This post ran originally on THUMP UK.
Bhangra is an integral part of many British Indians’ clubbing experience. Although most people think of it as an Indian genre, it actually originated in England in the 1970s when Punjabi immigrants fused traditional tunes with Western pop, and has been a major element of Asian youth culture ever since. One of the reasons it first caught on was that it acted as a source of pride amongst the British Asian identity, under attack as they were from the likes of Enoch Powell and the NF at the time. Nowadays, however, some within the Indian community have warned that the genre is actually contributing to prejudice. Rather than being a reflection of the Indian diaspora as a whole, the majority of bhangra artists hail from the Jatt caste, which was traditionally a warrior-peasant caste and is now considered to be one of the higher Sikh castes. Caste rights activists claim that Jatt-centric lyrics are exacerbating divisions amongst British Indians. If you aren’t familiar, the case system pertains to the various hereditary classes of Hindu society, having been invented as way to distinguish between the different social statusesmost notably in India.
Although many assume caste discrimination only affects people in predominantly Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist countries, I recently investigated caste prejudice in the UK for VICE, and discovered that it’s a very real problem for Hindus and Sikhs in England as well. I spoke to people who had been abused by higher castes, and a girl whose parents had moved cities to escape the stigma associated with their mixed-caste relationship. I was also told that bhangra is bringing caste to the forefront of the British Indian consciousness, with a good number of the songs focussing on the many supposed positive attributes associated with being a Jatt. A spokesperson for the South Asia Solidarity Group, a British-Indian organization that campaigns for caste equality, warned that such lyrics could place members of the so-called lower castes at risk of discrimination and attack. “I think the whole issue of dominant castes including caste in their songs is completely wrong,” she told me. “It’s highly discriminatory and oppressive, and may well lead to violence.”
These sentiments are echoed by Ravi Kumar of the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance, a group dedicated to eradicating caste in the UK. “We have been told of examples of youths fighting at music events due to caste-based lyrics,” he says “I personally experienced it growing up myself whilst in the West Midlands. You’d get a section of the audience who got extremely hyper when caste-based songs were played. It was almost like they were given a license to behave badly, to jump the highest, or to drunkenly assert their supposedly superior caste status on the middle of the dance floor. Sadly, on many occasions this led to altercations.”
Ravi believes that people should be free to attend bhangra events without being subjected to lyrics that glorify a system that is responsible for centuries of hatred and discrimination. Many of the caste-based lyrics in bhangra songs centre on portrayals of Jatts as hyper-masculine tough guys, in-keeping with the notion that they were born into a warrior caste. According to Professor Nicola Mooney, who has studied the intersection between bhangra and caste, this is in part due to the fact that the Sikhs were labelled a “martial race” whilst under British rule. As always, British meddling during the colonial era has had lasting unforeseen consequences that are now interwoven into the fabric of a previously colonized society.
Fights at bhangra clubs are not the only way in which the caste system impacts upon the British-Asian nightlife; it can also make going on the pull more complicated. According to the South Asia Solidarity Group, the taboo surrounding mixed-caste relationships can make girls wary of approaching men of other castes, especially the supposedly lower ones. The SASG claims that women bear the brunt of the stigma attached to dating or marrying someone of a different caste. They run the risk of being shunned by others within their communities for doing so.
It is generally agreed that, as with most forms of discrimination, caste prejudice is perpetuated by a small minority, and that the majority of the British Asian population would rather leave the caste system behind in India. Although caste is mentioned in a large number of songs, there have also been attempts by prominent bhangra artists to eradicate references to it. The Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance launched a campaign aimed at persuading singers to be more responsible with their lyrics, and gained support from a number of prominent deejays. As a result, the BBC Asian Network’s Bobby Friction refused to play any songs that reference caste for a three-month period. This move had a mixed response, with some praising him for his bold stance and others claiming that including the name of a caste in a song doesn’t necessarily constitute prejudice.
Deejay Pops of a Glaswegian duo Tigerstyle, who produced a remix of Miss Pooja’s “Romantic Jatt,” believes that context should be taken into consideration when determining whether or not a song is discriminative rather than banning specific words. “I feel that when people use the phrase ‘Jatt’ within songs, it really depends on what the song is actually saying,” he says. He claims that many of the songs that sing the praises of the Jatts are actually celebrations of the agricultural culture of the Punjab and the working man, given the Jatt caste’s farming history. It’s notable that Pops doesn’t belong to the Jatt caste; his family hail from the carpenter caste.
Others believe that Jatts celebrating their caste does not necessarily mean that they look down on other castes. JSL Singh, who produced the song “Pindaan Wale Jatt”, points out that tracks that have explicitly stated that one caste is superior to another have been met with derision from bhangra fans. “There are a few songs where there are direct comparisons of Jatt and Baniya (the merchant, banker, money-lender and spice trader caste) which have been automatically shot down by the listeners,” he tells me. “These songs never make it to the top.”
JSL compares the use of the term “Jatt” to the “N word” in rap songs, and claims it’s just an expression of identity. Some might argue that the difference is that black people in America are still amongst the most oppressed groups, whereas Jatts enjoy a relatively high status in both India and the UK. A more direct comparison would be the use of the word “Chamaar”, which is one of the lowest castes. Whereas Jatts once had the monopoly on caste-centric bhangra, more and more Chamaars are now beginning to mention their caste in their songs as a means of evoking pride in their much-maligned background. Much like the use of the “N word” by rappers, this has divided opinion.
Ravi believes that although some Chamaar-centric bhangra artists are no doubt only trying to transform a negatively connoted word into something positive, they’re still perpetuating caste divisions. “We’re against all communities glorifying caste,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if they’re so-called lower or upper castes. Many feel that based on the oppression in India, re-inventing a word will give them the respect and dignity that they’re seeking, but ultimately it’s still perpetuating the caste system.”
Others claim that referencing the Chamaar caste in songs is a means of uplifting a downtrodden group, and expressing the fact that they have just as much of a right to take pride in their caste as Jatts do. It is however notable that although there are some pro-Chamaar lyrics about the caste struggle, there are others that big up Chamaars and say how great their caste is in much the same way as the Jatts. With artists singing things like “the one who is not scared to sacrifice, the one who is the real thing is Chamaar,” it’s easy to see why Ravi thinks there’s a danger that the rise of Chamaar-centric bhangra could be just as damaging as its Jatt equivalent.
As with most phenomena that are rooted deeply in complex cultural and religious traditions, the issue of when caste references in bhangra become harmful is by no means clear cut. Although it appears to be widely agreed that there are at least some problems with the portrayal of caste in certain songs, there are a plethora of different opinions about where the line should be drawn. Should fans of the genre be free to attend clubs that play their favourite type of music without having to hear constant references to caste, or is the devil in the detail, with context determining whether or not a lyric is offensive?
This is clearly a conversation that British bhangra artists and fans need to have amongst themselves. The hope, of course, being that music can provide a source of unity and togetherness, and anything that can be done to remove all barriers to it embodying these concepts is surely a good thing.