California, the wealthiest state in the US and the destination for many immigrant Indians, introduced an anti-caste discrimination Bill in the state senate on March 22, 2023. If passed, it will become the first state law in the world that addresses caste in a fundamental way. The Indian constitution abolished untouchability but not caste. Members of the diaspora who support Hindutva are anxious about this major development. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are also wary. But the world is beyond their power.
When the Seattle City Council and the Toronto District School Education Board passed a law prohibiting discrimination of individuals – citizens, adults or children – on the basis of caste along with race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, it was opposed by many RSS/BJP intellectuals. They condemned these laws as “Hinduphobic”.
Why should they oppose such laws if they stand for human equality in general and the equality of Indians and of Hindus wherever they live in this world?
According to an Indian Express report on March 8, 2023, the “RSS-affiliated magazine Panchjanya has called a resolution passed recently by the Seattle City Council to add caste to anti-discrimination laws as a sign that ‘Hinduphobia is being promoted in the US through the institutional route, and that there is a conspiracy to stymie the progress of Indian talent in the US’.”
A similar argument was advanced by Ram Madhav, one of the senior leaders of the RSS. He comes from a Brahmin family in Andhra Pradesh. He says in an article, again in the Indian Express, “Groups that champion this false flag of caste discrimination are generally Hinduphobic. They are using this discrimination card to malign the Hindu religion.”
He accuses civil society groups in the US, Canada and Europe which have worked for anti-caste laws and rules in the West of being “Hinduphobic”. It is clear that one’s own caste location, along with ideological position, plays a key role in the stand that one takes. So far, no RSS/BJP intellectual has written or spoken in support of these laws.
Panchajanya is an RSS-affiliated magazine of the RSS, somewhat akin to a mouthpiece. It is saying that the anti-discrimination law is a sign of Hinduphobia and a conspiracy to stymie the progress of Indian talent. But how can the practice of caste discrimination, in India or regions with significant Indian diaspora, be tackled without local laws or institutional rules? Those who discriminate would never think that such discriminatory treatment is wrong. Discriminatory behaviour becomes part of the psychological pathos of an individual or a group.
In the case of the Hindu religion, no one can serious dispute the fact that such discrimination is sanctified and justified through spiritual texts.
There have been studies which show how caste discrimination operates among Indian migrants in the US, Canada, Australia, Europe and other Western regions. They narrate the stories of discrimination and the trauma that school- and college-going children and youth undergo on an everyday basis.
For example, Thenmozhi Soundararajan’s recent book, The Trauma of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing, and Abolition, lists innumerable incidents of discrimination among Indian migrants in the US. Her own personal experience – as a student and a working woman – of discrimination at the hands of Brahminic Americans tells a powerful story. She is a second-generation Indian-American Dalit woman.
After the Toronto rules were framed, a student in college in Canada, Trina Kumar, wrote a detailed narrative of her experience of caste discrimination. She says, “I faced a lot of caste bullying in Greater Toronto schools. I found this bullying confusing; I wondered why caste mattered so much to my fellow classmates, especially since we are all Canadian.” She adds, “I didn’t follow their upper-caste rituals, and [they] made fun of me for being a Dalit Christian.” This, in a country where Christians are the majority. Is this not “Christophobia”?
Organisations like Equality Labs, founded by Soundararajan, have created a crisis in the Western comfort zones of casteist immigrants. The casteist Indian immigrants have proved Thomas Friedman wrong. The world is not flat yet.
Ram Madhav dismisses Equality Labs’ study of caste discrimination in the US. But it is not just Equality Labs that has worked towards outlawing caste discrimination in the US and Canada. Groups like the Ambedkar Association of North America, Boston Study Group, Periyar Ambedkar Study Circle, Ambedkar Buddhist Association, Ambedkarite Buddhist Association of Texas, Ambedkar-King Study Circle and Ambedkar International Mission have also done a lot of work on behalf of oppressed caste immigrants to expose the discrimination.
What is wrong with educating the world about the caste system and its dehumanising practices? How can the RSS/BJP say they stand for democracy without standing for human equality?
The world has come a long way since 2001, when the UN Conference at Durban against Racism Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, took place. In the conference, the caste question was not allowed to be discussed along with the race question. The UN bodies hardly had any idea about the caste system then. The Indian government, led by the BJP, was not willing to allow any discussion on caste, saying it was “an internal matter”. I was a witness to their efforts to keep caste discrimination off the table at Durban. The world has since learnt about caste and is taking measures to arrest the discrimination it fosters.
Why does the “Vishwaguru” try to derail the struggle against discrimination, inequality and xenophobia by invoking the spectre of Hinduphobia? Are they trying to say Hinduism does not stand for human equality?
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author.