On February 21, 2023, Seattle became the first city in the United States to ban discrimination based on caste. Prior to this, prominent higher educational institutions in the US such as Harvard University, Brown University, Brandeis University, and the University of California Davis have added caste to their anti-discrimination policy in the last few years. However, the recent Seattle legislation has captured far greater global media attention on caste discrimination among South Asian Americans in the diaspora.
The California textbook controversy on the inclusion of caste in the curriculum, the exploitation of Dalit workers in the BAPS temple, and the CISCO case, were some of the prominent events related to caste discrimination in recent times. Most importantly, the Seattle legislation has once again brought to the fore the heated debate on the very definition of caste and its relation to Hinduism and South Asia. While the various Ambedkarite groups in the US have hailed it as a decisive step against caste, upper castes Hindu-led organizations such as the Hindu American Foundation and Coalition of Hindus of North America have been calling this Hindu Phobic, nativist, and targeting of diasporic communities and migrants of colour. Rather than seeing the diasporic Hindu communities in isolation or universalizing the consequences of caste, it is important to link their histories back to their place of origin and understand the way caste functions in different societies.
Sociologists Dalel Benbabaali and Ajantha Subramanian have pointed out the prevalence of caste associations, gatherings, and networks among dominant castes such as Kammas, Reddys, Telugu, and Tamil Brahmins who constitute a significant part of Silicon Valley and are economically successful.
A close look at the history of these communities will point to the origin of their trajectories as dominant landlords and professional classes during the colonial period which has continued. This involves the violent oppression and exclusion of Dalits and sections of lower castes during which they acquired an English education, pursued engineering, and accumulated the necessary capital in moving abroad to present themselves as the model minority who are hardworking and meritorious. Another prominent Hindu caste community is the Gujarati Patels, who according to a figure from Asian American Hotel Owners Association, own more than 50 per cent of the motels in the United States and have migrated to the States from East Africa, India, and the United Kingdom. Their history is that of a transnational business class that is built on the cheap labour of Dalit and lower castes which emerged in Western India. The overarching narrative of ‘Indian Americans’ or ‘Hindus’, is primarily constituted of Brahmin-Baniya and the dominant caste who correspond to the top three groups in the Indian caste hierarchy.
Unlike the stereotypical tropes of drugs, cross-border illegal migration, and violence associated with Latinos and African Americans in the US, the upper caste Hindus from India are often exoticized for their colourful sarees, kurtas, Bollywood, mystic religious practices, Yoga, and tales of an ancient civilization. Given the prevalence of terms such as decolonization, people of color, and Desis, and Brown history in the public discourse, the upper caste migrant Hindus discreetly fit into these frameworks almost placing themselves at par with the blacks as a minority oppressed group. In this process, they obliterate the deeply unequal histories of caste which propelled them to the best white-collar jobs and business opportunities abroad. This was at the cost of millions of Dalits, Adivasis, and lower castes who work as informal workers and agricultural labourers in deplorable conditions with bare minimum payment in India.
Having said this, it is crucial to note that the United States constitutes a society where factors such as race, class, and ethnicity predominantly influence social relations as well as public discourse. And one cannot equate caste and its resulting instances of discrimination among the Indian Americans (who constitute less than 2 per cent of the society, or approximately 4.5 million) with that of India where caste has predominantly and historically influenced the distribution of resources, land, social geography, labor, job opportunities, human dignity and violence in the entire society for more than 500 million people.
The differences lie not only in the constitution and history of societies but also in the scale and magnitude of the impact of caste on the lives of Dalits and lower castes in these two societies. Additionally, the Dalits and lower castes who have been able to migrate there for work opportunities and studies are more likely to have quality higher education in India and the required financial ability. The large-scale presence of white and black people in public spaces, stringent laws, the absence of land relations, the urban concentration of the Indian-American population, and predominance in white-collar jobs and business are other factors that do not require caste-based physical violence and large-scale exploitation to maintain their hegemony on the economy and prevents active demarcation of Dalits and lower castes. Hence, I believe the legislation would be more of a tool for dealing with discrimination in workplaces. Even there, upper-caste Indians have a tendency of using the logic of merit and recruiting members of their own caste groups which they practice in India. It would be useful to closely study how effective this legislation and subsequent measures are on recruitment and promotion in workplaces where Indian Americans are significantly present, and discrimination might occur under the guise of ‘colored diversity’.
Out of the fear of stigma, many Dalits and lower castes might not claim their caste origin and also be isolated from close events and gatherings among Indian Americans. It would be worth finding out how this legislation banning caste discrimination deals with caste associations and gatherings which are passed off as cultural preferences and observances by most upper caste members while maintaining it as a symbol of birth-based pride over others.
In the backdrop of this legislation in the US, we also need to look at its impact on India which already has a range of provisions banning discrimination based on caste --- SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities act, Article 17 abolishing untouchability, Article 14 right to equality before the law, Article 15 prohibiting discrimination based on caste by the state and 1993 banning of manual scavenging, etc. I argue that the Seattle legislation would have no impact in making any of these existing laws in India more effective than before. Although this legislation and its provisions seem strong on paper, societal morality and upper caste dominance in institutions prevent their full effectiveness. Sandhya Fuchs in her study of cases of the SC/ST Atrocities Act in Rajasthan provides shocking details of how legal translations, pressures by dominant caste groups, and political intervention deny justice to Dalits affected by caste violence. In fact, untouchability and caste-based segregation are quite visible in most parts of rural India despite its abolition in the constitution. Hence, the impact of the Seattle Legislation has more to do with the perception of India and Hindus globally and caste inequality exposes their society which they have very carefully protected. Even in India, the same groups have historically opposed caste discrimination laws that protect Dalits, and have vehemently objected to the reallocation of resources - be it that of land, educational opportunities, jobs, or political autonomy.
Despite government reports of thousands of atrocities and documented evidence of upper caste involvement, they deny the role of caste in these cases of violence and ironically assert their impunity through mass caste gatherings. I believe these open realities and the limited effectiveness of anti-caste legislation to protect Dalits, Adivasis, and lower castes need to be more widely discussed and global interventions must take place to hold Indian upper-caste society and governing mechanisms accountable. The global community and international bodies need to stop turning a blind eye to these grave realities of caste which affects millions of people.