Sasha Sabherwal, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Humanities at Tufts, delivered a talk entitled “Collective Fictions of Caste: Unsettling Caste, Gender, and Religion in the Sikh Diaspora of the Transnational Pacific Northwest” on Feb. 8. The talk drew from Sabherwal’s research project studying Sikh communities in the Canadian and Pacific Northwestern diaspora.
Sabherwal defined caste in her studies as a complex form of social stratification that continues to differentiate members of the Sikh community in the diaspora. Two of the central caste groups she focused on were Jats, a powerful caste in India as well as in the diaspora, and Dalits, the lowest caste.
Her study centered on the question: How do Jats develop contradictory narratives in defense of their caste status? She found that while Jats deny their involvement in perpetuating caste hierarchies, as they are not at the top of the traditional Hindu caste system, their maintenance of Jat pride functions to heighten caste divisions in the diaspora.
“My research finds that caste is remade in diasporic contexts and oscillates between traditional caste hierarchies from the homeland and contemporary diasporic rearticulation,” she said.
Dr. Sabherwal’s talk was divided into two parts: How Caste Travels and Ethnographic Vignettes. In the first part, she discussed how the Punjabi diaspora put down roots in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, highlighting two central regions: Vancouver and Surrey, British Columbia.
In Surrey, Sabherwal found that Punjabi elders still felt very connected to their roots. The Punjabi population in Surrey has access to a remarkable amount of cultural infrastructure, she said, and many even said they feel more Punjabi in Surrey than in India. In Vancouver, the Punjabi community is quite vibrant, and houses one of the largest Punjabi markets in the world.
Despite the remarkable diaspora community that has been formed in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, caste continues to negatively impact Dalits in the diaspora, Sabherwal said.
She mentioned a study conducted in 2016 by Equality Labs detailing the ways in which the caste system continues in the U.S. and Canada.
“Caste in the North American diaspora manifests through exclusionary practices, such as verbal discrimination, systematic displacement in the workplace and within cultural community organizations, cultural erasure, and through … the practice of marrying only in a specific social group, caste or ethnic group,” she said.
Though many Jats affirm that caste does not exist in the diaspora, caste identity allows for significant social and cultural mobility in the community. Sabherwal explained the term “Jat Cool” which is used to describe the lavish, powerful and masculine form of identity that has circulated the diasporic community. “Jat Cool” has become a form of cultural iconography and social capital that many Jat men hold onto as a display of pride.
Throughout her talk, Sabherwal defined caste identity as “sticky,” referring to the way that caste divisions endure through the simultaneous denial of complicity in casteism and a maintenance of caste pride. She illustrated caste “stickiness” in the second part of her talk, Ethnographic Vignettes, where she recounted conversations with three subjects, two of whom were Jat men.
The first subject, Gurneet, a Jat man from Surrey, took pride in his identity. He did not see himself as casteist and believed that discussing caste divisions further ingrained them into society. While he told her he donated to organizations to end caste violence in India and even sympathized with Dalit discrimination, he did not see himself as contributing to that violence.
Following a talk given by Dr. Suraj Yengde, condemning Jat pride and drawing a comparison with Brahman Hinduism — the most powerful caste in Hindu society — Sabherwal met another Jat man. Satpal, like Gurneet, did not agree with Dr. Yengde’s critique of Jat culture. Satpal identified himself as anti-Brahman but seemed to simultaneously take pride in the cultural advantages resulting from his Jat identity.
Sabherwal used her conversations with Gurneet and Satpal to inform her understanding of caste elasticity. She argued that converging interpretations of caste allow Jats to falsely absolve themselves for erasure of Dalit culture.
In her final vignette, Sabherwal discussed her conversation with Saniya, a 35-year-old Dalit woman in Vancouver. According to Saniya, Jats are complicit in the formation of their privilege, have actively caused harm to lower castes and exploit the caste system in their favor.
Saniya rejected the interpretation of Jat as an ethnic identifier rather than a caste identity, saying that Jat is a caste and any other definition does not acknowledge the enduring privilege that Jats enjoy and the violence that Dalits endure in the diaspora.
According to Sabherwal, Saniya represents a new framework of thinking about caste that takes into consideration the new generation of Punjabi Sikhs in the diaspora.
Sabherwal closed her talk discussing the many ways that Dalits in the diaspora have strived to pursue autonomy and create caste-based epistemologies. She affirmed that Dalit experiences illustrate that Jat pride is violent amid the shifting context of caste in the diaspora.
“Questions about the future of casteist practices remain unanswered. But as Sikhs in the Pacific Northwest continue to organize against injustice, in particular against caste supremacy, [they create] new possibilities for forging an anti-caste and anti-racist future,” she said.