The Dharmachakra (Skt: wheel of the law with eight spokes) represents the Eightfold Path (Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Occupation, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration).
Konark Sun temple in Odisha, Odisa, Orissa, India, c. 1200 CE.

Inconvenient Truths About the Anti-Caste Movement in America

Indu Viswanathan, Ed.D.


The past two years have marked a surge in anti-caste discrimination policies and laws in American universities, city councils, and now, state legislatures. Adding on to existing anti-discrimination policies, advocates argue that caste-based discrimination must be specifically articulated because casteism, unlike racism and gender-based discrimination, is imperceptible to the average American. On the surface, this argument seems fair and reasonable. After all, how could anyone who fights for equity stand against raising awareness about any form of discrimination?

As Hindu American civil rights lawyers and leaders have illuminated, however, there is nothing reasonable about these policies: they are not facially neutral (i.e., they presume that caste-based discrimination flows only in one direction and the policies don’t apply to all Americans); they target specific communities (i.e. the seed xenophobia and racism); while they claim that this is a pan-religious issue from “South Asia,” they define Hinduism as the source of these discriminatory practices. While the Indian census names hundreds of castes across multiple religions, American policies about caste discrimination only name the four varnas from Hinduism. Not only is this clearly an attack on Hinduism (and not just on caste), these policies are defining Hinduism, violating our First Amendment rights. In other words, these policies engender discrimination in the name of anti-discrimination.

Surrounding this legislation is a dizzying tornado of rhetoric that fills the American imagination, corporate spaces, universities, and social media with impending doom about what will happen if we don’t immediately dismantle caste in the United States. For years, advocates — and American lawmakers — have cited a John Doe lawsuit against two Cisco Systems managers claiming caste-based discrimination as evidence of caste-based discrimination, continuing to do so after the case was dismissed by the courts. Hindu Americans are, apparently, guilty until proven innocent.

One of the main arguments made by advocates for caste discrimination laws and policies in the United States is that upper caste Hindus import their casteist behaviors wherever they immigrate and that caste discrimination is spreading like a virus across America.

From “Caste Privilege 101: A Primer for the Privileged” by Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Sinthujan Varatharajah, February 2015. Soundararajan recently re-Tweeted the article.

Let’s unpack this idea.

According to Pew’s 2021 survey study on caste in India, less than 25% of people surveyed reported seeing evidence of widespread discrimination against Scheduled Castes (20%), Scheduled Tribes (19%) or Other Backward Classes (16%). 13% of those who identify with OBC said that there is a lot of discrimination against Backward Classes. (Note: this references not just Hindus but caste-identifying groups from all religious communities in India.)

“Generally, people belonging to lower castes share the perception that there isn’t widespread caste discrimination in India. For instance, just 13% of those who identify with OBCs say there is a lot of discrimination against Backward Classes. Members of Scheduled Castes and Tribes are slightly more likely than members of other castes to say there is a lot of caste discrimination against their groups — but, still, only about a quarter take this position.”

According to the Carnegie Endowment’s 2021 Social Realities of Indian Americans survey study, 53% of Hindu Americans do not identify with a caste. 16% of those surveyed identify as a member of OBC and 1% identify as either Adivasi/Scheduled Tribe (ST) or Dalit/Scheduled Caste (SC).

There are approximately 2.5 million Hindus in the United States. Assuming the Carnegie survey is generalizable, less than 1% — less than 25,000 people — identify as either Adivasi/Scheduled Tribe or Dalit/Scheduled Caste.

If American anti-casteism activists are right, Indian levels of caste discrimination are being unleashed across the United States. (Although 53% of Hindu Americans report that they do not identify with a caste, activists argue that even those Hindu Americans unwittingly uphold caste discrimination. Erring on the side of caution, we will assume they are one hundred percent correct.) We then take the worst case scenario — that the 20% of Scheduled Caste people (i.e. Dalits) who reported seeing widespread caste discrimination (from Pew’s study) represent Hindu Dalits — and apply it to the American Dalit population. (Note: Pew reported that casteism was higher amongst Christians and Muslims, but we are setting that aside.). That means that approximately 5,000 people in the United States perceive widespread caste discrimination on par with India (i.e. the spreading virus argument). Not experience or have evidence of. Perceive.

Let’s put this in perspective.

According to this 2017 report, approximately 3 out of 10 Native Americans say they have been personally discriminated against because they are Native when it comes to equal pay, applying for jobs, interacting with the police, interacting with the court system, sexual harrassment, and ethnic slurs. There are approximately 5.2 million Native Americans; as the survey study was conducted using a representative sample, it is reasonable to assume it is generalizable. This means that 1,733,333 Native Americans report experiencing discrimination.

According to a 2020 study:

  • 80% of Asian Americans report feeling discrimination in the United States. There are approximately 22 million Asian Americans. Assuming the survey is generalizable, that means 17,600,000 report experiencing discrimination.
  • 90% of Black Americans report experiencing discrimination. There are approximately 47.2 million Black Americans. Assuming the survey is generalizable, 42,480,000 report experiencing discrimination.
  • 73% of Hispanic and Latino American report experiencing discrimination. There are approximately 62.1 million Hispanic and Latino Americans. Assuming the survey is generalizable, 45,333,000 report experiencing discrimination.

No community should experience systemic discrimination at these levels. They are disturbing numbers, but they are also not surprising at all if one is familiar with the history of each of these communities in the United States. This is home-grown American discrimination. However, the to argue that caste-based discrimination in the United States is on par with anti-indigenous, anti-Asian, anti-Black, or anti-Hispanic discrimination is beyond intellectually dishonest, it’s downright opportunistic.

(It also bears mention that the reported discrimination faced by lower caste Hindus in India is dwarfed by the reported discrimination faced by the American communities mentioned above. This is even more astonishing given India’s population density and poverty rates.)

Let’s review these numbers again:

Arguing that caste discrimination is such an enormous issue that it needs to be called out in the law specifically and that existing laws addressing discrimination do not sufficiently address an allegedly rampant issue that is inextricably linked with the most pressing issues of American discrimination is ahistorical, counterfactual, and unethical. There is no evidence systemic casteism is spreading like a virus in the United States. The Equality Labs survey study that is consistently cited to justify anti caste-discrimination legislation is methodologically-flawed, a spectacular illustrative example of circular logic embedded into research design.

This is a small, well-heeled, connected group of actors who are clearly riding on the coattails of real issues in the United States and taking advantage of the empathy of well-intended Americans who are largely ignorant about caste and casteism, in India and in the United States.

When Seattle City Council breezed through its adoption of a city-wide ordinance on caste discrimination earlier this year, it went through the motions of holding a public hearing. Soundarajan claimed that she was “representing hundreds of thousands of caste-oppressed people from around the country.” As we’ve seen, those numbers just don’t exist. One council member voted for the ordinance, brazenly admitting that she didn’t know much about caste or caste discrimination, but that it seemed like a “good idea.”

The goal appears to be to attack Hinduism, itself, by co-opting the reported discrimination faced by over 100,000,000 Americans of color who are, it should be noted, predominantly Christian. They even go so far as to link the discrimination these groups face in the United States with the alleged systemic discrimination of Christians in India. During that same Seattle City Council public hearing, several American pastors and faith leaders, some of whom work as missionaries in India, spoke in favor of the ordinance. It is incomprehensible that a religious micro minority is being openly targeted by the majority religion in this manner.

The real danger is the disinformation that is spreading about Hindu Americans through our colleges, city councils, and senate floors. Nothing catalyzes the targeting of a community like fear, repetition, and divisiveness. Anyone who knows American history knows this. The Hindu Americans who speak against these policies are dismissed as “right wing” , “Hindutva”, “fascist,” and are described as being in favor of discrimination, merely for asking for evidence of discrimination.

It’s already working, not only in the United States but in Canada. For example, Cameron MacLean, Senior Director of Solution Engineering and Chief Architect at Salesforce, asks a Hindu employee to “sit this one out pal” based on their surname.

For the remaining Hindu Americans — the 2,455,000 who didn’t make it into the table above — religious-based discrimination is now our reality. We’re now answerable to — and even silenced by — our neighbors, our bosses, our administrators, and our professors who think they understand, thanks to the activists that have indoctrinated them, who we are and what we value based off our skin color and our surnames and what they think our religion promotes. This is how discrimination is justified and taught.



Indu Viswanathan, Ed.D.

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