San Jose (California): In October 2016, John Doe (name changed), a principal engineer at Cisco, was informed by two co-workers that his boss, Sundar Iyer, had told them that he was a Dalit.
Often called “untouchables,” Dalits lie at the bottom of the caste hierarchy in India’s dominant Hindu religion. Although the caste system was officially abolished in 1950, the socio-economic oppression against Dalits has persisted for decades.
At Cisco’s San Jose headquarters in California, Doe was subjected to caste discrimination and “received less pay, fewer opportunities, and other inferior terms and conditions of employment.” When he went to complain against his treatment, the upper-caste boss retaliated by reducing his role.
When the new dominant caste boss Ramana Kompella took charge, the discrimination continued unabated. He was given assignments that were impossible to complete under the circumstances.
Doe was not the only one to experience caste discrimination at Cisco. Praveen (name changed), a 40-year-old software developer has a different story but altogether a similar experience. In 2018, he asked one of his colleagues if he would like to go out for drinks- to which, the colleague, responded, “I only go for drinks with my Brahmin friend group.”
Most of the times, Parveen says, the upper caste employees would ignore talking to the Dalit employees.
“Even the office badminton team mostly consisted of Brahmins from across India and only some kind of people were excluded,” he says, referring to his caste.
Praveen and Doe’s ordeal is no different from that of other members of the Dalit community, who live, work and study in the US and face similar caste discrimination almost on a daily basis. But Doe’s case caught public attention and made it into US media after the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued Cisco Systems Inc. in July 2020, accusing the company of discriminating against a Dalit employee.
A century ago, in 1916, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, considered by many to be the tallest and the most important leader in 20th century India, spoke at an anthropology seminar of Alexander Goldenweiser in New York. He said, “If Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem.” And so it has, especially in the west.
Almost a century later, Equality Labs, a Dalit community organization based in New York, conducted a survey on caste discrimination in the US and found harrowing levels of discrimination faced by Dalit students and employees across the country. Ranging from disparaging comments to assault, they had seen it all. The report was released in 2018.
But for many dominant caste individuals and their organisations in the US, caste discrimination doesn’t exist at all. They are part of a bloc that is at the forefront of whitewashing the caste system and erasing its deeply violent history by having a religious sanction.
The events in Cisco must not be dismissed as a one-off incident. It must be seen as another incident in a series of attempts to erase conversations on caste among the diaspora.
“I was discussing with one of my Brahmin colleagues in the US and I heard him making the same ‘merit’ and ‘creamy layer’ arguments that they make against affirmative action back home. He said that the rich Blacks are taking away benefits from the poor Blacks.” said 40-year old Ramesh*, from San Francisco while pointing out the hypocrisy of upper caste diaspora Indians criticising affirmative action from a place of privilege.
“This is extremely hypocritical because blacks and Latinos paved the way for immigration safeguards that Indians conveniently use as they belong to the racial minority in the US. By rallying against laws like Prop 16 and supporting Republican candidates, they throw Blacks and Latinos, and by extension Dalits, under the bus,” Ramesh* added.
Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a Washington-based advocacy group that claims to educate the public about Hindus and Hinduism, is one of the main organisations leading this effort.
In the latest episode of caste erasure in the US, the HAF came out in support of Cisco Systems. The company was charged with not providing a discrimination-free atmosphere to a Dalit employee. But it seems this did not sit well with the HAF, which filed a suit to engage in the trial on Cisco’s side, claiming that the State was wrong to tie caste with religion.
This is not the first time the HAF has sided with casteist perpetrators. In 2019, Brandeis University, a private academic university in Massachusetts, declared that it will extend its anti-discrimination policies to cover caste. The university said that it is reacting to the growing cases of casteism. In their anti-discrimination policies, the University now acknowledges caste affiliation as a “recognised and protected characteristic.”
HAF pushed back against it, even though, in their statement, Brandeis University Office of Equal Opportunity did not mention Hinduism at all. They only said they want to include caste as a protected category against discrimination.
“Attempting to impose a policy on caste-based discrimination risks singling out, targeting, and unwittingly discriminated against Hindu students and faculty… as presumed offenders,” HAF said in a statement. As to why the HAF believes it must defend casteist practices, or even fight against caste discrimination, one can only speculate. Mind you, the HAF says it rejects all kinds of oppression based on caste; however, caste is not an “inherently discriminatory concept.”
Of course, for an organisation filled with dominant-caste individuals, the problem of caste would remain a nonexistent, unimportant issue. It is akin to asking a white-only, conservative crowd if they appreciate affirmative action.
“For them (HAF), an attack on the caste system is tantamount to an attack on Hinduism. They just want to legitimise caste discrimination,” S Karthikeyan of Ambedkar King Study Circle said. The Study circle, based out of California, has been at the forefront of fighting caste prejudices in the US. Their website lists out their extensive works and is an indisputable asset for people looking to understand the vast complexities of the caste structure in India.
“They have no objections when temples in Dallas host religious ceremonies for Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vyasas alone– but choose to express opposition in the Cisco case in the name of all Hindu Americans, showing that it does not see John Doe in that category,” he added.
To repeat, these are not one-off incidents. And this is where the HAF comes in.
In 2016, the HAF along with other Hindu organisations in America wanted to erase the word “Dalit” from the California Board of Education’s textbooks. The proposed curriculum edits of HAF and other petitioners on their side entailed the invalidation of the caste system’s religious roots.
They aimed to hide the subcontinent’s history of caste apartheid, gender disparity and sectarian violence. They want to change the mention of the Indus Valley Civilisation to “Sindh-Saraswati”, delete any mention of Guru Nanak’s challenge to casteism, erasing the social reformer Nanak’s very prominent repudiation of Brahmanism.
This would not just erase Sikh identity and suppress Sikhism’s autonomy, but also erase the visible opposition the caste system received well before the colonists arrived; contrary to the HAF’s position— which is that the Hindu religion only had Varna, and the British made the caste system as rigid as it is today. The Varna system, in theory, divided the society based on a person’s occupation. However, the product of this system was caste, which remains to this day. And the caste system was well in place much, much before the British ever set foot outside the Isles, let alone when they came to the Indian subcontinent.
(For a simple, lucid understanding of the theory of Varna, please click here.)
Uberoi Foundation, one of the HAF partners in the textbook case, suggested edits to the curriculum, saying, “Dalit is not a term from Sanskrit, nor from Hindu social history but a contemporary political construct to gain leverage mostly in elections and for economic concessions.”
“Valmiki was a Dalit & a theif [sic], who recognised the ill of his ways and later became a poet and is the author to one of the most famous poems that we now know as the Ramayana. Due to his changed conduct, he no longer belonged to the Dalits and changed his varna to become a Brahmin,” the Uberoi Foundation suggested in an attempt to fool the West into believing that caste is a burden one can easily slip out of.
HAF’s support for the caste system is also visible from its support for the Shankaracharya of Kamakoti Peetham. On his website, the Shankaracharya not only sanctions the caste system as an integral part of Hindu religion but also writes: “The sastras lay down separate rites and practices for the four jatis (that is the four varnas). This means that within the fold of the same religion, Hinduism, there are numerous differences. Food cooked by one caste is not to be eaten by the another. A young man belonging to one jati is not to marry a girl belonging to another. The vocation practised by one jati is not to be practiced by the another. The differences are indeed far too many.”
Once again, we are reminded of how in the past, the white leadership denied African-Americans the right to define themselves, and instead expediently chose derogatory terms. The HAF and the Uberoi Foundation believe there is no caste discrimination in Hinduism, yet cite and twist an example from “Hindu history” to suit their agenda. In this context, the words of Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a leader of a coalition that includes Dalits, Sikhs and Muslims, ring true. “There is no way that one would self-govern yourself into oppression,” she said in a New York Times article.
Other Dalits also point out how upper-caste Hindus go to any lengths to deflect and delegitimise caste-based oppression. Sharing an incident of caste erasure, Ramesh reflected on an incident in his workplace. “In the 20 years that I’ve been in the US and working for the IT sector, I’ve noticed that every time I bring up caste, the upper caste diaspora Indian will try to shift the conversation. Once in my office, I was explaining what caste is to an American colleague, a Brahmin woman jumped into the conversation and relentlessly tried to prove that caste discrimination is a thing of the past and nobody even knows their caste anymore. When asked why she uses a caste name as her last name, she did not have an answer and tried to deflect the conversation by bashing reservations as the primary ‘reason for casteism’.”
In a statement on the textbook campaign, the HAF conflates the Dalit community with “Christian missionaries and anti-Hindu forces,” dismissing Dalits’ agency, and commenting on their choice to convert to escape the shackles of caste. It is the othering of the Christian community and an intolerant branding of the Christian members of the Dalit community as missionaries.
Like many caste apologists on the Hindu nationalist front, HAF claims that as a consequence of European contact, caste categories emerged; and those categories are, among other factors, the result of colonial prejudice and religious discrimination.
Dominant caste Hindu leaders suggest problems with caste bias are confined to recent immigrants, rather than US-born Indian Americans, or deny that any institutional discrimination against Dalits occurs in America.
However, organisations like the Ambedkar International Center Inc. (AIC) believe religion intrinsically carries caste in it. In America, dominant caste individuals practise caste with absolute impunity.
“Performing a supremacist thread ceremony that is only for Brahmin men, lionising vegetarianism as a virtue (and demonising consumption of meat), celebrating upper-caste classical arts, and holidays with notions of good vs evil (that stem from the oppression of Dalit communities) are some of the ways in which upper caste Hindus establish their cultural presence as a community in the US. Such behaviors also create a hostile workplace for Dalit co-workers,” Sanjay Kumar, president of Maryland based Ambedkar International Centre said.
Also, it would be pertinent to remind everyone that caste is not a commodity to trade, exchange or replace. It does not change. It is nigh impossible for a Dalit to change or adopt another caste since caste and its associated social and economic discrimination is externally imposed by upper caste communities on the lower caste people. The thousands of caste atrocity cases reported in India every year is a testimony of what a rigid structure it is.
In its blogs, HAF writes praises of Upanayanam, a casteist ritual where upper caste men are made to wear a sacred thread. The thread ceremony is only for Brahmins and remains a visible caste marker. Another blog glorifies Karma, a tenet of Hinduism often used by dominant-caste individuals as a sorry excuse for their privilege and to gaslight Dalits.
Many other blogs on HAF talk of vegetarianism, and meat-eating, something espoused by Sheetal Shah, Managing Director & CFO of HAF, frequently on her Facebook, again stems from caste. In India, Vegetarianism is practiced by only about 20% of the population, despite Western stereotypes about India and vegetarianism. The rationale that drives vegetarianism among Hindus is not sustainability, but caste. India’s vegetarianism derives from Brahmanism and the caste system. Only among the affluent, urban and dominant castes is vegetarianism popular. That is also the case because, in most communities, eating meat such as beef and pork is mostly looked down on.
Dominant-caste diaspora’s caste apologia
Suhag Shukla the executive director of HAF applauds the goodness of caste. “Some sort of caste tradition might give people a sense of solidarity or a way of relating to one another is a force for good,” she wrote on her Twitter. Suhag and her husband Aseem Shukla, both HAF members, have often tried to “Savarna-splain” (think in terms of a privileged White male telling a Black man what ‘real’ racism is) Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundarajan, founder of Equality Labs, calling her a Hinduphobe and unleashing a right-wing troll army on her.
HAF publicly started targeting Equality Labs and its founder after it published its caste survey in 2018.
The survey on caste discrimination was the first of its kind that directly addressed casteism in the US. Twenty-five per cent of surveyed Dalits said they had been verbally or physically assaulted, One in 3 were discriminated against during their education, Two in 3 were discriminated against at workplaces. Sixty per cent had experienced derogatory jokes or comments, and 40 per cent and 14 per cent of Dalits and Shudras were unwelcome in their places of worship.
Suhag, while targeting the prominent Dalit organisation said that the survey unnecessarily essentialises and villainises Hinduism. “The single most problematic issue with this survey is that it traffics in the most dangerous and false tropes about Hinduism,” she said.
Rajiv Pandit, another HAF board member—tried to defame Dalit activist Suraj Yengde, going so far as to writing to Harvard University to cancel his fellowship on the grounds of “Hinduphobia,” a social construct they have created themselves to target people who speak against caste and religious oppression.
HAF’s caste makeup is nearly exclusively dominant-caste, and it reflects the views of those who have benefited from caste privilege for decades. As an organisation with virtually no representation of those they are commenting on, the erasure doesn’t stem out of ignorance, but out of apologia and whitewashing.
In 2010, HAF released its “Not Cast In Caste” report in which it claimed that caste inequality bears no foundation in Hindu scriptures.
The report states that the caste system is not an integral part of Hinduism, a position that was dismissed by many Hindu speakers abroad. It further called anti-caste forces Christian Missionaries, anti-Hindu and Marxists. “Hindu American Foundation (HAF) considers it imperative that any discussion on caste must be balanced by also considering the Hindu perspective of the problem, since the debate currently tends to be dominated by non-Hindu and often, anti-Hindu views, such as those of Marxists and Christian missionaries – both of whom often malign Hinduism.”
HAF has written various blogs and hosted podcasts that erase caste in Hinduism, however, most of them have no actual basis in facts. Many Hindu leaders have also attacked them over this selective learning of Hinduism. In their podcast, “That’s so Hindu,” titled “What we can do to end caste discrimination,” the interviewer is Suhag Shukla, a dominant-caste individual, and the speaker is Guru Prakash Paswan, spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party, ruling Hindutva nationalist party that has been working to foreground caste hierarchy in India.
In a podcast discussing caste, how is a dominant-caste person fit to ask questions about atrocities? Imagine if, in the United States, a discussion on race and politics featured a statement on the lines of: “We consider it imperative that a discussion on caste must be balanced by also considering the White perspective of the problem since the debate currently tends to be dominated by non-White, often anti-White views.” If the views of the White people are not central to anti-racism discussions, why do upper-caste Hindus feel they have the right to be involved in and dictate anti-caste discussions?
In its blogs, HAF frequently dismisses the extent of caste implications in Western countries, even though numerous testimonies of people prove that caste discrimination is very much a reality outside of South Asia.
Even UK lawmakers wanted to intervene in the matter of caste-bias in the 2010s. A state-commissioned study found plenty of evidence of caste-based inequality in public life in 2010. The report advocated that the most successful way to address discrimination is to pass laws against this kind of discrimination. The UK government then developed a legislative timetable.
However, the government of Theresa May denied making this legislation in 2018 due to its low prevalence, i.e. only 3 cases of recorded caste-based discrimination. They also said the commission could not arrive at a ‘universally accepted’ definition of caste.
But, it’s tough to miss the UK Hindu Nationalist outcry against this legislation. Like HAF, they too called it a colonial conspiracy and jumped on the “Hinduphobia” bandwagon.
It must be stressed again that on principle, the HAF claims to oppose caste-based discrimination. However, such claims ring hollow since the HAF liberally references the Manusmriti on their website.
Manusmriti sanctions horrifying discrimination and brutalities against lower caste and Dalit (avarna) people that Dalit leader and author of India’s constitution created a “manusmriti burning” ritual. In its guide on “Understanding Hinduism”, HAF references manusmriti as “The Manu Smriti is one of earliest texts but is still regarded as most authoritative.” (pg 8). Elsewhere in the report, HAF considers Manusmriti authoritative enough to refer to it for deriving fundamental values of Hindu religion from it – see: “An authoritative source, the Manu Smriti lists Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (not acquiring illegitimate wealth), Shoucham (purity), and Indriya-Nigraha (control of senses) as the five qualities that constitutes a universal dharma.”
Hindu Nationalism and Selective Outrage
It’s pertinent to note that HAF has issued statements, written blogs and recorded podcasts about almost all the major issues including the Citizenship Amendment Act, Babri Mosque verdict, abrogation of Article 370, but doesn’t even once mention the gang rape and murder of Dalit girl in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, which made international headlines over increasing caste atrocities in India.
Curiously, I checked how many caste atrocities they have spoken up against over the last 6 years. Unsurprisingly, from Khairlanji to Rohit Vemula to Hathras, HAF mentions none of these painful tragedies. Is Hindu American Foundation working for all Hindus then? Why does Kashmiri Pandit “exodus” pain them so much that it is referenced about 30 times when you search the term on their website—but Hathras or any other caste atrocity doesn’t make the cut to even draw a small paragraph? It would be foolish to dismiss the pains and tribulations of the Kashmiri Pandits, but it is impossible to not pay attention to the fact that they are “Pandits” i.e. upper-caste Hindus. The HAF is pained not because Hindus suffered because then they would have felt the same pain for the Hathras victim too. The HAF is pained because “Pandits” can never suffer.
HAF’s positions on various matters mirror the Hindu Nationalist fringe, but it does so with absolute hypocrisy. For instance, the HAF defends anti-conversion laws enacted by the BJP in India that targets minority religions as it opposes conversion out of Hinduism but supports conversion to Hinduism, echoing the Hindutva view on the topic.
It also has a widespread campaign for the propagation of Hinduism in America but opposes Christian missionaries in India, curiously making the argument that poor, uneducated people in India are gullible to the “machinations” of evangelists (and not of Hindus?). For them, the Hindutva-promoted cow protection movement in India, which has led to the lynchings of many Muslims and Dalits over the last six years, is not even worthy of condemnation.
The Indian diaspora in America is depicted in literature as a community of educated, highly trained migrants chasing the American Dream. The model minority is praised for their hard work and successes, but what goes unnoticed is their reflexive attachment to caste identities.
The Hindu American Foundation on one hand supports Black Lives Matter, as it should, but on the other hand, is hypocritical in whitewashing caste. Its board members write articles, issue statements to denounce police brutality on the Black Lives Matter protestors, but when it comes to condemning the police violence on Dalits in India, they don’t even utter a word.
“They will only support Black Lives Matter as long as it is convenient to them, and as long as it benefits them,” says Praveen.
“But they will ignore every Hathras or caste atrocity that happens because it will never affect them,” he adds.
The author is based out of the United States of America. Views are personal.