India’s caste system has long been a contention between scholars, activists, and politicians. Public opinion is divided between those who argue caste is endemic to Hinduism, and those who state birth-based social hierarchies are a social evil ossified over the millennia and are not prescribed in classical Hindu texts.
Proponents of the latter view argue it’s unfair to frame caste as an integral part of Hinduism while bypassing the religion’s spiritual and artistic contributions. They argue that if one applied the same logic to studying other faiths, slavery, genocide, and jihadi terrorism would be seen as covalent to Christianity and Islam.
There are rigorous anti-caste laws in effect in India. Article 15 prohibits the state from discriminating against any citizen based on religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth. Article 17 states the practice of “untouchability” is abolished, and its practice is forbidden. The marginalized and vulnerable are afforded similar protections in democratic societies, yet these vital protections are flouted with impunity worldwide due to various socio-political and cultural factors.
Targeting people of faith as the sole driving force behind bigotry of any kind is condemned as bigoted and ignorant. Yet this is how Hinduism is framed by the far-left in India—particularly opponents of India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—and by activists in the West that superimpose western racial hierarchies over the caste system.
In February, Seattle, Washington, became the first city in the United States to ban discrimination based on caste. Along with race and gender, caste can no longer be the basis of discrimination in this city. Proponents of the law claim casteism is no longer confined to the borders of the Indian subcontinent and has reached American shores with the burgeoning Indian diaspora; the legislation is a necessary corrective.
A prominent Hindu advocacy group, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), has fought tooth and nail against this legislation and against efforts to portray caste as endemic to the Hindu religion. I spoke to Suhag Shukla, the HAF Executive Director, about the effect of this legislation on the day-to-day lives of Indians in the United States.
She spoke to me at length about the origins of the HAF and responded to accusations of “Hindu nationalism” that bedevil the organization. She shared her thoughts on why it is a category mistake to conflate western racial hierarchies with caste and why the legislation is a “self-goal” for the diaspora.
[We have edited this interview lightly for clarity.]
Vikram Zutshi: The HAF’s cultural and political advocacy is well known, but only some know its origins. As a founding member, can you explain how the HAF came into being?
Suhag Shukla: HAF was founded by second-generation Hindu Americans. Raised in various parts of the country, we experienced the conflict between our understanding of teachings, culture, history, and challenges and the perspectives of peers, teachers, and communities.
We were affected by different aspects of this breakdown in understanding. Distortions in Hinduism teaching, pressure to conform to Christian norms, mis-portrayals in media, lack of voice in policy spaces, and human rights atrocities faced by Hindus compelled us to “do something.” Recognizing the Jewish community’s need, we built a US-based, independent, non-partisan institution with professional experts promoting Hinduism and Hindu well-being.
Vikram Zutshi: You recently stated, “Seattle caste ban is not historic, it’s a self-goal. After cows and curry, Indians will face this.” How is anti-caste legislation going to impact Indians in the United States daily? Who are the political actors behind this movement, and what, in your view, is their agenda?
Suhag Shukla: The movement’s agenda is fueled by anti-Hindu hatred, which has thrived on the far ends of the left and the right. It is led by neo-Buddhists or Ambedkerites who equate the cause of any social inequities in India with Hinduism.
The supporting cast includes individuals and organizations with long histories of anti-Hindu activism, including supporting separatist or terrorist movements calling for the creation of independent theocratic states of Khalistan and Kashmir. It also brings in conservative Christian organizations, which have used the caste trope for centuries to target marginalized communities throughout South Asia for “missionizing.” Caste legislation impact on US Indians: increased workplace uncertainty, decreased opportunities, perception as nuisance and liability.
They’ve opened the floodgates to ethno-racial profiling Indians and attributing “guilt” or wrongdoing by seeking a policy that singles out and targets people of one ethnicity to the exclusion of everyone else. They’ve frauded the public with falsified data and misleading examples such as being a vegetarian or talking about taking children to Bala Vihar as examples of “casteism,” creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty for Indian workers on what’s safe to share and what’s not.
Policy administrators will be left having to take on the liability of implementing a discriminatory policy. In the long run, it will be more expedient not to hire South Asians.
Vikram Zutshi: In some quarters, the HAF is considered the “American arm” of India’s ruling party, the BJP. What are your views on this notion of ‘dual loyalty’ that an American organization could lobby for a foreign political entity?
Suhag Shukla: Under US law, any organization/individual that lobbies or otherwise represents a foreign entity must register with the US Department of Justice. Lobbying for a foreign entity without registering has serious legal implications, so any allegations need to be backed by unequivocal fact, not insinuation, as is usual in the quarters you refer to.
The fact is HAF is a wholly independent American organization. We have no affiliation or ties to organizations or political parties in the US or abroad. The notion that we answer to or do the bidding of India’s ruling party, let alone any political party, is false.
Accusations of dual loyalty are used to otherize us as somehow not being “truly” American. They fearmonger about us doing the bidding of a foreign government instead of having legitimate concerns and aspirations as Americans.
It paints American Hindu efforts to self-define as a suspect. It robs us of the agency to engage in the public square as Hindu Americans, invest in our community needs, and contribute possible solutions rooted in Hindu teachings to the most critical issues of our age.
Those accusing HAF of being “an arm” or “Hindu right” or “Hindu nationalist”—essentially dual loyalty—should be seen for what they’re doing: exhibiting their bigotries or ideologies and inciting xenophobia.
Vikram Zutshi: In a statement about a case in which the state of California filed a caste discrimination lawsuit against Cisco Systems, you said, “HAF vehemently opposes all discrimination, and stopping it is a worthy goal, one that directly furthers Hinduism’s teachings about the equal presence of the divine in all people, but, wrongly tying Hindu religious beliefs to the abhorrent act of caste discrimination undermines that goal and violates the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of all Hindu Americans.”
Tell us about the CISCO case and HAF’s role in it.
Suhag Shukla: On September 20, 2022, HAF sued the California Civil Rights Department in the United States District Court for violating Hindu Americans’ civil rights in the state. In its federal court filing, HAF asserts California acted “unconstitutionally” in its case, alleging caste discrimination occurring at Cisco Systems, by seeking to define what Hindus believe and decide how they practice their religion, in violation of the First Amendment.
HAF’s lawsuit states the Civil Rights Department (formerly known as the Department of Fair Employment and Housing) wrongly asserts “that a caste system and caste-based discrimination are integral parts of Hindu teaching and practices by declaring the caste system to be a ‘strict Hindu social and religious hierarchy,’ which requires discrimination by ‘social custom and legal mandate.’” This action followed previous legal action dating back to January 2021, when HAF filed for injunctive relief in the same case against Cisco. If HAF succeeds, the Civil Rights Department must revise its Cisco case filing, as it’s based on the false idea that Hindu belief involves a caste system and wrongly equates caste with color and race.
Vikram Zutshi: You have stated on social media and in articles that caste is being weaponized against Hindus by certain activist groups. Hindus For Human Rights (HfHR) and Equality Labs have accused the HAF of advancing “fascist” Hindutva politics in America. What is the HAF’s official response to these allegations?
Suhag Shukla: Those labels are more a reflection of the ideologies of Equality Labs and HfHR than they are of HAF. Our position on any issue is based on a relentless pursuit of facts and deep consideration of Hindu principles and American values, such as freedom, equality, and justice. We advocate on various issues, allowing us to work constructively with lawmakers and stakeholders on different sides of the aisle.
An objective look at the policy positions HAF has advocated for accuses that any of them are “fascist” looks ludicrous. On most issues, HAF is aligned with groups promoting liberal values: women’s rights, LGBT rights, free speech, separation of religion and state, animal protection, environmental conservation, and others.
HAF’s position has aligned with what can be called a “center-left,” “classic liberal,” or democratic position. On some foreign policy positions—human rights and counter-terrorism—HAF’s positions align with centrist or center-right positions in the US None of these can be described as fascist or extremist.
Vikram Zutshi: There seems to be a well-coordinated effort in academic circles to equate race in America with the south asian caste system. Is caste comparable with race? If not, why?
Suhag Shukla: The history of anti-black racism in America is tied to the slave trade, a system of capturing, transporting, selling, and exploiting Black Africans, accompanied by a denigration of them as sub-human based on their ethnic ancestry and skin color. All of this was backed by the force of law in the United States and was the primary cause of the US Civil War, followed by a period of legal racial segregation.
Some Christians pseudo-scientifically and anthropologically justified it at the time and gave ethical approval based on their theology. (Some of the most powerful abolitionist voices were inspired by a different interpretation of Christian scripture. It is important to note this.)
Many remaining social stigmas and economic challenges exist for black people in the US Racism based on skin color is far and away the largest form of discrimination in the US today.
Social discrimination in India and South Asia continues based on perceived differences that are not unique to any culture. However, the “caste system” is distinct from the concept of race in America.
There has never been a single thing known as caste, as some scholars and activists claim. Nor has there ever been a single unchanging, pan-Indian caste system that legally enforces a birth-based rigid, oppressive social and theological hierarchy maintained by so-called upper caste members of society, supported by Hindu scripture, across thousands of years.
There has never been a skin color component to Indian social divisions. The central Hindu spiritual teachings and all leading Hindu teachers, gurus, and swamis today oppose such a concept and ask we see unity in our shared divinity.
What has become known as “caste”—a word deriving from Portuguese and intertwined with European notions of social hierarchy being mapped onto their experience of Indian society—is a combination of the Indian concept varna (the categories of occupation in society), jati (endogamous social groups), and other categories of social identity. The interplay has been dynamic and complex throughout history, differing in attitude and application across the geography of India.
None of these social dynamics has been codified into law or enforced by the state or rulers, like slavery or racial segregation in the United States. We believe social discrimination is wrong, no matter its origins, and that Hindu teachings fully support such a view.
Vikram Zutshi: You’ve worked tirelessly for the Kashmiri Hindu cause in America. Tell us about your advocacy efforts for Kashmir’s exiled minority.
Suhag Shukla: Throughout HAF’s history, we have highlighted the plight of Kashmir’s exiled Hindu minority — whether they have been internally displaced within India or have left and become part of the diaspora. We have documented this situation in our human rights reports.
We have held numerous events in Washington, DC, for the public, media, and elected officials on this issue. We have produced many educational materials documenting the history of the situation, highlighting inaccurate and/or biased media coverage of Kashmir, and a video series on YouTube documenting the history of the Kashmir Conflict and the ethnic cleansing that occurred three decades ago. We have had interviews with young Kashmiris, from Hindu and Muslim communities, on the situation post-Article 370 and the perspective of independent international relations experts who have traveled to Kashmir.
[Conner Tighe edited this article.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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