“We fully and vehemently oppose all forms of prejudice and discrimination,” Kumar said in a statement announcing the federal law, previously reported by the Religion News Service. “But in the CSU Interim Policy all staff and students are defined as being of Indian and Hindu origin because we are only 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 called “touchables”, face prejudice and violence in South Asian countries despite laws against caste discrimination. In India, the caste system was originally applied to Hindus but now it applies to people of different 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 recognizes caste as a subcategory of race and ethnicity.
That university system followed the lead of several other colleges, including Brandeis University and Colby College, which have made caste a protective characteristic in recent years as younger Hindus increasingly advocate against caste-based bias. Lower caste Hindus in the United States often report microaggressions aimed at exposing 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 the Religion News Service that adding caste to the anti-discrimination policy “reflects the university’s commitment to inclusivity and respect, ensuring each and every one of our 23 CSU campuses remains 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 DC-based American Hindu Foundation, which represents California State professors, says the university system is unfairly targeting Hinduism and has no right to define the religion at all, much less as a faith. discriminatory.
Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Foundation, said that no other California State policy “demonizes” any other religion, ethnic group or race – meaning that members of the Hindu community are being denied equal protection under the law.
“CSU has turned non-discrimination on its head by adding a category that it defines as inherent to an already marginalized community and politicizes only that community – Indian and Hindu students and faculty,” said Shukla in email.
In their lawsuit, Kumar and Sinha cite times when the California state government referred to caste in association with Hinduism; they say that these cases strengthen their argument that Hindus are targeted with caste as a protected characteristic.
Kumar, an engineering professor at San Diego State University, and Sinha, an accounting professor at California State University at Long Beach, also said they do not identify as belonging to any caste. They said they are concerned that the university system will set a caste against them for considering cases of discrimination.
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Views on designating caste as a protected characteristic tend to vary by age and immigration status, Sundaram said, with immigrants less likely to support such a move than Hindus whose families live in the United States for generations. Nearly 9 out of 10 US Hindus 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 inclined to demand caste discrimination.
Sundaram, who supports the protected nature of caste, said that criticizing Hinduism – even in a country where Hindus are a minority – is not like promoting Hinduism. She said that most discrimination against Hindus is based on the fact that many are South Asian, rather than their religion, and that Hinduism is not a widespread problem.
More importantly, she said, she disagrees with the American Hindu Foundation’s argument that caste is not the foundation of Hinduism.
“You can absolutely acknowledge this as part of the tradition and fight back against it, but to claim that it’s not in the tradition, that’s just false,” Sundaram said. “There’s no way to really make that happen.”
The American Hindu Foundation was among the advocacy groups that protested last year at an online academic conference about Hindu nationalism, a right-wing political movement linked to India. Protesters sent almost a million emails to universities, arguing that it was a Hinduphobic event. The HAF then said the conference encouraged activists who support “extremist movements” and denounce “the resulting genocide of Hindus”.
The foundation has also contested 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 was a Dalit. The HAF argued that the discrimination claim falsely suggests that Hinduism is inherently discriminatory.