When Gurpreet Singh packed his bags last fall and arrived in Ontario from India, he soon learned there was one thing some fellow Indians in Canada hadn’t left behind in their home country — their prejudices.
The human resource management student at Durham College in Oshawa, Ont., said he is viewed as an outcast in the ancient South Asian social structure known as the caste system, but faces more discrimination from Indians in Canada than he did in India.
“I have been here for roughly five months and I have faced it in a way more aggressive or aggravated form in this country from my own Punjabi community,” Singh said. “They beat their chest with pride that they come from this caste or that caste.”
India is a main source of immigrants to Canada. It’s also a huge pipeline for international students both to Canada and the United States, and some universities are taking note of concerns around discrimination based on caste.
California State University, the largest four-year public university system in the U.S., specifically added caste to its non-discrimination policies in January. In Ottawa, the academic staff association at Carleton University passed a motion in November to include caste-based discrimination in its policies.
Singh recalled a conversation with an acquaintance in Oshawa that shocked him after she used a casteist slur to address him.
“I confronted her that you’d be behind bars if you were in India right now … The girl who uttered that word acted as if she didn’t know anything, why it’s offensive, etc.,” Singh said. “To put it in her brain in the easiest possible way, I equated the word with the N-word.”
He said it was “strange” that she knew the N-word was a slur for Black people, “but even after living in India for 23 years, she had no idea, or at least pretended to have no idea, about the thing she just said so casually.”
The Hindu caste system divides people into four sub-communities based on ancestry — Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras — and the caste of a person can often be identified by their last name. The four main castes are further divided into 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes.
The caste tradition transcends religion. Many Indians with Hindu lineage whose ancestors adopted Sikhism or Christianity retained their last names, and their caste designations.
Singh belongs to a scheduled caste, members of which are also known as Dalits. According to the caste system, scheduled castes are outcasts and do not belong to the social order.
According to the 2011 census, scheduled castes made up for 16.2 per cent of the Indian population. From 2018 to 2020, India’s National Crime Records Bureau recorded 50,202 registered cases of crimes or “atrocities” against scheduled castes. Activists from the community have long fought against caste oppression.
Singh’s last name was originally Badhan, which indicated his caste. He stopped using it, even on official documents, but he said in Canada he’s been asked for his full name so people could identify his community.
“I have had to hide my identity a number of times,” Singh said. “I had to lie twice. I told them I come from the Jatt community and my surname is something else because I felt that I might be isolated, and no one wants to feel that way when you are so far away from home.”
Casteism can cause harm
Chinnaiah Jangam, an associate professor in the department of history at Carleton University and an advocate for the rights of people from scheduled castes, believes casteism can hurt immigrants long term.
“A student or an employee coming from these backgrounds will not feel comfortable to express their own identity and they won’t feel comfortable being themselves,” said Jangam, who is the author of Dalits and the making of modern India and spearheaded the push to add caste to the anti-discrimination policies of Carleton’s academic association.
Meera Estrada, the Toronto co-host of the pop culture show kultur’D on Global News radio, was born in Canada but said she was aware she was a Dalit since childhood. She often hid her identity because other people of Indian background looked down on her community.
She recalled going to Gujarati language classes and people asking what samaj, or community, she belonged to. “And people were quite proud in saying which group they belong to, but it was always the Brahmin group or the so-called upper caste,” Estrada said.
India passed a law in 1955 to abolish “untouchability,” a term once used to describe the practice of ostracizing scheduled castes. But Estrada believes the social stigma against Dalits remains, something that became more apparent to her in her 20s.
“Aunties in mandirs [temples] trying to play matchmakers would always say, ‘Oh, this is a good boy from a good family.’ The implication there was that he is from a higher caste, and I would just feel like if that is the equivalent of good, who am I? Am I not good?”
One matchmaking Facebook group, the Samast Brahman Society of Canada, has 4,100 members. The group’s description says its “goal is to unite all Brahmins under one roof while they can serve in all other Brahmin organizations.”
Its administrator, Jagruti Bhatt, said in an interview in Gujarati that the Facebook group only accepts members of the Brahmin caste, although she later added that all castes are allowed at events organized by the group.
“We only allow Brahmins to enter the group. Different organizations exist to address different communities. Likewise, ours is only for one particular caste,” Bhatt said. She refrained from commenting on accusations casteism is promoted through her group.
Estrada said it’s “quite disgusting” that such groups exist. “Imagine, for example, it was a whites-only kind of thing. I almost don’t even see the difference there,” she said.
Sailaja Krishnamurti, associate professor of religious studies and women and gender studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, said the impact of such networks is concerning.
“It’s a well-known, well-established reality that people often use their community and family networks to help get employment as they are migrating. So, that can have a direct impact on what happens in terms of access to employment,” she said.
It’s long been predicted that with migration, caste would reach beyond South Asia.
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, an Indian jurist who would chair the committee that drafted the Indian constitution, warned in 1916 that caste could potentially become a global issue. He was opposed to the concept of untouchability and burned a copy of the Manusmriti, an ancient Hindu law book.
“If Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem,” Ambedkar wrote in his thesis Castes in India.
India tells Canada to remove 41 of its 62 diplomats: official
Canada needs diplomats in India to help navigate the “extremely challenging” tensions between the two countries, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday in response to demands that Ottawa repatriate dozens of its envoys.
India reportedly wants 41 of 62 Canadian diplomats out of the country by early next week — a striking, if largely anticipated, deepening of the rift that erupted last month following Trudeau’s explosive allegations in the House of Commons.
The prime minister bluntly spoke of “credible” intelligence linking the Indian government to the shooting death in June of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a 45-year-old Sikh leader India has long assailed as a terrorist.
The demand, first reported by the Financial Times, comes less than two weeks after the Indian government first called on Canada to establish “parity in strength and rank equivalence in our diplomatic presence.”
Canada has a much larger diplomatic corps in India, owing in part to the fact it’s a country of 1.4 billion people, compared to 40 million in Canada — about 1.3 million of whom are of Indian origin.
Trudeau would not confirm the reports Tuesday, nor did he sound inclined to acquiesce to India’s request.
“Obviously, we’re going through an extremely challenging time with India right now,” Trudeau said on his way to a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill.
“That’s why it’s so important for us to have diplomats on the ground, working with the Indian government, there to support Canadians and Canadian families.”
Canada, he continued, is “taking this extremely seriously, but we’re going to continue to engage responsibly and constructively with the government of India.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly said largely the same thing.
“In moments of tension, because indeed there are tensions between both our governments, more than ever it’s important that diplomats be on the ground,” Joly said.
“That’s why we believe in the importance of having a strong diplomatic footprint in India. That being said, we are in ongoing conversations with the Indian government.”
During Tuesday’s daily briefing at the State Department, deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel was at pains to avoid exacerbating tensions any further.
“We are — and continue to be — deeply concerned about the allegations referenced by Prime Minister Trudeau and we remain in regular contact with our Canadian partners,” Patel said, a message the U.S. has had on repeat for weeks.
“It’s critical that Canada’s investigation proceed and the perpetrators be brought to justice. We also have … publicly and privately urged the Indian government to co-operate in the Canadian investigation and co-operate in those efforts.”
Patel also demurred on the potential impact of an escalating tit-for-tat exchange of diplomatic staff on the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, a key element of U.S. efforts to mitigate China’s growing geopolitical influence.
“I certainly don’t want to get into hypotheticals,” he said. “As it relates to our Indo-Pacific strategy and the focus that we continue to place on the region, that effort and that line of work is going to continue.”
David Cohen, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, has already confirmed that the allegations were buttressed in part on intelligence gathered by a key ally from the Five Eyes security alliance, which includes the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, along with Canada.
Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, confirmed last week that the subject came up in his meetings in Washington, D.C., with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser.
Trudeau’s allegation “was not consistent with our policy,” Jaishankar told a panel discussion Friday hosted by the Hudson Institute.
“If his government had anything relevant and specific they would like us to look into, we were open to looking at it. That’s where that conversation is at this point of time.”
Jaishankar went on to note that the issue of Sikh separatists living in Canada had long been “an issue of great friction,” notably after the 1985 bombing of Air India flight 182, the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history.
“In the last few years, it has come back very much into play, because of what we consider to be a very permissive Canadian attitude towards terrorists, extremists, people who openly advocate violence,” Jaishankar said.
“They have been given operating space in Canada because of the compulsions of Canadian politics.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 3, 2023.
With files from Mickey Djuric in Ottawa.
In the news today: Regimental funeral today for B.C. Mountie, NDP victory in Manitoba – National Post
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All Flesh Redux
Director’s Notes, Stacey Christodoulou
MONTREAL October, 2023 – Combining polyphonic singing, dance, and theatre, All Flesh REDUX is a poetic journey through time and space. Part sing-a-long, Dadaist performance piece as well as a love letter to our planet, the work enfolds the public in an intimate theatre-in-the-round setting where humour, music, storytelling and movement reign. Bringing together the worlds of medieval composers Guillaume de Machaut, Hildegard von Bingen and modern composer John Cage, the company’s creation contemplates the unknowable past and the unimaginable future, and asks what acts of faith are possible in an uncertain world. October 13-22, seating is limited.
Director Stacey Christodoulou: “We could never imagine that the themes we spoke about in 2019 would become reality. In a certain way the show was prophetic. However, I believe that the message of creating beauty as a form of resistance is even more important now. The weaving of medieval song, contemporary dance and text continues our company’s interdisciplinary approach and reminds us that throughout history people have responded to turmoil with innovation and art.”
With: ENSEMBLE ALKEMIA (Jean-François Daignault, Dorothéa Ventura and Leah Weitzner), Stéphanie Fromentin, Erin Lindsay, Vanessa Schmit-Craan, Lael Stellick
Musical direction by Jean-François Daignault; scenograpy by Amy Keith; sound by Debbie Doe; costumes by Cathia Pagotto; lighting by David Perreault Ninacs and technical stage coordination by Birdie Gregor.
All Flesh REDUX
Studio Jean Valcourt du Conservatoire
4750, avenue Henri-Julien
Dates: Friday, Oct., 13, Saturday, Oct. 14 at 8pm; Sunday Oct. 14 at 3pm
Wednesday, October 18-Saturday, Oct. 21 at 8pm; Sunday, Oct. 22 at 3pm
Tickets/514 873-4032: $20, Students/Seniors: $15
Seating is limited
About THE OTHER THEATRE
Formed in 1991 by Artistic Director Stacey Christodoulou, The Other Theatre is devoted to contemporary creation. Working bilingually, their award-wining work has included adaptations, installations, theatre texts, and collectively written material performed in numerous venues in Montreal and abroad, including theatres, galleries, as well as a moving elevator.
Drawing inspiration from art forms other than theatre – dance, cinema, science, architecture, and the visual arts – the company presents evocative performances, grounded by thought-provoking texts. From a creole Macbeth, to sci-fi with polyphonic singing, to the horror of H.P. Lovecraft, their original creations are thrilling and visually striking. They have also presented the work of International and Canadian writers, giving them their French-language premieres in Quebec. Exploring the large existential issues of the time, The Other Theatre aims to move audiences to greater emotional connection and reflection, bridging communities and languages to create a hybrid theatre that is reflective of the cultural richness of Montreal. They value and foster artistic exchange, both locally and internationally and share their artistic process in Canada, the US, Europe and Mexico, through mentorships, workshops and cultural mediation in local communities and schools.
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