Hindu professors sue Cal State over ban on caste discrimination

Two Hindu professors are suing the head of their university system for rejecting the addition of caste to its anti-discrimination policy amid a broader battle over whether the academy should explicitly call for caste-based bias.

California State University system professors argue that the name caste as a protected characteristic unfairly targets Hindus and wrongly indicates that oppression and discrimination are among the core tenets of Hinduism. Sunil Kumar and Praveen Sinha contend in the complaint, filed Monday, that Hinduism is about compassion and equanimity – principles directly opposed to the discriminatory caste system.

“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. “But CSU’s Interim Policy excludes all Indian-origin and Hindu staff and students simply 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 into which people are assigned at birth. Dalits, sometimes referred to pejoratively as “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 public four-year university system, announced in January that it had added caste to its anti-discrimination policy after years of activism from Dalits. Current policies identify caste as a subcategory of race and ethnicity.

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The university system joins several other colleges, including Brandeis University and Colby College, that have made caste a protected characteristic in recent years as young 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, 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 adding caste to the anti-discrimination policy “reflects the university’s commitment to inclusivity and respect, making each and every one of us. CSU’s 23 campuses always is a place of access, opportunity and equity for all.

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The name caste as a protected characteristic, however, is contentious among some Hindus. The DC-based American Hindu Foundation, which represents California State professors, said the university system unfairly targets Hindus and that it has no right to define religion, much less as a discriminatory faith.

Suhag Shukla, the foundation’s executive director, said there is no State of California policy that “mentions” other religions, ethnicities or races – a fact that means members of the Hindu community are denied equal protection under the law.

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“CSU has turned non-discrimination on its head by adding a category that is defined as belonging to a community that is already a minority and exclusively to that community – Indian and Hindu students and faculty,” Shukla said in an email.

In their lawsuit, Kumar and Sinha pointed to times when California’s state government has referenced caste in conjunction with Hinduism; they say that the instance bolster their argument that the creation of caste characteristics is reserved for targeting 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 did not identify with any caste. They said they were worried that the university system would assign caste to them to prosecute cases of discrimination.

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Opinions on caste names as protected characteristics tend to diverge along lines of 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 in 10 US Hindus are immigrants, according to the Pew Research Center. But Sundaram said many young Hindus are forming alliances with other affinity groups, such as Black Lives Matter, and are more inclined to call out caste discrimination.

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Sundaram, who supports making caste a protected characteristic, says criticizing Hinduism – even in a country with a Hindu minority – is not the same as promoting Hinduphobia. He says 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, he says, he disagrees with the Hindu American Foundation’s argument that caste is not fundamental to Hinduism.

“You can absolutely claim this as part of the tradition and fight back, but to argue that it’s not part of the tradition, that’s just false,” Sundaram said. “There’s no way to really make that case.”

The Hindu American Foundation was one of the advocacy groups that last year protested an online academic conference on Hindu nationalism, a right-wing political movement associated with India. Protesters sent nearly a million emails to universities, saying the show was Hinduphobic. HAF said the conference promoted activists who support “extremist movements” and reject “the results of the genocide of Hindus.”

The foundation has also contested a lawsuit filed by California regulators on behalf of an engineer at tech company Cisco who alleged that his upper-caste supervisor did not promote him because he was a Dalit. HAF said the false discrimination claim suggests that Hinduism is inherently discriminatory.


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