Tag Archives: #caste

Eliminating Caste Discrimination is What Hindus Should Do

bell hooks once wrote that “homeplace” was a place constructed “where Black people could affirm one another and by so doing heal many of the wounds inflicted by racist domination.” I like to think that the Indian American, specifically the Hindu American community that raised me is a homeplace of sorts for brown folks in the racial superstructure of the U.S. It is the place where I made sense of my diasporic, non-white, Brahmin Hindu social position.

My earliest memory of my childhood religious upbringing was my father and I laying at the foot of my bed, reading mythological epics from Amar Chitra Katha. My favorite was the story of Shakuntala, the mother of Bharat. In her story, due to a vicious curse from a Rishi known as Durvasa, Shakuntala’s husband King Dushyanta forgot that she existed until years later when he saw the ring he gave her; all his memories of his love for her came rushing back. As a child, I considered Durvasa’s curse to be the most evil, most vile thing to bestow upon another being. What would my life be like should my loved ones forget about me? 

My father, an amateur theologian himself, smiled sadly at me. But don’t you see? This is the curse of humanity: we have all forgotten that atman, the soul, mirrors brahman, our cosmic reality. According to the teachings of the Upanishads, a forgotten truth of humanity is that every soul that exists is a perfect reflection of the universe. Of course, in my childhood, I could not grasp the radical inclusiveness of this concept. For, if atman is brahman, and brahman is atman, thus every soul is identical and equal in value and dignity. 

As I continued my studies and pursued a Ph.D. studying South Asian America and caste, I found myself fixating on this concept that encapsulated the foundation of my belief system. I learned that in the Advaita Vedanta philosophy of my youth, every soul could achieve liberation from the earthly cycles of violence and indignity, should only they remember the fundamental equality of all people. 

In my study of Hinduism, of the history and legacy of caste, and of South Asians in the diaspora, I came to recognize the disproportionate influence of caste on one’s livelihood. What was the difference between my soul born Brahmin and the soul of someone born Dalit, other than the random positions of our births? Yet, material outcomes told a different story. I grew up privileged, comfortably upper-middle-class, and with access to resources and education. As Ajantha Subramanian argues in her book The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India, while caste has increasingly become less visible in India, it still overwhelmingly benefits the caste privileged in terms of one’s educational and socioeconomic outcomes, including one’s ease of mobility to move to the United States. A 2003 study by the University of Pennsylvania found that only 1.5 percent of Indian immigrants in the United States were Dalit or of another oppressed caste. Equality Labs’ recent report on Caste in the U.S. found that 1 in 3 US-based Dalits experienced caste discrimination as students and 2 in 3 US-based Dalits experienced caste discrimination in their workplace. 

The complex and fate-determining caste system itself largely stems from the Manusmriti (Laws of Manu), a text that legal scholar Charles J. Naegele has positioned as similar in influence to the Code of Hammurabi. Unlike texts like the Vedas and the Upanishads that establish core Hindu teachings, the Laws of Manu put forward a code of conduct and manners for Hindu citizens during the 2nd century BCE. Along with a rigid caste system, the Laws of Manu put forward strict notions of gendered social roles, ideas about taxation, and clear guidelines on hygiene habits, much of which have been disregarded throughout history. 

While the Laws of Manu can be understood in its historical context, it is inconceivable to me that such an antiquated text should inform people’s futures — particularly when doing so moves us to forget the resounding truth that atman is brahman is atman. Moreover, Quare studies theorist E. Patrick Johnson emphasizes homeplace is also a site that we must critique in order to make it better. To envision a Hindu American homeplace where all souls are alike in dignity and equal in treatment requires liberation from the indignity of caste. Just as King Dushyanta remembered Shakuntala upon seeing his ring, we must remember the radical sense of justice enshrined in the Hindu faith. 

The Santa Clara Human Rights Commission heard public testimonies on April 29th to determine whether citizens should be protected against caste discrimination. As Hindu Americans, we must acknowledge that caste discrimination exists, that the caste oppressed must be protected, and that ensuring equality for all souls is what Hindu Americans should do.


Pavithra Suresh is a first-generation Indian Tamil American. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Studies at George Mason University where she teaches Global Affairs 101. Her dissertation will investigate the legacy of caste in the South Asian American community.


 

Cisco Headquarters in San Jose (Image by Coolcaesar Wikipedia Under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Why California’s Lawsuit Against Cisco Uniquely Endangers Hindus & Indians

The State of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued the Silicon Valley tech giant Cisco Systems in June 2020, accusing the company of engaging in unlawful employment practices over a claim by an Indian-origin employee that two managers, also of Indian origin, allegedly discriminated against him based on his assumed caste. The case was initially filed in federal court but has since been re-filed in state court. Cisco Systems is promising a vigorous defense, rejecting the claim of discrimination.

The State’s claim goes well beyond the specific allegations of caste discrimination, however. Despite not knowing what caste is, it attempts to define it in a way that maligns an entire community and religion. In so much that caste discrimination is a kind of malice against someone based not on their inherent worth, but something else, HAF wholeheartedly agrees that it is wrong and condemnable.

But the State of California has defined Hinduism in contradiction to the precepts of the religion and the beliefs of an overwhelming number of its own adherents. This violates the religious freedom rights of Hindu Americans.

The State of California has also failed to provide any definition or workable method to determine anyone’s caste other than an assumption that Hindus of Indian descent must identify as part of a specific caste, ascribe to a “strict Hindu social and religious hierarchy,” and engage in caste discrimination. The State’s inaccurate and unconstitutional definition will perversely lead to increased targeting of and discrimination against Indian-origin, and particularly Hindu workers by marking them as a suspicious class. This violates the due process rights of Hindu Americans.

We vehemently oppose all types of caste-based discrimination. We also reject any claim that prejudice and discrimination based on caste are inherent to Hinduism and take great exception to the State of California’s defaming and demeaning of all Hindus by attempting to connect a caste system to the Hindu religion.

Here’s why.

California has unconstitutionally defined Hindu religious doctrine, and  perpetuated false and dangerous stereotypes equating caste-based discrimination with Hinduism and Hindus

California’s complaint states:

“As a strict Hindu social and religious hierarchy, India’s caste system defines a person’s status based on their religion, ancestry, national origin/ethnicity, and race/color—or the caste into which they are born—and will remain until death.”  (emphasis added)

In connecting caste and caste-based discrimination to Hindu teachings and practice, the state’s suit explicitly defines and ties Hinduism to inequality.

The State of California’s assertion is a clear violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom because rather than allowing Hindus to define their religions for themselves, the state is defining the precepts and practices of Hinduism for Hindus.

Such unconstitutional overreach by the State of California should be concerning for all Americans.

Not only is California’s definition unconstitutional, it’s wrong 

Any assertion that caste discrimination is integral to Hindu teachings and practice is not only wrong, it traffics in anti-Hindu hate.

Hinduism teaches that the Divine is equally present in all. Because all beings are connected through this shared divine presence, prejudice and discrimination against anyone or any group violate this most profound and fundamental teaching and the moral duties of selflessness, non-injury, and truth evoked by it.

Hinduism’s wide array of sacred texts, stories, and poetry, and widely respected spiritual teachers, both past and present, repeatedly emphasize this profound life lesson. Moreover,  every major sampradaya (Hindu religious tradition) and Hindu socio-religious organization rejects caste-based discrimination.

California’s failure to provide any definition or workable method to determine anyone’s caste will lead to more discrimination

The only consistent factor California seeks to identify with caste is that it is an inherent part of Hinduism. That this authorizes or encourages seriously discriminatory enforcement against Hindus and Americans of South Asian descent is self-evident. Without any context outside of its asserted connection to Hinduism, the DFEH has provided no meaning or definition of caste and would set up a legal structure that actually requires the discrimination it seeks to prevent.

California has also blown a dog-whistle for anti-immigrant bigotry

The State of California frames the beginning of its complaint in blatantly racist and anti-immigrant terms. It alleges that Indians are “significantly overrepresented” at Cisco, which could be read to be implying that similarly qualified non-Indian immigrants are being ignored in hiring there and at other tech companies.

Such framing — that hordes of Indians are overrepresented, taking away American jobs —  is common rhetoric amongst anti-immigrant extremists and hate groups.

Predictably, news of the lawsuit is stoking a spate of xenophobic attacks targeting Indian and Hindu Americans. A recent story covering the case in Breitbart evinced comments like these:

“We don’t want too many Indians in the USA. After all, look what those geniuses did to India. Too many geniuses in one place seems to be a bad thing.”

California also perpetuates racist European theories about caste

California’s claims about Hinduism and its conflation of caste with race and color, stem not from Hindu understanding of their own religion and history, but rather from the misinformed and misrepresentative assertions by Western Europeans.

British colonial occupation defined Hinduism not based on Indians’ own understandings of Hinduism’s precepts and practices, but rather on the British’s own 18th and 19th-century belief in their superiority over non-white, non-Christian peoples outside of Europe. British colonial government latched onto existing non-uniform, highly localized social and cultural divisions within India to devise a four-fold pan-Indian caste system to use to control the occupied.

The caste system as defined by the State of California is merely a reflection of this British-created administrative tool and the scientific racism in vogue.

 California is targeting its Californians of Indian descent.

Discrimination based on national origin is already prohibited under US law as is ancestry and ethnicity under many state laws and public and private sector employment policies. National origin, ancestry, and ethnicity have been interpreted as protecting against discrimination based on birthplace, ancestry, culture, or linguistic characteristics — all of which are social markers associated with the various theories about caste.

Every protected class under US civil rights law, namely race, national origin (ancestry/ethnicity), gender, religion, disability, age, and now sexual orientation, is broad, facially neutral, and universal. They seek to address well-documented bases of discrimination broadly.

Caste as a specific category is problematic because it singles out and targets people of Indian descent given the singular association of caste and a caste system with India. Caste as a specific class also suggests that there is a prevalent form of prejudice and malice amongst only people of Indian and/or South Asian descent and Hindus that is so entirely different and abhorrent that they should be marked a suspicious class based on their race, national origin, ethnicity, or religion and specifically monitored and policed. This in itself is discriminatory because prejudice and discrimination based on social backgrounds such as clan, class, sect, tribe, or other factors are prevalent within all countries and cultures.

Conclusion

Stopping prejudice and discrimination are worthy goals that directly further Hinduism’s teaching about the equality of the divine essence of all people.

Companies should work on creating a safe environment for all employees to thrive and be mutually respected. Any issues of unfair treatment should be thoroughly addressed and resolved.

But wrongly tying Hinduism and Hindus to the abhorrent act of caste discrimination undermines that goal and violates the First Amendment rights of all Hindu Americans.  It denies them due process based on their religious affiliation by uniquely targeting them in the absence of any universally accepted understanding of what “caste” is or proof of widespread discrimination on its basis.


The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) is an educational and advocacy organization established in 2003.

This article was originally published on their website here.


 

Each of Us Killers: Vignettes of Immigrant and Indian Lives

Jenny Bhatt’s debut collection of stories, Each of Us Killers brings us a sampling of experiences of a writer who has lived and worked in India, the United Kingdom, Germany, and now resides in a suburb of Dallas. Bhatt has worked as a writer, literary critic, and translator. Her translation of the Gujarati writer Dhumketu’s fiction is forthcoming from Harper Collins in India.  She is also the host of the podcast Desi Books. Each of Us Killers is Bhatt’s debut collection of short stories but several of these stories have been published in reputed journals; two of the stories were nominated for the Pushcart award, and the title story “ Each of Us Killers” was nominated for the Best American Short Stories, 2018. These biographical facts help to contextualize the experience of reading Bhatt’s collection of stories. Even though it is a debut collection, it brings a range of lived experience, experimentation, and stylistic variety, which announces a seasoned practitioner rather than a newcomer to fiction. Another important fact to note is that Bhatt’s publisher, 7.13 Books is an independent publisher, one that is likely to promote authors whose subjects and aesthetics are different from the mainstream presses, increasingly dominated by five major corporations in the publishing industry.

Bhatt’s collection portrays the complexity of immigrants’ lives but is equally at ease in offering vignettes from life in Indian cities. Unlike many diasporic writers whose representations of India seem dated because they draw on memories of India left behind several decades ago, Bhatt’s stories seem to resonate deeply with contemporary realities in India, particularly its uptick in religious and caste-based violence. The last two stories in the collection “The Waiting” and “Each of Us Killers” depicts the continuing everyday oppression faced by Dalits in India.

“The Waiting” is narrated through the voice of the ghost of a dead Dalit wife witnessing the continuing sufferings of her distraught and mentally unhinged husband. By the end of the story, the voice changes to that of the ghost of her husband in limbo after his brutal murder by the henchmen of the village sarpanch. While this story adopts the conventions of vernacular folk ghost narratives, the title story “Each of Us Killers” takes the form of investigative journalism exploring the reasons for the death of a Dalit man by consuming a bottle of acid. The investigation uncovers the brutal burning alive of a Dalit girl which is the catalyst for the brother’s suicide and the traumatic memory that ravages the community. This story is particularly poignant in the wake of continuing Dalit violence in India today, the most recent example of which is the rape, murder, and hurried cremation of Manisha Valmiki in Haathras. 

The violence unleashed on vulnerable groups is a trope that emerges even in stories set in the United States. The first story of the collection “Return to India” also takes the form of interviews that a police officer conducts in the process of investigating the death of a South Asian American man. The quotidian details of his life emerge from the testimonies of his office acquaintances, his unfurnished bare apartment, his occasional drinking binges, the loneliness following his divorce leading to the final testimony by the guy who shot him in what appears to be a drunken altercation fueled by casual xenophobia and easy access to firearms. Bhatt is gesturing at the precarious nature of immigrant lives in the xenophobic climate of Trump’s America.

Not all the stories in the collection evoke the tragic sensibility of the first and last stories in the volume. Some like “Disappointment,” and “Life Spring” turn disappointment in love into paths for liberation and growth.  In others, like “Separation Notice.”  Bhatt playfully rewrites Hindu mythology by crafting a letter terminating the services of Lord Vishnu for his inability to serve as protector of mankind. Bhatt is attentive to the multi-religious diversity of Indian citizens and offers a glimpse into the life and troubles of an aging Muslim food vendor in “Time and Opportunity,” whose young employee from his own community is stealing his profits. In “Neeru’s New World,” Bhatt seems to be depicting the tragic fate of a young maid in a rich household about to be blackmailed or sexually exploited when the story reverses course and the young girl is able to secure an ally to help her break free from the power of her oppressor.

The collection is rich in its exploration of socio-economic issues.  It also effortlessly experiments with a variety of forms like the ghost story, investigative journalism, retelling of myths, among others. As is inevitable in a collection like this some stories are more powerful than others, but overall this is a thought-provoking collection that successfully evokes diverse milieux and prompts readers towards an empathetic understanding of topics beyond the immediate familiarity of urban bourgeois life.


Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Each of Us Killers: Stories by Jenny Bhatt.  7.13 Books Brooklyn, September 2020.

Racial and Caste Apartheid: Are They Similar?

“No one is free until we are all free.”

Dr. King’s words continue to be a powerful message for South Asians throughout the U.S. 

Over the past month and a half, our country has been jolted by recent acts of violence against black folks. While systemic injustice and racism have existed in this country for centuries, there is renewed political engagement with the entrenched issues of race in our country. 

For the South Asian community, it is more important than ever to be “accomplices” in the fight against white supremacy and racism. Several South Asian activist groups and nonprofits are paving the way to help our community uncover some of its entrenched prejudices. Through education and civic leadership, these groups are helping the community discover how to participate in today’s movement. 

Why does this matter to the South Asian community? 

The human dignity of black folks is something so fundamental that has been repeatedly ignored by our country. South Asians have often ignored their complicity in this reality by hiding behind the bootstrap myth or perpetrating harmful anti-black ideologies

However, our communities are more interdependent than people might initially believe. 

“Our stories are very much interconnected and to deny that it is the doing of white supremacy and colonization that tries to keep our people divided,” says Sabiha Basrai, a member of ASATA, a grassroots South Asian activist organization in San Francisco. 

South Asians and black folks have a long and shared history. Black leaders have long fought for the liberation of South Asian communities. In the 1960s, the activism on the part of the civil rights movement banned national and racial quotas on immigrants, enabling the vast majority of today’s South Asian immigrants to come to America. 

Solidarity with communities of color is more than merely a thought, it’s been exemplified throughout the course of history. 

ASATA protests

“A specific example of that kind of solidarity is demonstrated through Bayard Rustin who was a civil rights leader. He actually committed an act of civil disobedience in support of the free India movement in the forties. He locked himself to a British embassy in the United States to protest the British occupation of India,” says Basrai. 

But over time, the South Asian community has forgotten about that solidarity. In today’s moment, it’s important to hear the call to action, Basrai advises. 

What’s Caste got to do with it? 

Equality Labs 2018 Research on Casteism in U.S.

“We must examine and reflect on our own complicity with hierarchical systems, like caste, which enables so much police violence within our communities and within home regions,” says Mahn, communications director at Equality Labs. Equality Labs is an organization that fights against oppressive systems in South Asian communities through political education and collective organizing. 

Holding complexity is an important part of this conversation, Mahn says. 

“Caste isn’t just a theory. It’s a real experience of hegemony for a lot of people.” Black and South Asian experiences are both tied to hierarchies of power. 

“Racial apartheid and caste apartheid depend on both racial abolition and caste abolition. They’re corollaries, they intersect in a lot of important ways for the South Asian community, but they’re parallel. They’re not the same thing,” Mahn says. 

Caste continues to be crucial to the conversation about the South Asian diaspora. Last month, technology giant Cisco Systems was sued for discrimination against Dalit employees. The employee experienced verbal harassment and fewer workplace opportunities due to caste. These systems of harm are real and have tangible consequences in diaspora communities. 

Progressive organizations like Equality Labs are encouraging South Asians to reflect on different vectors of privilege. While South Asians may be harmed by white supremacy in some respects, the community also benefits from the model minority myth. Similarly, it’s critical for South Asians to understand how they may propagate systems of harm. 

That’s great, but what do I do now? 

Being an “accomplice” to the movement can be framed in multiple ways, says Sree Sinha, cofounder of the South Asian Sexual and Mental Health Alliance (SASMHA). 

“The incredible thing about activism is that there are so many different ways to be involved and each of them matter, each of them are important in terms of what the work is that needs to be done and the change that we need to see happen,” she says. 

Getting involved can range from a variety of different activities, from attending protests, to donating to black non-profits, to starting conversations in one’s own community – the critical piece is personal education. 

“None of us are born with bias against anyone. It is taught to us. And the beautiful thing about that is it means that it can be unlearned as well.” Sinha says. 

Sinha says action is like a ladder. We have the personal-level, targeting biases in our own minds. We have the community-level, where we help people in our communities fight against these injustices. And finally, we have the policy level. It’s important to hold political systems accountable, “whether that’s through calling into different congressional offices and police departments, and being able to use your voice in whatever ways is comfortable to you.”

It’s important for South Asians to mobilize against anti-blackness. 

“Where I really want people to understand that rather than being a source of fear or holding you back or paralysis that in fact, making even those small changes helps buffer us against racism. So if you’re feeling a little helpless or a little stuck pushing yourself to act on any level is a major part of what makes us heal.” 

Today’s moment is different from anything in our recent history. Sinha thinks that shows promise. 

“People are thinking about these issues for many people in a way that they never have before. And that just speaks to the power of the possibility and power of growth and change for humans.”

South Asian history is now inextricably linked to American history. The radical nature of today’s moment is important and will define the way our society functions for generations. We must choose the side of justice, for our collective liberation. 

Swathi Ramprasad is a senior at Duke University. She enjoys learning more about the world through her South Asian heritage.