Conversations on Caste: working on my Documentary

This year I start my journey as a filmmaker by working on my first documentary. My chosen topic of research is the Indian caste system within a UK context with focus on the Sikh diaspora. This is a year-long project, involving a lot of research which is often thought-provoking: Why and how does the caste system exist? Why does caste endogamy (same-caste marriages) still prevail among British Asians in the UK? Has a younger generation of British Asians moved away from the notion of caste?’ These questions are of interest to me and something I will continue to explore for my documentary.

Whilst historical and academic writings detailing arguments surrounding the caste system are valuable to my research, they can only go so far. To justly recognise the impact that the caste system has had on British Asian Sikhs, it became vital to hear directly from those who have experienced caste discrimination. Equally important have been the conversations with those carrying profound views on caste, for and against.

caste 1I began my research by hearing many stories from Sikhs and Ravidassia’s about their experiences and views on caste. It is useful to note that whilst the Sikh faith itself does not permit the practice of caste it is still prevalent among many Sikhs. Many of those belonging to the Dalit community (A fifth group created outside of the caste system. Dalits would perform tasks considered too menial or undignified to be performed by the caste members in the other four groups) expressed how they had been directly impacted by caste based discrimination, whilst others (predominantly belonging to higher castes) had never experienced it themselves but had either heard of, or knew of, someone who had.

Inter-caste marriages are now becoming common place in modern Britain. However, for many this does come with its problems. Disputes and estrangement from the family, communal pressures and social apartheid are all consequences that can severely impact those stepping outside of their presumed caste boundaries. The more research I gathered the more it became apparent to me that the reason why caste endogamy still prevails, is due to the societal pressures and emotional blackmail experienced by many from their families – to be frank I was surprised at how much of an issue this still is.

From the many conversations I have had, two are discussed below. The name of my interviewees have been changed in this blog upon the contributor’s request. In the examples below I explore the differing views on caste by two people who belong to the same caste – Jatt.

Gurpreet’s Views

Gurpreet’s elder sister faced a lot of backlash from her family when she decided to marry her long-term boyfriend of a different ‘lower’ caste status. Her parents were very much against the union as were other members of the family and wider community. Despite the pressures the couple manged to fight against the discrimination together and are now happily married with two children – their ordeal did however take some time to overcome. Both families have since accepted the matrimony and as Gurpreet tells me:

‘My parents absolutely dote on my brother-in-law now, it’s like he can’t do any wrong. I don’t know what all the fuss was about. It was pointless’.

This perhaps proves that enduring the initial hardships of inter-caste marriage emanates change in the right direction – the end to caste endogamy.

caste 2

What Gurpreet’s sister and brother-in-law did was point to how important it is to challenge outdated ideas within South Asian communities. If we want to eradicate the disease of caste we must tackle it head on. In Gurpreet’s family there is now an example of a happy inter-caste marriage, one that the younger and older members can learn from, thus inspiring positive change.

Talking to Gurpreet was interesting. She admitted that being a Jatt used to make her feel really proud. She admitted that her conditioning as a Jatt had come from her surrounding environment and that it was not until she allowed herself to be challenged by others from within the Sikh diaspora that she recognised the problem with how she perceived herself as a higher caste person without ever realising it. Whilst she never discriminated against anyone she did feel a sense of unnecessary pride believing she was better than everyone else. When she moved away for university she learnt just how wrong she had been.

caste 3

Gurpreet further discussed how as a Jatt Sikh she had heard comments from other Jatt Sikhs about how they pride themselves on being better than those belonging to lower castes, something she detested and now actively speaks against.

Gurpreet argues that challenging these outdated ideas within us and around us, is the only way to help the Sikh diaspora step towards a casteless community – something she aspires towards achieving.

Amit’s Views

My conversation with Amit was unique. It stood out to me for a number of reasons. Amit is an old colleague friend of mine so this was a more personal interview. I was perhaps naive to think otherwise when I set out to interview him.

Amit is an inclusive, open-minded and educated person. He always seemed to think beyond the text books he read and was always more progressive in his arguments than most people I knew. Race, sexuality, economic status and gender were all things that never mattered to him – I know this from previous conversations I had with him on race and gender. This is someone who is inclusive of people, period. With that in mind, given his all-encompassing approach to people, it was surprising to hear some of his comments when discussing the subject of caste and it actually taught me a lot about how an all-inclusive person can still seem closed or distant to certain topical issues. This conversation was interesting because it taught me something personally as well as assisting my research. It taught me to anticipate frustration from some of the people I knew personally when opening up the debate on caste with them.

caste 5Dr Amedkar was a social reformer campaigning against social discrimination against Dalits.  

Amit debates that the caste system is a western construct and not an Indian one (this I will discuss in my film is an incorrect argument). Amit believes that stereotypes against Jatt people exist, going on to say that he was ‘proud to be a Jatt’ because this was his ‘ethnicity’ and therefore something to take pride in. I was surprised.

‘How am I hearing this?’ I kept thinking trying to maintain a professional distance from the conversation. Did he not consider how some of these comments may make someone of a ‘lower-caste’ status than him feel? Why exactly was it that he felt proud of his caste? ‘I am proud to be a Jatt’, – had he really just said this to me? These are not the words of an inclusive person. When I challenged his statement, and asked how he thought his words would make someone else feel Amit simply replied with:

‘I don’t really care. It’s not my problem if someone feels a certain way. I know I don’t caste discriminate and having pride in who you are and where you come from is not a bad thing’.

And there it was. That feeling of knowing that I was talking to someone of a higher caste than me and all of a sudden this felt really personal – I was so disappointed. Someone I had considered to be all inclusive was now talking in a way that I had never anticipated. I later told Amit that I had decided to write a blog about my caste conversations and wanted to include his conversation in it. Amit agreed and also took the time out to revisit what he had said and explained that his intentions were never to sound superior. The point he had intended to make was that we can all be proud of our caste communities irrespective of the hierarchy in which some people allow themselves to be dictated by.

We should all be proud. All castes and communities have been successful in education and other things in the U.K. and I am proud of all of them. Caste exists in our minds in this country. It exists among those who think that their neighbours are lower than them. I’ll say I’m a Jatt, but I won’t say that I have achieved something because I’m a Jatt.

I believe that Amit believes that he is open to people of all caste backgrounds (as many others have also stated in their conversations to me about themselves) and I can see that he is not a castiest person. However, he and many others do seem disconnected to the experiences of people from the Dalit community because these experiences don’t directly impact or surround them. Furthermore, I can also see how Amit, just like the many higher caste people to whom I have spoken with, had grown up without experiencing caste discrimination in the way that I had or people from the Dalit community have and still do. This would explain why being proud as a Jatt seemed like an acceptable statement to make. Many of the higher caste people that I have spoken to for my research do carry this sense of pride in belonging to their caste, in a way that Dalit Sikhs and Ravidassia’s do not. This is what privilege looks and sounds like – this is what I call, caste privilege. You do not have to be casteist to benefit from this.

casteProtestors in London marching against caste discrimination in the U.K. 

When I asked Amit ‘what are your views on inter-caste marriage’ – he told me it has never mattered to him given that he has dated white women as a South Asian man. Caste and race have never bothered him. However, when asked if he would marry a Ravidassia he replied ‘I don’t have the answer to that. I can’t say’. This was clearly something that made him feel uncertain and maybe even uncomfortable. It was conflicting. He tells me that he is open to inter-racial marriage and open to inter-caste marriage (having dated a chamaar) yet was unsure about a chamaar who identified with being a Ravidassia. I wondered if this was only the case so long as she did not step too widely outside of her Sikh practices as a Ravidassia therefore removing that sense of ‘other’. Amit is not alone in this perspective, every single man belonging to a higher caste has echoed this exact sentiment in his conversation with me.

Amit admitted that he knew little about the Ravidassia movement following their split from Sikhism in 2011. I would argue that this is a testament to the fact that a majority of higher-caste British Asian Sikhs are educated culturally and religiously to look at Sikhism and Sikh origins through a specific lens, without the broader understanding of how caste impacts those of a lower caste status in terms of religious practices.

Amit was interestingly able to argue many progressive statements in his debate about caste but also made some extremely fixed and bold statements too and it got me thinking. Does having a partner from another caste mean that you are truly against the caste system when you do not fully accept the religious and cultural practices associated with that caste which differs culturally from the orthodox practice of religion? Just as seen in the race debate can we (South Asians) be exempt from recognising our own social conditioning, privileges and understandings in relation to caste?  Is it easy to suggest that you are an inclusive person by saying ‘I am not a racist’ or ‘I am not casteist’ without really questioning whether your words and actions truly reflect the statement?

caste quotes

Maybe until we allow ourselves to be challenged by those who have been oppressed due to their caste can we ever acknowledge just how inclusive or exclusive we really are. Just as Gurpreet recognised the error in her ways and made a change for the better, just as her sister and brother-in-law challenged society, and just as Amit revisited his conversation with me the second time around, recognising the need to clarify his views and understand better why I felt disappointed by his statements, can we all start working together. Maybe by having open and challenging conversations on caste can we help assist in eradicating caste discrimination and caste bias here in the UK. Maybe a challenging conversation with someone is where we all need to start.


Images used: Google Images