Coalition of Hindus of North America

CALIFORNIA’S “CASTE” LAWSUIT AGAINST CISCO SYSTEMS STEREOTYPES AND TARGETS AN ENTIRE MINORITY GROUP (INDIAN AMERICANS AND HINDU AMERICANS) WHILE ATTEMPTING TO DEFINE HINDUISM USING THE COLONIAL AND RACIST CONSTRUCT OF “CASTE.”

BACKGROUND

The civil rights employment discrimination case filed against Cisco by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (CDFEH) is very troubling because of how it stereotypes and targets an entire minority group – Indian Americans and Hindu Americans from all parts of the world. The case, first filed in June 2020, was dismissed by the Federal Courts and subsequently refiled by CDFEH in a Santa Clara court, for reasons not explained.

To be clear, we are not weighing in on the individual merits of the allegations against the defendants. Nor are we brushing away social discrimination and atrocities that exist in Indian society much like that in other parts of the world. What concerns us is the use of this one case of alleged workplace discrimination to generalize and make broad assumptions about people based solely on their faith and country of origin. We also find it troubling that the CDFEH is attempting to define Hinduism, a major global religion of over 1 Billion people, using the colonial and racist construct of “caste.”

At the center of the CDFEH lawsuit is the concept of “caste,” often mischaracterized and misunderstood, both in its historical as well as contemporary dimensions. The lawsuit willfully propagates myths grounded in European colonial and missionary ideology and in academic traditions hostile to non-Abrahamic religions. It makes sweeping claims while discarding any pretense at dispassionate and fair analysis. The consequences of this lawsuit are far reaching, with the potential to single out and bring disrepute to an entirely new and little understood group of immigrants. It harks back to darker days in California history, when the state was active in misrepresenting and suppressing the rights of communities such as Japanese Americans, African Americans, Native Americans and the earliest Indian immigrants.

For such actions to come from CDFEH – an agency of the state, paid for and supported by taxpayer money – is doubly worrying. While Hindu Americans fully support the CDFEH’s pursuance of civil rights and equality, they expect fair and equal representation from the agency. But stereotyping/targeting one group in its quest to help someone cannot be equal protection. Or in CDFEH’s core argument, that one case of alleged discrimination in one organization represents an entire community. We therefore urge CDFEH to reconsider the lawsuit, since it is furthering the worst of outdated colonial tropes to stereotype a vulnerable religious minority.

The mistakes underlying the key premises of the CDFEH lawsuit are detailed below.

AN INCORRECT PORTRAYAL OF “CASTE”

At its core, the CDFEH lawsuit uncritically accepts and furthers a concept of “caste” stereotypically portrayed in Western media and some genres of Indology. It is a simplistic narrative that fully ignores the roots of present-day social stratification in India, created during the colonial era to suit the needs of European Christian imperialists, and subsequently enhanced and used by legions of missionaries as well as Communists who harbored anti-Hindu sentiments. To begin with, the term “caste” is a deeply contested concept which does not do justice to the complex and diverse set of social relations in present day Indian civil society. “Caste” itself is an English derivation of a Portuguese word, not found in any of India’s many native languages.

It is the conflation/amalgamation of a variety of European anthropological concepts, and as such, the term “caste” is meaningless in the context of Hindu scriptural evidence.

Empirical evidence in India, and other Hindu societies, such as Bali, provide living examples, easily verified, of vibrant societies in which “caste” identities constantly mutate, belying the myth that “castes” are fixed and hereditary. Recent research shows, formal “caste” distinctions were not a defining characteristic of societies in the Indian sub-continent until the eighteenth century. The centrality of “caste” in discussions of India has to do with two characteristics, starting in the colonial era.

  • First, the colonial state was extractive, sucking India’s rich natural and human power resources to enrich elites in the European colonizer country. A fundamental feature of this exploitative regime was the need to enumerate the nature and causes of wealth in India, via tools like surveys and censuses, where “caste” became particularly significant. The censuses of India, devised by the British were, like all state systems, exercises in what the political scientist, James Scott, has called state simplification. In this case, they reduced a complex and diverse set of social relations, spread across a vast geography and populations with a variety of sub-cultures and practices, into a trivial and simplistic set of rules and principles based on hereditary identification and frozen in time. The British ignored the complex interplay between thousands of jatis (groups or clans that were birth or occupation based) and idealized divisions of societal labor (the much discussed four varnas), conflating the two and replacing them with the rigid and simplistic overlay of “caste.” The purpose of this new way of counting and classifying was to make India amenable to an exploitative economic and political system based on simplified common laws.
  • The second characteristic was ideological. European colonialism needed a narrative to morally justify the horrors being inflicted on colonies. “Caste” served that purpose. When interpreted in the colonizer’s framework, it had the potency to minimize the ills of contemporary British imperialists, who during their rule, propagated the slave trade and other forms of exploitation, such as the indenture/bonded labor system. “Caste” also served as a rallying point for missionaries and evangelists who supported the colonial enterprise and used it to raise funds for their missions of religious conversion.

“CASTE” AND AFFIRMATIVE ACTION IN INDEPENDENT INDIA

After India’s Independence, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, an iconic leader of the “lower castes,” was appointed to head the Constituent Assembly that drafted the Indian Constitution. It is noteworthy that his appointment was by consensus, including all of India’s myriad political parties. To understand how revolutionary this step was, it helps to remember that by contrast, the U.S. Constitution was drafted primarily by rich land-owning white men. The Indian Constitution explicitly banned all forms of discrimination. Subsequent government policies created a framework to empower the sections of society historically disenfranchised by the colonists, with affirmative action quotas for jobs and in education – at both federal and state levels. Today, India runs the world’s largest affirmative action program with sixty percent of seats in government jobs and higher-ed institutions reserved for scheduled “castes” (SCs), scheduled tribes (STs) and other backward classes (OBCs). In popular parlance, these groups are unfortunately referred to as “lower castes” – further cementing a colonial framing.

After three generations of affirmative action, India is now seeing the rise of what is referred to as the “creamy layer” – “lower caste” groups with significant wealth and education. Members of different “castes” are also well represented in politics, where many of the ministers in the states and the central government, are from the “lower castes.” Here, it is important to note that India’s current President and Prime Minister Modi are both from among the “lower castes.” Both men also grew up in economically challenged families, so their journey to the highest echelons of political power, is emblematic of the progress being achieved at all levels in India. If caste were as deeply embedded as CDFEH asserts, a “lower caste” man would not have inspired the following its current PM Modi has generated among Indians of all ethnicities, “castes” and backgrounds. Nor is Mr. Modi’s rise a lone exception-the story is similar in the judiciary, education, trade and other walks of life.

“CASTE” IN INDIAN HISTORY

Independent India was by no means the first to tackle matters of social and economic discrimination. Indian history is rife with progressive movements that sought social reform at regular intervals, such as the popular Bhakti Saints starting in 8th century CE, (who updated and revitalized Hinduism), as well as other faiths of Indic origin like Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. The founders of many of these traditions and movements were from “lower castes,” and yet, they had significant following, amongst members of the so called “upper castes” both historically and today. This does not mean there is no social or economic inequity in India, now or historically. It simply means there is no systemic, theologically blessed system of oppression, based on birth alone.

Of particular relevance, the most popular and widely read Hindu writings are the epics Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Both works are authored by men who would be deemed as belonging to “lower castes” in current day language: the former written by a dacoit/hunter and the latter by the illegitimate child of a fisherwoman. Yet their birth did not come in the way of them being revered by members of all “castes” – neither in the era they lived, nor in the millennia that followed. The impact of these two epics on day-to-day Hindu life cannot be overstated. These texts shaped and continue to influence religion, art, philosophy, strategy, morality, and so much more for hundreds of millions of practicing Hindus daily. If “caste” prejudice were truly as strong as alleged, the writings of so called “lower castes” would not have this enduring impact.

Before the British colonial state ossified it, “caste” was a dynamic phenomenon. It allowed for mutation and mobility and was subject to constant reinvention as alliances were formed and broken across jatis. Further evidence of fluidity comes from the varied jatis of the kings and dynasties that rose to power and ruled India over the centuries. Indian history is replete with alliances between tribal kings and emperors. Tribes that are considered “lower caste” under the colonial edicts were, at many times in history, powerful kingdoms and hence kshatriyas in the varna system. Much of this fluidity remains true even today as we explain in the next section.

“CASTE” AND SOCIAL REFORMS IN INDIA TODAY

The politics of “caste” in India today is about power, resources, identity, and ideology. A great deal of “inter-caste” rivalries and conflicts, especially in villages, involve clashes between lower and middle “castes,” based on standard human motivations such as power, possessions and passions, just like in any other culture or nation. It is also noteworthy that virtually all religions in India have some form of “caste” based social stratification. This includes Christianity (where “lower caste” Christians have taken their concerns to the Vatican as well as the UN), Islam and Sikhism. It shows that “caste” is fundamentally a social, rather than a religious construct. While highly condemnable, “caste” rivalries and atrocities in India, are mostly about control of material resources, similar to social conflicts all over the world.

“Caste” is thus a highly contentious and complicated phenomenon. There is total consensus in the Indian government and citizenry at large, that social discrimination must be eradicated. However, social reform does not happen overnight, and modern Indian democracy is only seven decades old. Still, it speaks volumes that India’s political leadership, from its President and Prime Minister, has a plethora of members of the “lower castes,” and we can similarly find revered Hindu religious and spiritual leaders, male and female, from all social backgrounds. The state of affairs in India today stands sharply in contrast with many other societies, including the United States, where the socially discriminated are yet to receive their due.

Given all the above, the premise of this lawsuit is not only factually incorrect but extremely misleading. The more pertinent question is: what does it say about the motivations and integrity of those who chose to file such lawsuits in willful neglect of the complexities of the subject? Is there any systemic evidence from reputable research that the Indian American community in the US is even conscious of caste distinctions or has engaged in threats or violence based on caste? Are they honest interlocutors seeking to do their bit to further social integration and end discrimination? Or are they ideologically motivated miscreants, duping well-meaning people in the wider American society, by further mixing up U.S. based racial constructs with the colonial “caste” structure imposed on India? And who benefits by the creation of such a malicious narrative against an indigenous minority faith?

CDFEH must investigate and answer.

ACT NOW

Take 5 minutes and follow 4 easy steps to write to California Governor Gavin Newsom protesting against the “caste” lawsuit by CFDEH. Click here.

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