America and the Paradox of Anti-Caste Activism

America and the Paradox of Anti-Caste Activism
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On February 21 the Seattle City Council voted 6-1 to put caste among the banned categories in its non-discrimination policy. The Council, which has only one Indian-American on the panel, and the one driving the resolution, decided to outlaw caste discrimination on par with other forms of discrimination — racial, ethnic, religious, gender-based, etc. By doing this Seattle became the first US city to ban caste discrimination and the first in the world to pass such a law outside India.

Caste has already been outlawed in the non-discrimination policy of several American universities and colleges. In December 2019, Brandeis University near Boston became the first US university to include caste in its non-discrimination policy. The California State University System, one of the largest college systems in the US with its 23 campuses, Colby College, Brown University, and the University of California, Davis have all adopted similar measures. Harvard University instituted caste protections for student workers in 2021 as part of its contract with its graduate student union. And in Canada, the Toronto District School Board has passed a resolution to recognise “caste oppression”. Unknown to many, and passed quietly without it seems any public discussion other universities, like The Ohio State University, have inserted “caste” as a category in their anti-discrimination policies.

Many organizations are running campaigns across the US to outlaw caste-based discrimination. Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Executive Director of the Oakland, California-based Equality Labs, one of the organizations which is behind this rush and push to include caste as a category in anti-discrimination policies, considers this caste-centred campaign a “cultural war,” and claims that Equality Labs got the “the support of over 200 organizations from Seattle and around the country” for the recent City Council resolution.

Media houses in the US and India have without let covered this development referring to caste as variously “a 3,000 or 2,000 years old division of South Asian people based on birth and descent,” but have nothing to offer in support of any caste-based discrimination except for repeating unverified and unverifiable claims about such discrimination.

Naturally, the Hindu American Foundation, its members, supporters, plus a letter writing campaign organized by the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA) and signed by 113 organizations have termed this Seattle City Council regulation to include caste as a category in their anti-discrimination laws an attempt to single out, intimidate, and attack Hindus in the US. The so-called “caste system,” which is of Spanish and Portuguese and Christian origins, being a uniquely Hindu socio-cultural practice is both historically and culturally a myth. But the conflation of “casta” with “jati and varna” in the mainstream media and academe, both in India and around the world, is now writ in stone and in the resolutions passed willy-nilly by racists conspiring with those who have prospered in a racist milieu. When caste is mentioned, it is explicitly associated with Hinduism and Hindus, and its presence in other Indian and South Asian communities like Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and Sikhs is largely overlooked. Hence, Indian-American Hindus feel the law will be misused to target and silence them. The fear is not entirely invalid. But the anti-caste campaigners feel that this fear is misplaced compared to the gravity of the problem. “That’s like saying gender discrimination laws single out all men,” said Seattle City Council Member Lisa Herbold. Some concerned voices have raised the issue of the Council’s rush that led to such a decision. And some others have raised worries that Indian-Americans, a micro-minority in the US, will face threats, further discrimination, and further division as well as political subversion.

Indian Americans are the second-largest immigrant group in the United States. According to data, quoted in the Carnegie Foundation and YouGov’s report from the 2018 American Community Survey (ACS) – which is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau – there are 4.2 million people of Indian origin residing in the United States. Although a large proportion are not US citizens (38 percent), roughly 2.6 million are (1.4 million are naturalized citizens, and 1.2 million were born in the United States).

Indian Americans make up 1.4 percent of the total US population and only half of them are Hindus. A large majority of the Hindu Americans is composed of people who self-identify themselves as upper castes. Though fewer than five percent of Indians are Brahmin, private surveys indicate that 25 percent of Hindu Americans are Brahmin. Dalits (or those from the Scheduled Castes) are 15 percent of India’s population, but they are no more than 1 percent of Indian Americans.

The people who are targeted by these anti-caste resolutions are, undoubtedly, still a marginal, micro-minority part of the American population. Needless to say, they become the target of ethnic and racial discrimination by the numerically stronger groups – racial, religious, ethnic, national, etc. We have seen how Indian American Muslim groups, Sikh/Khalistani groups, Christians, all led by and in bed with the Left/Marxist academics have joined forces to target Hindu Americans. In the larger scheme of things, economic prosperity of the Indian American population does not mean they are not vulnerable to racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination. If at all, it only makes them an easy target for other groups to shame and blame.

Bringing caste as a factor in the lives of Indian Americans creates new problems, when in fact caste, if at all a factor in their lives, plays only a marginal role. Most Indian Americans are integrating with others they come across in life – at work, in school, in community meetings. Unlike other closed, tightly-knit, ethnic and nationality groups 30-40 percent of Hindu/Indian Americans tend to marry outside their group. This is one of the highest inter-ethnic marriage rates in the United States.

Only 43 percent of Indian Americans have mostly or all Indian friends, with the figure being about 25 percent for those born in the United States. About 28 percent of US born Indian Americans have almost no Indian friends, while 17 percent of foreign born Indian Americans are in this category. Of those Indian Americans who are Hindu, 50 percent have almost no friends from the same caste as themselves. In the words of Razib Khan — “The fact that they can make this assessment indicates that caste is salient to them (most are immigrants), but their revealed preferences in friendship networks indicate that they do not self-segregate by caste”.

Certainly the narrative that Indians are bringing the “horrors of the caste system” with them to the US is not supported by facts, especially not in the way it has been propagated. The case lodged in Cisco (still unresolved after a number of years), could very well be an outlier, if indeed there was caste-based discrimination, and not an indication of the larger socio-cultural patterns among Hindu Americans. So what is the ground for these claims about “caste oppression” in the United States?

The data that is often cited, to highlight the presence and extent of caste discrimination, by the universities, colleges, and which was also cited at the Seattle City Council proceedings, comes from Equality Labs’ survey conducted in 2016. In that survey 52 percent of Dalits surveyed by Equality Labs reported that they worry about being outed as lower caste members,  and fear physical threats and social stigmas associated with caste-identity. The survey also found that a quarter of Dalits say they have faced physical assault, that two-thirds of Dalits have faced workplace discrimination due to their caste, and that 41 percent found academic institutions sites of caste-based discrimination. The Equality Labs survey, specifically its methodology, has been questioned by many. Madhu T from the Ambedkar-Phule Network of American Dalits and Bahujans termed the survey “fraudulent,” while others, such as Rami Desai, have called it unscientific for its small sample size – a total of 1,500 for a community of over four million, as well as for its lack of sample randomization, and for its inclusion of various anonymous and unverified stories from around the world.

While a sample size of 1,500 can be large enough, if the subjects are not chosen through random sampling, or if the survey instrument is not validated, the results cannot be conclusive. But there are certain other crucial and significant weaknesses in the survey that cannot be ignored. One of them is its definition of what constitutes discrimination.

One of the markers for identifying discrimination, as reported in the survey, was that no one ate the non-vegetarian food brought by a respondent at a party. Another includes color complex as an identifier of caste and hence by its extension – the cause of discrimination. These are much similar to what other anti-caste activists have said elsewhere. Suraj Yengde, a Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, for instance, offered one such anecdote. Yengde said he helped students organize an academic panel session at the Kennedy School of Government where students from India make up roughly five percent of the student body. But Yengde says that when it came to acknowledging individuals for their assistance, other Indian students did not mention his contribution and work. “I was the one who was organizing everything (for the panel…),” he said. “The dominant caste people just didn’t find it relevant,” he claimed. Now, how does one verify such a claim?

Yengde also claims that some “dominant caste” people belittled him in conversations.  Specifically, what kind of belittling, casteist or otherwise, is not clear. This claim of his is also unverified and unverifiable for he offers nothing in support except his assertion that it happened. Yengde seems to overlook that these snubs in acknowledgment and belittling in conversations, unless it is explicitly casteist in nature (overt and explicit mention caste identity, use of slurs, etc.), cannot be taken as factors of larger socio-cultural discrimination. He does not offer any records, nor any evidence, for his claims, which could be more indicative of his political posturing rather than reality.

India has undoubtedly the strongest laws against caste discrimination in the world. The SC/ST Prevention of Atrocity Act, enacted in 1989, and amended in 2015, 2018, and 2019, vests all the power in the hands of Dalit or Bahujan castes to report to the police even the smallest events of conflicts such as name calling or personal fights as a matter of caste discrimination. The police will have to immediately arrest the accused without any preliminary enquiry, and the government will have to provide monetary compensation to the alleged victim irrespective of the proceedings of the case. The stringent nature of this law has also made it among the most misused and abused of Indian laws.

Yet this law neither includes anything about eating whatever the member of a Dalit community brings to party nor anything about acknowledging a Dalit’s work on the setting up of an academic panel discussion as an act of caste discrimination. These are personal experiences not necessarily borne out of caste hatred. Incidents like these happen quite often between members of the same caste too, and in every other human group – racial, national, ethnic, gender, or whatever.

In her essay for The Atlantic, Vidya Krishnan points out that “upper-caste Hindus do not share utensils or drinking water with those of lower castes, and lighter skin tones are preferred to darker ones”. However, she completely overlooks the fact that many (or most) Brahmins – especially the South and East Indian variety – are dark complexioned themselves. And in the 21st century India, a large majority of people, irrespective of caste, intermingle quite happily with each other. This is especially so in the United States. Hence the question of sharing of utensils or the color of one’s skin is a moot point in interpersonal interactions in the United States.

Krishnan also writes that “the achievements of upper-caste Hindus come at least partially at the expense of lower-caste communities”. It is unclear as to what field, base, or metric was employed here to arrive at this conclusion, but looking at the current laws placed firmly in India, it is no more than a false generalization. India has an extensive system of reservations placed at all levels of government administration, education, and public sectors which guarantees at least 50 percent  of the opportunities for members of “backward or lower castes”. This means that a member of the upper caste can never take an opportunity which was meant for a member of the lower caste but it is possible vice-versa. The reality in India, by law, is contrary to what Vidya Krishnan asserts.

As pointed out earlier, caste is variously touted to be a 2,000 to 3,000 years-old system. This again is a sweeping generalization, to such an extent that it taints the whole history of India, overlooking the uniqueness of every era and the changes that happened in society over time. The oft touted belief that lower castes have forever stayed the same – oppressed, subjugated and enslaved – is historically inaccurate. Surely, jati-based discrimination existed and occurs still. But the jati system did not bar Shudras from ruling like Kshatriyas or becoming priests in their own temples, or writing and adding to the corpus of Hindu sacred texts.

Let me reproduce a relevant portion of an article I published here: “Chinese traveller and scholar Xuanzang spoke of Shudra rulers in Sindh and Matipur when he visited India in the seventh century. The Akkalapundi Grant of Singaya Nayaka (1368 CE) had a Brahmin eulogist proclaim Shudras to be the noblest of the four varnas. This Nayaka was of a Shudra extraction and related to another well-known Shudra dynasty, the Kakatiyas of Deccan. The Durjayas, the Reddis, and the Vellalas produced many of the Shudra dynasties that ruled parts of India”. The Marathas who became a substantial power in the eighteenth century India were composed of mostly Shudra communities, and the most prominent among them were the Holkars and the Gaekwads.

Shudras also produced many of India’s most revered scholars and saints like the Nayanars and Alvars, Saints Chokhamela, Ravidas, Ghasidas, Namdev, and formed the entirety or bulk of many Bhakti movement traditions like the Gosain, Ramnami, Ravidasiya, Varkari, and Satnami sects.

Hence, to say or insinuate that the “caste system” has stayed the same since its creation, whose era itself is a matter of great contention, is to ignore significant parts of India’s history — history which has shaped the India of today. And to use this same framework in the United States, which does not witness the similar functioning of caste as in India, will only lead to an abuse of the legal system, one in which punishment, blame, and shame can all be doled out entirely based on anecdotes and unverifiable claims.

The recent UC San Diego statement against caste and caste-based discrimination claims that lack of legal protection against caste-based discrimination “allows for non-South Asians to often unknowingly but structurally participate in caste-based violence by working with casteist upper-caste South Asian scholars, students, and administrators,” further adding that the university intends to include Dalit and Muslim faculty and students in the coming years – conflating caste with religion or including Muslims as allies of Dalits, or whatever their convoluted logic, and aggressive politics dictate.

So far no case of “caste based violence” has been reported in the United States. The Cisco case, growing horns by the year, and making millions for the lawyers involved, and other anecdotes given in the Equality Labs survey or offered by scholars like Suraj Yengde are meant more to create ill-will, undermine the work and image of Hindu Americans, and conflate race with caste while allowing activists and academics involved in this shell game laugh their way to the banks or to positions of power in politics and in academe.

To say that “non-South Asians working with upper castes South Asians” will lead to caste based violence is not merely a far-fetched notion but it reeks of hatred or deliberate promotion of hate against Hindus. Painting Hindus as violent without them ever engaging in caste-inspired violence on campus or the workplace is, without a doubt, reverse casteism/racism. Just like a wrong stereotype of a Dalit being unclean is casteist so is the false stereotype of Hindus as  “violently casteist”. On top of these attacks against Hindus, the University of California, San Diego, goes on to declare that it will systematically lower the recruitment of “upper caste” students and faculty. What kind of system they will put in place to figure out who belongs to an “upper caste” and who to a “lower caste,” and who they will appoint to administer this poisoned system is left for us to guess and to fear.

America is in the throes of political, racial, gender, social, class, and religious divides, and adding “caste” to the mix will ensure that the divisions multiply and fester. These anti-caste narratives in America are yet another indication of the breakdown in the American legal and political framework and the grand march toward woke-inspired destruction of society. This framework is being imposed on a micro-minority which itself is a part of the great American melting pot – intermarrying, mingling, and living with people who are not from their own religious, linguistic, national, ethnic, and jati background. America, in its fight against “casteism” and “racism,” is birthing a new form of casteism, and building a whole new set of cults that are authoritarian in nature and totalitarian in their pursuit of destructive agendas.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy of any information in this article.




Yogendra Singh Thakur

Yogendra Singh Thakur is a freelance columnist from Betul, Madhya Pradesh. He has written essays for IndiaFacts, Swarajya Magazine, Pragyata Magazine, and OpIndia. He is pursuing a BA, majoring in History, Political Science, and Sociology.