Members of the South Asian community in the US held a peaceful rally on 4 April in front of Senator Aisha Wahab’s office to protest the proposed caste bill. The rally witnessed the participation of many Dalits and Bahujans who said that the proposed California Caste Bill was a malicious attempt to divide the Hindu community on the basis of arbitrary categories.
Seattle became the first city in the United States to ban caste discrimination. And now a Californian lawmaker, Aisha Wahab has launched a bill in the State Senate seeking to explicitly ban caste discrimination. If the bill is passed, California would become the first US state to have a legislation banning caste discrimination.
Sounds good in theory, for sure. But when one looks at the narrative behind this sudden spate of laws and resolutions banning caste discrimination in the US, one can certainly smell some kind of conspiracy. Or a Hinduphobic conspiracy, to put it better perhaps? By adding the word caste to define discrimination specifically amongst “South Asian migrants”, the California bill is targeting the US Hindu community. It is taking the liberty of labelling a minority community as harbouring hierarchical and oppressive practices. It is essentially implying that the religion practised by this minority community is discriminatory and divisive. And that is the precise problem with such a bill. It does racial profiling of Hindus and stereotypes them.
Ideally, when an issue is deemed so important as to require a separate law to be dealt with, one would assume that there exists a plethora of evidence to demonstrate the damage done. But in this case, all these bills seeking a ban on caste discrimination in the US are being presented based on a sole study done by Equality Labs, an organisation that doesn’t shy away from openly proclaiming its Hinduphobic nature. A cursory look at their website would be enough to reveal their motives and their mission to demonise Hinduism. The organisation makes aggressive use of colonial casteist narratives and stereotypes to systematically promote hatred against Hindus. Equality Labs also has a history of demonising Hindu festivals. It insinuates that the Hindu festival of Holi is anti-Dalit and calls the ritual of Holika Dahan (similar to the bonfire ritual in many Western traditions) abusive and exploitative by suggesting that Holika (the sister of King Hirnakashyap ) was a Dalit princess.
Members of the South Asian community in the US held a peaceful rally on 4 April in front of Senator Aisha Wahab’s office to protest the proposed caste bill and urge the Senator to withdraw the same.
The rally witnessed the participation of many Dalits and Bahujans who said that the proposed California Caste Bill was a malicious attempt to divide the Hindu community on the basis of arbitrary categories.
Aldrin Deepak, a tech worker and LGBTQ and Dalit American activist based in San Francisco said, “I live in San Francisco as a proud Hindu American, interacting with any number of South Asians at work, as a volunteer at temples, a host for community Diwali events, at work or in social outings. I am dismayed at how hate groups like Equality Labs seek to co-opt my identity and weaponise it against the very traditions that nourished and gave succour to millions through the ages. They seek to deny the place of Valmiki and Vyasa, authors of the world’s most glorious and influential epics—the Ramayana and Mahabharata. They negate the thousands upon thousands of subaltern led temples that dot the landscape, and attempt to refashion our sacred spaces to fit preconceived notions more grounded in monotheism.”
Talking about factual evidence of caste discrimination in the US, the only case referred to in the California Bill to ban caste discrimination is the Cisco case. The Cisco lawsuit by California Civil Rights Department is the only case widely cited in the media as evidence of caste discrimination in the US. Much to the dismay of the Hinduphobic lobby, this lawsuit that had been filed against CISCO engineers Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella, has now been dismissed by the California Civil Rights Department. The lawsuit filed in 2020 alleges that a Dalit engineer in Cisco received lesser pay and fewer opportunities for professional development due to caste discrimination practised by the upper caste employees of the organisation. The case had been dragging on for close to three years without any conclusive evidence whatsoever. Now with the lawsuit against the Cisco employees being dismissed, the demand for these anti-caste discrimination legislations stands on rather flimsy ground. This was the only case widely cited in the run-up to the Seattle Anti-Caste Legislation, and now the California Bill also presents this as evidence. With the dismissal of the lawsuit, it would be a challenge for the Hinduphobic lobby to paint the community in a vicious light.
Secondly, the California Bill seeking to add “caste” as a protected category in California overlooks and even negates the alarming rise of hate crimes against Hindus in the US. By insinuating that Hindus themselves are committing hate crimes against each other based on caste hierarchy, the bill conveniently sidesteps the real issue of abuse and discrimination against Hindus. Such a law, if passed, will go against the rights guaranteed to a religious minority in the Constitution and make them even more vulnerable to stereotyping and abuse.
A recent research report by the US-based think tank Network Contagion Research Institute talks about the alarming rise of Hinduphobia the world over through social media sites. The report uses quantitative analysis to analyse the social media feeds from sites like Twitter, Telegram, etc., to show the aggressive stereotyping and demonizing of Hindus and their culture. The report also goes on to prove that these are not random acts committed by a few individuals here and there, but rather it is a strategic hate campaign orchestrated by anti-Hindu organisations and groups worldwide.
The surge of attacks on Hindu temples across the world couldn’t go unnoticed by anyone, even if you literally live under a rock. The sharp rise in attacks on places of worship of the Hindu community in liberal, western democracies like the US, UK, Canada, Australia, etc., comes as a shock, to say the least. It is strange that instead of condemning Hinduphobia and adopting resolutions to safeguard the rights of the Hindu community, a state legislator of a US state tables a bill in Parliament to counter caste discrimination ostensibly practised by the Hindus. It is akin to not just conveniently ignoring the issues faced by the Hindu community in the West but making a complete mockery of them.
Moreover, there is no universal definition of caste as such. It is not even an Indian-origin term for that matter. The word caste is derived from the Spanish and Portuguese word casta, which translates into race or lineage. The way caste has come to be associated with Hinduism is the product of British colonialism and the legacy of the biased Indology it left behind. The Hindu concept of Varna as practised in ancient India is vastly different from the concept of caste as understood today.
Researcher, speaker, and author, Rajiv Malhotra has written an entire book on this topic, “Varna Jati Caste”. The book traces the historical trajectory of Varna and Jati and demolishes the prevailing myths about caste. Also, many Indian scholars have pointed out that the original conception of Varna as envisaged during the Vedic period was not based on heredity or birth. It assigned a Varna to a person based on their disposition and temperament. In light of all these complexities, how fair is it to appropriate the word caste in the context of Hindus to single out Hindus in America and make them a victim of systematic racial profiling?
Furthermore, divisions and stratifications based on lineage exist in religions like Christianity and Islam as well. So to associate the word caste only with Hindus is akin to suggesting that Hinduism as a religion has some in-built evils that allow for a far greater degree of discrimination than other religions, and therefore Hindus need to be monitored. This then would clearly be Hinduphobia and would go against the ideals of secularism.
Sudha Jagannathan, Bahujan Hindu American and mother, and one of the participants at the peace rally held to protest the California Caste Bill, said that she had been living in the US for the past 40 years and had never faced anything even remotely akin to discrimination from the Hindu American community despite her Bahujan roots. “I encountered the topic of caste with my children as they studied Hinduism or Indian history in schools. In the past few years, the American fascination for ‘caste’ and ‘caste policies has worried me greatly. So much so, that I now add my identity as a ‘Hindu bahujan’. It angers and frustrates me that America is forcing this identity on me while all my life, this was never an issue,” she says.
It seems like while the South Asian Hindus have left the legacy of caste and casteism far behind, the West insists on stereotyping them and looking at their social and cultural lives through a biased and bigoted lens.
Rati Agnihotri is an independent journalist and writer, with about 10 years of experience across broadcast, radio and digital media. She is also a bilingual poet. Her first book of English poems ‘The Sunset Sonata’ has been published by Sahitya Akademi. Her second book of poems ‘I’d Like a Bit of the Moon’ has been recently published by Red River.