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Explained | Getting America to recognise caste: previous efforts, renewed push

For close to two decades now, attempts have been ongoing at various levels to get institutions overseas to recognise the peculiar challenge of caste, a system of inequality and oppression that is unique to the subcontinent and is recognised by the Constitution of India.

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, itself a result of the civil rights campaign in the US, overturned restrictions of race and colour.(Reuters)

Last month, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against Cisco Systems, accusing the tech multinational company of allowing caste discrimination against a Dalit Indian-origin employee at its San Jose headquarters. “It is unacceptable for workplace conditions and opportunities to be determined by a hereditary social status determined by birth. Employers must be prepared to prevent, remedy, and deter unlawful conduct against workers because of caste,” the director of the department said.

So, does American law recognise caste? No.

But could this case change that?

The federal Civil Rights Law 1964, under which the lawsuit was filed against Cisco and two “upper-caste” Indian managers, bars discrimination only on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex and national origin. In choosing to litigate, the California government is pushing to expand the ambit of discrimination to include caste.

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“It is the first civil rights case in the United States where a governmental entity is suing an American company for failing to protect caste-oppressed employees, leading to a hostile workplace,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan of Equality Labs, an advocacy group for the “caste-oppressed” in California.

For close to two decades now, attempts have been ongoing at various levels to get institutions overseas to recognise the peculiar challenge of caste, a system of inequality and oppression that is unique to the subcontinent and is recognised by the Constitution of India. In 2018, several Hindu organisations forced the British government to backtrack on recognising caste as a structure of discrimination. The case against Cisco, amid the momentum of #BlackLivesMatter, which has spotlighted all kinds of discrimination, is extremely significant.

The first immigrants

Caste has been mentioned in an American courtroom earlier.

In 1913, A K Mozumdar, an immigrant from Bengal to Washington, applied to become an American citizen. US citizenship at the time was determined by race, and given only to whites. Mozumdar argued that as a “high-caste Hindu” of “Aryan descent”, he shared racial origins with Caucasians. His application was accepted — and he became the first South Asian American to become a US citizen.

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In 1923, a similar argument that claimed caste was a way to whiteness was put forward by Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh writer who had served in the United States Army during World War I, and who argued that he was technically “white”, given his “pure Aryan blood”. In his petition, Thind argued that the high-caste Hindoo (a blanket term used then for all Indian immigrants) “regards the aboriginal Indian Mongoloid in the same manner as the American regards the negro, speaking from a matrimonial standpoint”.

Thind’s arguments were rejected in the US Supreme Court, which decided that he was not white, and hence not eligible for citizenship. A few months later, Mozumdar became the first Indian to lose his citizenship as a consequence of that judgment.

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, itself a result of the civil rights campaign in the US, overturned restrictions of race and colour, and allowed a whole generation of Indian skilled labour (mostly upper-caste) to take a shot at the American dream.

A steady flow of “lower-caste” Indians has also followed, as they accessed educational opportunities in technical institutions via reservations. One such example is of the REC Warangal-educated Sujatha Gidla, whose 2017 book ‘Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India’, was published in the US to great acclaim. Gidla believes that accounts such as hers make it harder to deny the reality of caste. In New York, she recalls facing discrimination from many Indians, the least humiliating of which was from a Brahmin cashier at a bank, “who wouldn’t accept money from my hands. She would demand that I place it on the counter.”

But Gidla is sceptical about an anti-caste movement taking root in the US. “Of Indian immigrants, 90 per cent are Brahmins and 1.5 per cent are Dalits. Indians in America are a minority, and Dalits among them are a minority. How can issues of such a tiny community make a big enough impact to be called a movement?”

Scholar-activist Suraj Yengde argues that a Dalit consciousness has been present in the US from the 1970s or 1980s, away from the bright lights of media activism. “People have resisted in private and in public in their own ways. Even hiding one’s caste is a way of fighting caste,” says Yengde, who works with community-based Ambedkarite organisations in the US, some of which are close to 20 years old.

The California textbook debate

In some ways, it is not a surprise that the Cisco case has come up in California, where the last pitched battle on caste and history was fought about five years ago. In 2015, as part of a regular evaluation, the California board of education asked scholars to help it come up with a framework for history and social science textbooks.

What followed was a bitter contest over several aspects of Indian history, including caste, and the critique of caste embedded in religions such as Buddhism and Sikhism. The suggestions of the South Asian Histories for All Coalition (SAHFAC), a collective of scholars and historians, were met with opposition from the Hindu American Foundation and other Hindu groups, who objected to narratives that portrayed “Hindu civilisation” negatively, and warned they might lead to the bullying of Hindu children.

The SAHFAC objected to airbrushing contentious portions of Indian history relating to caste atrocities, the attempt to erase the word “Dalit” from history textbooks as demanded, and the attempt, allegedly, to portray Muslims as oppressors. “At the end of that difficult campaign, one of the directors of the board of education said to me directly, ‘The stories of Dalit families are compelling… but you have no data about caste in the United States’,” Thenmozhi Soundararajan said.

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In 2018, Equality Labs carried out a survey of South Asian-Americans on their experience of caste to fill that gap. It showed that 67 per cent of Dalits faced caste discrimination at the workplace, 40 per cent in schools, and 40 per cent at temples. That report was cited in the lawsuit filed against Cisco.

2001 UN Conference against Racism

“We are firmly of the view that the issue of caste is not an appropriate subject for discussion at this conference. We are here to ensure that states do not condone or encourage regressive social attitudes. We are not here to engage in social engineering within member states,” Omar Abdullah, then India’s Minister of State for External Affairs told the United Nations Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.

In the lead-up to the conference, Dalit groups had demanded that the conference also take a stand against the “hidden apartheid” in India. Since the 1990s, these groups had had some success in lobbying international organisations on caste; the universal language and promise of human rights was used to broaden the framework in which to see the discrimination. Specifically, the definition of racial discrimination as “exclusion based on race, colour and descent” was used to acknowledge caste. In 1999, a report by Human Rights Watch, ‘Broken People: Caste Violence against India’s Untouchables’, focussed international attention on the issue.

Editorial | Lawsuit against company for caste discrimination recognises malaise in diaspora. In India, too, equality is work in progress

For India, which claims diplomatic capital from Mahatma Gandhi’s stock in the US civil rights campaign, its anti-apartheid position and programme of affirmative action, the events at Durban were an embarrassment. It fought all attempts to bring caste to the table, and objected to a conflation of race and caste. “India’s position has been consistently that caste should not be equated with race and it should not be raised in committees that deal with race. Caste is an issue that we have been trying to address through constitutional measures. We do not deny caste, but we believe that the issue of race should not get diluted by confusing it with other discriminations,” said Dilip Sinha, a former Permanent Representative of India to the UN offices in Geneva.

However, N Paul Divakar, who was one of several Dalit activists at the Durban conference, argued: “Tackling caste needs much more than framing constitutional provisions and legislation. It was an attempt to raise a global consensus, to legitimise anti-caste ideologies… The GoI took the position: we don’t need your interference. But it was not interference. The UN was pushing to collectively uphold the value that all humans, irrespective of caste, are equal, and some measures need to be taken for that.”

The road ahead

In Silicon Valley, California, the Cisco case is a potential gamechanger. “We believe this case will set a precedent. We have supported many Dalits who have come forward to complain about casteist discrimination. But the lack of having caste as an explicit category has meant that prosecutors have to shoehorn the issue of caste within protections of religion, race, and ancestry. This case will open the door for more such civil rights litigation,” Soundararajan said.

Yengde agreed: “The Cisco case can be monumental. Silicon Valley has a global footprint. Whatever is legislated there will have an impact on company workplaces in India and elsewhere too. The message will go out to thousands of workers.”

First published on: 08-07-2020 at 07:02:28 am
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