Caste in India and caste in the US: What we’ve learned from latest two surveys
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Caste in India and caste in the US: What we’ve learned from latest two surveys

By July 22, 2021 No Comments

In the past month two major new surveys on attitudes of Indians and Indian Americans have been released, from Pew Research and Carnegie/Johns Hopkins/University of Pennsylvania respectively. 

What have we learned about caste from each of these? 

Let’s take a look. 

1) Most Indians and nearly all Indian Americans have not personally faced caste discrimination

According to the Pew survey, slightly more than 80% of all Indians, regardless of their caste, say they have not personally faced discimination based on their caste in the year prior to taking the survey. 

This is particularly notable considering that, apart from the Jain community, 70% of the Indian population is designated as Scheduled Caste (SC/Dalit), Scheduled Tribe (ST), and Other/Most Backward Caste (OBC), all of which would seem to be experiencing significant, persistent discrimination based on the manner in which caste dynamics are reported on by Western and English language media.

Flipping the stat, an average of 20% of Indians responding that they had faced discrimination based on caste identity is definitely not nothing. There is regional variation in that average, ranging from just 8% in the western parts of India and rising to 38% in the Northeast and 30% in the South (more below). So caste discrimination does exist, it varies from region to region, but not nearly  to the extent of the prevailing stereotypes about India and Indians.

And ideally, we want that to be as close to zero as possible, so clearly more work needs to be done. Discrimination on the basis of caste and other social markers is prohibited under the Indian Constitution.

A comparison for readers in the United States (admittedly it’s not a direct comparison, but is apropos as there is a growing effort to try to equate caste with race): when Pew asked Americans whether there is racial discrimination in the US, more than 50% of whites and about 84% of blacks said that there is prevalent racial discrimination. Even amongt the SC, ST, and OBC communities in India, an average of 19% say that there is a lot of caste discrimination. 

Also in the United States: if recent articles on alleged caste discrimination in Silicon Valley are to be taken at face value and extrapolated to the Indian American population as a whole, discrimination based on caste is supposedly widespread.

Except, according to the Carnegie survey, it’s not. At all. 

This survey has found that 95% of Indian Americans (more than half of whom are Hindu, the presumed oppressors according to many activists and progressives) have not experienced any discrimination based on caste in the year preceding the survey. 

In short, incidents of caste discrimination in the US are exceptional situations not the norm. 

Also confounding the picture is the finding that a significant number of those people reporting facing discrimination because of caste say that it was non-Indians doing so — a situation that left the authors scratching their heads.

These findings also clearly upend the conclusions of the most-cited survey on caste discrimination in the United States, conducted by Equality Labs and uncritically cited by news media since its release. In fact the authors of the Carnegie survey specifically criticize the methodology,  scientific accuracy, and statistical validity of that survey. 

While 5% of Indian Americans reporting having experienced caste discrimination needs addressing, the statistic tells a far different story than media headlines or one the State of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleges in its complaint citing to Equality Labs’ unscientific and unverifiable data. 

Fully half of all Indian Americans reported having experienced no discrimination. And the most common form of discrimination reported by Indian Americans was on the basis of skin color — which squares with what we know about the prevalence of racial discrimination in the US. 

2) Every community in India opposes inter-caste marriage

The Pew survey has finely illustrated that inter-caste marriage is opposed by a majority of Indians from every faith community. 

What the survey also shows is that  two-thirds of all Indians believe inter-caste marriage should be stopped, for both men and women. 

Remarkably, the percentage of both “general” caste and SC communities is identical, with 60% of people from each believing inter-caste marriage should be stopped. Furthermore, the percentage of people opposing inter-caste marriage is higher among ST and OBC communities (67% and 68%) and higher still among Muslims, with 70% of Indian Muslims opposing inter-caste marriage for men and 74% opposing this for women. This attitude is highest among older Indians and those without a college degree, Pew reports. 

That said, reported preference when it comes to the background of one’s neighbors is almost the opposite to what is expressed by all Indians for marriage. 72% of all Indians identifying as “general caste” say they would be willing to have someone belonging to a scheduled caste as a neighbor. 

While the survey offers us information about prevalence of preferences in the context of marriage, it doesn’t answer the question of why. 

Western readers likely don’t know that the thousands of communities or castes in India have their own traditions that have been passed down orally for generations. These may include origin stories, shared history, language and dialect, culture, local deities, special festivals and rites, and other social customs and norms, which could shed light on a variety of preferences when it comes to marriage. 

What these findings also say to me is again the predominant media and activist presentation is not the bigger picture nor reflective of on the ground realities. Rather than opposition to inter-religious or inter-caste marriage (or preference for the same) being a Hindu, Hindutva, or upper-caste thing, it’s a pan-Indian thing, cutting across all religions and caste identities. It extends from the most disadvantaged communities in the country with equal vigor as it does in the most advantaged.

3) Majority of Indians, but far fewer Indian Americans, primarily make friends with people from their caste  

What both the Pew and Carnegie surveys show is that religion is the predominant organizing principle for social networks in India and among Indian Americans. 

In the US, for example, nearly half of all Indian American Christians, Hindus, and Muslims have networks made up of co-religionists.

But, when it comes to caste, there is a sharp divide between Indians and Indian Americans.

The Pew survey shows that 80% of Indians say all or most of their close friends are from their own caste. 

But the situation flips in the US, according to the Carnegie survey, where only 21% of Indian Americans say most or all of their friends are from the same caste.

4) Indians of all religious backgrounds identify by caste

In spite of the media (and K-12 public school textbooks, for that matter) inaccurately equating caste and a caste system with Hinduism, it’s worth noting the Pew report shows that while 71% of Hindus identify as Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, or Other Backward Caste, so do 74% of India’s Christians, 98% of Buddhists, 50% of Muslims, and 52% of Sikhs with the remaining respective balances identifying as “general caste.” 

Moreover, the incorrect yet conventional wisdom would have you believe that caste discrimination is a Hindu issue and that leaving Hinduism will allow one to escape the traditions’ purported pyramidal, pan-Indian hierarchy. 

Yet, based on the last Indian census, Christianity is the majority religion in three of the Northeastern states and one-third of the total population in a fourth (Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya, and Manipur respectively. This is also one of the regions where the highest number of respondents, 38%, reported having faced caste discrimination in the past year. 

All of this is to say, caste or communities formed around a variety of social markers is a social phenomenon not a religious one. 

Pew Research falls into the same trap as the media, however, as is evident in the report authors trying to “make sense” of their findings about Indians of all religious backgrounds and caste identity and not just Hindus. 

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