Seattle Caste Discrimination Law: Stereotyping Indians in the name of social justice – Aldrin Deepak & Pushpita Prasad

Seattle Caste Discrimination Bill Protest (Feb. 2023)

Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA)There is no proof of systemic caste discrimination in the US, beyond a couple of unproven allegations, since the only survey on the issue has been challenged as flawed and discredited as unscientific by even mainstream research organisations such as the Carnegie Endowment. – Aldrin Deepak & Pushpita Prasad

Seattle, home to famed technology companies like Amazon and Microsoft, has passed what it calls a “law against caste discrimination”. While everyone should unequivocally stand against discrimination, this benign-sounding law is anything but, since it singles out/discriminates against a small minority community. How many know that “evidence” provided for casteism in Seattle included the preference for vegetarian food, with bizarre testimony about the “militant vegetarianism of Jains”?

To understand the issue, it’s important to not view the dynamics of our lives in the US via the lens of India—especially since second and third-generation American Hindus are now part of the American milieu and deeply impacted by such laws. Indian Americans are a tiny slice of the US population. Their life struggles and milestones largely revolve around fitting in within the constructs of American life, issues of racism and representation. As per a 2021 survey of Indian Americans by the Carnegie Endowment, over 50 per cent had none to little awareness of “caste” in their networks, while barely 21 per cent considered it a factor in the formation of their social networks. This certainly jives with one of our life experiences (Deepak) in the US where caste has been non-existent, even as I have spent much time mastering Sanskrit, chanting the Vishnu Sahasranama and helping at local temples.

The allegations around caste in the US took off in 2020 with the filing of a lawsuit by California state against technology giant Cisco Systems and two of its managers, alleging they discriminated against a Dalit colleague. Close to three years later, the state has been unable to prove its allegations, yet in a strange subversion of the basic principles of justice (assuming innocence till proven guilty), not only have the media and activists deemed the two individuals guilty, the entire community they come from is also in the dock and facing laws regulating their supposedly bad behaviour. It was the bizarre allegations made by California that inspired Deepak to speak against the fake narrative being constructed around my fellow American Hindus.

There is no proof of systemic caste discrimination in the US, beyond a couple of unproven allegations, since the only survey on the issue has been challenged as flawed and discredited as unscientific by even mainstream research organisations such as the Carnegie Endowment. Seattle City Councilwoman Sara Nelson, who cast the lone dissenting vote, observed that the ordinance was based on a lack of adequate data and could perpetuate anti-Hindu discrimination.

Yet, Seattle councilors voted—mainstreaming these unproven allegations plus a slew of individual anecdotes, some of which border on the comical. Recall the sound byte asking for protection against the “militant vegetarianism of Jains” mentioned earlier. It’s because eating vegetarian food has been presented as evidence of casteism for a few years now, by the very activists manufacturing this issue. Ironically, Seattle prides itself on being very vegetarian-friendly. So this law means an Indian vegetarian now faces the burden to prove they are not doing so to be casteist, unlike vegetarians of other ethnicities.

Another trope now mainstreamed in the West is that caste in India is the equivalent of race in the US. California’s lawsuit against Cisco, infamously positioned Dalits as being “the darkest”, imposing western fault lines of race onto caste. This was personally enraging to me as I wondered what to make of my Dalit family where skin tones span a broad range. Am I now ranked “below” my lighter-hued cousin? Based on this logic, Seattle can ascribe Brahmins from South India a lower “rank” than the fair-skinned Jats who currently count as OBCs in seven Indian states. Who knows the possibilities this brave new world will bring us?

But, these are just small examples of the double standards now facing Indian Americans and Hindus in the city. So, if you wonder why groups like the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA) led the opposition against Seattle City Council, it’s because this law itself is inherently discriminatory. US laws protect against discrimination based on race, gender, religion, ancestry, ethnicity, etc. Unlike “caste” which is specific to South Asians, these other categories are equitable and applicable to any and every resident. Once accused of casteism, there seems to be no plausible defence, especially in the court of public opinion, which has an immediate impact on one’s employment prospects, education potential and social approval.

Naturally, the Indian community was alarmed when they heard of this and tried to speak up. We ensured that the Seattle City council received close to 20,000 emails, numerous testimonials, and over 113 diverse organisations signed a letter asking for a “No” vote. This included support from Dalit Bahujan groups, who like Deepak, fought the co-opting of our identity. Yet, the council decided to rush through this hearing without proper due diligence, in a secretive manner, pushing aside all normal procedures. For a city that prides itself on diversity, Seattle sure did its best to silence any diverse voices.

With its infamous vote on February 21, Seattle is on its way to reviving the sort of sweeping discriminatory laws we thought lay behind us. In 1871, the British passed the Criminal Tribes Act, which marked entire communities in India “problematic” simply due to their birth into a certain group and mandated them to be inherently more likely to be criminals. Today’s progressives similarly deem South Asians or Hindus to be inherently more prone to discrimination than other groups. All fair-minded persons need to stand against this type of dangerous stereotyping and discrimination, even it comes cloaked as social justice. – The Indian Express, 24 February 2023

> Deepak is a technology worker and a Dalit Hindu living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Prasad is a storyteller and communications professional and is on the Board of CoHNA.

Hinduphobia in the US

Seattle resolution on caste shows rise of Hinduphobia in US: Indian-American State Senator Niraj Antani – AP

Condemning a resolution passed by the Seattle City Council on caste discrimination, an eminent Indian-American state senator alleged the move showed the rise of Hinduphobia in the United States.

“I condemn in the strongest terms the ordinance passed by the Seattle City Council. Caste discrimination simply doesn’t exist now,” Niraj Antani, the first Hindu and Indian-American State Senator in Ohio’s history, said.

“Adding it to their non-discrimination policy is Hinduphobic, and is a tool those that are anti-Hindu use to discriminate against Hindus in America, in India, and around the world,” he said.

Antani is the youngest Indian-American elected official in the nation.

“Instead of passing this racist policy, Seattle should be passing policies to protect Hindus from discrimination,” he said.

The resolution moved by Kshama Sawant, an upper-caste Hindu, was approved by the Seattle City Council by six to one vote on Tuesday. Seattle has now become the first US city to outlaw caste discrimination.

‘An avenue for platforming hate against Hindus’

The Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA), along with numerous organisations who had signed a joint letter opposing the Seattle City Council’s caste ordinance, in a statement condemned the decision to include caste as part of its anti-discrimination policy.

The groups, while fully supporting attempts to tackle discrimination, raised concerns that such serious allegations require data showing systemic abuse—a standard the city had failed to meet by relying on faulty data that was also pointed out in the survey from Carnegie Endowment in 2021, the statement said.

“This law itself is inherently discriminatory because, unlike other categories such as race, gender, religion, ancestry, etc. it singles out the South Asian community as requiring special monitoring,” said CoHNA president Nikunj Trivedi.

“In taking this step, the city has relied on information from groups that have openly called for a dismantling of Hinduism—thus becoming an avenue for platforming hate against a minority group. It seems Seattle city is also openly saying that South Asians require more monitoring than all other groups,” he said.

“I was disappointed at how my voice was ignored. The council gave voice only to selected voices, without taking into consideration the fact that not all groups in the Dalit-Bahajun community support such a divisive and discriminatory bill,” added CoHNA Steering Committee member and Dalit community activist Aldrin Deepak. – The Hindu, 23 february 2023