Western news media is relentless in its negative portrayal of Hindus, Hinduism, and India. News sources like the New York Times, Washington Times, Times Magazine, CNN, and NPR, among others, seem to set aside any pretense of balanced journalism to show Hindus in a bad light. What is even more tragic is that any counter-arguments put forth by the Hindu community to set the record straight are routinely ignored.
Here’s an example where a group of 23 highly respected individuals wrote a letter to Time Magazine in response to its publication of an article that was completely devoid of factual information. Not surprisingly, they got no response from Time magazine – not even a courtesy acknowledgment of the correspondence.
To The Editor, TIME Magazine (or Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Examiner, New York Times, etc.) In reference to Rohit Chopra’s article in TIME Magazine, “Caste Discrimination Exists in the U.S., Too – But a Movement to Outlaw it is Growing,” we whole-heartedly agree that systematic discrimination in the U.S. is rampant and should be outlawed.
But since the article is about the practitioners of Hinduism, a brief background is relevant. The primary scriptures of Hinduism, The Vedas, describe philosophies and prayers; Hinduism’s main thrust is the search for truth and knowledge, and the theory of Karma, which combines action and duty. In the Vedic era, society was divided into three sects called Varnas. Those who were priests, philosophers, and teachers were in the Brāhmana Varna. Kings and their relatives were called Kshatriyas. The remaining segment of society was called Vish, which means commoner. Whether it was a farmer, a soldier, a carpenter, or a weaver, they were all considered part of the Vish sect.
Changing from one Varna to another was allowed and common, and there were no marriage restrictions between Varnas. A king could marry the daughter of a Brahmana and so forth. The concept of Varna deteriorated during the Middle Ages, with the onslaught of the Mughal and British occupation of India starting a millennium ago. As many scholars have argued, including Nicholas Dirks in “Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India,” what was originally the flexible Varna system became the rigid colonial construction called caste,” reflecting social hierarchies in Britain’s own society. The British administrators’ inclusion of caste and other ethnic markers in the census paved the way for their divide-and-rule conquest. M. L. Middleton, Superintendent of the Government of India, in the 1911 census report, confessed: “We pigeonholed e everyone by caste and if we could not find a true caste for them, labeled them with the name of the hereditary occupation. We deplore the caste system and its effect on social and economic problems, but we are largely responsible for the system we deplore.” The continued projection of Anglo social hierarchies onto Indian Americans is neocolonialism.
Out of the ashes of British imperial rule, it is undeniable that caste-based discrimination had grown in India. But popular accounts of caste, such as Isabel Wilkerson’s, conflate long-flourishing, flexible practices of community organization in India with the most depraved acts of European history: the chattel slavery of Africans and the Nazi holocaust. The percolation of this historically erroneous analogy into the imaginations of U.S. policy-makers is destructive to both the memory of the victims of slavery and the holocaust and to Indian Americans.
As this relates to the two lawsuits mentioned by Chopra, the merits of the case will be adjudicated, and the verdicts must be respected. Considering the number of malign forces in the U.S. that are eager to re-divide the country along ethnic and religious lines, journalists should also investigate third parties promoting the plaintiffs’ case.
The pejorative use of the term “Hindutva,” which means Hindu-ness, in articles like this is insidious – the owner of TIME magazine, Marc Benioff, has spoken eloquently about the Hindu-inspired spiritual journey of his friend Steve Jobs; the connotation of Hindu-ness in this article is an affront to all Hindus, including a large number of Benioff’s employees.
Laws elevating identity politics over social organization are invading every corner of life in the U.S., and we urge the California State University system and other institutions to remove caste from their non-discrimination policy. In fact, it is impossible to remove all non-systematic, subjective discrimination from hiring practices – such decisions are made at the individual level, with all of the baggage, privilege, and shortcuts of life experience that come with individuals. Even if hiring decisions were made “objectively” by computer, the computer program itself would reflect the programmers’ biases.
The Fourteenth Amendment protects the civil rights of all US citizens against discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other identifiers. By adding caste specifically as a protected category, these institutions are singling out the Hindu religion, thus setting the stage for all Hindus to be targeted and labeled as oppressors. It will give rise to discrimination against Hindus at large and violate their Fourteenth Amendment protections. In pursuit of protecting ‘Dalits (a term and category that is not clearly defined or understood)’
American Hindus (a small minority of 1.3% of the US population) as a whole will be subjected to discrimination in academia and the workplace. A solution to a perceived problem will cause a much bigger problem if we don’t pay attention to the unintended consequences of the proposed policies/laws.
If U.S. institutions were actually serious about tackling privilege-based discrimination, they might first look at eliminating legacy college admissions and the hiring practices that privilege the children of fraternity brothers and boarding school classmates over other qualified applicants. It has been claimed that up to 50% of the admissions in some elite educational institutions are based on wealth, whiteness, political status, and whether the forefathers of the applicants graduated from the same institution.
That these more insidious privilege-based practices are not part of the same conversation as the scarce caste-based cases is evidence of a double standard in the media.
Finally, twenty-three of us who received our Bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, in 1967, can categorically state that while we were students, the idea of a caste-based distinction never occurred to us. We made friends based on common interests; race, religion, caste, and ethnic background were never a factor in a diverse body of students that came from all regions of India. And we have remained caste-blind during our entire careers spanning five decades in the U.S. and Canada (and the last five of us in India).
Signed: Graduates of Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, Class of 1967
Divakar Bhargava, Sarvajit Thakur, Ashwani Dhalwala, Vinod Wadhawan, Om Sharma, Ram Matta, Ranvir Chitkara, Bhanwar Golcha, Uday Kapoor, Damodar Airan, Om Goel, Dinesh Sikand, Ravi Dewan, Rajesh Seth, Abhay Oswal, Chand Khanna, Anand Agrawal, Jai Gupta, Arun Duggal, Rishi Madan, Ravi Bhanot, Ravinder Bhatia, Mahinder Kapur