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Ignorance is Not Bliss: Why Indian Americans Cannot Afford to Brush Off Casteism Anymore

Ignorance is Not Bliss: Why Indian Americans Cannot Afford to Brush Off Casteism Anymore

  • I was not merely a silent spectator, but a willing participant in dehumanizing a large section of our society and today I cannot justify my complicity as ignorance.

The recent Cisco caste discrimination case and human trafficking case at the BAPS Hindu temple have thrust caste into the spotlight again. Santa Clara County’s attempts to introduce caste as a protected category stirred ripples in the Hindu community, with many arguing that kids growing up in the United States are blissfully unaware of casteism. Introducing “caste” as a protected category would initiate this generation to caste hierarchy and would inadvertently reinforcing casteism, thus undoing the efforts of Indian Americans to create a casteless society.

My liberal privileged-caste Hindu parents in India denounced caste, gender, communalism and never discussed these topics. Alas, this void was filled by society. Although my family practiced gender equality, but society introduced me to patriarchy quite early in life. However, my induction to casteism was a long journey.

Having never witnessed overt caste discrimination, I sincerely believed it to be a relic of the past, and thus deeply resented the reservation system like many of my friends, especially since we all competed for admissions in the general category. 

I realize now that this was a result of upper caste privilege and blinders. Sporadically, I would stumble upon stories of caste-based violence, and brush it off as the remnants of a dead tradition, rather than acknowledging it as a reflection of society. I saw my privileged life as a microcosm of society when it was an aberration.

Looking back, my inexperience with casteism is hardly surprising considering that access to education is a privilege in India, and most of the kids attending school belonged to the upper caste.

I indulged in movies with casteist slurs, heard them umpteen times, and never protested because I did not comprehend the origin or meanings of the slurs fully.

I kept denying the existence of caste identities, even as friends enlightened me that I was a Baniya and that ones with last name Sharma, Bhargava, etc. were Brahmins, Rathores were Rajputs, and so on. During a squabble in 8th grade, I was assured that fault was not mine, as my foe was a “Sindhi’ classmate, “a treacherous lot.”

I indulged in movies with casteist slurs, heard them umpteen times, and never protested because I did not comprehend the origin or meanings of the slurs fully. I was not merely a silent spectator, but a willing participant in dehumanizing a large section of our society, and today I cannot justify my complicity as ignorance. I can only hope that my experiences can be a cautionary tale on the need to be cognizant of the realities of the world we live in.

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As I grew older, signs of casteism were more pronounced, with Brahmins seeking Brahmin roommates under the garb of vegetarianism. Many friends could not marry partners of their choosing owing to caste differences, and a few years ago a junior from my school was lynched for marrying outside caste.

The recent CISCO and BAPS cases in the United States are a reminder of the interconnected world we live in. Indian-American kids growing up here often work with immigrant Indians, have family ties in India with whom they keep in touch, and perhaps even visit India, or have relatives coming over. They enjoy Bollywood movies that perpetuate the prevalent casteism of society, and news channels that reinforce it.

I’m reminded of a story from my childhood. Once a man was sitting in a dark room with a rope next to him for hours. Suddenly a light came and to his horror, he realized that the rope was actually a snake. We in the United States are in a similar situation as the ghastliness of casteism has surfaced. Do we remain in the dark and pretend that the snake doesn’t exist?


Swati Garg, a software engineer based in Seattle, and a board member of Hindus for Human Rights. She spends most of her life staring at the computer screen.

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