“We completely and vehemently oppose prejudice and discrimination in all forms,” Kumar said in a statement announcing the federal lawsuit, which was previously reported by Religion News Service. “However, CSU’s interim policy singles out all staff and students of Indian origin simply because we are Indian and Hindu. This is by definition discrimination and a denial of our basic civil rights.
Caste is a social hierarchy into which people are assigned at birth. Dalits, sometimes pejoratively referred to as “untouchables,” face prejudice and violence in South Asian countries despite laws banning caste discrimination. In India, the caste system was originally applied to Hindus but now applies to people of various religions.
California State, the nation’s largest four-year public university system, announced in January that it was adding more castes to its anti-discrimination policy after years of Dalit activism. Caste is now identified in politics as a sub-category of race and ethnicity.
The university system has followed the lead of several other colleges, including Brandeis University and Colby College, that have made caste a protected characteristic in recent years as younger Hindus increasingly speak out against caste-based bias. In the U.S., lower-caste Hindus often report microaggressions aimed at revealing their caste status, said Dheepa Sundaram, a professor of Hindu studies at the University of Denver.
California state officials did not immediately respond to The Washington Post’s request, but spokeswoman Toni Molle told Religion News Service that the inclusion of caste in the anti-discrimination policy “reflects the university’s commitment to inclusion and respect, ensuring that each of our 23 CSU campuses is always accessible , a place of opportunity and justice for all.
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However, the designation of caste as a protected characteristic is controversial among some Hindus. The Columbia-based Hindu American Foundation, which represents California professors, says the university system unfairly targets Hinduism and has no right to define religion, much less as a discriminatory faith.
Suhag Shukla, the foundation’s executive director, said no other California state policy “demonizes” any other religion, ethnic group or race — meaning members of the Hindu community are not afforded equal protection under the law.
“CSU has turned nondiscrimination on its head by adding a category it defines as specific to an already marginalized community and directed only at that community — Hindu and Hindu students and faculty,” Shukla said in an email.
In their lawsuit, Kumar and Sinha point to a time when the California state government listed caste alongside Hinduism; They say these cases support their argument that making caste a protected characteristic targets Hindus.
Kumar, an engineering professor at San Diego State University, and Sinha, an accounting professor at Cal State University Long Beach, also said they do not identify with any caste. They said they were worried that the university system would caste them to decide discrimination cases.
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Sundaram said views on naming caste as a protected characteristic tend to vary by age and immigration status, with immigrants less likely to support the move than Hindus whose families have lived in the United States for generations. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 9 out of 10 Hindus in the United States are immigrants. But Sundaram said many younger Hindus have formed alliances with other affinity groups, such as Black Lives Matter, and are more likely to preach caste discrimination.
Sundaram, who favors caste protection, said criticizing Hinduism — even in a country where Hindus are a minority — is not tantamount to promoting Hinduphobia. She said most discrimination against Hindus stems from the fact that many are South Asian, not their religion, and Hinduphobia is not a widespread problem.
Most importantly, she said, she disagrees with the American Hindu Foundation’s argument that caste is not fundamental to Hinduism.
“You can accept it as part of the tradition and fight against it, but to say it’s not part of the tradition is just wrong,” Sundaram said. “There’s just no way to bring it up like that.”
The Hindu American Foundation was one of the advocacy groups that protested last year against an online academic conference on Hindu nationalism, a right-wing political movement with ties to India. Protesters sent nearly a million emails. letters to universities claiming that the incident was Indophobic. HAF said at the time that the conference promoted activists who support “extremist movements” and deny “resulting Hindu genocides”.
The foundation also opposed a lawsuit filed by California regulators on behalf of an engineer at tech company Cisco who said he was denied a promotion by his upper-caste superiors because he is a Dalit. HAF said that the claim of discrimination falsely suggests that Hinduism is discriminatory.