Hindutva in the US: Caste Discrimination Act Struck Down in California

In 2023, tremendous effort by activists helped California lawmakers clear a bill that would ban caste discrimination in the state. Caste is a South Asian fixed social class system particularly


ICNA CSJ

Date published: Sun, 25 February 24


In 2023, tremendous effort by activists helped California lawmakers clear a bill that would ban caste discrimination in the state. Caste is a South Asian fixed social class system particularly amongst Hinduism (but not excluding other religious communities in South Asia). Caste hierarchy particularly exists amongst South Asian communities. Caste can be used as a way to discriminate against those who are deemed “low caste.” South Asian immigrants in the diaspora have brought elements of caste discrimination to their new countries, particularly with a new wave of far-right Hinduism support. 

TIME Magazine reports, “To this day, oppressed castes are subject to stigma on the basis of perceived social and intellectual inferiority, and often consigned to the most exploitative segments of the labor market. This is especially true of Dalits, which is the broad term for the community that occupies the bottom rung of the caste ladder and suffers the unique stigma of untouchability. Dalits continue to face pervasive violence, humiliation, and exclusion. The coronavirus pandemic has only amplified the practice of ‘untouchability through the segregating and shunning of stigmatized groups.”

There have been many reports of tech companies in Silicon Valley and the US engaging in caste discrimination, discriminating against lower-caste Indians. 

In New Jersey, the largest Hindu temple constructed in the US, the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) Akshardham temple, is on the receiving end of a lawsuit by six Dalit construction workers – called volunteers by the temple. The lawsuit claims that there was trafficking of Dalit workers from India, caste discrimination and exploitation, and alleged violations of US labor and immigration laws. 

The lawsuit says, “Defendants (BAPS) knew these workers suffered from rampant discrimination and had limited economic opportunities, access to services, and government protection in India. Defendants essentially weaponised India’s caste system, using it to coerce the Plaintiffs and other R-1 workers to work for substandard pay under abysmal conditions in New Jersey.”

With the increase of Hindutva support in the US, large donors associated with Hindutva are pressuring lawmakers and local and state governments to strike down laws that attempt to ban caste discrimination. The 2023 California banning caste discrimination bill was struck down in late October by Governor Gavin Newsom. After two conversations with high-profile Indian American donors, Newsom struck down the bill, arguing that current laws already protect those who may be lower-caste. 

One of the high-profile donors, Ajay Jain Bhutoria, former deputy co-chair of the Democratic National Committee, said about his meeting with Newsom, “We used very strong words … telling him that definitely he has a bright future in the national politics and he has a bright, bigger ambitions and the community would love to support him. But at the same time, if there’s a mistake made on his side, he loses the support of the community. And I think he got the message very loud and clear.”

The Washington Post reports of those who are concerned with Newsom’s decisions. Supporters of the measure, which include the American Bar Association and some Hindu civil rights groups, argue that Newsom is not correct in his decision. They say that people from lower castes are routinely losing opportunities in educational settings, housing, and job opportunities when someone of a higher caste learns of their status. Caste is a unique category that needs to be explicitly stated and addressed to enact equity. 

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair, chairman of the California Democratic Party’s progressive caucus, said that Newsom’s vote as a blow for the state. The Washington Post reports, “Pictures of Newsom meeting with the wealthy Indian donors who were fighting the bill have infuriated members of the caucus and grass-roots supporters.”

Iqbal-Zubair said, “Not surprisingly, those with money, with privilege in the community, who risk losing access to that privilege, were the ones fighting the bill. The caste system is very real and, ironically, this dynamic played out here. It wasn’t people at the bottom he was meeting with; it was people at the top. He listened to them, to the wealthy donors.”

Regardless of this decision, activists and groups are still attempting to help end caste discrimination in the US. Many universities, including University of California, Davis, Harvard University, and Brown University have introduced caste to their non-discrimination policies.