Under Guise of Protecting Workers, California Defines (and Demonizes) Hinduism

By Kavita Pallod Sekhsaria

(RNS): In a discrimination case involving a Cisco Systems employee, the state of California has taken the bold and alarming step of defining Hinduism while simultaneously demonizing it.

In a case that has bounced from federal court to local court, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing’s lawsuit has alleged that Cisco and two of its employees discriminated against a computer engineer who worked on their team in their Silicon Valley office, denying him a raise and a promotion because he was a Dalit, one of the lowest castes in Indian social hierarchy. The two supervisors are presumably from higher castes, according to the state’s complaint.

So far, so good. Nobody wants to see discrimination in the workplace in any form.

But on closer inspection, the state’s filing reveals an unconstitutional, untenable and Hinduphobic definition of caste. California’s rhetoric goes far beyond justice to target the Hindu community on the basis of religion.

The state asserts that Hinduism is inherently hierarchical and discriminatory: “As a strict Hindu social and religious hierarchy, India’s caste system defines a person’s status based on their religion, ancestry, national origin/ethnicity, and race/color — or the caste into which they are born — and will remain until death.”

This approach is unconstitutional. The First Amendment prohibits the state from using its power to define religious doctrine.

It is also wrong. Across the diversity of Hinduism, the idea of the equal presence of the divine in all beings is fundamental to living the faith. Our shared divinity brings about a responsibility to treat others with respect, compassion and dignity. An unchanging, oppressive and hereditary hierarchy that’s enforced by religious mandate doesn’t fit with any genuine understanding of Hinduism.

India’s caste system is not a Hindu idea, any more than slavery or white supremacy is inherent to Christianity, or terrorism is to Islam, to use popular stereotypes. While caste as a means of social division is quite old, the system as we know it today is more the product of colonialist conceptions, shaped by British and European notions of racial and religious superiority.

Should California prevail in this case, its grossly inaccurate characterization of the place of caste in the Hindu faith could be used to paint every Hindu of Indian descent in this country as bigoted by definition.

The Cisco case is not the first time California has painted Hindus as implicitly discriminatory. For decades, California’s school textbooks have defined Hinduism this way. In spite of our religion’s teachings, our most important sacred texts and the beliefs of an overwhelming number of Hindus, we have suffered the consequences of unintended ill will and harmful stereotypes.

Not only is California’s embrace of stereotypes rooted in racism and colonialism misplaced, it is also unnecessary. The state could rely on existing law to prosecute caste discrimination. By developing legal precedent aimed directly at the foreign concept of caste, California would force companies to work out criteria to ascertain the caste of each employee of Indian descent, and monitor and manage alleged discrimination along these lines.

Since caste is an administrative designation in India, not a religious one, companies would in effect have to apply Indian law on caste, which is incredibly complex and fluid, not to mention the differing designations of India’s individual states, on people living and working in the U.S.

Or worse, they could avail themselves of the offered help of some scholar-activists, who themselves have a documented history of bigoted Hinduphobic statements, to assign Hindus a caste status based on analysis of a list of last names alone.

The state’s definition would also make Hindus of non-Indian descent and non-Hindus, for whom subcontinental social markers have zero relevance, hyperaware of caste. What’s next, making Hindus wear something that clearly identifies them in public — maybe a saffron armband?

The Cisco case is hardly the first time allegations of discrimination in the workplace have surfaced and is unlikely to be the last. Demanding that companies ensure work environments that promote diversity and mutual respect is vital to our capitalist democracy; whether the differences are real or perceived, disrespect, discrimination and mistreatment of subordinates from positions of power are wrong.

The state’s role in pushing for more inclusive and just workplaces is key in this effort. But by defining caste entirely as a Hindu religious principle, California has put itself in a position only to target Hindus without even clarifying how it will be able to prosecute actual discrimination.

This gross overstep will go even further in targeting us for abuse, without coming near the purported goal of pushing employers to be more fair and just.

Kavita Pallod Sekhsaria is a clinical psychologist and national leadership team member for the Hindu American Foundation. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.