Indian-origin ‘Hindu American’ sues Seattle Councilwoman Kshama Sawant over caste-discrimination law

Ritu Jha-

The city of Seattle, which passed a law to ban caste-based discrimination earlier this year, is facing a lawsuit which describes the move as unconstitutional and a violation of the right to exercise religion. The plaintiff, who describes himself as a first-generation Hindu American, has urged the court to repeal the legislation.

Indian-origin Abhijit Bagal, the plaintiff, has accused councilmember Kshama Sawant, the person who drafted and proposed the bill of singling out South Asians, mainly the Indians and Hindus. He has also named Councilwoman Lisa Herbold and Mayor Bruce Harrell in the lawsuit.

The Indian-born Bagal became a naturalized US citizen in 2006. He is an alumnus of Seattle University, and currently works as a healthcare data analytics professional in North Carolina. He is a lifelong member of the Seattle University Alumni Association (SUAA).

Bagal says in his court submissions that he wants to attend in-person career and mentoring sessions for Seattle University graduates, but is reluctant to come back to Seattle fearing the unknown repercussions of the newly-implemented law which he calls is “vague.”

He says he would not have filed the lawsuit had the caste law been used in a neutral way and protected individuals from discrimination based on social and economic status. But, Bagal says, the defendants associate caste with Hinduism, and the law is targeted specifically against Indians.

According to the lawsuit, most Americans are not familiar with caste. He says that while Indians and specifically Hindus have been singled out, “White Americans, Chinese Americans, Native American Indians/Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders” have been exempted. Therefore, he says, he could be charged with caste discrimination based on skin color, tone, and occupation of his ancestors.

He asks what if he is called an oppressor of caste and charged with caste discrimination for wearing ‘mauli’, a sacred red thread on the wrist since it is a religious marker. Another example he gives is the spouse’s different last name. He states that he now faces a double whammy of potential caste discrimination charges within Seattle city limits.

Bagal argues that the defendants are heavily dependent on data provided by Equality Labs, a non-profit run by Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan. He says Equality Labs conducts fee-based training for caste competency at various organizations. Bagal, however, has not included Equality Labs in his lawsuit, but alleges that its 2018 caste survey is flawed.

According to the lawsuit, the defendants’ state that caste is often associated with Hinduism and India, while “making sensational claims that one in four caste-oppressed people faced physical and verbal assault.” He adds that the defendants also state that one in three faces education discrimination and two in three face workplace discrimination. “Defendants also declare that there is rampant oppression in the US.”

Bagal has asked the court to seek compensatory damages against the defendants for violating his right to free exercise of religion and freedom to either believe or not believe in the caste system.

The caste discrimination bill was passed on Feb 21, 2023, and lawmakers voted 6-1 making history in the US.

Councilmember Sawant did not respond to questions posed by indica. Mayor Harrell also did not respond. Bagal said that on March 6, he sent an email to Washington State Executive Ethics and Elections Commission board to prevent the defendants from enforcing caste into law. He said Wayne Barnett, executive director of Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission responded by saying his agency has no jurisdiction over first amendment issues, and that if he believes that the bill is in violation of the Constitution, he needs to approach the court.

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