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The California State University system added caste to its nondiscrimination policy in January.

Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

The California State University system made history earlier this year when it announced that caste would be added as a protected category under the university’s antidiscrimination policy. With 23 campuses, about 485,550 students and nearly 56,000 faculty and staff, Cal State is the largest four-year public university system in the United States, making it a formidable addition to the small but growing list of higher education institutions that have implemented caste protections over the last two years—a list that includes Brandeis University, Colby College, Harvard University and the University of California, Davis. The implementation of this policy is a historic win for civil rights on American campuses and represents a major step toward justice for caste-oppressed members of the South Asian diaspora who have had their stories of casteist discrimination ignored and dismissed for far too long.

Cal State’s move is undoubtedly cause for celebration. But as expected, the backlash to this victory was swift. On Jan. 21, an open letter to the university administration was published, supposedly signed by more than 80 members of the Cal State faculty, which claimed that the new policy would “​​actually cause discrimination by unconstitutionally singling out and targeting Hindu faculty of Indian and South Asian descent as members of a suspect class because of deeply entrenched, false stereotypes about Indians, Hindus, and caste.” The letter erroneously claimed that this supposedly discriminatory policy was implemented “in the absence of any evidence and without fair hearing”—despite the fact that last April the Cal State Student Association passed a resolution endorsing this same policy in a unanimous vote following advocacy by an multiracial, interfaith coalition led by student advocates and the Dalit civil rights organization Equality Labs. The faculty letter was accompanied by another letter from the Hindu American Foundation, which echoed much of the same language and even threatened legal action against the university.

Despite the best efforts of opponents, the Cal State Board of Trustees unanimously voted on Jan. 25 to ratify the protections, which had been included as part of the California Faculty Association’s collective bargaining agreement, officially cementing this historic win for civil rights. However, while anticaste advocates have prevailed in this particular battle, the broader struggle to institutionalize caste protections on a national scale is far from over—and the backlash at Cal State is a cautionary tale of what we can expect as this fight moves forward.

As similar resolutions continue to pass on campuses across the country and the movement for caste protections continues to gain coverage and attention from American media, attacks such as those we saw in response to Cal State’s policy will only continue to grow in their frequency and ferocity. Indeed, we previously saw the same approach deployed after Brandeis became the first university in the United States to adopt such protections, again when the Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission was debating a caste resolution and yet again when UC Davis was considering its own anti–caste discrimination policy. Opponents claimed that caste discrimination was uncommon and already prohibited by existing antidiscrimination policies and further argued that adding caste as a protected category would in fact target Hindu Americans for monitoring and policing.

Cloaking their insidious attempts to entrench caste supremacy in the language of antiracism and social justice, these diasporic Hindu nationalists vocally oppose attempts to ban discrimination against a marginalized minority that faces unspeakable systemic violence in India, all the while claiming to monolithically represent the Hindu community. Ironically, these spurious claims in the Cal State faculty letter arguing that caste protections “unconstitutionally [single] out and [target] Hindu faculty,” as well as the characterization of the caste-abolitionist organization Equality Labs as an “anti-Hindu activist organization,” rely on a logic in which being anticaste is framed as being anti-Hindu by definition. Such logic, of course, inherently implies that the caste system is somehow intrinsic to Hindu identity—thus perpetuating the same “stereotypes about Indians, Hindus, and caste” that the letter’s signatories claim to oppose.

The rhetoric and scare tactics employed by opponents of Cal State’s policy are nothing new—they are simply the latest iteration of the same tired playbook the Hindu right trots out whenever caste protections are even so much as discussed in an institutional setting. Vocal though they may be, however, these forces do not speak for all Hindus. As Hindus for Human Rights, we applaud Cal State’s new policy and maintain that caste is wholly and unequivocally antithetical to the progressive values of our Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth).

It is true that caste discrimination is deeply embedded in mainstream Hindu communities and cultures, with roots in an entrenched system of Brahminical supremacy that dates back centuries. However, the beauty of our Hindu heritage is that it is marked by an incredible diversity of beliefs, traditions and cultural practices—including a rich and venerable array of anticaste critiques, among them those levied by Bhakti poets, the Sanskrit text Vajrasuchi Upanishad and spiritual leaders such as Sree Narayana Guru and Swami Agnivesh. It is from these traditions that we draw our firm support for and solidarity with the students, faculty and staff of the Cal State system who tirelessly fought to bring about this monumental achievement.

The implementation of an anti–caste discrimination policy that covers nearly half a million students in the nation’s largest four-year public university system marks a massive step forward for the anticaste movement and has the potential to spark the spread of similar caste protections on campuses across the country. The backlash to this historic civil rights victory, however, should serve as a cautionary tale. These attacks are part of a sustained effort by the Hindu right to uphold caste supremacy under the guise of fighting an imagined “Hinduphobia”—an effort that will, in all likelihood, only grow in intensity as the anticaste movement in the United States continues to gain steam. At a time when casteist violence and discrimination are on the rise both in South Asia and in the diaspora, it is more imperative than ever before that caste abolitionists and justice advocates everywhere rise to meet this challenge.

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