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Beyond Occident – an opinion column by Avatans Kumar that explores a native perspective on the Indian diaspora

In January 2022, California State University (CSU) became the first university system in the US to recognize “caste” as a discriminatory category. CSU trustees added “caste” to its non-discriminatory clause in faculty contracts. “On system’s 23 campuses across California,” NBC News reported, “caste-oppressed students will now be able to report anti-Dalit bias which students say they regularly experience at school.”

Many Hindu organizations, including the Hindu advocacy group Hindu American Foundation (HAF), have objected to this new CSU policy. They argue that anti-discrimination laws already exist and adding “caste” to the existing laws is redundant. HAF also contends that the inclusion of “caste” as a stand-alone category in CSU policy singles out an ethnic and religious minority group that is “discriminatory on its face.” 

Despite its billing as a so-called “progressive” state in public perception, one will be surprised to know that such biases aren’t a novelty in California. The state has a history of anti-India and anti-Hindu biases, including those within its education system. Indian-Americans have been fighting long legal battles to remove those biases from the California State Board of Education textbooks. However, the current “caste” controversy results from intense lobbying by Equality Labs and other anti-Hindu elements. 

These anti-Hindu biases have roots in India’s colonial past. Colonialists often wanted to portray themselves as virtuous and civil compared to those they were colonizing. “Before the American Revolution,” writes Matthew Wills, “European colonialists insisted on proclaiming their humanity as they violently colonized the expanding frontier.” The British colonialists too primitivized Hindus in their discourse. The need to portray Hindus as primitive, savage, uncivilized, or vicious, rose from the urgency of colonizers to present themselves as enlightened. Much of the early Western writings on India’s “caste system” need to be understood in this context.

The native Hindu word for ‘caste proper’ is jāti, which Arvind Sharma (The Rulers Gaze) points out, “denotes the social unit one is born in.” There is, however, a disconnect between jāti as perceived within the native insider tradition and the way the West conflates the “caste system.” 

Both “caste” and jāti are two independent constructs. They have distinct historical, social, and cultural contexts. Yet, the erroneous Western understanding of the Indian jāti system holds sway in academia, media, and its overall interpretation as the “caste system.” 

As the West began to control the academic discourse in its colonies, it affected and even altered the nuanced self-understanding of native cultures. Much of our contemporary understanding of “caste,” according to Ramesh Rao (Jāti/Kula/Caste and their Impact on Communication in Communicating Across Boundaries), is derived from “the colonial understanding and categorization of India’s people according to the surveys constructed by [Herbert Hope] Risley.” Risely’s survey was later published as The People of India (1908).

The British, in their writing, portrayed Hindu society as being riddled with malaise. At the same time, they also claimed erroneously that the so-called “social evils” such as the “Brahmanical”’ caste discrimination always have been part of the Hindu society and Hinduism. 

According to Arvind Sharma, there is a preponderance of literature on the “caste system” – more than nine thousand books alone. However, there is no consensus among academicians about “how the caste system came into being and what sustains it” (Martin Farek et al. Western Foundations of the Caste System). The authors meticulously investigate this issue and conclude that the Indian “caste system” is “an experiential entity only to the West… It has no existence outside of the Western experience of India.”

The Marxists picked up from where the colonialists left off. They turned the indigenous jāti tradition into a highly exploitative “caste system” and weaponized it. Equality Labs is the manifestation of such weaponization in letter and spirit. It is a consortium of rabidly anti-Hindu groups. The Labs is blatantly engaged in “demeaning and defaming Hinduism and its adherents and promoting hatred for both.” It is a well-organized and lavishly funded faux social justice organization.

The Labs commissioned its Caste Survey to bolster its arguments supporting the CSU’s “caste” policy. However, the Social Realities of Indian Americans survey conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found that “it is likely that the sample does not fully represent the South Asian population and could skew in favor of those who have strong views about caste.”

Jāti, or “caste” as a sociological feature of the Indian subcontinent transcends every religion, native or non-native. Every religion in India, “including those who entered it from outside,” writes Arvind Sharma, “have had to come to terms with [it] as a social reality, whatever their social theory.” However, every mention of “caste” is automatically and erroneously assumed about Hinduism. 

The “caste system,” an import from medieval Europe, is now an Indian reality. It has come to “define India” (Ramesh Rao), specifically Hindus. 

Notwithstanding the many prevalent exploitative discriminatory systems worldwide, such as class, feudalism, communism, racism, slavery, Nazism, fascism, Girmitiya (indentured) labor system, etc., the worst kind of contempt is saved for the “caste system.” 

The “caste system” narrative squarely puts Hindus and Hinduism at fault for all injustices. Such a narrative ignores the fact that the Hindu society, throughout history, has consistently worked on the issue of social justice to overcome discrimination and inequality through its indigenous tradition of social reform. For example, the Bhakti movement of the 15-17th century addressed such societal discrimination.  

The anti-India and anti-Hindu forces have hijacked the jāti-Caste narrative. It is imperative that we Indians, particularly Hindus, reclaim agency in defining our texts and traditions, culture, society, and polity. At the very least, we can’t let the non-native agents be the sole arbitrators of our civilization.


Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. A JNU, New Delhi, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumnus, Avatans holds graduate degrees in Linguistics. 
Avatans is a recipient of the 2021 San Francisco Press Club’s Bay Area Journalism award.

Avatans Kumar

Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. A JNU, New Delhi, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumnus, Avatans holds graduate degrees in Linguistics. Avatans is a recipient...