For those celebrating Navarati over the next few days, and soon Diwali, it’s a great time of community. It’s a time to celebrate your heritage, your family, your religion. There’s a wonderful sense of family pride and community spirit that come from such religious occasions. For many British Asians who spend most of their time immersed in British life and society it’s great opportunity to pause, and touch base once again with their Asian roots.
Sadly though this year, there have been many news stories that have reminded us of the dark side of our community. For Muslims, the stories of extremism and militant Islam just continue to roll. For Hindus and Sikhs, inter-caste discrimination has once again been debated after events such as the horrific rape and hanging of two cousins in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year, where the father of one of the girls said they were attacked because they were Dalits.
How can caste still be such a divisive issue amongst Asians? We all know that there have been literally hundreds of years of conflict that have stemmed from caste, but in this day and age of political correctness, tolerance, and diversity, how are we still having this debate?
Caste is mentioned in some early Hindu manuscripts, but isn’t necessarily tied to spirituality. The early models for the caste system were there to fulfil various job functions in society. Teachers, priests, warriors, merchants & businessmen, craftspeople, farmers, labourers and servants: it seems a simple enough structure designed to ensure the smooth running of society.
Many young British Asians will fervently tell you that caste doesn’t matter to them, that it is an outdated and irrelevant system. But for many more, the reality is that caste is still important to their parents. They feel compelled to marry within their caste to honour their parents’ wishes despite that it’s not really a priority of their own. For the older generation on the other hand, caste is still about the honour of an inherited family status and name. In practice, caste is very much a matter of identity for most Hindus and Sikhs.
But with stories like the Uttar Pradesh rape case once again showing that caste simply divides people and perhaps even cause damage and heartache, we are left wondering what place caste should actually have anymore, and what its future should be.
Perhaps one answer to this is intermarriage. The intermarrying of castes is becoming more common and more acceptable amongst young Asians. Many are choosing to marry for love; either the parents learn to accept this or the young couple live with being ostracised simply because they love each other. The result is that the caste system is becoming diluted. One young Asian woman I spoke to said this about inter-caste marriage:
“In 20 years’ time you’ll have a father who is Punjabi, a mother who is Pakistani, a son who is half Jatt, half Dhakan…. our kids will become more and more multicultural and caste won’t matter anymore, in fact it will be irrelevant. Inter-caste marriage is good, because it will eventually do-away with the caste system.”
Whether or not inter-caste marriage will actually eradicate the caste system remains to be seen- but you can see the logic in it.
And if caste started out as a practical way to organise society, it clearly isn’t about that today because modern society- even in India, doesn’t run like that anymore. I mean, how many Jatts do you know today who are actually farmers?! With this aspect of the system no longer viable, perhaps caste is becoming obsolete.
With all the heartache the caste system brings are we better off dismantling it?