The focus of this session was how caste is getting entrenched into the Hinduphobia narrative and what needs to be done to stop this. The panelists, Dr. Prakash Shah, a Reader in Culture and law at Queen Mary University, London, UK, and Ms. Suhag Shukla, Executive Director of the Hindu American Foundation, shared their perspectives on this weighty subject.
The moderator of the session, Kalyan Viswanathan, President of the Hindu University of America, framed the discussion by noting how India was infiltrated by the European race theories, restructuring India’s Varna/Jati social order into a caste system. Subsequently, the British systematized it into the British Census of India, further entrenching this concept of caste into the Indian psyche, which India has not been able to shake off post-independence. He then linked it to the current context where the caste system is once again being weaponized in the UK and the US and its associated challenges.
Dr. Prakash Shah
Dr. Shah started his speech by sharing a presentation, ‘UK caste law in context.’ He mentioned that the UK has already been exposed to the demands for a caste law resulting in a caste discrimination law. In fact, the law has been extended to other domains as well, such as criminal law. He explained that his brief today would explain the background of how the law came about and the lessons learned from the unsuccessful campaign mounted by various community sections against such a law. He noted the long history of European writing on India, and the interpretation of Protestant missionaries of religion in India crystallized into the caste system of Hinduism. Shah believes that while we talk about them, neither the caste system nor Hinduism exists as such. They are really part of the Western experience of India. Both the caste system and Hinduism are, in that sense, experiential entities because they belong to the Western experience of India, not the experience of Indians of their own culture and society. Of course, the caste system is always linked with a cluster of other concepts of slavery, race, racism, Brahmin priests, and tropes of oppression by them, which are also not the Indian experience.
Continuing on the background factors, Shah noted that even after the British left India, the ideas of caste and the caste system persisted in India. This was a form of colonial consciousness because Indians spoke about their culture in terms of British and European thought. One of the ways we see this manifest is how Indian representatives provided extremely long reports to the United Nations race discrimination committee about the measures they have taken against the caste system. They even introduced the Descent provision to the committee. However, they claimed it was not in the context of caste. By the 1990s, the same committee began to focus on making the Descent provision include caste in the UN Convention. By the early 2000s, some human rights bodies within the United Nations started to create the impression that the caste system existed not only in India but it was something that also got exported to other countries of settlement with the Indian diaspora. Specifically, the UK and the United States are mentioned in those reports as places where the caste system has traveled.
Meanwhile, in India, not only did Indians retain the caste system but extended it by implementing legislation on caste, adding reservations to jobs, university admissions, and electoral seats. In the process, they created a group of favorite victims who use legal threats, even without foundation, to make claims of atrocities against them, completely ignoring the legislation and reservations that have been set up to help people impacted by caste. By doing this, India severely impaired its ability to respond to legal maneuvers akin to what took place in the UK and the US.
In Britain, a provision on caste discrimination was added to the anti-discriminatory legislation framework. Still, the provision was not initially implemented as there did not seem to be a case for caste discrimination. But eventually, with pressure from lobbyists, this provision was incorporated. When the caste discrimination in employment case came into the British Employment Tribunal in 2014, all the tribunals agreed that the provision of ethnicity should include caste. In that case, the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission also intervened in support of the plaintiffs, arguing for the legal proposition that strict descent should be extended to cover caste. One outcome of this case was that the British government was able to rally members of the community to agree that because the judges have already extended the interpretation of the Equality Act to include caste, it’s better to advocate the retention of the caste law but abolish the legislative provision on caste. The other interesting thing the government did along the way is conceding that caste can’t be defined.
Shah also pointed out that it was difficult to respond adequately to the prospect of legislation in the UK. Structural problems such as conventional ideas about India and Hinduism and the caste system were so widespread throughout the British/Western culture that it was going to be very, very difficult to dislodge them. A climate of presumption was created that Indians or Hindus tend to discriminate based on caste. So, the people advocating legislation did not need to present much evidence, and just by loudly suggesting the presence of caste discrimination, they could convince the judges and lawmakers.
The discussion moved to Suhag Shukla, who started by appreciating Dr. Shah’s scholarship on the subject. She said that this discussion encapsulates the predominant narrative about Hinduism. Whether in media or academia K through 12 textbooks, many of us have been on the frontlines of finding the distorted depiction of a caste system. These representations have a real-world impact. While it’s okay to have some uncertainty around definitions as an academic exercise, in the law, one has to have far more clarity. Shukla espoused that caste is one of the most complicated and misunderstood concepts. Even though there is no universally accepted definition nor uniform understanding, ideas about caste have been internalized by Indians and institutionalized under Indian Law and UK Law, and in recent times, we are witnessing an unprecedented level of activism to institutionalize it here in the US.
The three areas she covered in her talk were – Corporate America, College campuses, and Local government. Shukla explained the Cisco case, which received an unprecedented amount of media attention, unlike other employment discrimination cases, due to the efforts of an activist group. This group put out calls to collect information about caste-based discrimination in the tech industry and has been actively advertising CAS (Competent Advisor Status) competency training to corporations. This has resulted in anti-caste or anti-Hindu posts being put on internal communication channels like Slack in corporations, causing a lot of discomfort and creating an intimidating environment for Hindu employees who just want to work. This has also put HR departments in a fix as they do not know how to deal with this.
Further, diversity inclusion staff are also regurgitating some of these inaccurate and negative stereotypes about Hindu employees that are raising concerns. Shukla said the second place that we’re starting to see this is on college campuses. Already, Brandeis University, Colby College in Maine, and UC Davis have, in one shape or form, added caste to their non-discrimination policies despite there not being a single complaint about alleged caste-based discrimination. The same efforts are being made in the Cal State University system, which has 23 campuses across the state of California. The third place we see it is at the county level and local governments.
Ms. Shukla noted that the activist group ‘Equality Labs’ approached the Human Rights Commission behind closed doors with a proposal to add caste as a discrimination category. Equality Labs has been involved in most of them, utilizing networks of their student activists and scholar-activists, who promote the prevalent ideas of the caste system being entrenched in Indian society and rooted in the Hindu tradition. They also directly lobby local governments, perpetuating inaccurate and negative stereotypes, falsely equating Varna with caste, and providing falsified data to the media.
So what is at stake? First of all, there could be a downstream effect. When you start painting an entire community based on ethnicity and religion as inherently biased, you make them a suspect class. If corporations start thinking this will be a new arena of non-discrimination fights, there will be hesitancy on their part in hiring a group of people or members of a community that may present a liability for them. We could see widespread discrimination in hiring, firing, and promoting Hindus. This could also put Hindu students at greater risk. The data shows that students who reported an intense focus on caste in the classroom were 2.6 times more likely to report being bullied for their faith. So there’s an impact on the psychological development of our children.
Shukla then talked about what the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) has been doing to intervene. HAF, she said, has been working with faculty and students at CSU and other universities and with policymakers in partnership with other Hindu organizations and making compelling legal arguments. Shukla gave insight into how her organization countered the proposal to add caste as a protected category in non-discrimination policies by delving into the legal arguments. The First Amendment in the US Constitution already outlines several rights, including religious freedom. Religious freedom has two parts: free exercise and the establishment clause. The separation of church and state is rooted in the idea of the Establishment Clause: that the government cannot establish a state religion. Free exercise, the second prong of religious freedom, gives us the right to practice our faith and traditions freely without government intervention. To ensure protection from the United States government, the UN, and other human rights organizations, Hindus must identify Hinduism as a way of life as well as a religion.
In this case, her organization argues that the government has crossed the line that they cannot define the Hindu tradition. The second area of law and the basis of much of their intervention and advocacy is the 14th Amendment. It means that a state cannot deprive individuals of general fairness and justice and that the state also cannot treat people differently. As a citizen, one needs to know their rights and responsibilities. They also need to understand how a citizen is given notice about their rights and obligations and that those laws are written clearly, in a manner that gives one notice of if they are violating the law and what rights they have to push back. In the case of caste, there is no workable definition. Even if there is a definition, there is the issue of how the state, colleges, or companies would go about determining what someone’s caste is. Would they keep a database with just Indian-sounding names, to the exclusion of any other ethnic minority or of any other national origin? Would people be forced to carry identification cards or certificates about their caste? And for people born outside of India who have no understanding of it, how will the law be imposed on them? And what about children with mixed parentage? There is a presumption here that if an individual is of Indian descent and a practicing Hindu, they would necessarily identify by caste and discriminate in accordance with a hierarchical caste system. This institutionalizes an erroneous stereotype and creates a suspect class.
Shukla pointed out that any caste-based discrimination is already covered under US law in the form of national origin, ethnicity, ancestry, birthplace, descent, etc. There is also Title Seven of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace, and Title Six, which prohibits discrimination on those same bases on college campuses that are receiving federal assistance. The Department of Education has explicitly said that national origin includes different social markers like ancestry. But when you add something like caste as a category, you are perpetuating a negative stereotype and distorted facts about Indian and Hindu descent students as a matter of policy, thereby creating a hostile environment that denies students a safe environment to pursue their education.
Lastly, Shukla drew attention to the fact that legal decisions are being made on erroneous data presented by Equality Labs, an anti-Hindu establishment. A significant study by Carnegie Endowment in partnership with Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania had 1,500 respondents. The study found that the majority of approximately 4.2 million people of Indian descent in the US do not identify by caste. Less than 5% reported having faced caste-based discrimination. There has also been an extensive survey by Pew of Indian attitudes, and slightly more than 80% of all Indians, regardless of their caste, said they had not personally faced discrimination based on caste in the previous year.
Shukla concluded that there is no need to create more discrimination to curb discrimination. She advised that as a community, we must explore our history, read scholars’ work, report any injustice, speak out against it, know our rights, understand what the laws of this country are, and stand up for them. She implored that we join HAF when there are calls to action to ensure we are protecting our community.
Dr. Prakash Shah is a Reader in Culture and Law at Queen Mary’s College at the University of London. He specializes in the domain of law, such as cultural diversity and law, religion and law, caste and law, immigration, refugee, and nationality law. He has had an extensive career and has many publications to his credit.
Ms. Suhag Shukla is the Executive Director and co-founder of Hindu American Foundation (HAF) organization. She has helped steer the foundation towards being recognized as an important and leading voice for civil rights, human rights, and religious freedom, keeping Hindu interests in mind. Ms. Shukla has a BA in religion and a JD from the University of Florida.