Hindu professors sue Cal State over ban on caste discrimination

Two Hindu professors are suing the head of their university system for opposing the addition of caste to an anti-discrimination policy amid a broader battle over whether universities should explicitly report caste-based bias.

Professors in the California State University system argue that naming caste as a protected characteristic unfairly targets Hindus and wrongly suggests that oppression and discrimination are among the core tenets of Hinduism. Sunil Kumar and Praveen Sinha claim in the complaint, filed Monday, that Hinduism is about compassion and equanimity, principles directly opposed to a discriminatory caste system.

“We fully and vehemently oppose all forms of prejudice and discrimination,” Kumar said in a statement announcing the federal lawsuit, previously reported by the Religion News Service. “But CSU’s interim policy singles out all staff and students of Indian and Hindu origin just because we are Indian and Hindu. This, by its very definition, is discrimination and a denial of our basic civil rights.”

Caste is a social hierarchy to which people are assigned at birth. Dalits, sometimes pejoratively called “untouchables,” face prejudice and violence in South Asian countries despite laws against caste discrimination. In India, the caste system originally applied to Hindus, but now it applies to people of various religions.

California State, the nation’s largest public four-year university system, announced in January that it had added caste to its anti-discrimination policy after years of activism by Dalits. The policy now identifies caste as a subcategory of race and ethnicity.

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That university system followed the lead of other colleges, including Brandeis University and Colby College, that have made caste a protected characteristic in recent years as younger Hindus increasingly defend the bias based on caste. Lower-caste Hindus in the United States 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 a message from The Washington Post, but spokeswoman Toni Molle told Religion News Service that adding caste to the anti-discrimination policy “reflects the university’s commitment to inclusion and respect, ensuring that each and every one of our 23 CSU campuses is always a place of access, opportunity and equity for all.”

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However, naming caste as a protected characteristic is controversial among some Hindus. The D.C.-based Hindu American Foundation, which represents teachers in the state of California, says the university system unfairly targets Hinduism and has no right to define the religion, much less as a discriminatory faith

Suhag Shukla, executive director of the foundation, said no other California state policy “demonizes” any other religion, ethnic group or race, meaning members of the Hindu community are denied the same protection under the law.

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“CSU has inverted non-discrimination by adding a category it defines as inherent in an already minoritized community and controls only that community: Indian and Hindu students and faculty,” Shukla said in an email.

In their lawsuit, Kumar and Sinha point to times when the California state government has referenced caste along with Hinduism; they say these cases bolster their argument that making caste a protected characteristic is aimed at Hindus.

Kumar, an engineering professor at San Diego State University, and Sinha, an accounting professor at California State University Long Beach, also said they do not identify as belonging to any caste. They said they are concerned that the university system will attribute a caste to them for the purposes of adjudicating discrimination cases.

Engineers from India have thrived in Silicon Valley. Also their caste system.

Views on naming caste as a protected characteristic tend to diverge by age and immigration status, Sundaram said, with immigrants less likely to support such a move than Hindus whose families live in United States for generations. Nearly 9 out of 10 Hindu Americans are immigrants, according to the Pew Research Center. But Sundaram said many younger Hindus have formed alliances with other affinity groups, such as Black Lives Matter, and are more likely to report caste discrimination.

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Sundaram, who supports making caste a protected characteristic, said criticizing Hinduism, even in a country where Hindus are a minority, is not tantamount to promoting Hinduphobia. He said that most discrimination against Hindus is based on the fact that many are South Asian, rather than their religion, and that Hinduphobia is not a widespread problem.

Most importantly, he said, he disagrees with the Hindu American Foundation’s argument that caste is not central to Hinduism.

“You can recognize that as part of the tradition and fight against it, but to argue that it doesn’t exist in the tradition is false,” Sundaram said. “There’s no way to really make that case.”

The Hindu American Foundation was among the advocacy groups that last year protested an online academic conference on Hindu nationalism, a right-wing political movement with ties to India. Protesters sent nearly a million emails to universities, arguing that the event was Hinduphobic. The HAF said then that the conference promoted activists who support “extremist movements” and deny the “resulting genocides of Hindus”.

The foundation has also opposed a lawsuit filed by California regulators on behalf of an engineer at technology company Cisco who alleged that his upper-caste supervisors did not promote him because he is a Dalit. The HAF argued that the claim of discrimination falsely suggests that Hinduism is inherently discriminatory.

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