Caste-Based Discrimination in the US: Is There a Need for Protective Legislation?

Source: TRT World

On June 30, California regulators sued Cisco Systems Inc. for discriminating against an Indian American employee. The employee, belonging to a lower Indian caste, was harassed by two Indian American managers. This is not the first instance of caste discrimination in the US. According to a survey conducted by Equality Labs, a South Asian American human rights organization, 26 percent of respondents of South Asian descent claimed that they had suffered from a physical assault because of their caste in the United States, while 60 percent reported that caste-based derogatory jokes or remarks had been directed at them. More than half said they were afraid of being “outed” as Dalit. 

A coalition of American Ambedkarite organizations, consisting of Indian American and Canadian Dalits combatting caste-based discrimination, expressed solidarity with the Cisco employee: “With an increasing number of South Asian people occupying ‘strategic positions in the American corporate bastion’, fears that caste will play a role in all walks of life are coming true.” The organizations further stated that “caste discrimination is the antithesis of the American values of freedom, democracy and justice.”

Caste in America, a Pulitzer Center series, along with WGBH News, also finds that caste discrimination in the US hampers job, marriage, and economic prospects for Dalits. Currently, the US does not consider caste bias a form of discrimination. Caste has been addressed in US courts, but only on matters related to immigration. In the 1923 case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian Sikh identified himself as a “high caste Aryan, of full Indian blood” and asked to be declared white to obtain US citizenship. This is one such case where “caste” is mentioned but only for immigration purposes. Thus, there is no legal precedent that could make caste a judicial issue. 

The lack of judicial precedent in the United States has real consequences for Dalits in America. In 2017, the New York Human State Division of Human Rights denied a case in which a Dalit waiter accused his upper-caste managers and staff of caste discrimination after they continuously referred to him as an “untouchable.”

In the absence of federal and state law, Brandeis University, a private American university, paved the way in becoming the first American university to ban caste-based discrimination on its campus, outlined in its anti-discrimination policy in January of this year. The policy specifically prohibits “discrimination and harassment on the basis of race; color; ancestry; religious creed; gender identity and expression; national or ethnic origin; sex; sexual orientation; pregnancy; age; genetic information; disability; military or veteran status; or any other category protected by law.” To include caste in its policy, the University released a statement of interpretation which clarified that “Following the guidance of the US Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division’s interpretation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to include a prohibition against religious discrimination, Brandeis University shall similarly construe caste identity to be included within the university’s current bans on discrimination and harassment based on race, color, ancestry, religious creed, and national or ethnic origin.” 

Caste-based discrimination is predominantly practiced in Korea, Japan, and the Indian subcontinent. Hindus traditionally grouped people into four major castes based on ancestry, with Dalits at the bottom of the hierarchical system. Dalits in India still struggle with access to education and jobs as Untouchability continues to be practiced in some parts of the country, although 65 years have passed since the Indian government banned caste-based discrimination. 

The issue of caste-based discrimination has been made even more apparent in India as a result of  the covid-19 pandemic. Dalits had been denied food rations at Abhishek Nagar of district Saharanpur in the state of Uttar Pradesh, by certain local administration after lockdown measures were put in place. Dalits had been denied cremation grounds and in one case, were forced to remove a dead body from a funeral pyre after objections by members of upper castes. A survey conducted by IndiaSpend, a policy research foundation, had found that many Dalit workers had not received cash transfers from the government and have been instead receiving rations from public distribution shops. IndiaSpend also found that Dalits were required to work more, but they received less compensation than people belonging to other castes. 

 Article 15 of the Indian Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste. Untouchability is a criminal act under Article 17. Furthermore, Indian Parliament formulated special laws, such as the Scheduled Castes And the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 that prevents the Dalit community from caste violence and discrimination. The act ensures that the offender is punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but may extend to life imprisonment depending upon the varying degree of offense. The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 prescribes punishment for preaching and practicing Untouchability and provides protection from any disability arising from this type of discrimination.

Caste-based discrimination is also prevalent in the United Kingdom. A study conducted by Hilary Metcalf and Heather Rolfe of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research found evidence suggesting caste discrimination and harassment and bullying in employment, education, and the provision of services. Such evidence included incidents were Jatt Sikh drivers had left the company, a Ravidassia Sikh had founded after they discovered the caste of the owner; a Brahmin woman, working as a home care worker with the UK Social Services refusing to bathe an elderly patient who was Ravidassia; an employer asking if the employee was “chamar,” etc. To tackle this issue, the government was underway to include caste-based discrimination in the Equality Act of 2010; however, due to the difficulty in defining “caste” and opposition from Hindu groups, the act failed to pass. Tirkey v. Chandhok in 2014 became the first case claiming caste discrimination in the United Kingdom.  The tribunal in this case held that “‘ethnic origins’…. had a wide and flexible ambit, including characteristics determined by ‘descent.’” Therefore, Caste may be within the scope of “ethnic origins,” which may soon set a  precedent to deal with caste-based discrimination in the United Kingdom.

Caste-based discrimination, which was once more limited to Indian society, has now reached other countries as well. Civil rights activist and author of the Indian constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had once said that, “if Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Caste would become a world problem.” Dr. Ambedkar’s fear about the spread of caste discrimination to other countries around the world is has certainly become more apparent.

Recently, the US Supreme Court barred discrimination in employment faced by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community. As the US makes progress in combating discrimination, cases of caste bias experienced by Indian Americans hinders America from attaining the desired goal of a discrimination-free society. It is time for “caste” to become a legislative matter and for the US government to take necessary measures to penalize caste-based discrimination and further protect all of its citizens.