Members of the University of California Rally Committee carry the California banner and wave two of the Cal flags near the Campanile in Berkeley, CA. (Image Credit: Michael Pihulic, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Earlier this year, the California State University (CSU) System Board of Trustees voted to include caste in their anti-discrimination policy, next to “Race or Ethnicity (including color, caste, or ancestry).”  They approved this policy, over the written protests of about 80 of their own faculty members of all races, ethnicities, and religions who opposed the move. They also ignored a written complaint from a number of Hindu students studying at CSU campuses across the state. And they did so without proving that they, or any of the CSU administrators who will be tasked with implementing this policy, had any detailed knowledge of the issue. Also left unsaid, was who or how would they determine the caste of the thousands of South Asian students in the CSU system – many of them born and raised in the U.S. with little to no knowledge of the socio-political trends that shape this deeply complex and fluid issue across the Indian subcontinent.

Discrimination against any individual is morally and socially reprehensible and legally prohibited. California has even stricter anti-discrimination laws, that include ancestry in addition to categories such as race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and national origin. Why then is the caste now being included as a protected category in universities?

UC Davis became the first public university to take that step last year-designating “caste”, and even more strangely, “perceived caste” as worthy of protection under the Title IX laws. UC San-Diego and UC Berkeley are on their way to institutionalizing similar policies. Why this special focus and/or duplication with existing laws one might wonder? At best it is a wasteful use of public resources that could be better used in a system already stretched financially. At worst, it is creating a new way to stereotype and discriminate against a relatively new immigrant minority community, that has barely realized what these policies mean.

South Asian tech worker.

So what is the impact of these actions on South Asian students and tech workers?

One does not have to go far to seek the answer. We just need to read the fears shared by those most closely and most immediately impacted – the students at CSU.

While remaining anonymous in public for fear of being targeted, several CSU students have contacted their administrators and diversity officers to share their concerns and outline the many ways the policy will deny them equal treatment. This includes everything from running clubs, hosting events, catering vegetarian food, or even celebrating their most beloved festivals like Holi and Diwali – since both have been called violent and casteist by the same activist groups that are driving caste policies In conversations hosted by Hindu Parents, the students have also shared their apprehension of being unable to engage freely in the myriad activities that constitute the student experience. The students have highlighted how any student, teaching assistant, or professor of South Asian origin was now in danger of being termed casteist, for day-to-day disputes-be it grades, teaching/learning styles, deadline extensions, or more.

California’s high-tech companies employ a large number of South Asians. There is a pending lawsuit in which a Cisco Dalit employee alleged caste-based discrimination by his supervisors of Indian ancestry. What is generally excluded from this narrative, is that the same allegedly ‘casteist’ supervisor had hired the alleged Dalit victim in the 1st place and also promoted Dalits to the senior-most positions in their team. The employee complaint was twice investigated by Cisco and found no evidence of alleged discrimination. Yet, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit alleging “caste” discrimination and making broad claims about the Hindu faith itself. This one and so far unproven allegation has been used to broadly paint all South Asian tech workers as guilty of being prone to discrimination.

The caste-based protection policies single out South Asians, especially Hindu Indians, for a double standard not applied to other immigrant or even native-born groups. Groups like the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA) have already flagged how the unproven Cisco allegations have been used as “proof” for various colleges to pass resolutions regarding “caste” despite the lack of any solid evidence of any such ongoing discrimination occurring on their campuses. Meanwhile, the CSU faculty that protested has already become the target of threats and hateful comments.

Data disproves theories of caste-based discrimination in the U.S.

It is quite likely that there are sporadic/isolated cases of perceived caste-based slurs, bias, harassment, and/or discrimination since conflict among humans is endemic to all groups. While these incidents are regrettable, there is no solid data or evidence of caste-based discrimination at the CSU and UC campuses. Why, then, this move-especially since ancestry and/or national origin inherently include caste for investigating when a complaint is filed?

In a disturbing mainstreaming of hate, the policy changes have been largely driven by a group of ideologically motivated student and faculty activists backed by California-based Equality Lab. This privately held organization with a blatant anti-Hindu agenda openly excludes Hindus from its membership and seeks the dismantling of the faith. Yet all university policies to date, are based on one unscientific 2018 survey by Equality Labs.

One must question the objectivity and integrity of university administrators, for not reviewing the findings of a more systematic and authentic 2021 study of Indian American attitudes by Carnegie Endowment – a mainstream group with a track record of conducting surveys. It found that the majority of Indian Americans did not identify themselves with caste at all, with a quarter denying any knowledge of caste in their networks. Thus no overwhelming caste-based discrimination exists in the U.S.

Carnegie’s Survey shows the minimal role caste plays among Hindu Americans, with a quarter of them having no knowledge of the topic at all

It is evident the majority of Indian immigrants don’t care about or follow caste. Among the U.S.-born second-generation Hindu Americans, most don’t have any clue about caste or how to identify one. Yet the state of California will now require them to start picking one.

Why should Hindu Americans or South Asians, uniquely face policies that lay the ground for potential bias, slurs, and discrimination for generations to come? And how will caste be determined? Is California ready to define the mind-boggling complexity of caste, as it plays out in the Indian subcontinent? How will “perceived caste” be determined and by who? How will policymakers tackle the complex laws and groupings of South Asia, and determine caste identification in their admission process?

Historically, India’s colonial rulers used the census to classify people fundamentally into rigid categories in 1931. India outlawed caste-based discrimination in 1950 and consolidated all socially backward castes into two categories of Scheduled castes (SC) including Dalits and Scheduled Tribes (ST). Affirmative action was also introduced allowing preferential opportunities for SC and ST in education and employment, with the goal of enhancing their upward mobility. As a result, many folks from varying backgrounds have immigrated to the U.S. for higher education and are employed in high tech and other professions making the Indian diaspora a good mix of self-identified Dalits and others. Note that to date America has not provided similar affirmative action for African Americans in schools or workplaces.

The insertion of caste in University policies stands to further divide faculty, staff, and students,  and discriminate against those with roots in South Asia. California is home to booming high tech, excellence in higher education, and a hub for innovation. South Asians including a large Indian diaspora have contributed to California’s growth and competitiveness. Lawmakers must ask themselves why risk it all with an unwarranted and unnecessary policy change that cloaks itself in social justice even as it sets the ground for more institutional level discrimination?

Vijendra Aggarwal, born in a village and educated in a government school, went on to earn a Ph.D. in Physics from IIT Roorkee. Formerly a researcher in Italy, Japan, and France, he has been in the United States since 1978, working in academia as a faculty member and in various leadership roles in different universities. He also served as a Policy Analyst at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and for one year as a Fellow of the American Council on Education during the Clinton Administration.

Feature Image under CC 4.0 license.  


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