Coalition of Hindus of North America

WHY CSU’S PROPOSED “CASTE” RESOLUTION DISCRIMINATES AGAINST HINDUS AND INDIAN AMERICANS

On April 10, the California State Student Association (CSSA), a body claiming to represent 482,000 students in the California State University System, voted to recommend adding “caste” as a protected category in the university system’s anti-discrimination policy, and ensure that the university staff are given resources to learn and better understand “caste,” with the main expert being Equality Labs and their “caste survey.”

The below provides a brief analysis of the resolution by examining some of the key assertions by the CSSA. We are surprised that this resolution, which aims to speak for the entire California State University (CSU) student body, was created with little or no involvement/input from a majority of the South Asian community. We strongly object to the resolution and challenge its bigoted claims as highlighted below. To summarize the most important points of objection:

  1. Varna is not “caste.” The concept of “caste” used by Equality Labs and echoed in the resolution reflects a colonial and racist understanding of the term, where British used European notions of hierarchy and race sciences to ethnographically map Indian society in order to exploit its resources and govern a complex and diverse population. “Caste” links this European construct to the unrelated concepts of another religion to unfairly target it. In doing so, the CSU follows the same racist and colonial line of thinking to discuss Indian society and specifically Hinduism. Jati and Varna do not equal “caste.”
  2. The resolution stereotypes and singles out for action one religious and ethnic group – based purely on origin. This action is against the spirit and letter of the equal protection clause.
  3. The resolution is heavily dependent on extending the value of questionable data and a highly flawed survey conducted by Equality Labs in 2018. There are several well documented problems with the “study” as laid out in this article. Indeed, the quality and data of this report were challenged comprehensively back in 2018 when it was first distributed. CSU prides itself on the rigor of its process and scholarship, so it is astounding to see such shoddy work be used as the basis of such a major policy change.
  4. The resolution falsely claims that Equality labs is an “international human rights organization.” According to its own website, Equality Labs calls itself a South Asian Technology organization and shows no indication of global presence. While it mentions members from the Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, and Christian backgrounds, conspicuously absent from this list are practicing Hindus. This is not an oversight, but quite reflective of the ultimate goal and target of this group.
  5. Equality Labs is also not a recognized or reputable mainstream research organization, nor a registered non-profit and its funding sources are murky. The group seems more focused on manufacturing propaganda, spreading misinformation and hateful rhetoric while pitting one group vs another.
  6. Equality Labs has a documented history of advancing bigotry against Hindus and Hinduism. For example, Sharmin Hossain, the group’s political director has openly attacked Hinduism. In one instance, Hossain declared: “Absolutely, Brahmins, have appropriated all their Gods from Dalits & Adivasis. Brahmins have stolen the Buddha, the hand of Fatima & other Islamic relics. Hinduism cannot be a part of progressive discourse until we dismantle Brahmanism.” In another instance, Hossain remarked: “Caste has informed every social, political and economic structure in the Diaspora. Arguing to salvage Hinduism is dominant caste rhetoric. Caste is rooted in Hindu scriptures. It is not a theological debate.” Furthermore, Equality Labs has gone on record to denounce Holi, one of the most popular Hindu festivals on college campuses, as a “violent” and “casteist” festival. With such horrific and bigoted views about Hinduism, we wonder how any reputed institution can find it comfortable to work with them. Doing so is antithetical to the university system’s ethics and spirit of diversity and inclusion.
  7. The resolution seeks to have a taxpayer supported body, “define” the scope of Hinduism – a clear violation of the right to freedom of religion. If passed, it will create a double standard which is inherently unfair to Indian Americans of all stripes as well as to Hindus from across the globe – including those from countries outside the Indian subcontinent.

DETAILED RESPONSE

Assertion 1

Caste is a structure of oppression that affects over 1 billion people across the world based in birth that determines social status and assigns “spiritual purity.”

Truth 

Caste is a colonial construct used by European colonizers fired with the zeal of executing the “white man’s burden.” For more than 200 years, India’s European colonial rulers put into place laws, beliefs and flawed texts to divide, break and thus more easily govern the population they exploited.

No Hindu scriptural source has been found assigning “caste” at birth. It is not possible, since the word “caste” is of Portuguese origin, imported into India by its colonial rulers. This begs the question – which stream of spirituality is being referred to here?

Oppression and strong group divisions are human problems that can be found in every corner of the world. Poverty affects more than 3 billion humans, many of whom are our brothers and sisters in California’s streets. These are all important factors contributing to discrimination that should be addressed, versus singling out one group or region.

Lastly, the Indian subcontinent (referenced later as South Asia) has a population of 1.8 billion which is about 0.8 billion more than the number quoted. It would be better if authors of the resolution explain their numbers and highlight any countries in particular and mention which countries/groups they believe are free or fighting casteism.

Assertion 2

There are four main caste groups: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras, and those outside the caste system entirely, with lower caste Shudras and those outside the caste system, known as Dalits meaning “broken but resilient” and formerly known as “untouchables”, considered oppressed by caste.

Truth

There is no agreed upon legal definition of “caste” across the Indian subcontinent, but given its colonial construct, we can look to the early colonial rulers who conducted the first “caste” censuses in India. That number is not four as claimed, but rather numbered in the many thousands based on British records.

Not only that, between the census of 1901 and 1931 the number of “castes” in British India seems to have tripled from 1,646 to 4,147. These numbers included over 300 “castes” whose religion was recorded as Christianity and over 500 who were recorded as Muslims as mentioned in this scholarly book. Colonizers and their ideological descendants freely decided how many “castes” they wanted to count, in their reports, surveys and censuses.

Today, the Indian government identifies over 4,000 “castes,” which include over 1,200 “scheduled castes.” per the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment’s data. Thus, it begs the question of how the CSU system intends to identify and track such a vast number of “castes” and group them into the four erroneous categories laid out in the resolution. In doing so, CSSA would repeat the same racist and colonial experiment as the British administrators in the nineteenth and twentieth century.

As far as Hinduism is concerned, there is no mention of any “caste” and neither of a fifth Varna in any scripture. There are 4 Varnas outlined “Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras”, and they are not deemed to be determined at birth according to Hindu scripture. Most importantly Varna is not “caste” and nor is Jati.

As Dr. B.R. Ambedkar said:  “Varna and Caste are two very different concepts. Varna is based on the principle of each according to his worth, while Caste is based on the principle of each according to his birth. The two are as distinct as chalk is from cheese. In fact there is an antithesis between the two.”

The selective target of this resolution is evident in who it calls out. If “caste” in South Asia is truly the concern, we wonder why there is no mention of the Ashraf, Ajlaf and Arzal “caste” groups found among the region’s Muslims, nor of the Khatris, Jats, Mazhabis, Ravidasias and more among the Sikh Community. “Caste” discrimination in Christianity is so strong that Dalit Christians have taken their case all the way to the Vatican and the United Nations.  In Pakistan, discrimination based on birth is so entrenched, that the Pakistani Army, the country’s biggest institution, openly advertises that only lower “caste” Christian minorities are eligible to apply for its janitorial jobs or cleaning sewers. By contrast, India has outlawed “caste” discrimination since the time of independence.

Assertion 3

Caste-oppressed groups continue to experience profound injustices including socioeconomic inequalities, usurpation of their land, rights, and experience brutal violence at the hands of the “upper” castes.

Truth

One of the most important ways in which the grand colonizer used to determine the “upperness” of caste was the amount of threat a community represented to their colonial authority. There are plenty of records where groups got promoted and demoted by strokes of bureaucratic colonial ink. Many new “castes” were pulled from thin air to create legitimacy for and by colonizers.

In the search for better understanding of the problem, we would like to understand how the student body or their sources have defined the “upperness” of any caste.

As members of a continuing, ancient, inclusive faith, Hindu reformers have constantly striven to reform social evils. Today’s India is governed by a President and Prime Minister, both of whom were born into socially and economically backward groups. Their current positions are the latest in a long series of evidence that Indians have always supported  social movements and reformers. While social discrimination exists in Indian society like other societies, we are inspired by these examples and our faith to fight for justice in pursuit of truth.

Assertion 4

25 percent of Dalits who responded to a survey executed by Equality Labs reported facing verbal or physical assault based on their caste in the United States, one in three Dalit students report being discriminated against during their education in the United States, two out of three Dalits surveyed reported being treated unfairly at their workplace in the United States, 60 percent of Dalits report experiencing caste-based derogatory jokes or comments in the United States, and 20 percent of Dalit respondents report feeling discriminated at a place of business because of their caste in the United States

Truth

As stated upfront, the data from Equality Labs cannot be relied upon. Here, we highlight just a few of the most egregious errors.

For example, Equality Labs conducted its survey without sample randomization and without qualifying the “sample.” Responses were collected using an online self-administered platform, which makes the data likely to be biased in favor of the agenda pushed by the organization soliciting feedback. A survey claiming to study “caste in the US,” was open to participants from anywhere in the world. Many more such flaws are evident if anyone with a decent understanding of statistics and polling were to take a look. For students of an institution of higher education to use such data is not reflective of scholarly pursuit.

The merits of the organization itself are undercut by its open  prejudice against select religious groups. For instance, the founders of Equality Labs and their prominent ideologues openly preach hate against select groups. Below you can see publicly shared tweets from their political director asking to “dismantle” one and only one religious group. (The tweets have since been deleted and the account is now locked).

Another example of hateful stereotyping, can be seen in an event flier. Here, an undefined category of Hindus from varying “castes” -savarnas- who number in the hundreds of millions, are accused of being systematic rapists and abusers, simply due to their birth in a particular community.

This thinking reflects the colonial roots, which is the inspiration of Equality Labs. In 1871, India’s British rulers passed the Criminal Tribes Act, which deemed entire “castes” as criminals by birth and subjected them to grave atrocities, including restrictions on movement. By 1947, more than 13 million people in 127 communities faced search and arrest if any member of the group was found outside their “prescribed” area as described in the book– an appalling state of affairs that the modern Indian state sought to rectify right away. It is also estimated that over 100 Million people today live under the cloud of the Criminal Tribes Act

Does CSSA wish to enact the modern day version of the Criminal Tribes Act, where certain groups are deemed guilty for life and penalized accordingly? Not only is it morally abhorrent, it fundamentally violates the equal protection clause of the US Constitution.

The overt bias of the authors is clearly influencing its survey methodology and findings. If the survey is created and then analyzed by the same people who call Hinduism an “evil, social construct,” and something that “needs to be dismantled” then these findings are not surprising at all.

Even setting aside charges of bias, a one-off unscientific survey conducted by a non-research organization with no credible evidence should not be the basis of such fundamental changes at reputed organizations. If this proposal is under serious consideration, a better examination of the pollsters and the methods used to collect the polls should be made available.

Assertion 5

All of these inequalities associated with caste status have become embedded in all of the major South Asian American institutions and they extend into American mainstream institutions that have significant South Asian immigrant populations, with some of the caste social locators being last names, whether a family eats meat, whether they own land in their country of origin, who they want to marry or be in romantic relationships with, and whether they are allowed to be out in their place of worship and community

Truth

This list is a perfect example of small everyday habits that are taken out of context to stereotype and victimize an indigenous minority community. Aside from the flawed Equality Labs data that this list is based on, it is just flat out wrong. For example, one would be hard pressed to identify which “caste” someone with a last name “Kumar” belongs to. Furthermore, how does one determine “caste” by the eating habits of a majority section of the South Asian Muslim population, which tends to be non-vegetarian?

Hinduism itself encompasses staggering diversity – embracing everything from a vegan diet to those who offer meat based dishes as part of their ancient worship rituals. This is similarly reflected in the Hindu American community which includes a diverse set of personal habits (just like any other group in the country).

Similarly, land ownership in India at least, is not restricted to any religion or a set of “castes”. Nor is any form of endogamy a requirement. This might not be the case for other countries in the region, which actually speaks to the need to stop bundling people from these very diverse places into one undifferentiated category of South Asia.  Interestingly, the largest landowner in India, after the Government itself, is the Christian Church as documented by Pandit Satish Sharma in his Caste, Conversion A Colonial Conspiracy.

We are frankly surprised by the university giving credence to this frivolous list, since personal preferences around diet, names, relationships and worship are protected by American law. We support all free and consensual conduct in individuals on such matters. Targeting people on the basis of the origin of their families is hateful and must be condemned. South Asians have come into America and strive to be an integral part of the country they cherish and call home. At times, they escaped military-run theocratic states which sought to discriminate against them based on their peaceful personal practices.

By seeking to add “caste” to the list of protected categories, CSSA stigmatizes Hindus and establishes a double standard: Hindus have to demonstrate that they’re not discriminating by “caste” when exercising their personal right, whereas folks from other cultures don’t have to demonstrate anything.

Assertion 6 

Caste discrimination has long been overlooked by American institutions, with almost all institutions in the United States failing to protect caste oppressed people, highlighted most recently by the recent lawsuit against Cisco regarding caste discrimination in the workplace

Truth

The statement again makes large sweeping claims with no data to back it up, aside from references to the same poor quality and biased Equality Labs survey that has already been highlighted above.

First off, the lawsuit against Cisco was thrown out by a federal court and is under litigation at a county level court. It would not be right to pull a quote without context. Secondly, one lawsuit or act of “alleged discrimination” by a couple of people in one office of one company cannot be used to convict a whole group of people. We are already seeing unfair stereotyping of the Hindu American community due to the unusual publicity around such lawsuits. Hindu American children who are born and raised in the US and free of the stifling “caste” construct put in place by erstwhile British colonial rulers, are being forced to develop a “caste” consciousness, just like their ancestors were forced to in colonial India a couple centuries ago.

Assertion 7 

A petition calling for the inclusion of caste within Cal Poly’s anti-discrimination clause was circulated and gathered over 120 signatures from students, staff, and faculty across various departments and colleges

Truth

To gather signatures for the resolution, this petition seems to have been circulated as a Google form with signatories listed.

Text that is part of the petition displays incorrect terms. Equality Labs was termed as an “ international human rights organization”, contradicting its own claim  that it is a “South Asian Technology organization.”

It is important that signatories and the student body take note that Equality labs is not a recognized research organization or even a registered non profit. Surveys published by an organization claiming to work for social causes should offer evidence to primary data and research methodologies for scrutiny. Equality Labs does not seem to have met these most basic standards. Nor do they disclose their sources of funding.

We do congratulate the student body and signatories on their active participation in the pursuit of justice. But we caution against hasty judgements and emotional reactions. Living as we do in a country where disinformation and propaganda has real and dangerous consequences, it is important for all signatories to examine the biases in the information they are offered by organizations. This is crucial for building a democracy where truth and facts matter more than opinion and emotion.

Assertion 8

Various administrators, such as University President, Jeffery D. Armstrong, and Title IX Coordinator and Director of Office of Equal Opportunity, Maren Hufton, have expressed their support for the addition of caste to anti-discrimination policy and forwarded the petition to Cal Poly’s support to the CSU Chancellor’s Office

Truth

We would like to state that these expressions of support occurred due to a one-sided biased brief. We ask for a similar meeting with all interested parties to provide the full picture and have an in-depth discussion. It is critical to understand the issue from all angles, versus the deliberately biased story sketched so far.

We hope CSSA is not ushering a new era of colonial adventures, when “saviors” from the West embroil themselves in complex and knotty issues without a full understanding of the history, nuances and differing opinions. Such attitudes reflect colonial culture where people try to govern others they know nothing about. 

Fixing one wrong should not trigger additional wrongs, especially against those whose voices and opinions have not been included.

Assertion 9 

The CSU has an executive order that prohibits discrimination on the basis of “Age, Disability (physical or mental), Gender (or sex), Gender Identity (including transgender), Gender Expression, Genetic Information, Marital Status, Medical Condition, Nationality, Race or Ethnicity (including color or ancestry), Religion (or Religious Creed), Sexual Orientation, sex stereotype, and Veteran or Military Status

Truth

We congratulate every effort to make the university an equal place of learning and excellence. However, passing this resolution would directly contravene CSU’s executive order stated above, since it would enshrine special/different treatment for students and faculty based on their ancestry and national origin. The current executive order already addresses discrimination based on ancestry or national origin and thus can be used to adjudicate matters involving “caste.”

Assertion 10 

The addition of caste within the anti-discrimination policy will make Cal Poly and the larger CSU’s in compliance with the recommendations of Equality Labs, an international human rights organization;1 and The addition of caste within the anti-discrimination policy will reaffirm and add to Cal Poly and the larger CSU’s commitment to diversity, equity and support for those most systemically marginalized


Truth

Even Equality Labs does not describe itself as an “international human rights organization”. Indeed, the data we have provided about them makes it clear that they are closer to hate groups – focused on (in their own words) “dismantling” an old, indigenous and minority faith in the world. That is the antithesis of human rights, and CSU should not end up endorsing such hateful views or seeking to comply with the recommendations of a group whose philosophy is grounded in furthering the worst tropes of colonialism.

Conclusion

We congratulate the CSSA for its passion in fighting for the marginalized and wholeheartedly support any educated effort to do the same. In order to succeed, any solution must be grounded in fairness, good solid data and an appreciation for diverse viewpoints. A program built on false assumptions is never going to deliver – thus, getting the foundation correct is imperative. We also encourage students to be academically curious and skeptical of all information before coming to conclusions. We would love to partner with them to provide a better understanding of the inequality plaguing the world here in California and in the countries of the Indian subcontinent.

By passing this resolution, CSU will establish a double standard, which is inherently unfair to Indian Americans of all stripes as well as to Hindus from across the globe – including those from countries outside the Indian subcontinent. It is also seeking to use its powers to “define” Hinduism, a clear violation of the First Amendment. Not to mention, the CSU risks the danger of repeating the same racist and colonial experiment conducted by British administrators to divide and rule Indian society and destroy its indigenous culture.