Even as the promise of each bright day of an exceptional America inspires us, there are those crepuscular moments of dimness and floating storm clouds to remind us that we have not met John Winthrop’s challenge
By Anil Madan
In 1630, John Winthrop, in a sermon delivered before he and his fellow settlers reached New England, described his expectation that the new Massachusetts Bay Colony would shine like an example to the world, with these words: “we shall be as a city upon a hill.” The phrase has sometimes been modified to refer to a shining city upon a hill, the genesis of the idea of American exceptionalism.
Seattle becomes first US city to ban caste discrimination. Pic – Al Jazeera
But, even as the promise of each bright day of an exceptional America inspires us, there are those crepuscular moments of dimness and floating storm clouds to remind us that we have not met John Winthrop’s challenge. The demons of the world are often imported to these shores by the new immigrants who arrive every year, and they become our demons and a challenge for our concept of equality to handle.
It is not that this nation has been insensitive to the clarion call of equality. It is that human nature and its capacity to engender unlimited hatred is abstruse.
So, it is that slavery flourished in America for more than twelve score years before it was declared anathema. In today’s America, many argue forcefully that the penumbra of that evil still casts a shadow on this nation. Invidious discrimination still flourishes. In today’s America, the haters, even candidates for the presidency, spew venom at those whom they refer to as “Woke” or against LGBTQ people, the handicapped, against immigrants, the poor, against the homeless, and those ravaged by mental illness or drug addictions. Against any helpless or less than able target, their bile flows unabated.
One can add to this poisonous streak, another unwelcome hatred imported from South Asia—casteism. This system of invidious discrimination and bile-spewing hatred has made its way to the new world and casts its dark shadow on our land.
Complaints of discrimination
A few years ago, the State of California sued Cisco Systems, the company that touts itself as the worldwide leader in technology that powers the Internet, and two of its engineer employees alleging that those employees at the company discriminated against and harassed a fellow Indian engineer at its Silicon Valley headquarters because of his caste. That engineer-victim was a member of the Dalit caste, considered the lowest caste, whose members are also referred to as “untouchable.”
Last month the California agency that filed the suit, dismissed the case against the two employee engineers. The reason for the dismissal is not clear but a good guess is that the California statute permits suits only against employers, not against fellow employees without management authority. Nevertheless, the suit continues against Cisco the company in its capacity as employer.
Curiously, instead of decrying the very idea of discrimination, Cisco has vigorously defended the suit and stood by its engineers accused of misconduct. Perhaps this is a strategy to avoid punitive damages for not responding to complaints of discrimination.
Dr B.R. Ambedkar, himself a Dalit who was appointed chairman of the drafting committee for the Constitution of India before its independence from British rule in 1947, and is often referred to as the “architect” of that document is quoted to have said: “If Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem.” America’s experience tells us those words were prescient. Notably, the Indian Constitution bans the caste system but even so, reports of the caste system being well entrenched in India persist. And how often have we seen immigrants to this country purportedly fleeing oppression and hatred in their countries, coming here and establishing the same systems they sought to escape in their homelands.
Some months ago, the City of Seattle, Washington, passed an ordinance banning discrimination based on caste. In May this year, the California Senate passed a bill to the same effect. That bill now goes to California’s lower house for enactment before it can become law.
The California bill states in relevant part: “No person in the State of California shall, on the basis of sex, race, caste, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, ethnic group identification, age, mental disability, physical disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, or sexual orientation, be unlawfully denied full and equal access to the benefits of, or be unlawfully subjected to discrimination under, any program or activity that is conducted, operated, or administered by the state” and this protection is afforded against action by any state agency or third-party receiving financial assistance from the state.
Human Rights and Caste Equity
US organizations such as Hindus for Human Rights and Hindus for Caste Equity have actively promoted such legislation as a safeguard for vulnerable community members in housing, the tech industry, and at educational institutions. They assert that caste discrimination is pervasive in the Indian diaspora. But the problem extends beyond Indians because Nepalese immigrants also report experiencing caste discrimination. And it extends beyond Hindus as members of the Ravidassia community report discriminatory behavior by Sikhs.
On the other hand, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and the Coalition of Hindus of North America oppose such amendments to anti-discrimination laws. They argue that these references to caste unfairly stigmatize and target Hindus and Indian Americans due to the common perception of their association with the caste system. These groups also claim that no clear data supports the existence of such discrimination exists. An additional argument is that “caste” is covered under “national origin” making it unnecessary to carve out a separate protected category. Curiously, they do not argue that “caste” is covered under “religion.”
The HAF released this statement about the California Senate bill (SB-403): “We oppose SB-403 because both its legislative intent and impact will result in an unconstitutional denial of equal protection and due process to South Asians (the vast majority of whom are of Indian origin) and other vulnerable ethnic communities. SB-403 unfairly maligns, targets and racially profiles select communities on the basis of their national origin, ethnicity and ancestry for disparate treatment, thereby violating the very laws it seeks to amend, the Unruh Civil Rights Act. It further violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the US and California State Constitutions.”
With all respect to the HAF, their argument is unpersuasive. If the statutory language banning discrimination based on “national origin” which it claims encompasses caste-based discrimination does not unfairly malign, target, and racially profile select communities (i.e., the American Hindu community), why would the addition of “caste” do so? And, if their assertion that no data exists to support the existence of caste-based discrimination is correct, what harm can come of the amendments prohibiting such “non-existent” discrimination? It is also not clear why the Hindu community (meaning the community that the HAF represents) is the only Hindu community being maligned. Why are the Nepalese or Sikhs also not being maligned?
Considerations of statutory construction militate in favor of an express reference to “caste” as a prohibited category. The statutory language prohibiting discrimination “on the basis of sex, race, caste, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, ethnic group identification, age, mental disability, physical disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, or sexual orientation” could be considerably shortened by eliminating many of the categories. It was not long ago that people argued that prohibiting discrimination based on sex was superfluous. We know better now.
Anecdotal stories of caste discrimination have emerged in California. SFGate, a San Francisco publication has reported on the experience of a harmonium player at a temple in Fresno, California. Recently, he sang spiritual songs known as Kirtans while listener devotees swayed to his rhythms. But he recounted a time when he was pulled aside at another US temple and told not to enter the kitchen. “I felt so disrespected,” he said.
That comment is jarring. The point of casteism is, after all, disrespect.
The SFGate story notes that there are about 20,000 members of the Ravidassia community in California’s Central Valley. There are five Ravidassia temples in California alone — in Fresno, Pittsburg, Rio Linda, Selma and Yuba City — with a sixth under construction in Union City. In California, members of the Ravidassia community come from Hindu, Indigenous and Sikh backgrounds. Their temples have the appearance and feel of a Sikh gurdwara, with the sacred text, the Guru Granth Sahib, installed as the focal point in the main prayer hall. The text includes 40 verses of Guru Ravidass, in addition to other spiritual leaders.
Ravidassia religious practices vary from Sikhism. However, many in the community do identify themselves as Sikh and have much in common with the Sikh community including dress, food, language and other customs.
Although Sikhism promotes the principle of equality and oneness—the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, the most significant shrine in Sikhism, was designed with four doors, sending the message that “everyone from all walks of life, all corners of the world and all castes are welcome to come in and be together”—signs of discrimination at the local level continue. A spokesperson for the Ravidass community in Union City, California pointed out that even in India, each village has gurdwaras (Sikh temples) led by dominant-caste members and those run by Dalits.
Augmenting these anecdotes are additional stories. One Ravidassia reported that his friend opened a grocery store in a largely South Asian neighborhood in Central California that did well in the beginning, but “his business flopped” once customers learned his caste.“He had to shut down his business,” he said. “How can this still happen in the United States?”
Another, who worked at a poultry plant near Fresno, said his Indian colleagues refused to sit with him at lunch after learning he was Dalit.
A third, who said he used to run a trucking company in California, said one of his upper-caste drivers quit after learning Ganger’s caste identity. “He said his relatives were berating him for working with me.”
From a legal point of view, the broad promise of equality in the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution does not mean that all discrimination is automatically prohibited. It is up to Congress to enforce the provisions of the amendment. And State legislatures too have a role in expanding the scope of what is included in the concept of equality.
Else, we are destined to live in the shadows of bigotry, hatred, and discrimination.
Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 2 June 2023
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