Source: National Post
VANCOUVER — For most of her life, Kamlesh Ahir has been trying to escape the caste system that’s defined her from birth.
She went to university, abandoned her religion and, in 1994, left India for Canada, a new land offering a fresh start.
Or so she thought.
To an outsider, Ms. Ahir is no different than the more than 200,000 people of South Asian heritage who call Metro Vancouver home.
Yet among her own people, her last name brands her as a dalit, the people formerly called untouchables.
Dalits occupy the lowest rung in the Indian caste system, a rigid class structure rooted in Hinduism that dictated occupation and social status.
Condemned to live on the margins of society, they used to be denied access to schools and temples. They were confined to jobs deemed unclean, such as handling human waste or dead animals, and could be punished for letting their shadow fall on someone of an upper caste.
The Indian government banned castes more than 60 years ago and gave dalits substantial rights. But discrimination remains widespread, especially in rural areas. Even in Canada, ingrained attitudes, centuries old, are not easy to change.
“They think we are bulls–t. We are zero. We are a dog, less than a dog,” says Ms. Ahir, who was born into the chamar caste, whose members traditionally worked as tanners.
“They think we are nothing. It doesn’t matter if we are a doctor, teacher, because we belong to the lower castes.
“I’m in Canada … But the bulls–t castes are still here. We live it every day.”
New immigrants can face as much discrimination in their own ethnic communities as they do from mainstream society.
It’s a discrimination based not on race, but on a variety of factors such as class, colour, caste, economic status, politics or region of origin.
It’s manifested in the stereotypes traded between Hong Kong Chinese and mainland Chinese immigrants; or when Canadian-born descendants of immigrants look down on newcomers as “FOBs,” or “fresh off the boat;” or when new immigrants call their Canadian-born brethren arguably derogatory names like “banana” or “coconut.”
For the estimated 25,000 dalits in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, the barbs are often subtle.
They come in seemingly innocuous questions about your family village or last name — two markers that can identify a person’s caste.
They show up in careless conversation, among friends, behind closed doors. A messy house is referred to as a chamar house. An upper-caste woman might tell her unkempt daughter to tidy herself up so she doesn’t look like a chura, another dalit group.