What happens to caste when Indians migrate to Western countries? Do their feelings of being born superior or inferior, their belief in the purity-pollution ethic, just melt away? The “model minority” has tried to avoid a conversation on this issue but it returns to haunt them time and again. Now the American state of California is at the centre of yet another caste controversy.
The last serious discussion around Indian-Americans and caste took place in 2015, when the California State Board of Education initiated a regular ten-year public review of the school curriculum framework. The conservative Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and the South Asian Histories for All Coalition (an interfaith, multi-racial, inter-caste coalition) clashed over HAF’s proposed interventions, which essentially sought to erase caste from the syllabus. The Coalition took the position that evidence and record of the injustices of caste and religious intolerance in South Asian must not be erased.
Petitions were signed and circulated, asking the state education board not to sanitise India’s history in the classrooms. Sit-ins, demonstrations and many other forms of protest were organised against the Hindu-nationalist view of Indian and South Asian history. Yet the significant role of caste was diluted and the erasure of Dalit, Muslim, Sikh and Christian histories was pushed through in textbooks.
The battle is not over yet. Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Abdullah Momin, Harjit Kaur and Anasuya Sengupta, members of South Asian Histories for All Coalition, recently wrote, “The current text of the Grade 7 textbook on World History states, ‘other Mughal rulers, most notably Akbar, encouraged and accelerated the blending of Hindu and Islamic beliefs....’ The HAF led alliance would like this historical fact to be replaced with, ‘During this period, the Central and Southern parts of India saw the emergence of native empires that offered resistance to the hegemony and persecution of the Mughal rulers. Prominent among them was the Maratha empire established in 1618 CE by Shivaji Maharaj, which saw a resurgence of Hindu culture and traditions.’” The new textbooks portray the Muslims and Islam in particularly poor light, but the Buddhists, Dalits (former “untouchables”), Sikhs, and other South Asian communities hardly fare better.
Now the state of California is suing Cisco Systems, an American multinational company headquartered in San Jose, California, over caste discrimination. The complaint has come from an unnamed Dalit Indian-American employee who has alleged that two former managers of the tech company, Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella, isolated him and denied him a raise and two promotions. The company refused to consider the matter when the aggrieved employee raised it, but the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) recognised the injustice and sued the company. The case is ongoing.
Justice in this case—if the charges are found true—would mean that the aggrieved employee is compensated and action is taken against the perpetrators. It would also mean that significant policy changes are made in the multinational company's anti-discrimination policies.
The Ambedkar International Centre (AIC), which supports social change initiatives and propagates Ambedkar’s philosophy in the United States, has told the California DFEH that the Cisco case is only the tip of an iceberg of casteism that Indians in the US practise. They have urged California to get companies to include caste in its equal-opportunity policies.
The four million-strong Indian American community, of which only 1.5% are Dalit or belong to a backward class, have largely remained silent during this crisis. Members of elite castes who make it to the United States have reaped the benefits of American anti-discriminatory laws but push back against legal recognition of exclusion and discrimination within their community. Truth is, discrimination is integrated into the daily lives of the Indian diaspora and this needs to be unpacked.
Caste permeates the everyday life of the Indian diaspora in America and elsewhere in significant ways, but if caste is officially recognised, like race is, as a form of birth-based discrimination, the carefully-cultivated image of Indian Americans as a “model minority” will crack.
In his important book on the subject, “Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans”, the political scientist Sangay K Mishra says that the Indian diasporic community “carries, and indeed replicates, caste consciousness and notions of purity and pollution that are linked to discriminatory practices”. What else does the existence of caste associations like the Rajput Association of North America, Brahmin Samaj of North America and Leuva Patidar Samaj of USA indicate but the persistence and perpetuation of caste identities? These caste associations are brimming with members and fresh entrants join every year. They unashamedly organise large meetings with the “purpose of getting young people from the same caste together”, Mishra says in his book.
An Equality Labs survey takes the debate further. In a sample of around 1,500 South Asian-origin people in the United States, it found that one in three Dalit students reported discrimination during their education while two out of three reported being treated unfairly at workplaces. “Dalits there face various types of caste discrimination in South Asian American institutions. This discrimination ranges from derogatory jokes and slurs to physical violence and sexual assault,” the survey found.
There is increasing visibility of caste and its attendant discriminations in public life in the United States today. The first ever meeting of South Asian human rights organisations with representatives of the United States Congress was held last year. In it, lawmakers were told that elite-caste Hindus were practising discrimination on caste lines in education and at work in the United States.
Of course, caste prejudice is not limited to the American Indian or South Asian diaspora alone. British South Asians were the original hot spot of caste discrimination. A government-commissioned research conducted by the British government's Equality Office found evidence confirming discrimination and harassment among the five lakh strong Indian community. The caste discrimination was of the type covered by the Equality Act, 2010, that is, it prevailed among the Indian diaspora in relation to work, provision of services and education (for example, pupil-on-pupil bullying). And the study found evidence of discrimination beyond the purview of the anti-discrimination Act, for instance caste-linked harassment in voluntary work situations, demeaning behaviour and violence in other areas of life. When the British government wanted to tackle this issue, it generated a massive counter-reaction in the Indian community, which compelled the administration to postpone all ideas of reform for two years.
In May 1916, a young Ambedkar had read a paper titled “Castes In India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development” at a seminar at Colombia University. He prophesied in it: “The caste problem is a vast one, both theoretically and practically. Practically, it is an institution that portends tremendous consequences. It is a local problem, but one capable of much wider mischief, for as long as caste in India does exist, Hindus will hardly intermarry or have any social intercourse with outsiders; and if Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem.”
After the Cisco case, one hopes again that the Indian diaspora in the United States would get the message that discrimination leads to penalties and that regressive caste practices cannot be justified in the name of religion. But the evidence, despite the hope, is that the diaspora is largely in no mood for soul-searching.
What is needed is a massive churning among Indians in India. These days, Indians are intoxicated by the notion that they are, or will become, Vishwa Gurus (teachers to the world). While they wait for that great dawn, they refuse to prepare themselves for any change whatsoever. They are keeping on perpetuating notions of purity and pollution along caste lines and it seems that opportunities for reform and change, like the Cisco case presents, would die like a ripple in an ocean.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.