Two Hindu professors at California State University sue employer for including ‘caste’ in anti-discrimination policy

Ritu Jha-

Two professors of the Hindu faith have sued California State University (CSU), which has 23 campuses across the state, for including caste as a form of discrimination under its non-discrimination policy that was introduced in January 2022.

CSU, the largest public university system in the country, became the first university system in the United States to add caste to its anti-discrimination policy. According to media reports then, caste-oppressed students across every CSU campus “will be able to report anti-Dalit bias, which students say they regularly experience at school.”

The two academics – Sunil Kumar, a professor of electrical engineering and the Thomas G. Pine Faculty Fellow at San Diego State University, and Praveen Sinha, professor of accountancy in the College of Business Administration at California State University, Long Beach – filed a complaint in a California federal court in the Central District of California against their employer to prevent the university from enforcing the non-discrimination policy that was recently changed to include “caste” as a Protected Status.

Toni Molle, Director, Strategic Communications and Public Affairs, California State University, Office of the Chancellor, told indica, “While caste protections were inherently included in previous CSU non-discrimination policies, the decision to specifically name caste in the Interim CSU Policy Prohibiting Discrimination, Harassment, Sexual Misconduct, Sexual Exploitation, Dating Violence, Domestic Violence, Stalking, and Retaliation issued on January 1, 2022 reflects the university’s commitment to inclusivity and respect, making certain each and every one of our 23 CSU campuses always is a place of access, opportunity and equity for all.”

Suhag Shukla and Samir Kalra, both affiliated to the Hindu American Foundation, will represent the two plaintiffs. According to them, the professors are seeking to prevent the CSU Board of Trustees from enforcing the CSU Interim Policy provision on caste, which, they claim, “targets Hindu and Indian faculty, staff, and students and violates their basic civil and constitutional rights.”

Kalra told indica, “Other than a brief public comment, CSU has not formally responded to the lawsuit.”

The 27-page lawsuit states: “Plaintiffs are Hindu professors at CSU who are of Indian descent. They bring this action to prevent Defendants from enforcing the Interim Policy and to safeguard their constitutional rights, as well as the rights of other CSU employees, professors and students who are similarly situated.”

“While Plaintiffs applaud CSU’s effort to take a firm stance in favor of inclusion and against discrimination – something on which they are in complete agreement – the addition of “caste” as a form of “Ethnicity” in the Interim Policy’s Protected Statuses unfairly singles out and targets them as persons of Indian/South Asian origin and members of the Hindu religion,” the lawsuit states.

When asked why the inclusion of caste bothers them when it was just another aspect of discrimination in the university’s policy, the plaintiffs’ attorney Samir Kalra responded by saying that, “CSU has no right to define what constitutes the Hindu religion. They have incorrectly characterized Hinduism as mandating a racist and discriminatory ‘caste system’.”

He added, “The policy also violates the equal protection clause of the constitution by creating a policy that singles out and only applies to faculty, staff, and students of Hindu and Indian origin. No other Protected Status in CSU’s Interim Policy addresses any specific ethnicity, ancestry or religion. Moreover, CSU does not define caste among its 44 specifically defined terms, thereby giving no guidance to anyone mandated to enforce the policy, violating the due process rights of the professors.”

In a press statement released by the HAF, Prof Kumar said, “We fully and vehemently oppose all forms of prejudice and discrimination. But CSU’s Interim Policy singles out all Indian origin and Hindu staff and students solely because we are Indian and Hindu. This by its very definition is discrimination and a denial of our basic civil rights.”

Prof Sinha added, “We regret having to take this action. But we simply cannot abide by a misguided policy, especially when there are other generally applicable and neutral categories already protected under CSU’s non-discrimination policy that can be used to address incidents of alleged caste discrimination.”

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