“We fully and fiercely oppose all forms of prejudice and discrimination,” Kumar said in a statement announcing the federal lawsuit, previously reported by Religion News Service. “However, CSU’s interim policy singles out all Indian-origin and Hindu staff and students solely because we are Indian and Hindu. This is, by definition, discrimination and a denial of our basic civil rights.”
Caste is a social hierarchy assigned to people 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 applies to people of different religions.
California State, the nation’s largest four-year public university system, announced in January that it had added caste to its anti-discrimination policy after years of Dalit activism. The policy now identifies caste as a subcategory of race and ethnicity.
This university system 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 advocate against caste-based bias. 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 the addition of caste to the anti-discrimination policy “reflects the university’s commitment to inclusivity and respect, ensuring that each and every one of the our 23 CSU campuses are 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 DC-based Hindu American Foundation, which represents the 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 discriminatory faith.
Suhag Shukla, the foundation’s executive director, said no other policy in the state of California “demonizes” any other religion, ethnic group or race — a fact that means members of the Hindu community are denied equal protection under the law.
“CSU has turned nondiscrimination on its head by adding a category it defines as inherent to an already minoritized community and exclusively policing 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 referred to caste in the context of Hinduism; they say these cases strengthen their argument for making caste a protected characteristic of Hindus.
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 worry that the university system will assign them a caste for deciding discrimination cases.
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Opinions 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 have lived in the United States for generations. Nearly 9 out of 10 American 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 likely to call out caste discrimination.
Sundaram, who supports making caste a protected characteristic, said criticism of Hinduism – even in a country where Hindus are a minority – is not akin to promoting Hinduphobia. She said that most discrimination against Hindus is based on the fact that many are South Asian, rather than on their religion, and that Hinduphobia is not a widespread problem.
Most importantly, she said, she disagrees with the Hindu American Foundation’s argument that caste is not fundamental to Hinduism.
“You can absolutely recognize this as part of the tradition and fight against it, but to argue that it doesn’t exist in the tradition, that’s just false,” Sundaram said. “There’s just no way to 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 linked to India. Protesters sent nearly a million emails to universities, claiming the event was Hinduphobic. HAF said at the time that the conference promoted activists who support “extremist movements” and deny the “resulting genocide of Hindus.”
The foundation has also objected to a lawsuit filed by California regulators on behalf of an engineer at tech company Cisco who claimed his upper-caste supervisors did not promote him because he is a Dalit. HAF argued that the allegation of discrimination falsely suggests that Hinduism is inherently discriminatory.