Abstract: Modern American Hindus, mostly upper-caste individuals, may lack empathy towards African American discrimination due to a disconnect from the struggles of lower-caste and lower-class indentured migrants.
The history of Indian Americans is deeply intertwined with a legacy of enslavement, indentured labor, colonialism, and racial discrimination. However, despite these shared histories with African Americans, there is a puzzling lack of widespread sympathy among Indian Americans towards discrimination faced by Black Americans. This article aims to delve into this complex issue and shed light on the reasons behind this disparity.
Some Background on Caste
To understand the attitudes of Indian Americans, we must examine the historical context. India's caste system has been a defining social structure for centuries, shaping the lives of individuals based on their birth and occupation. The Hindu upper-caste historically aligned themselves with white colonizers, reinforcing existing power structures - this is true even of historically important figures in Indian American history, but also Indians in India aligning with White colonisers to gain power. In contrast, lower-caste individuals were often left to work for these Zamindars and such in cruel conditions.
Disclaimer: Casta (Portuguese)/Caste (British) more generally refer to Varna, as the complexities of the Jati were oversimplified when Europeans such as Thomas Roe wrote about the Indian caste system as an envoy. However, despite simplification, it is a pretty good summary of the Varna-Jaati system - I’d know, I grew up in Bihar, the hometown of Casteism.
Effects of Migration on Caste Disintegration:
The migration of Indians to various colonies disrupted the local caste hierarchies. Indentured labor migration recruited individuals from diverse castes, leading to the disintegration of traditional caste groups. In contrast, free migration allowed certain castes, like the Gujaratis, to maintain their subcaste identity, perpetuating endogamy and traditional practices in the diaspora.
However, indentured slave labour had >50% representation of lower castes and upper backward castes as represented below.
Research has shown that lower-caste indentured laborers were less likely to return to India after their indenture period due to the oppressive nature of the caste system back home. In the British plantation colonies, the strict hierarchies of caste could not be maintained, providing an opportunity for escape from the unfreedoms experienced in India.
Note: agricultures could be ahirs/yadavs and koeris, artisans could possibly be of castes in similar veins to Vadrangis and such. A good number of Indian Christians have converted from Hinduism to Christianity due to the discrimination and lack of benefits of being a Hindu. Upper Backward Classes also consist, generally of Baniyas, but baniyas are viewed as mostly upper caste due to their occupational position in finance-related roles, and their habits mimicking that of a Brahmin. Note that caste mobility according Manusmriti is possible (Manu Smriti 10.65 and 10.42) but the Shudra must serve the Brahmin politely. It is not mentioned how else is it possible - although various generous interpretations (again, with good intent) state that it is possible through education or penance, but the words “yuge yuge” (In successive births), sticks out.
Source: India Emigration proceedings, 1873
The Role of Modern American Hindus
In contemporary times, modern American Hindus, especially those in positions of power, largely consist of upper-caste individuals with no shared history of indentured labor. This disconnection from the struggles of lower-caste migrants might contribute to their lack of empathy towards discrimination faced by Black Americans.
Denial of Casteism
A significant barrier to addressing caste-based discrimination among Indian Americans is the denial of its existence. Some members of the upper-caste Hindu community adopt a two-pronged denial approach: firstly, asserting that caste was a colonial invention, and secondly, claiming that caste discrimination is minimal in modern India. This denialism obstructs genuine discussions about the pervasive nature of casteism.
Challenges of Addressing Caste Discrimination in the US
In the United States, caste discrimination remains a contentious issue. While some studies and lawsuits have highlighted its existence, the Indian American community is not unanimously supportive of measures addressing it. A CoHNA plea urges Seattle to not work on Caste discrimination - and while the plea itself is not only deeply worthless, it goes on to say the ordinance is “Hinduphobic”. The same Uncles and Aunties would proudly proclaim that caste isn’t a major factor in their personal lives - but if that is so, how is an ordinance on Caste a blot on your religion. Hinduphobic has become a common word, and such words are often deflection points for the religious of a certain age group. Discussions on Sharia is Islamophobic, allowing wider education on existence of LGBTQ+ in school is a work of Satan, or that equal access healthcare is the anti-Christ, and of course, “if you’re worried for Palestine, you’re anti-semitic”. Defaulting to authority of Identity politics and attack on identity is a strong suit of every politician, and thus by nature, of followers of said politician.
Arguments against caste-based policies often stem from concerns about stereotypes, unfair targeting, and the belief that existing anti-discrimination laws are sufficient. But are they? Are we representing our people, Indians, at large in the successful model minority Indian diaspora? Are our Muslim friends, Christian friends, and of course, Dalit friends, appropriately represented? Is it just a case of merit (as anti-reservationists say) or is it a case of generational privilege that cannot be ignored?
Colorism and casteism are related
South Asians hold Anti-Black views pretty deeply - any denial of this usually ends with a justification and a soft agreement, but usually, behind closed doors, these views are held pretty boldly. Of course, not all South Asians, but a non-trivial number. This is improving, however.
Anyway - This stems from colorist views that Black Indians (or darker Indians) are either Chamars, Bhangis, Mlech (modern Hindi: impure or inferior) - which are caste-based slurs, or straight up Adivasi, which literally means a tribal person (who are considered of a low caste in classical Hinduism or modern Sanatam Hinduism).
Colorism at large is a larger issue in South Asia, actually, all of Asia, and this does play a role in anti-black behavior.
Indentured labor and black slavery: Similar, but not the same
Indentured labor and slavery share certain similarities, particularly in their historical contexts and the experiences of the individuals involved. Both systems involved the forced labor of individuals against their will. In the case of slavery, Africans were captured, transported, and treated as property, enduring extreme and dehumanizing conditions for generations.
Indentured labor, on the other hand, predominantly involved people from various parts of Asia, including India and China, who signed labor contracts under duress, promising to work for a specified period to repay debts or gain passage to a new land. While the duration of indentured labor was limited, it often resulted in harsh working conditions and restricted freedoms, akin to aspects of chattel slavery. This ended around 1920s. Since this ended much later than slavery, you’d expect Indian Americans to at least know about it - but it is completely missing from their psyche. Even the practice of torturing Indigo farmers by Britishers is missing from the general narrative, for example. Jallianwala Bagh is but a footnote. Colonialism is mostly forgiven in mainland, because for some Hindu Americans, the focus has no shifted to Mughal rule and Islamophobia (a discussion for later)
Both systems inflicted immense suffering and exploitation on their victims, perpetuating social and economic inequalities that continue to impact communities today. Despite their similarities, it is essential to recognize that slavery was a far more oppressive institution.
A summary of the article
- The history of Indian Americans is intertwined with a legacy of enslavement, indentured labor, colonialism, and racial discrimination, similar to African Americans.
- India's caste system historically aligned upper-caste Hindus with colonizers, while lower-caste individuals were often left to work in oppressive conditions.
- Indentured labor migration disrupted local caste hierarchies, leading to disintegration of traditional caste groups and making lower-caste migrants less likely to return to India.
- Modern American Hindus, mostly upper-caste individuals, may lack empathy towards African American discrimination due to a disconnect from the struggles of lower-caste migrants.
- Denial of casteism within the Indian American community obstructs genuine discussions about caste-based discrimination.
- Caste discrimination remains a contentious issue, with some Indian Americans opposing measures addressing it, believing existing anti-discrimination laws are sufficient.
- Colorism and casteism are related, influencing anti-Black sentiments in South Asian communities.
- Indentured labor and slavery share some similarities, such as forced labor and harsh conditions, but slavery was a far more oppressive institution with generational bondage.
In conclusion, the puzzling lack of widespread sympathy among some Indian Americans towards discrimination faced by African Americans can be attributed to a complex interplay of historical, social, and cultural factors. The legacy of India's caste system, with its historical alignment of upper-caste Hindus with colonizers and the oppression faced by lower-caste individuals, has shaped attitudes within the Indian American community. The disconnection of modern American Hindus, who mainly consist of upper-caste individuals, from the struggles of lower-caste migrants during indentured labor migration further contributes to this disparity. Additionally, denial of casteism and the contentious nature of addressing caste discrimination within the Indian American community present challenges in fostering genuine discussions. Moreover, colorism and its related anti-Black sentiments also play a role in shaping attitudes towards discrimination. However, it is important to recognize that this lack of empathy does not represent all Indian Americans, and many individuals from various backgrounds actively engage in advocating for racial equality and social justice. Addressing the historical and contemporary consequences of casteism and promoting dialogue and understanding between different communities is vital in fostering a more inclusive and empathetic society. By acknowledging and confronting these issues, Indian Americans can play a crucial role in supporting efforts towards a more equitable and just society for all.