Vinod Mubayi

The passage of a law banning caste discrimination by the Seattle City Council a month ago on Feb 24 by a 6-1 margin was spearheaded by the India-born socialist member of the Council Kshama Sawant. It was followed less than 2 weeks later by a Toronto, Canada, district school board (TDSB) motion that passed by a 16-5 margin to make caste a protected category like race, gender and sexuality. The TDSB motion was sponsored, inter alia, by Dalit feminist school board trustee Yalini Rajakulasingam.

Caste discrimination in the US appears to be most evident in California which is home to the IT industry that employs a large number of software engineers of Indian origin. In June 2020, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a federal lawsuit against Cisco Systems, Inc., which has mostly South Asian workers, because two managers of upper caste Indian origin themselves harassed, discriminated against, and retaliated against an engineer of Dalit origin. In January 2022, California State University (CSU) became the first university system in the U.S. to add caste to its anti-discrimination policy, and, a month later, the workers union of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, demanded the addition of caste as a category in the company’s anti-discrimination policy and also issued a statement supporting the lawsuit against Cisco.

Now a state senator in California, the largest state in the US, whose district encompasses parts of Silicon Valley where several allegations of caste discrimination have been made, has introduced a bill to add caste as a protected category in the anti-discrimination statutes of the state.

These attempts to recognize and ban discrimination based on caste have been and continue to be strongly opposed by right-wing Hindutva organizations like the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) in the US and their counterparts in Canada. The Coalition of Hindus in North America was reported to have called caste a “racist, colonial trope” and described it as bigotry against the South Asian community. The virulence of this response suggests that these initial attempts to highlight caste discrimination have hit a nerve in sections of the Indian diaspora eliciting a defensive reaction as caste identity and the age-old practice of discrimination against the lowest strata, the Dalits, is the socio-cultural Achilles heel of the Indian, especially upper caste Hindu, diaspora.

Prof. Chinnaiah Jangam, Associate Professor of History at Carleton University in Canada, and a Dalit of Indian origin himself wrote about the TDSB anti-caste measure that “Anyone familiar with caste stigma and the violence endured by caste-oppressed Dalits and other minorities should have welcomed this move as a progressive step. But Indian-origin privileged caste Hindus in Canada organized a protest demonstration in front of the TDSB office. In the name of the Canadian Organization for Hindu Heritage Education, they launched a coordinated campaign against Rajakulasingam and other trustees who supported the motion. The protestors had the support of the Hindu American Foundation and other right-wing organizations in North America.”

Discrimination and oppression based on caste are an age-old phenomenon in South Asia, most pronounced amongst the caste-ridden Hindu communities in India, although they are practiced to some extent in other religious groups as well. The Indian Constitution adopted after independence banned the worst features of the caste system and also instituted a policy of affirmative action for the most oppressed members, the Dalits. As with any widespread social practice, the success of these ameliorative measures is spotty depending on the attitude of the local government machinery to enforcement of laws banning caste oppression.

Caste discrimination surfaced in North America when the population of the South Asian diaspora, especially its Hindu members, reached a certain size that enabled members of different castes to congregate and overlap in jobs, housing, schools, religious and cultural centers.

After changes to the US Immigration Act in 1965 made it possible for people of Indian origin to gain permanent residence in the US, Indian emigration to the US surged so that by 2019, there were 2.7 million Indian immigrants in the US who accounted for about 6% of the US foreign born population and constitute the second largest group of immigrants after Mexico, more than the Chinese and Filipinos who have had a much longer association with the US. Another statistic is that two-thirds of Indian immigrants have arrived after the year 2000. The total Indian diaspora in the US, consisting of those born in India or those of Indian ancestry, amounts to 4.8 million. Indian immigrants are also the highest earning among all communities. In 2019, the median income of Indian origin households in the US was $132,000 double that of the median income of US households that was $66,000.

Wikipedia reports that “During the late 20th and into the early 21st century, India was the third highest source country of immigration to Canada, with roughly 25,000–30,000 Indians immigrating to Canada each year according to Statistics Canada data. India became the highest source country of immigration to Canada by 2017, with yearly permanent residents increasing from 30,915 in 2012 to 85,585 in 2019, representing 25% of total immigration to Canada. As of 2021, the Indo-Canadian population numbers approximately 1.86 million.

Hindutva oriented organizations in the US seem to have become active in the 1980s as the Ranjanmabhoomi agitation started by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad gathered steam and BJP leaders like L.K. Advani latched on to with the Rathyatra campaign that succeeded in eventually destroying the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992. The initial focus of the efforts in the US appears to have been the mobilization of diasporic Hindus to obtain funds for sponsoring and supporting the aims of Hindutva in India. Thus, the shilanyas (foundation) campaign was started to send money for the construction of a Ram temple at the site of the destroyed Babri mosque.

A detailed study “Hindu Nationalism in the United States – A Report on Nonprofit Groups” prepared in July 2014 compiled publicly available tax records, newspaper articles and ancillary materials on organizations affiliated with what is known as the Sangh Parivar, the family of right-wing groups led by the RSS, the fountainhead of Hindu fundamentalism in India. This report (available on www.sacw.net) pointed out that “Over the last three decades, a movement toward Hinduizing India—advancing the status of Hindus toward political and social primacy in India— has continued to gain ground in South Asia and diasporic communities. The Sangh Parivar (the Sangh “family”), the network of groups at the forefront of this Hindu nationalist movement, has an estimated membership numbering in the millions, making the Sangh one of the largest voluntary associations in India. The major organizations in the Sangh include the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal, and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The report went on to point out that “India-based Sangh affiliates receive social and financial support from its U.S.-based wings, the latter of which exist largely as tax-exempt non-profit organizations in the United States: Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), Sewa International USA, Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation-USA. The Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party – USA (OFBJP) is active as well, though it is not a tax-exempt group.” Although the report is now a bit dated it offers a good perspective on the techniques and strategies of groups like Hindu American Foundation and related groups to use the privileges of the tax system in the US extended to non-profit NGOs to game the system and mobilize funds for their objectives in India.

The data compiled in this report show that even for earlier period 2001-2012 the funds collected by nonprofit groups using the exempt provisions of the US tax code are quite considerable: For example, Ekal Vidyalaya–US received $27 million in funds, India Development and Relief Fund received $19 million, and VHP America –$4 million. In the years since it is likely that much larger amounts have been collected.

However, the objective of Hindutva-oriented groups in the US of using the diaspora to generate funds to further their cause within India in the two or three decades until 2010 or so is very likely no longer the case. The ruling BJP under Modi has been in power for almost a decade, forged close bonds with the leading capitalists like Adani who function as its cronies, and created opaque instruments like electoral bonds to obtain donations from sources, including foreign companies, hidden from public disclosure. BJP is the richest political party in India by a very large margin. In the Adani-fied world of Hindutva-related finance a few tens of millions of dollars are small potatoes considering that other entrepreneurs like the jeweller Nirav Modi have absconded with public money from state-owned banks amounting to several billion dollars, and the Narendra Modi regime doesn’t seem to be too anxious to get them back.

Instead, the Hindutva organizations in North America that are also fully aligned with representative agencies of the Indian government like embassies and consular offices are now more involved in projecting the Vishwaguru (World’s Guru) image of the Modi regime particularly this year when India is heading the G-20 group. Another of their objectives is to infiltrate US and Canadian politics and social institutions, such as schools and colleges, and community centers and forums to influence them towards Hindutva views. The Indian Consulate in Toronto was reported to have tried to stop local schools and teachers from mentioning about the farmers protests in India, especially involving Sikh farmers, on the grounds that it could “poison relations” between India and Canada.

The aggressive promotion of a monolithic, harmonious Hinduism by the RSS and its political offshoot the BJP that has characterized Indian society over the last few decades and its intensification in several areas by the Modi regime is now sought to be promoted internationally and particularly in North America with its large and influential Indian diaspora. The promotion takes the form of the one nation, one religion, one language and one leader philosophy that both denies and undermines India’s pluralistic and diverse society. Of course, within India itself the promotion of this monolithic Hinduism is accompanied by multiple forms of exclusion and discrimination as well as physical violence including murder of religious minorities, Muslims and Christians, and Dalits. All of this is well documented as is the fact that Modi’s regime and other BJP governments in states like UP and MP have weaponized the use of state institutions, like the police and investigate agencies, the tax authorities, the election commission, and the subordinate judiciary for partisan political ends.

In a very interesting article entitled How Do We Talk About the State of India Today? published on March 24, 2023 in Art Review Asia, Deepa Bhasthi describes the latest book RSS: The Long and the Short of It (2022) of the award-winning Kannada writer Devanura Mahadeva. She writes that this book provides “an analysis of the true nature and objectives of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ultra-nationalist, volunteer-led organization from which India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) derives its political ideology by redeploying the RSS’s own foundational texts in order to suggest that the organization’s brand of ultranationalism is, in reality, anti-national and against India’s constitution.” Mahadeva’s book “elucidates how the Modi government’s warpath to erase pluralism and tolerance in India can be traced back to RSS’s founding principles, inspired heavily by fascism in Hitler’s and Mussolini’s Europe” and it emphasizes that “The RSS – Modi and several members of his cabinet have been longtime members – was founded in 1925, and relies almost entirely on the four varnas, India’s infamous caste system, to define its vision for a Hindu state.”

Elaborating on the connection with fascist Germany Prof Jangam insightfully indicates: “one can see an invisible connection between caste and white supremacy that produced the Aryan race supremacy of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany and the Italian fascism of Benito Mussolini…In this context, privileged caste Hindus who have emerged as India’s cultural ambassadors and faces of the Indian diaspora are normalizing a Hindu supremacist ideology…Ironically, they use the language of multiculturalism, decolonization, religious fear and anything that helps their agenda of holding on to their privileges…Even after moving out of their native lands and settling in liberal countries like Canada, where there is no necessity for caste to survive, they feel their existence is under threat if someone talks about caste oppression. They not only deny the existence of caste but use all weapons at their disposal to discredit those who raise the matter.”

The National Council of Canadian Muslims and the World Sikh Organization (WSO) have recently published a report on the Hindutva influence in Canada by organizations like the RSS. The authors of the report point out that the RSS has been spreading its ideologies all over the world including countries like Canada “through organizations that engage in humanitarian, community, education and political work.” They cautioned the authorities to be aware of the growth of Hindu nationalism not only in India but in Canada as well.

Highlighting the regressive features of caste discrimination and fashioning laws against it similar to laws outlawing discrimination based on race, gender, and sexuality should help to raise awareness of the issue among the Indian diaspora a well as the broader public in North America. By the same token, it should also help to blunt and diminish the appeal and spread of Hindutva ideology as caste is an integral part of its worldview.

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