Hindu teachers sue Cal State over caste discrimination ban

Two Hindu professors are suing the head of their university system for opposing the addition of caste to an anti-discrimination policy as part of a wider battle over whether colleges should explicitly speak out against founded bias on caste.

California State University System professors argue that naming caste as a protected characteristic unfairly targets Hindus and falsely suggests that oppression and discrimination are among the core tenets of Hinduism. Sunil Kumar and Praveen Sinha argue in the suit, filed on 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 Religion News Service. “But CSU’s interim policy singles out all staff and students of Indian and Hindu descent only 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 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 Dalit activism. The policy now identifies caste as a subcategory of race and ethnicity.

This university system has followed the example of several other colleges, including Brandeis University and Colby College, which have made caste a protected characteristic in recent years as young Hindus increasingly argue against prejudice based on the caste. Low-caste Hindus in the United States often report microaggressions aimed at exposing their caste status, said Dheepa Sundaram, professor of Hindu studies at the University of Denver.

California State spokeswoman Toni Molle said adding caste to the anti-discrimination policy “reflects the university’s commitment to inclusivity and respect, in s ensuring that each of our 23 CSU campuses is always a place of access, opportunity, and equity for all.”

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Naming caste as a protected characteristic, however, is controversial among some Hindus. The DC-based American Hindu Foundation, which represents faculty in the state of California, 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 – a fact that means members of the Hindu community see each other deny equal protection under the law.

“CSU has overturned non-discrimination by adding a category that it defines as inherent in an already minority community and controls only that community exclusively – 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 referred to caste in conjunction with Hinduism; they say these examples bolster their argument that making caste a protected characteristic targets Hindus.

Kumar, professor of engineering at San Diego State University, and Sinha, professor of accounting at California State University, Long Beach, also said they do not identify with any caste. They said they feared the university system would assign them a caste for the purpose of adjudicating cases of discrimination.

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Opinions on designating caste as a protected characteristic tend to diverge based on age and immigration status, Sundaram said, with immigrants less likely to support such a decision than Hindus whose families live in the United States for generations. Nearly 9 in 10 American Hindus are immigrants, according to the Pew Research Center. But Sundaram said many young Hindus have formed alliances with other affinity groups, such as Black Lives Matter, and are more willing to speak out against caste discrimination.

Sundaram, who supports making caste a protected characteristic, said criticizing Hinduism – even in a country where Hindus are a minority – is not akin to promoting Hinduphobia. She said 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.

More importantly, she says, she disagrees with the American Hindu Foundation’s argument that caste is not fundamental to Hinduism.

“You can absolutely recognize that it’s part of the tradition and fight against it, but to pretend it doesn’t exist in the tradition is just plain wrong,” Sundaram said. “There’s just no way to really make this case.”

The Hindu American Foundation was among advocacy groups that last year protested against 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. The HAF then said the conference had promoted activists who support “extremist movements” and deny the “resulting genocides of Hindus”.

The foundation also opposed a lawsuit brought by California regulators on behalf of an engineer at technology company Cisco who alleged his upper-caste supervisors failed to promote him because he was a Dalit. . The HAF argued that the discrimination allegation incorrectly suggests that Hinduism is inherently discriminatory.

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