California Bill SB-403: Is Caste a Dog-whistle Term?

Where caste is a clever substitute for Hinduism and Hindus

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(Also published in India West,May 15, 2023)

Section 703 of the 1964 Civil Rights Act bans discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” Why not include “caste” in this list? The question has been asked for several years. Recently, some organizations have acted on it. 

These include Harvard University and Apple, Inc., the California State Universities system, and the City of Seattle. Now the caste-based discrimination (“CBD”)  movement is eyeing its biggest prize, the whole state of California, and dreaming of further national and international triumphs, even though a similar initiative in Britain failed in 2018.

The California bill, SB-403, has a new twist. Instead of treating caste as a Hindu practice, as taught in California textbooks, it claims that caste is universal: in every religion and every region, including the diaspora. The twist was added when a federal court dismissed the caste discrimination case against Cisco engineers, partly because it targeted a specific religion. Of course, the revised bill doesn’t change existing textbooks or reprogram the people educated by them. In most Americans’ minds, caste still points to Hindus. 

Imagine if the Civil Rights Act had prohibited discrimination by Christians against African-Americans. After all, most racial oppression involved these two groups. But they chose the “facially neutral” terms religion and race. Why did such wisdom elude the proponents of caste inclusion? Because neutral terms such as “inherited status” don’t have the emotional impact of “caste,” everyone remembers from middle school. The desire to rescue the poor Dalits from the evil Brahmins purportedly propels the targeting of Hindus.

You can see the problem now. Caste is alleged to be a universal phenomenon, but between winks, everyone knows they’re talking about Hindus. The universal problem, inequality due to inherited status, isn’t powerful enough to trigger a unanimous vote. The term “caste” is necessary for the bill to speed through the California legislature.

This dear reader, is a classic dog whistle. The term “caste” is preferred to a facially neutral term precisely because it silently points to Hinduism, which has a negative public perception to start with. Indian Dalit champions Periyar and Ambedkar believed the caste system could only end if Hinduism were abolished. The idea hasn’t gone away.

The Hindu Angle  

What about the protests launched by the “model minority,” Hindus? They’re concerned that the word “caste” will expose them to racial profiling, bullying, suspicion, marginalization and denial of opportunities at work, and fake harassment or blackmail along the lines of the Cisco case. So far, the authorities have dismissed them as an expected Hindu nationalist rant. That’s how they’re being coached by caste inclusion propaganda.

Are Hindus under attack? The 2016 Equality Labs (EL) report, “Caste in the United States,” published shocking data about Dalits focused only on Hindus. So did public comments to the Seattle Council and Santa Clara County, the Civil Rights Department’s now-dismissed case against Cisco engineers, and the initial draft of California SB 403.

It’s not surprising because Thenmozhi Soundararajan (“TS”), EL’s Executive Director, has widely evangelized the creed of Brahmins’ abhorrence of the Dalit. Her seminars at major universities were hailed as a courageous exposure of horrific oppression beneath the model minority facade. It led to national recognition and fellowships at places like Stanford. Her campaigns planted the idea that caste should have been in the Civil Rights Act, and the mistake was easy to rectify. Just add in the missing word.

The proposal proved so seductive that red flags were ignored. For example, no news reports, police reports, court cases, convictions, or sentences backed up EL’s claims of widespread rapes and physical violence against Dalits. Similarly, the Carnegie-Mellon Institute for International Peace found methodological flaws in EL’s work, whose own survey found an order of magnitude lower caste-based discrimination. Also ignored was a Youtube video of TS preaching hate against Hindu deities, scriptures, festivals, marriages, and even Hindu cuisine, asserting that the Nazis were (expletive deleted) Brahmins.  

Hindus are justifiably troubled by this mad rush. If uncritical elected and corporate bodies can indict them based on unsubstantiated claims, there’s no telling where it might stop. The Nazi oppression of Jews built up over decades. A similar build-up of hate against equally hapless and naive but allegedly caste-privileged Hindus can happen here.

The Hindu Stigma

The reasons for this “mad rush” – unrestrained legislation based on one report not much better than rumors – are worth exploring. Why did everyone from brilliant Ivy League professors to crowd-following politicians join in maligning Hindus by attacking a Hindu term? Their gullibility and their enthusiasm are shocking.

Perhaps not so shocking considering how Hindu society is perceived in the West. The “caste system” is still depicted by media like the BBC as a horrifying straitjacket that shackles Hindus lifelong at birth. The belief infects virtually every liberal and every human rights organization in the West. It is also taught in American middle schools, sometimes but not always with qualification. The evils of caste are legendary – and mythical.

According to modern research (ref. Caste System in India, Wikipedia), the caste system was a British perversion of India’s traditional social categories, influenced by the Spanish “casta” or breed, the layers in British society, and the quack field of scientific racism. The 12,000-page pioneering caste census of 1901 contained thousands of “castes” extracted from bewildered respondents and somehow assembled by Brahmin advisors into a hierarchy.

Risely’s catalog, although arbitrary and contested, was useful in administration. In particular, it was used for awarding caste-based preferences to the disadvantaged. India today reserves over half the college seats and government jobs for Dalits and other “Depressed classes.” This quota scheme has helped to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty and place millions of formerly lower-caste individuals in positions of authority. 

However, the popular Western media still project 19th-century tropes about caste, ignoring or censoring the incredible and incredibly rapid progress India has made. Groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch strive to maintain an image of India as an oppressive place, even as they use and cite India’s free press. The point is that an odious, false, and obsolete image of the caste system is projected as reality.

In conclusion, outdated negative stereotypes of Hindu society pass for truth in the Western world. That’s why shocking claims about Hindus, such as the EL report, don’t raise an eyebrow. Equality Labs’ propaganda works because people want to believe it.

The Prognosis

Colonial-era stereotypes about Hindus go beyond the caste system to arranged marriages, dowry, animal worship, idolatry, and even snake charmers. Hindu Americans are unlikely to know this, know their caste or understand Hindu principles like pluralism, universalist philosophy, reverence for knowledge, or strong and principled families.

As ambitious politicians continue to use “caste” as a dog whistle that denotes Hinduism, a presumption of upper-caste privilege will impact Hindus’ career options. Already some universities indicate a preference for Dalits and Muslims among Indian Americans. If you don’t know your caste, one may be assigned by your last name. It can get bewildering for a generation that barely learned to spell “caste” in sixth grade.

Both parents and their kids need to know this. Parents should tell their kids about the false stereotypes they will be taught. Hindu students should be more critical of what is being said about them. Above all, be very careful who you vote for.

Dr. Subhash Garg has spent ten years in independent study and research about Hindu issues. Before 2012 he spent 25 years working on various satellites and 7 years in media start-ups. He also has 62 technical publications, patents that are still being flown, and two NASA awards for innovative solutions.