By Suhag Shukla-
[Suhag Shukla, Esq., is the co-founder and executive director of the Hindu American Foundation. The views expressed are her own]
What’s really pushing the State of California to add the racially loaded term ‘caste’— a term that would apply to less than 2% of its population on the basis of their ethnicity and religion — to its nondiscrimination law?
It’s certainly not some loophole in the law that has left South Asian workers without legal recourse in the face of caste discrimination. Both the Civil Rights Department and author of SB403 hold that caste discrimination is already barred under existing laws.
It’s not a sudden spike in reported incidents alleging caste discrimination. In fact, there’s only one case of caste litigation in California — the Cisco case. And the Civil Rights Department withdrew its case against the two named Indian American defendants after the two raised concerns over suppression of exculpatory evidence and prosecutorial abuse.
Regardless of whether it’s the CRD’s case against Cisco, SB403, or the addition of ‘caste’ to non-discrimination policies, ordinances, and laws in a number of states, municipalities, and corporations, all indicators point to one source that has landed all South Asians, regardless of “caste” or community background, in jeopardy of increased stigma, bias, discrimination, and hate.
That source is Equality Labs, an organization that portrays itself as a charity and civil rights organization, but is in fact a for-profit organization that sells “caste competency trainings” amongst other things — which vilify the Hindu faith and Hindus.
These trainings go so far as to teach that Hinduism is “the spiritual foundation of slavery.” It’s founding director has stated publicly that “real Nazis aren’t in Germany, they’re fucking upper caste Indians” — demonizing Indians, ironically on the basis of their communal or ancestral backgrounds and simultaneously downplaying the atrocities committed by Nazis by falsely suggesting that Hindus are the root cause of Nazi ideology and symbols.
Equality Labs’s track record of promoting negative stereotypes about Hindus is not new.
In 2015, Soundararajan along with well-known anti-Hindu activist, Peter Friedrich, were seen harassing Hindu American families waiting in line at the California State Board of Education to testify about the representation of Hinduism and India in K-12 History Social Science textbooks. She also actively sought to remove the contributions of Hindu saints from marginalized backgrounds and other positive representations about Hinduism and India in the textbooks.
Two video montages (Parts 1 and 2) published recently by an independent, grassroots student movement called Hindu on Campus, reveal palpably the depth of hatred of this group. The montages show actual footage of Equality Labs’ co-founder, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, speaking at a number of public appearances and trainings, spreading blatantly hateful disinformation about Hindus and Hinduism.
What kinds of things has she said?
Here’s a taste: “What is it that they [Hindus] do except make scriptures that enslave our people”; “Every act of Hindu scripture has done nothing but bring violence and pain”; “There is a spiritual foundation for slavery in [Hindu] texts”; “Through the lens of white supremacy, and so the animating ideology that helped to inform the categories that are of race and so I think very similarly we can’t talk about caste without talking about Brahmanism [Hinduism].”
Equality Labs has been unyielding in its efforts to push for the inclusion of ‘caste’ under the existing legal category of ‘ancestry’ in SB-403 because they directly stand to profit from the passage of SB-403, and will profit even more should similar legislation be introduced elsewhere. Though framed as being about addressing discrimination, the intent is two-fold — institutionalizing anti-Hindu hate and profit.
Despite publicly claiming in their support for SB-403 that caste is “racially and ethnically” neutral, Equality Labs’ marketing, digital footprint, and trainings offer ample evidence that its intentions are anything but.
And while the rest of California’s Assembly may have been duped into thinking they are supporting inclusion and anti-discrimination, there is no doubt the Senator Aisha Wahab, who works closely with Equality Labs, knows that SB403 is meant to target one ethnic group — South Asians.
Even the Assembly Judiciary Consultant remarked in the SB-403 analysis:
“However broadly the [SB403] bill in print might define the term, the letters and background information provided to the Committee by the author and supporters reinforce the association of caste and South Asians.”
To be sure, Equality Labs’ website also explicitly defines caste as a Hindu teaching, professing that caste is “a system of religiously codified exclusion that was established in Hindu scripture” further contradicting their assurances that the necessity of the word “caste” in SB-403 is “neutral” in definition and motivation.
While Equality Labs has allies on the far left, including the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Caucus, its activism has served as a dog whistle for the far right too.
Take for example a social media post by influential rightwing bloggers like Steven Sailer, who frequently writes for white supremacist and antisemitic outlets, who posted in response to a story about SB403 in Politico: “If Hindus in California are discriminating in hiring against lower caste Hindus, what are the chances they are also discriminating against non-Hindus, such as whites, East Asians, blacks, and Latinos? Maybe that deserves some attention?” There have been others responding to the coverage of the CRD’s case, such as, “Then south Asia — India specifically— talk about a racist society! My god. it’s a part of their bloody religion!”
Make no mistake. California is on the cusp of ushering in an era of institutionalized bigotry, giving corporations across the state a license to discriminate against South Asians. And while Equality Labs and its allies claim it’s to protect a segment of South Asians, it has in actuality put a target on all South Asians, adding onto the challenges we already face as minorities in America.