- Indian Americans are capable of both overcoming intra-community prejudices rooted in postcolonial society they immigrated from, and fight against discriminatory laws here that problematize, target and single them out.
A veto is the ultimate boss move. And Gov. Gavin Newsom isn’t afraid of the power of that veto pen.
This year, he vetoed 143 bills reining in the excesses of his state’s legislature dominated by far-left progressives of his own party. But only one of those vetoes made global news headlines — from the New York Times to the Times of India: California Senate Bill 403 (SB 403) that would have added the category of “caste” to the state’s civil rights statutes seven weeks ago.
The SB403 caste bill was birthed in the redoubt of far-left progressive activism — framed under the ideological tutelage of academics calling themselves “scholar activists” and the organizing efforts of a for-profit Oakland-based company that offers “consultations on caste competency and DEI workshops.” Together, they prevailed upon a freshman state senator, Aisha Wahab, to propose a bill demanding that the existing Civil Rights Act be amended to add “caste” as a protected category, along with existing categories that included race, color, religion, national origin and ancestry.
SB 403 was strenuously opposed by Hindu, Jain and Sikh groups. While they said they unequivocally condemn intra-community discrimination in any form, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) issued a legal memorandum that argued that since the term “caste” is stereotyped to apply only to people from India and other South Asian countries, policing based on “caste” is a denial of equality under the law—it only applies to certain Californians, not all. That’s something the U.S. Constitution simply does not allow.
In the rare case that caste discrimination occurs—a major survey reported very few Indian Americans encounter it—then the existing category of “ancestry,” which doesn’t single out or stigmatize any particular ethnicity, proscribes such discrimination understood to be based on birth.
Newsom did not leave it a mystery as to why he vetoed the bill. He was convinced by the view HAF articulated and he said so in his veto statement—since “caste” is broadly aligned with ancestry, a separate category is redundant.
Veto signed and delivered. Move on? Well, the denouement is getting messy.
Media—mainstream and social—lit up alleging that the veto was about presidential aspirations (maybe), about the dark power of Hindu organizations (they work in the open), or bought with money (not a single donation to Newsom has been shown to be tied to an ask on the caste bill).
Those in academia doubled down too. If California won’t add caste to state policy they said, campus fiefdoms will continue making their own caste policies. Now HAF is representing two Hindu American professors in an appeal against the California State University system and the school’s adding “caste” to university policy arguing that colleges cannot make policies that are discriminatory, leave too much to ambiguity, and are impossible to adjudicate.
While the caste lawsuits make their way through court, academics are taking a different tact. Shaped by the prevailing oppressor-oppressed paradigm on college campuses, some academics are lashing out in the wake of the Newsom veto with virtue signaling.
Take Anantanad Rambachan, professor emeritus at St. Olaf College writing: “The choice is to acknowledge the injustice and oppression of caste structures and how these continue to painfully undermine the self-worth of those who are labeled as lower-caste.”
However, opponents of SB 403 are a multi-religious coalition that includes Dalit and Bahujan communities. They acknowledge historical injustices but insist that laws that specifically target their community would racialize and divide them. Hindu Dalits and Bahujans were aghast that California would even consider a legal recognition of a term that subsumes their individual identities even while there are ongoing dialogues within immigrant communities from the Indian subcontinent to overcome old-world dynamics and divisions.
Rambachan offers another choice: “The choice is to truthfully acknowledge the reality of caste in teachings, interpretations, and practices of the tradition and to lift up those teachings, also in Hinduism, that refute caste and affirm the equal dignity of all human beings.”
Rambachan never expounds on which “teachings” of Hinduism enjoin recognition of “caste,” but Rambachan himself wrote that Hindu teachings of Advaita Vedanta, of which he is an exponent, “enables us to see living beings as constituting a single community and provides a philosophical basis for a compassionate and inclusive community where the worth and dignity of every human being is affirmed and where justice, at all levels, is sought.”
If Rambachan wants Hindus to confront social injustices, Hindus might ask, “where have you been in the past millennium?” From the ultimate truths espoused in the Vedas to the sramanas, to texts such as the Vajrasuchi Upanishad, to saints of the bhakti movement starting from the early centuries of the first millennium to the works of Swami Vivekananda and a guru Rambachan studied under as a monk, Swami Chinmayananda, Hindus have explicated and clarified the irrelevance of “caste” as it pertains to the teachings of our religion, and reiterated its stance on the equal worth of all and command to respect others’ inherent divinity.
It’s distressing that a professor teaching Hinduism in 2023, even uses a term as discursive as “caste” which is never mentioned in Hindu texts, without qualification. Does he mean varna, which refers to classical archetypes of a person based on guna (qualities/virtues) and prakriti (tendencies/preferences) or jāti, referring to the Indic version of guilds or communities found across the world?
Academic scholarship demonstrates that the institutionalizing of “caste” was a product of British colonial policies and modern, democratic, caste-based electioneering – and these factors have a scant connection to Hinduism. Indeed, “caste” as recognized by the Indian constitution exists in all religious communities, including Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Sikhism across South Asia.
If Rambachan wants to burden his community with caste policies, it is incumbent upon him to explain how such a policy should be implemented. If he wants colleges to take caste censuses or issue certificates based on some criteria to adjudicate complaints, shouldn’t he explain the downstream consequences of policies he passionately advocates for?
Perhaps Rambachan leaves his advocacy as a rhetorical virtue signal because he knows well that none of the colleges nor cities that added “caste” to anti-discrimination policies have yet recorded a single incidence of caste discrimination. There remains no accepted definition for the term and no way to enforce the policies without reinforcing false and racist stereotypes.
But the danger of caste policy is clear. Until a caste discrimination allegation against them was dismissed, two Indian American engineers at tech giant, Cisco Systems, were hounded by the media, doxxed by scholar-activists and falsely branded as casteists by an online lynch mob.
And who are our counterparts in this introspection or debate Rambachan wants Hindus to have? The activist groups pushing for SB403, and many of Rambachan’s counterparts, are explicit in their anti-Hindu bias. Has Rambachan interrogated these groups as to why they call “upper caste” Hindus Nazis and Hindu scriptures as fountains of hate and slavery?
The choice may not be about intoning about Hinduism’s alleged “caste” problem, but really about calling out Hinduphobia proliferating on college campuses and far-left progressive circles.
Indian Americans are confident that they can do both: overcome intra-community prejudices rooted in the postcolonial society they immigrated from, and fight against discriminatory laws here that problematize, target, and single them out.
Legal maneuvering and legislative advocacy will take years to bear fruit. But sometimes, a simple veto by the stroke of a pen is justice delivered in a matter of seconds.
Aseem Shukla, M.D. is a Professor of Surgery in Urology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and a co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation. Views are personal. He can be reached at @aseemrshukla