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How a Full-blown Caste War Within Indian American Community Could Influence 2024 U.S. National Elections

How a Full-blown Caste War Within Indian American Community Could Influence 2024 U.S. National Elections

  • Opponents and supporters of California’s anti-caste bill will be constrained to seek the support of mainstream America, thus nationalizing the issue peculiar to the Hindu community.

A full-blown caste war has broken out in the Indian American community following the introduction of the anti-caste discrimination bill in the California state legislature. The tensions that have been simmering between Hindu nationalists and the liberals in the community since the California textbook controversy of 2016-17 have come to a head, again over the issue of caste. This time, however, the war within threatens to have implications beyond the community. It is likely to spill into the mainstream political arena given the outsized influence that Indian Americans have in the American body politic.

Although similar legislation was recently enacted by the Seattle City Council and there have been few instances of such policies put in place in a few academic institutions, a state-level law adopted by the largest state in the union has the potential to raise demands seeking similar relief across the country. That’s how an issue intrinsic to the Hindu community, which is barely 1 percent of the country, could snowball into a polarizing issue nationally.

The bill titled “Discrimination on the basis of caste” is an amendment to the existing Unruh Civil Rights Act (named after its author Jesse M. Unruh and enacted in 1959), that adds caste to a set of protections guaranteed against discrimination in the State’s business establishments, educational institutions, and program or activity conducted, operated, funded or administered by the state, among others.

If SB-403 Bill, introduced by State Sen. Aisha Wahab, is passed, California may become the first state in the country to outlaw caste-based bias, the protection that some people of Indian origin, particularly those belonging to the lower rung of the caste hierarchy, say is necessary to protect them from discrimination.

Wahab contends that caste discrimination is “a social justice and civil rights issue.” The first Muslim elected to the state assembly and the first Afghan American elected the state legislature, Wahab says she learned about this form of discrimination growing up in Fremont and living in the San Francisco Bay Area.

While a majority of Indian Americans in California support the Democrats and have liberal leanings, they need not be necessarily either secular or progressive as understood in American political parlance. They are more likely to be conservative within the Indian cultural context with a strong caste identity

Fierce lobbying has already begun both by the protagonists and detractors of the bill within the community and without. Hindu American organizations, dominated by so-called upper castes, in particular, have upped the ante to rally the community and political influencers to oppose the bill. Various organizations including the Hindu American Foundation, and the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA) have launched campaigns and are raising funds.

While supporters of the measure lack similar organizational cohesion and fundraising prowess, and their ranks are much more disparate, they too can be expected to take up the cudgels, buoyed as they were by their recent victory in Seattle. But in a high-stakes campaign in California, the progressives may be caught playing on the back foot, to use a cricket analogy.

The reason is while a majority of Indian Americans in California support the Democrats and have liberal leanings, they need not be either secular or progressive as understood in American political parlance. They are more likely to be conservative within the Indian cultural context with a strong caste identity and with deep-rooted deference to religious traditions and rituals peculiar to their caste. Their liberal values might extend to belief in and support for nondiscrimination of other castes, but not at the expense of their caste loyalties.

In other words, liberal upper-caste Hindus, who support progressive issues outside their Indian milieu may not be comfortable with legislation that puts them on the defensive on the basis of their caste status. Besides, they will have legitimate concerns about coming under the scrutiny of the law even when they are completely innocent of any bias.

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It is for these reasons that the caste issue might influence the political behavior of Hindu Americans in California and nationally, which is to say there might be a shift away from their support for the Democrats. While numerically their switch of allegiance may not amount to much except in some close contests, it could however be a factor to reckon with when it comes to political fundraising — a means through which the Indian American community has always exercised disproportionate influence.

Apart from hiring expensive lobbyists to oppose the California bill and prevent its contagion to other states, the Hindu Americans’ financial clout could be expected to fill the coffers of sympathetic policymakers.

Because Indian American supporters of the anti-caste campaign(s) do not have similar advantages or financial prowess, they are likely to seek support outside the community by appealing to progressive whites, blacks, Asians, Muslims and other disadvantaged minorities who are likely to be sympathetic toward the underdogs. And this contest for mainstream support will nationalize the caste issue.

It is ironic that, 8,000 miles away from its home, caste should become one more of America’s discontents — with apologies to Isabel Wilkerson.

Sunil Adam is the Publisher and Editor of American Kahani.

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  • This is “progressive privilege” at it peak. You can spend a decade wishing destruction on the Hindu community. You can attack Diwali and Holi and simple traditions like Namaste. You can get to command feature articles in Washington Post, NYT, NPR, NBC etc al at the drop of a hat. You carry the endorsement of an asoirtment of academics from top Ivy Leagues. You can seek to take away freedom of religion from a minority group. And yet you will get to play victim because you are Equality Labs!!

    Or your maybe a powerful state senator in the largest US state, but you can dish the very voters you have refused to meet and thrown under the bus as “powerful”
    Easy to attack Hindus. a community known for its tolerance and in the US at this particular time , hamstring with millions of its members stuck for decades in precarious visa situations and thus able to speak up against these powerful politicians and activists.

    Bravo-for this brave new world, where the powerful office bearers get to play victim and bully those who can’t speak up. Truly the politburo and President Xi would approve

    • It is indeed alarming that Senator Aisha Wahab has introduced SB 403 in the Senate because it violates the constitution by targeting a group of people based on their religion. It is discriminatory against Hindus, Indian-Americans, and South Asians. The passage of SB 403 will mean that the state of California is alleging that the caste system is part of Hinduism. This is not true. Further, this bill is unconstitutional.
      It is shameful that Equality Labs has promoted a false agenda-driven narrative to Senator Wahab, based on its flawed cherry-picked data from a 2016 survey. This survey’s methodology is flawed because 1) It has cherry picked data by only including activists, 2) It deleted 25% of participants because they said they did not experience any caste discrimination, and 3) It did not perform a statistical analysis and yet it insists on calling this survey a gold standard. Furthermore, a recent scientific survey by the Carnegie Endowment Center, which reported that caste is an insignificant phenomenon in the United States has been ignored by Senator Wahab. Importantly, passage of SB 403 will be fundamentally unfair as it seeks to profile a select community. We American-Hindus are willing to work with the legislators so they can make an informed decision.

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