A Hindu advocacy organization has accused California’s civil rights agency of violating the constitutional rights of Hindu Americans through its enforcement efforts targeting alleged caste bias against immigrant workers from India.
In a September 20 lawsuit filed in federal court, the Hindu American Foundation stated that the California Civil Rights Department acted unconstitutionally in June 2020 when it sued Cisco Systems Inc., a Silicon Valley tech company, for alleged caste discrimination.
In that case, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which was renamed as the state’s civil rights agency starting July 1, 2022, alleged that Cisco discriminated against an unnamed Indian-American employee who was born a Dalit, a historically marginalized Hindu caste stigmatized as “untouchables.”
Two ethnic Indian company managers from a higher caste who allegedly harassed the employee—an engineer in Cisco’s San Jose headquarters—are named as defendants in the lawsuit.
Thousands of Cisco’s employees, like those in other Silicon Valley companies, are Indian immigrants who were mostly born in the top Brahmin or other high castes. The civil rights agency’s lawsuit states the low-caste employee was paid less than his high-caste peers and suffered other forms of caste-based bias.
Although U.S. employment law offers no specific safeguards against caste-based discrimination, the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing contended in its lawsuit that Hinduism’s centuries-old caste system is based on protected categories such as religion.
The Hindu American Foundation’s lawsuit is challenging the state of California’s authority “to define what Hindus believe and decide how they practice their religion, in violation of the First Amendment,” the organization said in a September 22 statement.
The advocacy group says in its lawsuit that it “takes great exception to the State of California defaming and demeaning all of Hinduism by attempting to conflate a discriminatory caste system with the Hindu religion.”
“Worse,” adds the Hindu American Foundation, “California defames Hinduism by doing what the U.S. Constitution says it cannot—assert a government right to resolve questions of religious doctrine.”
The issue of caste also came under the spotlight in January 2022 when the California State University board of trustees approved a collective bargaining agreement under which the traditional Hindu classification was brought under the nondiscrimination clause in faculty contracts.
The board of the university system, which oversees 23 campuses across California, took the vote in spite of opposition from nearly 90 faculty members representing various races, ethnicities and faiths, who signed a petition delineating that the new policy would apply solely to South Asians, thereby creating rifts within a minority community whose members largely have no identification with caste.
The petition referred to what it called the largest complete study of Indian American attitudes ever undertaken—by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in partnership with the research and analytics firm YouGov—which found that 53 percent of the survey’s 1,200 respondents reported they do not personally identify with any caste category whatsoever.
Further, the 2021 study found that although one in two Indian Americans reported being discriminated against on the basis of color, religion and gender in the past year, just 5 percent reported experiencing caste discrimination, which was committed by both Indians and non-Indians.
Bias on the basis of caste is neither core to the Hindu faith nor a legitimate feature of its beliefs, teachings and customs, Samir Kalra, the Hindu American Foundation’s managing director, said in the organization’s statement.
The advocacy group has “consistently maintained that caste discrimination is wrong,” Kalra said, adding that the state of California’s contentious view of the cultural category is “as erroneous in fact as it is unconstitutional in attempt.”
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