersects with racism. So, people from upper caste migrate may face racism; but people from so-called lower caste and Dalits may not only face racism but they also face discrimination based on caste.”

Britain’s House of Lords passed legislation to outlaw caste discrimination in 2013.

However the UK Government confirmed it has no immediate plans to make caste discrimination illegal.

Melbourne PhD student Lavanya says legislation is needed in Australia.

“Yes, I think definitely, we need to criminalise and bring out legislation for protecting people against any kind of discrimination... most importantly discrimination because people are born into a particular caste.

RMIT University’s Associate Professor Dr. Amit Serwal thinks the only way to tackle caste discrimination in Australia is to criminalise it outright.

“In the UK, in 2013, certain groups were trying to make caste situation in England trying to criminalise it and make it part of the legalisations related to racism. I hope that people in Australia would do the same; you know - criminalise the maintenance of caste system.”

Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon agrees.

“We live in a society that does not tolerate any kind of discrimination. Be it based on race, religious faith, or sexual orientation. Why should we tolerate discrimination based on caste?”


(Read by Michelle Aleksandrovics Lovegrove and Andrew Bolton)


Read SBS News story on castes in Australia



Contact the authors:
Raymond Selvaraj 
Kulasegaram Sanchayan 








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