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HomeOpinionWhat dominant Hindus in US get wrong about Seattle caste ban

What dominant Hindus in US get wrong about Seattle caste ban

Seattle caste ban will apply to acts of discrimination. The American city won't be discussing or analysing religious texts and scriptures of Hindus.

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The Seattle City Council’s anti-caste legislation has been widely hailed as a significant move toward making the South Asian community abroad more egalitarian. But it’s the opposition from the ‘upper’ caste Hindus in the US and in India that we need to focus on to understand how and why a law banning discrimination can anger a section of society.

Since even Hindu organisations in the US have not used the oft-mentioned arguments in defence of caste system — “it’s nothing but another name for division of labour”; “Hindus practice Guna (गुण or quality)-based Varna and not birth-based Caste” — I will limit my arguments to the points raised in the three letters (1, 2, 3) they have written to the Seattle City Council.

As the law kicks off the caste debate in the US, we will likely keep hearing these four claims and arguments:

1. Most Hindus in the United States are unaware of or even recognise or show their caste. Seattle city won’t be able to enforce any ban on caste discrimination because there is no known method to determine the caste of a South Asian person.

2. Anti-caste law is discriminatory because it applies only to South Asians and some Asian and African immigrant communities.

3. Caste is one of the most complicated and misunderstood concepts related to India and Hinduism.

4. There is no religion in South Asia that officially sanctions such discrimination.

Also read: Seattle caste ban isn’t about Hinduism or Indians. It’s America’s Great Culture War

Busting the arguments

The first argument claims that the Hindu diaspora is casteless or caste-blind, so why enact any law to stop caste-based discrimination. This is a fallacious argument. Not recognising caste does not obliterate the privileges and the capacity to discriminate based on caste. For most Indians, knowing about their own caste and how to place themselves in the caste matrix is part of their primary socialisation. A large survey by Pew Research has revealed that “Indians conduct their social lives largely within caste hierarchies.” Castes and caste-networks are so entrenched and meticulously framed that identifying someone from one’s own caste group is like knowing the back of their own hand. It’s said that Indians carry their pickle, Gangajal, and caste wherever they go. Dr B.R. Ambedkar once wrote that “if Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem.” This is what we are actually witnessing. Even in the US, various caste groups have formed their caste associations, and this is how they conduct their social life. Identifying caste for legal purposes can be a problem, but the anti-caste law is not about identifying someone’s caste. If someone proves that they have been discriminated against on the basis of caste, then this provision of the law applies. This law is not caste-specific, and implies that a person belonging to any caste can be held guilty of discrimination.

The second argument against the anti-caste law is that it applies only to South Asians and some other Asian and African communities, which would purportedly mean singling them out. Well, this law is for the migrants from these regions only because caste originated in South Asia. Communities from these regions and some other communities of Africa, Japan, etc., have well-laid-out plans for birth and occupation-based hierarchical social systems. We can broadly call them Homo Hierarchicus. As Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant rightly said, “Caste discrimination is faced by South Asian American and other immigrant working people in their workplaces, including in the tech sector, in Seattle and in cities around the country.” She further added that the policy protects those of South Asian descent from discrimination by those who discriminate (on the basis of caste). As racial discrimination is already factored into the policy, and South Asians are not covered under this protection, it’s imperative that to safeguard the interests of persecuted people of South Asia, they get protection under the category of caste.

The third argument looks robust on the ground that the caste system is complicated, buried in the maze of religious texts. Caste and Varna can be understood or misunderstood in various ways and the same text can have different hermeneutic meanings and interpretations. Someone may posit that there is no mention of caste in the Vedas, whereas others can argue that according to the Bhagavad Gita, caste is based on Karma (कर्म or work). But the religious meaning of Karma is not about the things one does in this birth. It’s about the Karma of previous birth. This implies that everyone gets rewarded or takes birth in a certain caste based on the deeds of their previous birth! This is Karma philosophy, hailed as the Masonic stone of Hindu faith. It is complicated. But caste is not a mystery if you see its manifestation in social life. If one sees caste from the viewpoint of those at the receiving end of the discrimination, it is oppressive, brutal and hegemonic. To understand the horrors of caste, this perspective is important. I hope that the opponents of the Seattle anti-caste legislation know that the City Council and the law enforcement agencies are not going to debate the religious texts and the religiosity of the caste system. They are not going to discuss Vedas, Puranas and Bhagavad Gita. Their simple task will be to find out if someone has been discriminated against on the basis of their caste or not. That should not be a difficult task.

The fourth argument also becomes redundant due to the same reason. Although, I can argue that Hindu religious texts, in fact, sanction caste- and birth- and occupation-based hierarchies on the ground of so-called Karma of previous birth. But this again leads us to unending debates and hermeneutic interpretations. Hindus have several religious books and many interpretations of these texts, so nothing can be settled in such discourse.

Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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