Seattle 'Anti-Caste' Legislation: A Law That Assumes All Hindus And Indians To Be Bigoted

Seattle 'Anti-Caste' Legislation: A Law That Assumes All Hindus And Indians To Be Bigoted

by Suhag Shukla - Sunday, February 26, 2023 12:04 PM IST
Seattle 'Anti-Caste' Legislation: A Law That Assumes All Hindus And Indians To Be BigotedSeattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, succeeded in passing a bill adding the category of ‘caste’ to the city’s non-discrimination statute.
  • Regardless of whether it is one community or five, so long as you are targeting them to the exclusion of others on the basis of their ethnicity, national origin, ancestry or religion, it’s an unlawful denial of equal protection and due process.

Five hundred white men calling themselves the Asiatic Exclusion League attacked South Asian Indian workers, forcing them to flee north to British Columbia, Canada. That was over one hundred years ago.

The Puget Sound American, a local daily newspaper, approvingly asked “Have we a dusky peril?,” saying the “Hindu caste system” was a reason to “keep the Hindus out.”

On Tuesday, 21 February, outgoing Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, a member of the Trotskyist Socialist Alternative political party, succeeded in passing a bill adding the category of ‘caste’ to the city’s non-discrimination statute. 

Hundreds of South Asians packed council chambers and signed up online to speak both for and against the bill, underscoring how much the bill has divided our community. 

Supporters of the bill caricatured anyone who opposed the bill as “fragile” “right wing bigots” seeking to preserve a right to discriminate based on caste — which couldn’t be farther from the truth.

No one opposing the bill is doing so because we disagree on whether caste discrimination should be addressed. Rather our point of contention is about how it should be. 

Sawant has described the bill as “historic.” That’s true. But for different reasons than she’s touting. 

This is the first time a city in the United States has approved a non-discrimination policy that in effect, will discriminate against specific communities based on their ethnicity or national origin, on the basis of an institutionalized presumption that they have such a unique form of bigotry inherent to them that there needs to be a special policy to police just them. 

Ending discrimination wherever it exists is a worthy goal. But painting a particular community as suspects and then enacting laws that just apply to them, is unconstitutional. 

Sawant’s wording of the bill specifically defines caste discrimination as something found in the “South Asian region” and then goes on to falsely tie caste to Hinduism, by writing that “its existence is linked to the religiously sanctioned social structure of Hinduism.” 

In a last minute amendment she also added immigrants and diasporic communities from Japan, certain African countries, and the Middle East, as if, that would address the constitutional red flags raised by us at the Hindu American Foundation and deflect from whom the bill is really intended to target — Indians and Hindus. It didn’t. It actually made it worse.

Regardless of whether it is one community or five, so long as you are targeting them to the exclusion of others on the basis of their ethnicity, national origin, ancestry or religion, it’s an unlawful denial of equal protection and due process.

One of the key principles to equal protection in the US is that laws should be “facially neutral”. This generally means that a classification cannot be made expressly upon the basis of race or national origin or ethnicity.

To this end, all other categories protected under US non-discrimination law apply to everyone. All people have race/ethnicity, gender, age, national origin, for example. All of these are protected categories.

Caste is an outlier — not only in its plain meaning and popular understanding, but in Kshama Sawant’s expressed intent, the actual language and supporting documentation of the ordinance. 

So both in letter and intent, Sawant’s amendment violates the very non-discrimination policies she’s amending by adding a category that is equated with an ethnic community, namely Indians. 

Because there is no agreed upon definition of caste in general — indeed there is no specific definition of caste under US law at all, nor Indian law for that matter, and no one social marker to recognize people’s caste, Sawant’s bill also opens up serious due process concerns about whether the law can be implemented in a non-discriminatory manner.

Those people who will be tasked with doing so — likely white Americans as Seattle is 69 per cent white, and at least non-South Asians — have no guidance on what caste is, or what actually constitutes a violation.

Their guidance will likely be the reductive and racist descriptions of Indians found throughout academia, media and the bill’s supplemental documents.

If someone doesn’t identify by caste, but is of Indian origin, will they be presumed to identify by one and recognize the castes of every other Indian and South Asian?

If they don’t know what their caste is, like many second and third generation Indians, will a caste be assigned to them, against their will, or by the government? 

This is not a dystopian prediction: the California Civil Rights Department did just that when it assigned “high or dominant” caste status to “most” of the Indian origin employees at the tech giant Cisco, without ever actually speaking to them to discern what their backgrounds might be.

The State also describes the plaintiff in the case as the “lone Dalit,” ignoring the fact that at least one of the leaders in this particular division was a self-identified SC/Dalit.

Anecdotally, people supporting this and similar proposed legislation elsewhere, have claimed that merely being asked if they are vegetarian at a dinner party, or if their kids go to a local balavihar, are indicators of caste discrimination and intended to out them as Dalits. These are the kinds of examples that will inform implementation.

Those of us tracing our ancestry to the Indian subcontinent make up just 1.5 per cent of the US population. Sadly, bigotry is well known to our minority community: the Carnegie Endowment’s recent landmark survey found that nearly half of us reported facing discrimination.

This is almost always due to our skin color, at the hands of the majority US population, but very rarely due to perceived caste from within the community. 

This small amount of intercommunity prejudice is not unique to South Asians in the US.

Prejudices exist within all communities — among tribal communities, sectarian hatred between Sunnis, Shia and Ahmadiyya immigrants, or Latino immigrant communities based on indigenous origins. 

All social discrimination harms and robs people of the dignity they are owed, and that’s why broad, neutral categories are the most effective tool to protect against it.

Seattle’s city ordinances already proscribe discrimination based on national origin, ethnicity, religion and ancestry — none of which presume any particular perpetrator or victim. This is quite unlike India’s atrocities laws.

So why would Sawant propose a bill specifically targeting her own South Asian community, when categories that would include the common understanding of caste are already established?

The answer may lie in Sawant’s political ideology, her gripes against the current party in power in India — in spite top leadership coming from SC, ST and OBC communities — and her pervasive anti-Hindu rhetoric that adhering to Hindu traditions is to somehow perpetuate bigotry. 

Take for example that in introducing the caste bill, Sawant described caste as a system of oppression, and added, “As a socialist, as Marxist, we are opposed to all oppression...we believe that can happen only through actually ending capitalism itself and ushering in a socialist system.” 

Or that in an “FAQ” she sent to her fellow council members, rather than address the merits of those of us opposing the proposal, she engaged in ad hominem, labeling us “right wing” and “aligned with the reactionary regime currently in power in India, of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” in spite of the fact that we’re American and have nothing to do with politics in India.

Or that a Harvard academic, who is a prominent supporter of Sawant’s resolution, openly displays anti-Hindu hatred when he says that “a self-respecting human will relinquish Hindu identity,” and that “Hinduism is exploitation and murder of Dalits everywhere.” 

Seattle area media outlets in 2023 are not warning of a “dusky peril” as they once did, but they and media across the US certainly are repeating the slur that caste is intrinsic to Hindu traditions.

There may be no Asiatic Exclusion League today chasing Indian Americans out of their homes in the dead of night.

However, in adding ‘caste’ to a city policy with no roadmap for enforcement, Sawant’s bill once again burdens South Asians with their worst stereotypes, making them feel unsafe in Seattle. 

Suhag Shukla is Executive Director/Legal Counsel, Hindu American Foundation.
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