If you have a hammer, everything is a nail


The reaction to my piece on caste by the Indian and Indian American Left has been interesting, and fraught with confusion.

First, the reaction by this Indian (now in America) Leftist is to accuse me of being an upper-caste Muslim. This is not that far from how Hindu nationalists react to me, which illustrates that certain mentalities are general, and the specific instantiations simply flavors on top of the common base. Most Indians are “identitarian” in such a deep way, whatever their ideology, that Americans would have to be impressed (if they are cultural liberals and racialists). If you scratch an Indian Leftist they aren’t that different from a Indian Hindu nationalist in their cultural presuppositions.

I am not an upper-caste Muslim in a literal sense, because a quick scan of my genome will show I’m a generic eastern Bengali, and more concretely caste is not a thing in Bangladesh anymore. I do have ancestors who are Hindu, as all people of subcontinental Muslim background do, and all I know is that most were Kayastha (on my mom’s side) and my paternal grandmother’s father was from a lineal Bengal Brahmin family (her father was very young when his father converted the family from what I recall, so he did not remember being a Hindu, though he did pass on some Hindu customs to my grandmother like the utilization of separate dishes). My paternal lineage, from where I get “Khan,” were landholders in their region of Bengal for a long time, and traditionally provided the ulema for the villages in the locality. We also funded the construction of many of the oldest extant masjids in the area.

It’s hard to deny that I have class privilege, given that my family was present in the professions or owned land for centuries. This, despite the fact that partible inheritance means that my “ancestral desh” (which I have never physically been to, I was born in Dhaka, and my mother’s ancestral village was far closer) is populated by many poor relatives who barely have any land-holdings to speak of left. People in my family who are economically advantaged all migrated to Dhaka in the 20th century. This migration was enabled by privileges accrued from the past, as we were literate, and had some assets that we could presumably turn into cash to finance a move to Dhaka. But once we got to Dhaka no one cared we were big shit in rural Comilla. Arguably, to a mild extent, we were second-class citizens, being migrants from a rural area, though this is the norm in Dhaka so I don’t think it was a big deal.

The migration to Dhaka from rural Comilla anticipates later migrations, as branches of my family on both my maternal and paternal side reside in the US, UK, Japan, Northern Europe, and the Middle East (with sojourns in Latin America; hi cousin Pablo!). The reason we were able to make these journeys was due to a combination of financial means and educational qualifications. These emerge from our class background. But once in the US, UK, let alone the Middle East, no one gave a shit that we were “Khans.” I am socioeconomically an upper-middle-class American, but that’s not because anyone gave me privileges because I was an “upper-caste Muslim.” Most of the people who were in a position to advance me happen to be white, and to them, I was just another brown person. Perhaps it was even a demerit that I was an “upper-caste Muslim,” since that just meant I was a brown person.

This truth is generalizable. 99% of Americans do not care at all if you are an Iyer or a Mehta or a Reddy. They don’t even know what that means. You are just a brown person to them. Suhag Shukla once told me that when she went to Congress in the 2000’s to lobby for Hindu American rights, hill staff asked if they were “Sunni or Shia.” This is to illustrate that Americans don’t give a shit about what your background is and barely understand it. Malcolm X’s quip about a black man with a Ph.D. isn’t totally applicable, as America isn’t that racist anymore, but it gets to the heart of the fact that in America brown is brown, caste no consideration.

Second, there is the issue that people who are brown in America often do benefit from caste privileges and hierarchy ancestrally. This is a problem and confusion, because it seems obvious, but it gets conflated with the situation in America. The American immigration system is not caste-conscious because Americans barely understand this, but 80% of Hindu Indian Americans are from the 25% of Hindu Indians who are upper-caste. I personally get annoyed with Indian Americans whose families were elite back in India who bring up their stories of discrimination and penury in the US, because their experience is distinct from the social, cultural and human capital they inherit to various degrees from their families. On some level, caste does matter who gets to America, but that is not because the US is caste-conscious, but because Indians are. The US immigration system values particular education and skills that are not equitably distributed among Indians. There are also “push” factors like reservations that mean some upper-caste professionals have far better opportunities abroad, so they leave (this is, for example, a much bigger dynamic in medicine than software engineering, from what I have heard).

Third, the trend now is to argue that Indian caste dynamics are replicating themselves in the US. I don’t think this is true, and I explained why in the UnHerd piece. The minority of Indian Americans raised in the US barely understand what caste is beyond an abstraction. One of the contributors to this weblog proudly asserts their “sudra” status half-seriously, but Indians have told me that usage of that term is somewhat taboo in the subcontinent. The difference here is context, as varna categories are mostly academic, and outside of a few communities (Jats and perhaps, some Patels) jati doesn’t really exist as lived experience. Caste isn’t really a serious matter in America, so who cares if you are a sudra? No one else really does who matters.

It might be somewhat different for the majority of Indians who migrated to the US in the last few decades, as they grew up in a country where caste does matter, and some of their attitudes do replicate. I do assume that most of these people are prejudiced against Muslims and “lower castes” to some degree like the Leftists Indian Americans say (who are usually upper-caste Hindu by background, and so are aware of what things are said “behind the veil”), but these people rarely operationalize their biases because the American racial and social context is totally different from India. When I go to buy alcohol at Indian-owned mini-marts sometimes I get mild third-degree from the owners when they see my last name on the ID, and sometimes it gets to the point I have to tell them I’m an atheist and stop bothering me (this seems a problem during Ramadan in particular, but I often don’t know when it’s Ramadan so don’t blame me). But this is only an inconvenience, and guess what, I can buy alcohol from places without overly curious Indian aunties minding the counter.

Finally, there is the issue of caste discrimination in Silicon Valley, the one place where people argue Indian cultural dynamics are replicating due to the critical mass of immigrants from the subcontinent. People bring up the Cisco case as is if it’s case-closed, but it’s a single case, and the reality is that we don’t really know everything about the dynamics of the case and there’s been no verdict. Believe it or not, not all allegations of discrimination are found to be valid.

But many non-Indians (white people) now routinely tell me there is caste-discrimination in Silicon Valley, this is just a “truth” that is “known.” I’ll be candid that I think some prejudices naturally imbibed from high school, where the caste system is widely taught as constitute to Indians, along with Leftist media narratives about Indian American caste discrimination, are coloring peoples’ perceptions. The reason I wrote the UnHerd piece is that this is becoming the standard narrative and accepted truth for third parties who don’t have any biases or priors on the issue.

For example, when people say there is pervasive discrimination against Dalits in the Valley, I have to ask, what Dalits? Dalits are 15% of Indians, but 1% of Hindu Indian Americans. It could be possible that this 1% is suffering pervasive discrimination from the non-Dalit majority, 25% of whom are Brahmin and 80% as a whole are upper-caste, but there are opportunities in the US to work for non-Indians who won’t care or know. Indian American society, when it is caste conscious, is overwhelmingly upper-caste and privileged, so they’d have to discriminate against each other!

Yes, there is a level of nepotism and clannishness among Indian Americans, but this is not unique to them. Mark Zuckerburg famously recruited from his dorm and Harvard, and if you are not part of particular elite educational or professional circles you are on the “outside” in the startup world. The same seems true of Indian American entrepreneurs, but their particular ingroup preferences are always reified as “caste.” Though I”ve heard of the “Telugu mafia,” this seems to be the exception, not the rule. And, it is not uncommon for Indian Americans to have some affinity for each other (the majority born and raised in the US still marry Indians), but often this cross-cuts region and caste, rather than reinforcing them.

Additionally, what caste consciousness there is going to be transient. If you are an Indian immigrant to the US, and you are raising children here, there is a 50% chance your grandchildren will have non-Indian ancestry. There is a far lower chance that all four of their grandparents will be from the same jati-varna, in large part because a lot of Indian immigrants themselves are couples in “mixed” marriages (I put the quotations there because in the US Census the marriage of a Tamil Brahmin and a Punjabi Khatri is endogamous).

I will end with an exhortation: the US is a country where you can be reborn anew. Do not buy into the regnant narrative and recreate yourself as a victim. Grasp the world with both hands and make of yourself what you want to be. Some Leftists are trying to replicate Indian dynamics with oppressive upper-castes and oppressed lower-castes in a racial and ethnic context where it’s irrelevant. But some upper-caste Indians are also embracing victim status, whether because they were persecuted in Tamil Nadu (Brahmins), or because they were subject to racial discrimination in the US. I know it’s easy. But I don’t believe it’s the path of honor. Sometimes you do the right thing, even if it’s the harder thing, the socially less acceptable thing. Whatever your caste, religious or regional background, you’re American now. You are now part of a different, great, national project. Make your own narrative, don’t recycle old ones or adopt new ones.

24 thoughts on “If you have a hammer, everything is a nail”

  1. I agree with some of your thoughts here and disagree with others.

    “Whatever your caste, religious or regional background, you’re American now. You are now part of a different, great, national project.”

    As I commented on one your previous posts (not sure if you approved it yet or not), becoming a generic “brown” or “Indian” person, without care for caste or even ethnicity and religion in some cases, is a part of becoming American more so than it is a statement of any kind of actual foreign allegiance vis-a vis India or another South Asian country.

    But what you say here is key – Indians care about caste, and if you want to stay Indian, you may (and to be honest, probably need to) continue to care about caste. If you become an American, however, Americans have their own way of slotting people into categories and it’s best to adapt one’s behavior and identity to fit that new reality than to maintain Old World categorizations that don’t map onto American society.

    “in large part because a lot of Indian immigrants themselves are couples in “mixed” marriages”

    This seems a little wishful thinking. Indian urbanites don’t outmarry at significantly higher rates than the rest of the population like diasporans do, according to most available data. At best they may be slightly more willing to ignore the difference between an Iyer and an Iyengar, or which subcaste of Nairs someone belongs to. Shifts in thinking about caste in India have always occurred slowly and on the margins. If there is a higher outmarriage rate among immigrants, it’s likely very slight.

    The far more likely reason is that caste endogamy for a multitude of reasons collapses among the second-gen diaspora kids themselves. Most likely third-generation Indian-Americans (if unmixed) will have four grandparents of two different castes, but it is likely that the two paternal grandparents are one caste and the two maternal grandparents are one (different from the pat g-parents) caste.

  2. Is there any data we have on OBCs? Not to put them all in the same category – obviously upper Tamil OBCs are functionally upper-caste and all – but that’s who widespread caste-based discrimination would occur against if it did.

  3. “I will end with an exhortation: the US is a country where you can be reborn anew. Do not buy into the regnant narrative and recreate yourself as a victim. Grasp the world with both hands and make of yourself what you want to be. … Whatever your caste, religious or regional background, you’re American now. You are now part of a different, great, national project. Make your own narrative, don’t recycle old ones or adopt new ones.”

    I quite like this philosophy and this is the reason why intelligent and hard working people from around the world come to USA.

    However, most of the intelligentsia of USA has bought into the victim-oppressor template, which they seek to fit into different contexts.

    Until now it’s been mostly talk. I don’t think anybody was seriously suggesting any kind of affirmative action for admissions in schools, universities or corporate jobs.

    However now things are clearly changing. Already elite schools are being pressured to drop objective and competitive admission tests and admit ethnic groups who can’t compete with others. Advance courses are being dropped since they might make certain communities feel bad. This may soon spread to universities. Corporates are being pressured to publish “diversity reports” and increase representation from “marginalized” communities.

    USA does have a strong resistance against all this as well, mostly coming from the Republican party but they have their own issues and will probably not stand for immigrant rights.

    I just hope the ingrained capitalism of Americans does not allow the country to really go in the direction in which India has gone.

    P.S. I seriously thought that for most Indians (except Jatt Sikhs) caste, petty regionalism and sundry small-mindedness is something they have left behind once they landed in the USA. Just the fact of landing in a strange land among strange people broadens one’s mind. However probably not for certain caste-grifters who seek to rake in money by creating a paranoia about a phenomenon which cannot exist in USA,

    P.P.S Even in India caste is becoming less and less relevant atleast in the cities for salaried middle class. My anecdotal evidence from Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore suggests a lot of caste and regionally mixed marriages.

    In rural areas where caste is used for political mobilization and for Dalits for whom its a means for advancement through affirmative action it is very relevant.

    1. Caste politics and excessive implementation of reservations in India are simply a product of the realities of electoral democracy in a polity with a highly stratified and divided populace. What upper castes who complain about this don’t realize is that they are observing the symptoms but not its root pathology, a root pathology that they themselves are all too happy to perpetuate.
      If you are hanging around in the “TamBrahm sangam” and posting ads in the newspaper for Iyer/Iyengar brides, you should not be shocked that others are organizing around the same variable themselves lest they be left out of the horse-trading.
      Upper castes have the institutional, economic, and cultural power. If they want a less caste-conscious India, they should take the lead themselves by forgoing their own caste identities. Asking the plebeians to let go of their basic identity and whatever limited benefits it provides them while sparing upper-caste elites just because their casteism is a little more polished is cruel, cynical, and disingenuous.

  4. “you’re American now. You are now part of a different, great, national project. Make your own narrative, don’t recycle old ones or adopt new ones.”

    I agree with this sentiment. But even in decades prior, when they had less communications, travel and stronger pressure to assimilate, old world conflicts persisted down generations. IRA collecting money from Irish Americans bars in Boston in the 80s comes to mind. From what I have seen, its your generation(70s, 80s) that is the most assimilated and cares the least about old country issues. Desi kids nowadays have lots of opportunities to travel to and keep in touch with India/Pakistan etc. And given the kids are told to celebrate and take pride in their ancestral culture(distinct from the common American culture), I do expect old world issues to crop up more.

  5. “80% of Hindu Indian Americans are from the 25% of Hindu Indians who are upper-caste”

    I think you are taking a rather limited view of hierarchy while evaluating Indian society. There are many different axes of hierarchy, these include ritual status, economic standing and political clout.

    A Tamil Brahmin like Sundar Pichai might rank very high on ritual status, but his family was decidedly middle class(see his profile in Bloomberg), and most importantly, Tamil Brahmins have had virtually no political influence in Tamil Nadu for a while. So while Pichai’s Brahmin origins endowed him with critical social capital, his story cannot be left at upper caste vs lower caste. Had he rubbed a Thevar or Gounder politician’s relative the wrong way in college, he could have very well ended up dead, rather than on a plane to the US.

    Similarly, there is a reason why Jatts display caste so prominently in the diaspora. Their ritual status is low, but they have significant economic influence in rural India and politically dominate the states of Haryana and Punjab.

    In many ways, a ritually lower caste, but politically powerful Jat is much more likely to ‘oppress’ a Brahmin, than an actual Brahmin is to oppress a Dalit.

  6. Do some post on marriage market of indians in merica.

    My take is (I’ve written this on quora and seems to get upvotes), Indians aren’t discriminated much if any because they’re not seen as a -sexual- threat.

    Reason there is so much endogamy among indian-american is, boys can’t get white chicks and girls can’t get white jocks to commit.

    Your thoughts wud be more ‘on the ground’ commentary.

  7. the data has been consistent for 20 years, about 30% of indian americans outmarry (1.5 and 2nd gen) and there is a sex balance. for indians not raised in the US, it’s 10-20% and the 20% is men who outmarry vs 10% of women.

    1. Razib i’m curious to know about the outmarriage stats in case of new immigrants, especially Indian urban elites from Tier 1 cities like Delhi/Mumbai/Bangalore who immigrate in their 20s, any observations? Stats of marriages between this group and 2nd/3rd gen IAs wud also be really interesting (i guess this is one group you wudnt know about/interact wid much) Thanks!

    2. The US has an awkward classification of ethnic groups. Even if your ancestors are 75% Irish and 25% Sub-Saharan African, you can be African-American.
      Victimisation is a common feature among upper-castes that suddenly find out they are not upper enough in certain societies.
      If I’m not mistaken, Mohandas Ghandi was a happy member of the British Empire until he was treated as a colour man in South Africa.
      Babasahib Ambedkar realised, as a Dalit, that he should convert to another religion. As Muslims and Sikhs treated women as inferior, so he chose none of them. Perhaps, being at the bottom of the caste system, Ambedkar was more keen to work for other victims without claiming victimhood.

  8. There are traditional royal elites, and now new meritocratic elites. Leftist wokes strangely seem to be gaining in meritocratic elite society. Envy, and need to explain disparities are the main drive for all this. And Indian contingent a collateral damage.
    what is happening is this, americans dont care for truth. They are just imposing their views on others as their culture changes into the wokeway.
    If blacks in america were succeeding, latina americans are getting noble prizes in physics. America would not go down the wokeway, Indian americans would not be slotted in this manner either for americans would assert their philosophy of success robustly. second is this, Indians of other caste come to america and want similar privileges both status or loss of victim status that used to be conferred back in India or perhaps continue ancestral rivalry. This small empirical evidence gets amplified as evidence for hypothesis and furthered.

  9. “You are now part of a different, great, national project.”

    I think this is not at all how most Indian immigrants, especially those immigrating after the mid 90s think about their identity. Even the most accomplished (Nadella’s, Pichai’s, Krishnan’s) know that the critical input to their economic mobility came from India not the US. They got high quality English schooling and a world level practically free undergraduate education from India, not the US. Had they stayed back, they would have prospered in India as well, see the trajectories of their siblings.

    As such, you might find that this new economic elite identifies much more with the Indian national project where they can be an inspiration, rather than the US national project where they merely provide some economic surplus and silly talking points.

    1. a world level practically free undergraduate education from India

      This is a very skewed perspective. Those who get this practically free yet high quality education in India are the cream of the cream (as one of my old IIT professors was fond of saying) who went through a highly meritocratic system that filtered out all but less than 1% or so of high school graduates (which itself describes less than a majority of Indian minors, I’d think). Sure, the winners of that system (like Pichai or Nadella, or heck, someone like me) might like it, but we can’t make a case that it’s a good system for the masses. And there’s no point in being grateful to such a system. It is designed to exclude people, and those of us who “won” more than played our part in getting on top.

  10. if they stay in the US that’s irrelevant. their children will be Americans. unlike Israel or cuba, India is too important to for the US to allow indian americans to develop stronger or as strong long-term nationalistic ties to it.

    1. Dont think next gen Indian Americans developing strong ties to India is against the American national interest. In fact, they can be a critical link for American access to a growing economy.

      US tends to have very good relations with English speaking countries, and India’s strategic interests are quite benign.

    1. Cant agree with you here. India has no strong geopolitical interests beyond securing oil and preventing Pakistani terrorism.

      The way we like to spread influence is through culture and religion, not politics.

  11. What makes the American Indian experience different from that of the UK Indian experience?

    Jati/Varna calculus is very much part of the immigrant Indian life in England. Partly to do with the profile of the immigrant (which is broad based) and also with the mediation of the colonial experience where Britishers were part of jati/Varna administration.

    A majority of Indian Americans (50%) are from South India where the Kshatriya & Vaishya varnas did not develop into fully grown trees. Another 20% are from Western India.

    As a result, what you see today in the US is a backwash of conditions in the old country.

  12. As someone who has been in “IT” for the last few decades, recruitment of qualified Software Developers and especially those with a proven track record, has been a constant challenge. I have not been exposed to any conversation with desi hiring managers in the US who ever mentioned caste. Period!

  13. On a slightly different note, I attended a desi wedding this weekend. Both bride and groom were first generation desis born and raised in the US to immigrant parents. What was remarkable was the # of the non-desi folks who attended wearing desi attire, including saris, and everybody participated actively in the festivities.

    Seems like desi culture is seeping in despite the nativistic upsurge around us. This may be limited to urban and college educated in the US……

    I know that Razib asserted that we are looked upon as “brown people” and most Americans are oblivious to national origin, religion, and caste. I am not so sure. I think desis are starting to carve out a cultural niche in the US.

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