The Opposition’s Dubious Strategy to Thwart Legal Protections Against Caste Discrimination in California
- After weeks of condemning SB 403 as “Hinduphobic,” opponents have changed their rallying cry to “Racism!” with the purported victims now portrayed as all South Asians. A tacit admission of a failing strategy?
I was in Sacramento on April 25th to testify at the California Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings in support of SB 403, which would ban caste discrimination in the state. As expected, there was a large turnout from both supporters and opponents.
I was there at 7 am, two hours before the scheduled hearing, hoping to get in front of the line. But to my surprise, I could hear chants of “Stop…The… Hate” from several blocks away. The line was already long, indicating that some people must have arrived there in the wee hours of the morning. As there was no chance of my making it into the hearing room, I decided to talk to people anxiously waiting outside, both supporters and opponents – with a bit of sadness, I might add, to see the Indian American community so polarized.
As I surveyed the scene, I was surprised to see all the yellow banners in the name of Dalits and Bahujans, saying “NO” to SB 403. After talking to a few people, it became apparent that Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) organizations were fronting an avowed Dalit/Bahujan group, Ambedkar-Phule Network of American Dalits and Bahujans (APNADB), in their fight against SB 403.
Alas for them, their spokesperson, Sandeep Dedage’s “primary testimony” against SB 403 did not do justice to their large presence outside the room. His hyperboles and dubious claims left me stunned and must have raised a few eyebrows even among the Senators.
SB 403 is a “weapon to butcher our cultural existence,” Dedage declared, leaving everyone wondering how a law designed to prevent caste discrimination could possibly hurt anyone’s cultural existence – unless, of course, he believes that caste discrimination is so central to Hindu culture that it shouldn’t be challenged. His objection to SB 403 reminded me of similar objections by conservative groups to laws protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ communities as a threat to “traditional values.”
Dedage also claimed that organizations supporting SB 403 had attempted to erase the contributions of Dalits from California school textbooks. That is a gross misrepresentation. Having worked closely on the textbook issue in 2005-06, I know for a fact that it was the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF), a project of the Hindu Swayamsewak Sangh, and the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), which had attempted unsuccessfully to whitewash descriptions of the caste system and erase the very word “Dalit” from the textbooks.
Some may remember this powerful ruling in 2006 by a Superior Court judge, as he threw out HAF’s (and HEF’s) challenge to the textbooks on the matter of caste:
“The caste system is a historical reality, and indisputably was a significant feature of ancient Indian society. Nothing in the applicable standards requires textbook writers to ignore a historical reality of such a significant dimension, even if studying it might engender certain negative reactions in students. Indeed, it appears to the court that to omit treatment of the caste system from the teaching of ancient Indian history would itself be grossly inaccurate.
“Just as the regulation does not require textbooks to ignore unpleasant historical realities, it does not require them to present such realities in an unnaturally positive light…the texts…have satisfied the requirement of neutrality.”
I later found out that Dedage is (or was) the Director of the HEF, a relevant fact that he did not divulge during his testimony. Also, interestingly, the website and social media for the Ambedkar-Phule Network of American Dalits and Bahujans, show little or no active presence in Dalit-Bahujan social spaces other than on the textbook debate. That leads me to believe that it was created solely to support Hindu nationalist narratives on caste.
While I do not doubt Dedage’s personal sincerity, it’s hard to forget that in the 2006 textbook battle, Hindu nationalists had created a phony website in the name of Dalits and Bahujans, which exclusively carried stories from the RSS and other Hindutva groups.
I had a pleasant conversation with a member of the HAF, who offered the now-familiar line of argument that existing laws were adequate to counter caste discrimination. If that were so, I asked him, “Why did Cisco argue that caste discrimination was not illegal under existing laws and hence they did not act on complaints of caste discrimination?”
Cisco has since added “caste discrimination” to its H.R. policies, and a former senior Cisco executive has also gone on record supporting legislations like SB 403.
“Wouldn’t it be better to specifically add caste as a category so that there would be no ambivalence on the part of employers that they must address caste discrimination in their H.R. policies?” I asked.
To his credit, the HAF supporter seemed to leave the door a bit ajar to my suggestion.
Those who are following the debate on Equality Act, passed by the House in 2019, would have no doubt seen similar arguments by opponents, who maintain that there is no need to explicitly add sexual orientation and gender identity to civil rights laws, because “sex” is already covered under the laws.
However, supporters argue that the “…act would explicitly enshrine those nondiscrimination protections into law…rather than those protections being looped in under the umbrella of ‘sex.’” In their view, the bill would cement protections that could otherwise be left up to interpretation. Human Rights Campaign, which wrote in support of the bill, said “… a future administration may refuse to interpret the law this way, leaving these protections vulnerable.”
The very same line of argument now applies to why it is important to explicitly enshrine caste as a protected category in our civil rights laws. Those who’re facing caste discrimination can’t simply leave it to the vagaries of employers and the courts to protect their rights unless caste is spelled out in black and white in the laws.
“Say NO to profiling” was another common slogan I saw among opponents of SB 403.
This theme has been repeated over and over in the last few weeks, even though the proposed law mentions no particular community. Nor is it likely that employers would be so reckless as to create H.R. policies singling out South Asians. Nonetheless, APNADB claims that the new law would prevent companies from hiring South Asians – a red herring.
The HAF also raises several questions in its letter to Sen. Wahab objecting to SB 403, for example:
“…will administrators and the state be asked to rely on India’s laws related to caste and impose foreign law on those working or residing in California? Or will administrators simply treat people of South Asian origin as presumptively guilty because SB-403 states as much? Will only South Asians be forced to answer intrusive questions about or be judged for who they are married to because the state has defined caste as relating to “endogamy”?”
I find these speculations outlandish and fear-mongering at their worst.
Unfortunately, even Rep. Ro Khanna appears to have imbibed some of HAF’s talking points, as he stated in a recent town hall meeting that he was in support of any law ending caste discrimination, as long as it did not “profile” South Asians.
The cruel irony is that it’s the Dalits and Bahujans who have been subjected to centuries of cruel “profiling” in Indian society. Some members of those communities have come to America with the expectation that the “home of the free” would free them from institutionalized discrimination. To now deny them legal protections, merely based on the fears of other well-heeled communities, in my view, shows extreme insensitivity to their lived reality and exposes the victim complex being spread by Hindu nationalists.
The Indian-American community is one of the major beneficiaries of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and many reforms that followed, including the Voting Rights Act, a lift on bans on interracial marriages, a more liberal and inclusive immigration policy, etc. Since that era, the State of California has expanded the categories of discrimination from the original five (race, color, religion, sex, or national origin) to eighteen. If the proposed SB 403 passes, then “caste” would be the nineteenth category. At every stage of expanding and refining our civil rights laws, arguments have been made that they were either unnecessary or would unfairly target certain sections of society. But there is no evidence that any such fears have actually come true.
To cite one major example, in the intense public debate leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Sen. Strom Thurmond of Alabama, a staunch opponent of civil rights, argued: “This bill, in order to bestow preferential rights on a favored few… would take away the rights of individuals and give to government the power to decide who is to be hired, fired and promoted in private businesses…It would give the power…to government bureaucrats to decide…who, in the bureaucrats’ discretion, is guilty of the undefined crime of discrimination.”
I hear echoes of that same argument coming from Hindu nationalist groups in the U.S. who are opposing SB 403.
After the unanimous approval by the Senate Judiciary Committee (11 to 0) on April 25th and the green signal from the Appropriations Committee today, SB 403 is now headed for a floor vote in the California Senate. I am confident that the Senators will not allow unfounded fears and insecurities of Hindu nationalist groups and their supporters to supersede the urgent need to protect workers against caste discrimination.
Rajagopal is the Cofounder of Hindus for Human Rights, and a member of America Against Caste Discrimination (AACD).”