Caste: A Relic of Indo-Caribbean History or Ever Present?

I’ve been called a “dougla” so many times throughout my life because of my hair. My hair gets a lot of attention – it is a massive fluff of soft curls. When relatives and friends used to refer to me as “dougla,” I thought that the term was synonymous with being of half-Indian, half-African descent. In Guyana, where my parents are from, “dougla” is a term used to describe those who appear to be biracial. However, like the word “mulatto,” “dougla” is often considered derogatory. In Guyana, even to this day, racial tensions exist among the two primary ethnicities of the nation. These tensions have run high for decades, in part due to political turmoil and in part due to competing migrant experiences; Africans migrated as slaves in the late 1600s and Indians as indentured servants in the early 1800s. Many Indo-Guyanese harbor deep seated resentment towards Afro-Guyanese and vice versa, stemming as far back as British colonialization. Calling someone a “dougla” therefore, can be akin to using profanity.

To my surprise, I recently discovered that “dougla” originally did not refer to those who appear to be of mixed races. A few months ago, I read Gaiutra Bahadur’s “Coolie Woman,” a remarkable page-turner grounded in thorough research that has opened my eyes to so much about my ethnic history. Through “Coolie Woman” I learned that “dougla” actually originated from “doogala” – a Bhojpuri Hindu word that has many different meanings.  Among its earliest meanings is “one who is of mixed caste.” In the Indian regions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where some say most Indo-Caribbeans can trace their roots, the word continues to be just as offensive as it is in the Caribbean, despite its divergent usage.

 

The men and crew of an indenture vessel recently arrived in Georgetown, Demerara, circa 1890

Data produced by the Protector of Emigrants in Calcutta, India categorized indentured Indian migrants to Suriname, Trinidad, and British Guiana from the years 1874 through 1917 by their caste. According to this data, 15.7% (Suriname), 14.3% (Trinidad), and 11.7% (British Guiana) of the population was considered Brahmins (high caste); 30.2% (Suriname), 30% (Trinidad), and 31.4% (British Guiana) were agriculturalists; 7% (Suriname), 6.6% (Trinidad), and 7.5% (British Guiana) were artisans; and 31.4% (Suriname), 34.9% (Trinidad), and 33.8% (British Guiana) were of a low caste. “Coolie Woman” highlighted that when Indians arrived via indentureship to the Caribbean, there was a dire scarcity of females. Thus, mixed caste relationships were inevitable for society’s continuation. Moreover, it is said that upon leaving the motherland of India and crossing the Kala Pani (dark waters) one becomes casteless. Considering all of this to be true, how could caste still manifest among Indo-Caribbeans today? Why hasn’t it died?

A 2003 New York Times article and a 2014 Kaiteur News article both argue that the caste system is virtually non-existent among Indo-Caribbeans. I disagree. Unfortunately, the caste system still presents itself in our community in several pervasive ways. A few years ago, one of my relatives had to leave the love of her life because she was not permitted to marry below her caste. When I was in high school, a classmate said to me, “You must be of a low caste because you’re dark and ugly.” Baseless theories claim that higher caste individuals are fair-skinned while those of lower castes are darker in complexion – and it’s undeniable that historically, lighter complexions have been wrongfully associated with beauty. I am told that my maternal family is of the Kshatriya (warrior) caste, and that my paternal family is in part “Madrassi,” to be distinguished from those hailing from Madras, India. Thus, the “mixed caste” definition of dougla might be more fitting to my identity. The term “Madrassi” is associated with those who worship the Goddess Kali. David Lowenthal explains in his 1972 work “West Indian Societies,” that most Madrassis were treated as low caste in the Caribbean. In some localities in Guyana and Trinidad, the term “Madrassi” refers to dark-skinned people.

Dr. Moses Seenarine, a former professor at CUNY Hunter College who has written on caste in the Caribbean, stated that “varna [color] has replaced caste, and although there is no strict correlation between occupation and caste [in Guyana], Brahmins are an important exception. Hindus in the diaspora do claim a caste or varna identity.” Under the caste system, Brahmins are the only individuals permitted to study the Hindu scriptures. Even today, for many Indo-Caribbeans, it is considered blasphemous for a non-Brahmin to assume the role of pandit (Hindu priest). I’ve heard firsthand accounts of non-Brahmins who are chastised for pursuing Hindu priesthood. Among them is Pandit Manoj Jadubans of the Shaanti Bhavan Mandir.

 

Pandit Manoj Jadubans at Bhakti Sargam 2014, Photo Credit: Digital Photo Buddy

Pandit Manoj Jadubans at Bhakti Sargam 2014, Photo Credit: Digital Photo Buddy

Pandit Manoj is a progressive leader who has consistently partnered with my organization Sadhana (faith in action). He explained to me that while growing up, he was eager to learn about his culture and religion, and discovered that the caste system was “set up as a hierarchy by elders.” Pandit Manoj believes that the caste system “began the segregation of our people” and has resulted in even greater division among them today. Inspired by his guru, the late Shri Prakash Gossai, Pandit Manoj pursued the path of pandithood in spite of his status as a non-Brahmin. Pandit Manoj decided he wanted to learn “what is true and real” and thereafter “educate our people.” He stated that he has been “ridiculed and laughed at by many” who felt he “was not qualified to be a leader.” However, he never let this deter him.

Pandit Manoj continues on his quest. He came to the realization that if a person leads “with humility, grace, honor, and self-respect” people notice that and ultimately support the person. Pandit Manoj himself has a large following, heavily populated with kind-hearted youth who are committed to seva (selfless service). A vibrant reader of the Ramayana, Pandit Manoj cited a chowpaee (metered poetry) from Aranya Kand (the forest episode) to substantiate his view that caste is obsolete and impedes upon equality. The verse states:

Despite caste, kinship, lineage, piety, reputation, wealth, physical strength, familial numerical strength, accomplishments, and ability, a man lacking in devotion is of no more worth than a cloud without water.

Caste flies in the face of justice. Though still present, the caste system should remain just a relic of Indo-Caribbean history. While many hold on to caste as non-negotiable tradition, even an unverifiable birthright, today it functions only to promote a sense of superiority in the minds of select few. In my view, the caste system was a social construct, not a religious one. It may have been created to further a society in need of order, but now it keeps society from moving forward. The world would be more peaceful and loving without it.

This article was originally featured in The West Indian newspaper on October 10th, 2015.