- Don’t fall into the trap of believing that Indian Islam is simply tainted by its proximity to Hinduism. Racial and class discrimination are also deeply embedded in the religion’s practice.
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s January 24th press conference on the dangers of caste discrimination in Seattle showcased a comical blend of 1960s political language and blatantly false lies that threaten the Indian and Hindu American diaspora. The sudden emergence of caste as a relevant topic in American discourse is worrisome, but the event wasn’t without humor. The city councilwoman’s diatribe against the “capitalists” and calls for “the workers to unite” certainly smacks of 20th-century nostalgia awkwardly mimed on camera.
Hiding behind an ideological caricature of a socialist, both the councilwoman and her guests use careful language that dog whistles at Indian and Hindu Americans, and us alone. Of course, Sawant is just a timely example of a larger movement that claims to fight for “caste justice” while actively upholding other forms of violence, bigotry and misogyny.
As if demonstrating that they have learned from their Dismantling Global Hindutva mistakes, the Seattle activists try to universalize caste by evoking mythical South Asia and avoiding direct references to Hinduism and Hindus. By introducing her speakers as South Asian Americans, Sawant also tries to sidestep the valid critique that caste discrimination is deeply entrenched in every country in the subcontinent, beyond just India.
The South Asia veneer wears thin quickly, however, with both she and other speakers using South Asia and India interchangeably and alluding to rising dangers as more Indians immigrate to the U.S. She finally throws in the towel and openly hopes to “inspire movements within India” by the so-called working and caste oppressed.
That India needs these bold South Asians living in the U.S. to help show her the error of its ways is some patronizing stuff.
Highlighting Muslim speakers at the event makes clear the implicit notion that subcontinental Islam has achieved something its Hindu population should strive for — and by proxy that the errant Hindu American community can learn from the Muslim American one.
“We Muslims have stood side by side, irrespective of one’s origin, skin color or financial status…for 1,400 years,” touted one of the activists invited to speak. This might come as surprising news to the Indian Muslim community itself, where a staggering 85% are classified as Pasmanda — those descended from Hindu/Buddhist converts as opposed to the elite Ashraf class.
The explicit bias comes through in the very meaning of the two words.
“Pasmanda” is a Persian word meaning “left behind,” while “Ashraf” meaning “noble” in Arabic, covers the descendants of the various Middle Eastern and Central Asian colonizers, generally of Turkish and Persian origin.
Amana Begum Ansari, a Pasmanada Muslim activist, often talks about prejudice against her caste, who are deemed less Muslim not only because of their descent but because they are less likely to adopt Arab cultural customs in language and attire.
In addition to being segregated and forced to use separate mosques and separate graveyards, the Pasmanda are grossly underrepresented, forced into representation by an elite Ashraf population that comprises over 90% of the Muslims in parliament despite only accounting for a fraction of the Indian Muslim population. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that Indian Islam is simply tainted by its proximity to Hinduism. Racial and class discrimination are also deeply embedded in the religion’s practice back in the Middle East writes another Pasmanda activist, Faiyaz Fyzie, who calls out this “pan-Islamic discrimination.”
There is also the lie of equality among Muslims in the United States. Asra Nomani, an Indian American Muslim, has been fighting for the rights of American Muslim women in mosques for over a decade. The recent 2022 terror attack by a Sunni Afghan immigrant in Albuquerque left four Shia Muslim men dead.
One speaker urged the Seattle council “on behalf of the Muslim community of Seattle” to ban caste discrimination. Please, brother, tend to your own home. It’s on fire.
In an attempt to make caste discrimination relevant and understandable to a predominantly white American audience, caste warriors conflate it with racial discrimination.
The deliberate racialization of caste not only confounds the varying constructs but also fuels the contention that Hindus are the “white supremacists” of South Asia — though let’s be real, this criticism is solely focused on India.
The Feminist Critical Hindu Studies Collective even accuses Hindu Americans of appropriating “white fragility”, an accusation which sounds so ludicrous that I’m convinced the group only exists as a parody.
The Coalition of Hindus of North America recently put together a neat Twitter thread highlighting Dr. Marten Farek’s criticism on the racialization of caste.
Most of the conversation about caste discrimination in the United States is fueled by the work of Equality Labs. There are plenty of fantastic critiques on their raison d’etre, including the brilliant Richa Gotham’s takedown of their infamous Caste Report and the Carnegie Endowment’s 2020 survey on Indian Americans. But, I’ll just share my summary of their business model thusly: a for-profit company created to fight caste discrimination creates caste discrimination to stay relevant and make a profit. It’s a business model that seems to be paying off.
Since those first murky allegations against two Cisco employees were filed in a June 2020 California lawsuit, a veritable edifice of caste policies has been constructed, fueled by the ironically named diversity, equity and inclusion industry.
Lost among the fury of a small set of recycled allegations and copious press are the incontrovertible facts that three years after it was first filed, not one allegation of that original Cisco lawsuit has been proven true.
Yet, in a spectacular subversion of the principles of justice, not only have those accused been deemed guilty before a trial, but the entire community they hail from has also been put in the dock and found wanting.
I’m not ignorant of discrimination back in the subcontinent that weaponizes a person’s jati/varna. I’m deeply sensitive to it as someone who spends a lot of time traveling through India. But simply saying there are four castes and untouchables that socialize in a strictly hierarchical order is both ahistorical and ignores power dynamics in the subcontinent.
Caricatures of the evil Brahmin priestly class playing puppeteer to a vulnerable populace are simply a recreation of the Protestant trope of an exploitative Catholic holy order that used money, politics and sex to keep much of Europe under its control. The analogy simply does not play out in the Dharmic milieu.
Failing to understand jati/varna or “caste” dynamics in India is merely unfortunate; extrapolating that faulty understanding and imposing it onto the Indian and Hindu American community is plain dangerous.
It also fails to acknowledge caste discrimination where it actually exists in the diaspora, such as in the Jat Sikh community, which weaponizes this discrimination behind the strong arm of Sikh extremism and separatism. Sikh extremists have been responsible for attacks against Hindus in the United States, Canada and Australia, just in the last year.
As people like Kshama Sawant and groups like Hindus for Human Rights continue to legitimize targeted discrimination against Hindu Americans, attacking us, and our holy places will be rationalized within the larger context of fighting the prejudice we allegedly embody.
Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation wrote a powerful editorial in the Wall Street Journal last month, outlining the flaws of Brown University’s anti-caste policy.
“[The policy] fails to specify how the university would decide which members belong to ‘esteemed’ or ‘oppressed’ castes,” Shukla writes, with “presumptions of guilt and negative stereotypes” likely adjudicating claims of caste discrimination.
How many generations out of India do we have to be for our caste status to disappear? What caste do our mixed varna children belong to? What caste do our adopted siblings belong to? Will we have to start calculating blood quantum, to mirror the other Indians in this country?
Like the politburos from the communist days of old, I’m sure Sawant and her comrades will happily serve as judge, jury and executioner in making those determinations.
Sandhya Devaraj is a second-generation Indian Hindu American who grew up in the D.C. area. She is a family medicine physician, based in New Mexico, who is passionate about preventative care. She loves to try new plant-based recipes and sip on the delicious teas her husband collects.