Americans Rising to Outlaw Caste Oppression
By Shakeel Syed
Growing Hindu-American support for the Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) movement has triggered community conversations and political opposition to the caste-based discrimination in the U.S. Several reported caste-based discrimination cases, especially in the tech industry and academia has led Dalits — The Untouchables, the lowest caste — to organize a campaign to address the growing caste apartheid in the U.S.
According to the social historical theory, the origin of the caste system finds its origin in the arrival of Aryans in India around 1500 BC.
The proliferation of Hindutva beyond India has been hastened by the Modi government dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The current regime in India has invested significantly in building and strengthening ties with the Hindu diaspora community in the U.S. and U.K., making them feel invested as stakeholders in India’s future at the global stage.
Conversely, a recent report titled, “Hindu Nationalist Influence in the United States (2014-2021): The Infrastructure of Hindutva Mobilizing,” lists names and activities of U.S.-based Hindutva groups of 24 U.S. Hindu nationalist organizations that have spent over $158 million on various projects, including sending money to India.
Prof. Audrey Truschke, a historian at Rutgers University, is reported to have said that “the Sangh (Hindutva movement’s mother organization) began establishing Hindu nationalist groups overseas since 1940s. Many such diaspora organizations have been part of the social fabric of their respective nations — generally working for far-right goals — for decades.”
Against this backdrop and unable to exercise their right to protest in India, the caste-oppressed Dalits in the U.S. have started speaking up against the discrimination and oppression they have been subjected to by the age-old old caste based hierarchical system.
In February this year, Seattle became the first U.S. city to outlaw caste discrimination after its local council passed a resolution, moved by an Indian American politician and economist, to add caste to its non-discrimination policy. The Seattle City Council approved the resolution by six to one.
Seattle was followed by the Toronto District School Board that made history by passing the first ever resolution in Canadian legislative history accepting the reality of caste discrimination and vowing to combat it.
California Senator Rallies for Change
Aisha Wahab, a refugee from Afghanistan and a first-time elected California Senator from Central California has successfully advanced her bill SB-403 out of the California State Senate voting 34-1 to ban caste-based discrimination.
Dalit activists along with human rights groups like Amnesty and civil rights and civil liberty groups like ACLU and scores of community-based organizations (including the one that the author of this article leads) and several interfaith groups will continue their advocacy for the passing of SB-403 by the Assembly followed by the signing into law by the Governor of California.
California is home to Apple, Google, Meta, and Cisco along with offices of Amazon and Microsoft and many others. Over the years, California, which is home to about 1.8 million people of South Asian descent, has consistently reported incidents of caste discrimination.
In 2020, a former Cisco employee filed a lawsuit alleging caste discrimination at work. John Doe said he was treated differently, excluded from meetings and promotions, and subjected to offensive remarks and jokes because of his caste. As noted in vice.com, following the Cisco case, as many as 250 employees from these giant corporations and a dozen other organizations in Silicon Valley came forward to report discrimination, bullying, ostracization, and even sexual harassment by colleagues of the dominant caste.
According to a Washington Post report, 30 Dalit women engineers in Silicon Valley spoke of gender and caste bias in the tech industry.
As an Indian American Muslim living in California, I strongly support SB-403 not only for its meritorious premise but also to repent my implicit biases toward Dalits during my formative years growing up in India.
For those readers who may not know about the caste system, here’s a primer:
Put briefly, the “caste system is a four-fold division of Hindu society founded on ethnicity and arranged on the basis of ascending order of reverence and descending degree of contempt.”
Often, when people of Hindu tradition migrate to the U.S. from cultures (predominantly India) where caste is prevalent, the practices of exclusion are replicated here. Its tentacles spread and impact hundreds of millions of Indians and more than five million Hindu-Americans in the U.S.
The hierarchical caste pyramid has no parallel in other traditions.
For example, the differences between Sunnis and Shias in Islam or Catholics and Protestants in Christianity do not claim permanent superiority of one over the other. In Hinduism, Brahmanism claims its permanent superiority over the Untouchables. “A Brahmin cannot become an Untouchable and an Untouchable cannot become a Brahmin. There is neither promotion nor demotion under Hinduism.
“In Christianity and Islam, society is mobile, under Hinduism, society is static. Fixed. Caste is decided based on birth, not merit or scholarship.” This is set to change with the California Anti-Caste Bill SB 403.
As a member of Californians for Caste Equity, a coalition of caste-oppressed organizations, unions, interfaith organizations, lawyers, and academicians, I applaud Sen. Wahab for taking up this cause and working to add caste as a protected category to California’s present discrimination policy. Bill SB 403 will bring more awareness towards caste-based discrimination, and it will begin to end the caste apartheid in America.
Shakeel Syed is the Executive Director of South Asian Network.