HAF attacks Cal State move to include caste as protected category as ‘illegal, a mistake’

Ritu Jha- 

The inclusion of caste in California State University’s nondiscrimination policy will “illegally” single out Indians and South Asians, Suhag Shukla, executive director and co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, told indica. She called the move a self-inflicted wound by the Dalit community.

The HAF, a nonprofit, has written a letter to the Board of Trustees, Chancellor Joseph Castro, and California Faculty Association (CFA) President Dr. Charles Toombs and is planning to take action in the matter. Shukla said, “What all these universities have done is not only a mistake, but it’s unlawful.” Earlier, in the past year, Harvard and the University of California, Davis, have also acknowledged and added caste to their nondiscrimination policy.

Shukla argued that to create a category that applies to and implicates only Indian and South Asian faculty is, by definition, discriminatory. All those who expressed support for the policy change spoke only of Indians and South Asians, he pointed out. No one should face discrimination on the basis of caste or community, he said, but if they do, broader categories like ancestry and descent already provide avenues for protection.

“What these activists don’t understand is that they have essentially self-inflicted a wound because they too will be profiled and policed by these discriminatory policies,” he said.

Asked why HAF feared that the new policy would single out Indians and South Asians, Shukla said caste is associated only with Indians, and South Asians to a lesser degree. When you look at all the other categories — race, ethnicity, religion — no one particular community is implicated. These categories are constitutional because they are what is called facially neutral and generally applicable. Caste is not.

Asked why the inclusion of caste could not be prevented, Shukla said it was pushed through by the California Faculty Association (CFA), a union representing 29,000 faculty. They failed in their obligation to represent and protect the rights of Indian and South Asian faculty, he said.

“When the faculty concerned met with the CFA leadership, they could not point to a single complaint or allegation of caste-based discrimination having been made on any CSU campus,” Shukla said. “They cited concocted statistics from an anti-Hindu hate group and were not even familiar with the Carnegie study — one of the first major studies done on Indian Americans — which found that caste-based discrimination is exceedingly rare in the U.S. That shows the absolute lack of due diligence exercised by individuals entrusted with representing its members in a non-discriminatory way.”

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder of Equality Labs and an ardent advocate of the inclusion of caste as a protected category, told indica what opponents of the change are claiming is not true. Referring to them of trying to shift the narrative landscape. “First they said this will target only Indian Hindus,” she said. “Now they say South Asians. Actually, caste as a category will be used as a community-experienced hierarchy based on descent and work.”

At a meeting Jan 25, the CFA’s collective and CSU system’s trustees agreed to ratify caste as a protected category in all of the university’s anti-discrimination clauses for all contracts.

The victory followed the CSU’s earlier announcement that caste had been added to its university-wide nondiscrimination policy. The decision affects all of the CSU system’s 23 campuses and eight off-campus centers with 485,550 students and 55,909 faculty and staff. Cal State is the largest four-year public university system in the U.S.

“They (the HAF and others) were allowed in a democratic process to express their opinions,” Thenmozhi said. “Again, this is a democracy. They are not in power and the university followed the rule of law under which civil rights need to be protected, and Dalits are a minority.”

Charles Toombs, CFA president, said in a press statement: “We strongly support the inclusion of caste. It is about nondiscrimination, not discrimination.”

The Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, a labor group and nonprofit of API workers affiliated with the AFL-CIO, a national federation of labor unions, also supports protection for caste-oppressed students, faculty and staff within the CSU system and beyond.

Freedom from caste-based discrimination is inextricably tied to workers’ rights, the union said. Last year, APALA adopted a resolution condemning caste-based discrimination and added caste to its own list of protected classes.

The union has publicly supported the listing of caste in protected classes in the public sector for unobstructed access to good jobs, quality education, social benefits and representation at the federal, state, county and city levels, including school districts. It said the urgency of this issue is high, given the seriousness of caste-based discrimination complaints arising from multiple industries, including tech, university, construction, and domestic workers.

Will Jamil Wiltschko, director of the California Trade Justice Coalition, an alliance of labor unions, environmental, public health, immigrant rights and human rights organizations, commended the CSU system for its decision.

However, not all faculty members are pleased and Shukla said the HAF is working to help them explore all legal avenues to guard against the university putting in place a policy that could deprive them of their constitutional right to equal protection and due process.

“The addition of caste is a misguided overreach given the existence of comprehensive policies which already protect against various forms of discrimination” Dr Praveen Sinha, professor of accountancy at CSU, Long Beach, said in a statement. “We cannot but oppose the unique risk that CSU’s move puts on us as they add a category that is only associated with people of Indian descent such as myself and thousands of other faculty and students in the CSU system. It is going to create divisions where they simply do not exist.”

There are more than 600 CSU faculty of Indian and South Asian origin who would be rendered vulnerable should the collective bargaining agreement be passed as currently written, he said.

“As a faculty member of Indian origin, I am well aware that discrimination is a daily reality for many students of varied backgrounds, and there is a robust mechanism of addressing all such complaints under existing laws and CSU policy,” Dr Sunil Kumar, professor of engineering at San Diego State University, said in a statement. “But this policy change has been made in the absence of scientifically reliable evidence or data.”

According to Dr Sunil Kumar, rather than redressing discrimination, the move will cause discrimination by “unconstitutionally singling out and targeting Hindu faculty of Indian and South Asian descent” as members of a suspect class because of “deeply entrenched stereotypes about Indians, Hindus, and caste”.

He said he was disappointed that the CSU Faculty Association championed the move without discussing it with the faculty concerned even when three professors had alerted them way back in May 2021. “In their meeting with these three professors Jan 14 this year, some of the CFA leaders admitted they did not understand the complexity of caste and that they dropped the ball,” he said.