Hindu advocates sue California, arguing ban on caste discrimination distorts beliefs


(RNS) – The Hindu American Foundation has filed a lawsuit against the state of California, opposing a recent caste discrimination lawsuit that the group says “violates the constitutional rights of Hindu Americans.”

“By falsely claiming that American Hindus hold inherently discriminatory beliefs in a caste system, and that these beliefs and practices are ‘inherent’ to the Hindu religion,” said Suhag Shukla, attorney and executive director of the Hindu American Foundation , in the complaint filed Thursday. (September 22), “the state treats Hindus differently than it treats all other religious groups.”

In a landmark lawsuit originally filed in 2020, an unnamed Cisco employee in California claimed that his Hindu supervisors barred him from meetings and did not promote him because he was a Dalit, a member of a bottom layer of the social and religious caste hierarchy of South Asia. He further claimed that Cisco officials retaliated against him after bringing the discrimination to their attention.

Cisco maintained that there was “no evidence” that he had experienced discrimination or retaliation specifically through the “Indian caste system”.

RELATED: How California State University Unfairly Targets South Asians

The American Hindu Foundation has long said that ending caste discrimination is a “laudable goal” that directly reinforces Hinduism’s belief in the equal and divine essence of all people. The foundation also asserts that caste is not a fundamental tenet of the Hindu religion and should not be considered as such by the California Department of Civil Rights.

A spokesperson for the Civil Rights Department said it would respond to HAF’s complaint in court.

Cisco’s lawsuit comes as some Hindus have lobbied for various US institutions, from businesses to universities, to formally recognize caste discrimination. In a 2018 report cited in the original lawsuit, civil rights group Dalits Equality Labs found that 67% of Dalits surveyed felt unfairly treated in their workplaces in the United States.

In 2016, the same group found that a third of Hindu students in the United States said they had experienced caste discrimination. The Dalits cited cases of employment discrimination at several companies, including Alphabet, the company that owns Google, and Microsoft.

RELATED: Why Cal State’s new caste discrimination policy is a crucial step

The International Commission for Dalit Rights, a 20-year-old organization based in Virginia, has repeatedly but unsuccessfully lobbied the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to recognize caste against historically oppressed groups as “an urgent matter of civil rights and social justice in the United States”.

In 2020, like Brandeis University and Colby College, the California State University system passed a resolution to add caste as a category of discrimination, allowing students and faculty easier to report anti-dalit bias. In response, HAF started a petition against the move and it was signed by over 80 Indian-origin teachers.

HAF then insisted that treating caste as a specific class of discrimination is a “misguided excess”. They argued that it is unconstitutional to identify a form of prejudice held only by people of one religion or national origin as “so entirely different and abhorrent as to make that group a suspect class deserving of special monitoring and supervision”.

Sunil Kumar, an engineering professor at San Diego State University, wrote at the time: “Rather than remedying discrimination, it will actually result in discrimination by unconstitutionally singling out and targeting Hindu professors. of Indian and South Asian descent as members of a suspect class because of deeply held false stereotypes about Indians, Hindus and caste.

At the heart of the HAF trial is the question of whether caste is intrinsically linked to Hindu dharma, a widely misunderstood issue that cuts across time and institution. Some argue that caste was imposed on Indians and other historically Hindu peoples by colonial administrators during British rule of South Asia and no longer plays a role in daily life. Other Hindus call this view dishonest, claiming that caste has its origins in Hindu scriptures, which are still used to legitimize it. They also point out that the caste is found among Hindus outside of South Asia.

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“As Hindus, we work to elevate a vision of Hindu identity that recognizes this history, but also rejects caste as a betrayal of our traditions’ highest teachings of human dignity and equality,” said Ria Chakrabarty, policy director of the Hindu advocacy group for Human Rights.

Chakrabarty said Hindus need to recognize the caste system as it operates today, rather than arguing over its origins, before they can help resolve the discrimination many say they have encountered.

“In the meantime, we will stand with our American Dalit brothers and sisters in their fight against discrimination and ensure that caste is a protected category for civil rights,” Chakrabarty said.


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