(Image Credit: Kenrick / Betacommand via Wikimedia Commons; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons Licence)
Toronto District School Board’s motion on ‘caste-oppression’ proves, yet again, that so many of our elected officials are incapable of any original thought & must look to the US for inspiration – even for stupid ideas.
(Note: this article is Part-2 of my previous article ‘Blind Warriors’)
SETTLE FOR SEATTLE
Toronto District School Board recently passed a motion “to recognize that caste oppression exists in Toronto schools”. Of course, neither the Globe & Mail report on this nor the School Board Trustee, Yalini Rajakulasingam, who introduced this motion offers any evidence to back up this disturbing claim. However, there is one piece in the G&M report that is worth spending a few minutes on: “Referencing a recent decision by the Seattle City Council to recognize caste discrimination, she said, “In Seattle, 4 per cent of the community identify as South Asian. At the TDSB, we are at 22 per cent.””
This statement would have us believe that caste discrimination is simply a function of the number of South Asians in any society; the higher their numbers, the greater the probability and severity of caste discrimination – regardless of local differences between two societies. This, of course, also assumes that caste discrimination does exist in Seattle and that the Seattle City Council was 100% right to recognize it officially. In short, the moral certitude in Ms. Rajakulasingam’s stance scales successive levels rapidly and ends up in the stratosphere.
A natural question here is if this ‘caste-oppression’ does exist in Toronto schoolsas alleged, who is perpetrating it? Is it the children in these schools? I find it hard to believe that children have the strength (both mental and physical) to ‘oppress’ anyone; the term comes with a bedrock assumption of ‘ability to use force’ as well as a differential in the power that the two sides have at their disposal. And if it is any of the school staff, then the proper remedy is to fire them & bring in replacements that are not likely to ‘oppress’ either their students or their co-workers; throwing an all-inclusive net is not the answer.
As I pointed out in ‘Blind Warriors’, in the Indian subcontinent, caste hierarchy is not unique to the Hindu community – it exists among the Sikh, Muslim and Christian communities as well. Given the prominence of the Sikh-Canadian community in the public sphere, let us talk about that first. The dominant caste among Sikhs is Jatt (the NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is one). I am pretty sure that if you care to dig deep – especially in rural Punjab – you can find Jatt Sikhs being discriminatory towards non-Jatt Sikhs; as the Book of Murphology says, “The only people who find what they are looking for in life are the faultfinders.” Would that be sufficient reason to bring in similar measures against the Sikh-Canadian community?
When I was living in the UAE, one of my company’s vendors became a good friend of mine. His name was Anwar, and he owned a trucking business. One day, he remarked during a conversation that his religion of Islam was suffering the ill-effects of the fact that it was in the hands of kami people. I didn’t know what ‘kami’ meant, so I asked him. He replied that ‘kami’ (the ‘a’ is pronounced like the ‘u’ in ‘cut’) meant ‘lower caste’; the literal meaning of ‘kami’ is ‘lesser mortal’, or ‘less than’ in common parlance. He further explained his earlier comment by saying that the kami, having suffered centuries of discrimination and oppression by the ashraf (= higher caste) Muslims, were mostly poor and hence could not afford to send their children to school. Their only recourse was to send them to a madrassa (an Islamic school), where they only studied religion. Upon graduating from the madrassa, the only work that they were qualified for was at a mosque (some of them would go on to start their own mosques). Over decades, this had resulted in the entire religious establishment being run by people who had no education in or exposure to issues pertaining to modern life. As a result, their guidance to their local communities became increasingly regressive, literalist and obscurantist.
Later, I learned that when British India was partitioned in 1947, many kami who migrated from what was to become independent India to the newly created country of Pakistan took ashraf last names. This continues to be a contentious issue in Pakistan to this very day. The animosity of the ashraf towards the kami is heightened in the case of those kami who pretend to be ashraf. When in the UAE, I saw a Pakistani TV drama in which a kami character was shown as acknowledging that his people (the kami) are devoid of intelligence – and this was on the government-owned Pakistan TV (PTV) network!
In the current socio-political climate of Canada, it is of course unlikely that any elected official would risk incurring the wrath of voters (not necessarily Muslim voters) by proposing a policy to recognize and tackle ‘kami oppression’ – but nothing lasts forever, and the current climate is no exception. Let us not forget that until just about a decade ago, this climate was very different, and it was fashionable among a large section of the population to assume that every Muslim was a terrorist – or at least a potential terrorist. That has changed, so that now, making the most honest criticism of Islam or asking the most sincere question about it suffices to get one branded as an Islamophobe. However, the current political heft of the Muslim community will wane at some point, and at that time, a formal policy against ‘kami oppression’ cannot be ruled out. In fact, we can count on it being ushered in.
In ‘Blind Warriors’, I mentioned that last names in the Hindu society of the Indian subcontinent (which can be somewhat useful in guessing someone’s caste) are very region-specific. I need to expand this to say that the caste-hierarchy itself has some regional hues. It is well-nigh impossible for a person to be intimately familiar with all these nuances across the subcontinent. At best, one can hope to acquire familiarity of the nuances pertaining to a handful of ethnicities besides one’s own.
Going by their last names, the TDSB Trustees who introduced and seconded the ‘cate-oppression’ motion (Yalini Rajakulasingam and Anu Sriskandarajah respectively) appear to be Hindus of Tamil ethnicity. I will go out on a limb here and say that from the way their last names are spelled, they are of Sri Lankan origin. It is therefore unsurprising – although it is certainly disappointing – that they don’t appear to have the foggiest idea of the caste hierarchy in a different part of the Indian subcontinent, viz., the Punjab (on both sides of the India-Pakistan border; on the Indian side for Sikhs and on the Pakistan side for Muslims) or indeed any other part of the ‘mainland’ subcontinent.
Speaking of the Sri Lankan connection, it is worth noting that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had an officially adopted policy of achieving a caste-less society in the independent Tamil nation that they had hoped to carve out in Sri Lanka. In fairness, the origins of this policy objective predate the establishment of LTTE itself. As Athithan Jayapalan wrote nearly 9 years ago in ‘Round Table India’ (see this link):
[The … resolution that was passed … in May 1976 … and mandated by Tamil voters in the 1977 elections had the clause that “in the state of Tamil Eelam caste shall be abolished and the observance of the pernicious practice of untouchability or inequality of any type based on birth shall be totally eradicated and its observance in any form punished by law”.]
This resolution, encapsulating an internal debate that had been going on for a while in the Tamil population in Sri Lanka, came just as the LTTE was being formed. Athithan Jayapalan narrates how LTTE also adopted this policy objective:
[To the Tigers, the caste system was “an oppressive system inextricably linked to class structure and based on exploitative economic practice with ideology playing a crucial role in its origin and in the legitimisation of the system. The LTTE is committed to the total eradication of caste system.”]
In other words, it seems likely that the thinking and ideology of the two Trustees is influenced – or at least informed – by a struggle that took place in a faraway land half a century ago. This particular part of that struggle was about protecting an underprivileged community within an oppressed minority. Whether the reality of that place and time is relevant to the current social makeup of Canada is a question that needs to be pondered. Perhaps in keeping with its nature of intellectual incuriosity, the political class in Toronto and Ontario has evinced zero interest for this inquiry.
Whatever one thinks of the LTTE (in favour of or against) and its armed struggle versus the Sri Lankan State, the official fact is that the LTTE is a designated terrorist organization in Canada (see this link from the Ministry of Public Safety website). Therefore, at the official level, there needs to be a bit of circumspection about adopting its policy objective within the policy structure of Canada. Apart from the ideological justification in that place and time, this policy was also useful to the LTTE as a rallying cry and fostering unity amongst its cadres. It was, therefore, a positive thing for the LTTE. But that does not automatically make it a positive thing for Canada. Given the reckless abandon with which politicians espouse pernicious ideologies in their search for popularity and votes, it is going to take public alertness and pressure to prevent them from adopting more ideas originating from terrorist entities in the future (and not just limited to the LTTE). To add insult to injury, these policies could be sold under the guise of ‘social justice’ or ‘equity’, just like this ‘caste-oppression’ idea.
(I am grateful to the Twitter user @CanHindusurvive for important inputs for this segment)
Now that the ‘caste-oppression’ motion is a reality, and with the likely involvement of the Ontario Human Rights Commission down the line, let us try to envisage how a policy to root out this ‘oppression’ can be implemented. The way I see it, this proposal has ‘mission creep’ written all over it.
Given that the Hindu-Canadian population is a tiny minority in Canada, the only way a child can be made aware of the caste hierarchy and be made capable of ‘caste-oppression’ is if they learn it at home or in their temples and at cultural events. This is not to say that they DO – even some of them. But this is the starting point for any system that presupposes the existence of ‘caste oppression’.
This is where the Human Rights Commission’s role kicks in – it can devise guidelines and standards of behaviour that everyone must follow. In order to ensure that these guidelines and standards are being adhered to, there would be certified Human Rights representatives in every temple. Members of the family would be encouraged to report any violations inside their homes. As time progresses, there would be demands to provide ‘protection’ to other groups of people (Sikh, Muslim & Christian) from the Indian subcontinent who have a history of being oppressed. The politicians would be only too happy to extend the surveillance system (because that is what it will be) to Gurudwaras, Mosques and Churches. In a nutshell, you will be living in the 21st century Canadian version of East Germany.
GOOD V/S BAD
One of the finest intellectuals of the 20th century, Robert Pirsig, wrote only two books in his lifetime. The first of these books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, begins with just one sentence on the first page: “And what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good – do we need someone else to tell us these things?”
At the practical level, how do we decide whether something is good or bad? Restricting our view to the field of education, let us look at the October 2022 report that “Majority of Ontario’s Grade 6 students failed provincial standardized math test”. The failure rate was 41% for Grade 3 students, 53% for Grade 6 students and 48% for Grade 9 students. Let me emphasize that we are NOT comparing with some high-performing academic system such the ones in China, India or Singapore. Roughly half of our children are failing to meet the standard that we have OURSELVES set. And this report is not an exception – each time this kind of report comes out, it paints a similarly dismal picture.
Instead of working to redress this disastrous situation so that our children can be better prepared for being globally competitive – or at the very least capable of enjoying remunerative careers – the people running the education system are diverting these children’s energies to non-existent issues like ‘caste-oppression’. The cynic may posit that they are doing this either to hide their failure at their core job or to avoid the trouble of trying to improve the education system (or both).
From his highly evolved position, a philosopher-intellectual like Mr. Pirsig may find the quality (good or bad) of things to be self-evident. Alas, ordinary people like us must toil and collaborate to arrive at our answers. Our task is rendered even more difficult by the fact that ideologues insert into the mix of our concerns debates that shouldn’t even be happening. They do so for their personal gratification and benefit. The insertion of ‘caste-oppression’ in Canadian policy debates is one such unnecessary insertion. Unless we reject it now, in a resounding manner, it is guaranteed to spread to other school boards in Ontario – and to other provinces. The cancer that has started from Toronto has the potential to spread nationwide and fatally harm the health of our country & society.
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