By: Pramod Thomas
A resolution moved by an upper-caste Hindu official in the Seattle City Council to bring in an ordinance banning caste-based discrimination in the city has generated intense debates among members of the Indian-American community.
The Seattle City Council is scheduled to vote on the resolution moved by Council member Kshama Sawant at its meeting on Tuesday. If voted, Seattle would become the first American city to specifically outlaw caste discrimination.
The resolution proposing an ordinance to add caste to Seattle’s anti-discrimination laws has divided the small but influential South Asian community. Proponents of the move, which is the first of its kind in a US city council, have hailed it as an important step towards promoting social justice and equality. On the other hand, an equally large number of people have alleged that this is a move to target the larger South Asian Diaspora, particularly Indian Americans.
“We have to be clear, while the cost of discrimination against oppression does not show up in the United States, in every form that it shows up in South Asia, the discrimination is very real out here,” said Sawant, who is an upper-caste Hindu.
Many Indian-Americans fear that codifying caste in public policy will further fuel instances of Hinduphobia in the US. Over the last three years, ten Hindu temples and five statues, including those of Mahatma Gandhi and Maratha emperor Shivaji, have been vandalised across the US as an intimidation tactic against the Hindu community. Indian-Americans are the second-largest immigrant group in the US.
According to data from the 2018 American Community Survey (ACS), which is conducted by the US Census Bureau, there are 4.2 million people of Indian origin residing in the United States. The Seattle city ordinance is similar to the resolution that was attempted by Equality Labs in the Santa Clara Human Rights Commission in 2021. The resolution failed after hearing objections from the Indian-American diaspora in the Bay Area.
The Seattle city ordinance uses the Equality Lab’s caste survey which associates the social ill to be “established in Hinduism”. While the ordinance itself does not mention the word Hindu, the connection with the caste survey has become a point of contention.
Ambedkar Phule Network of American Dalits and Bahujans, in a statement, said that the inclusion of “caste” as a specific protected category would unfairly single out and target all people of South Asian descent and origin and that included Dalits and Bahujan Samaj. “If passed, this law will make Seattle employers less likely to hire South Asians as a whole, which will have unintended consequences of reducing employment/opportunities of all South Asians including us Dalits/ Bahujans,” it said.
Equality Lab, which is leading the campaign, on Monday urged the City Council members to vote ‘Yes’ on the resolution. “We have known for a long time that caste discrimination takes place in US schools and workplaces across the country, despite being a largely hidden issue,” it said.
“Despite sounding benign, it advances bigotry against the South Asian community by using racist, colonial tropes of ‘caste’. It is horrific to see the blatant singling out of a minority community based on nothing but unsubstantiated claims based on faulty data from hate groups,” said Pushpita Prasad, Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA), which has been leading a nationwide campaign against such a resolution.
“The proposed ordinance will violate the civil rights of minority community (South Asians) because it (1) singles them out, (2) assumes South Asians have more discrimination or hierarchy than all other human groups and (3) makes these assumptions on the basis of flawed data from hate groups,” she alleged.
For and against campaigns have now spilled out in the public. Proponents of the resolution have been writing columns and op-eds in various US newspapers. Organised by CoHNA, thousands of emails have been sent to the city councillors and dozens of South Asians have been called into city meetings to protest and point out the many reasons this is a bad idea. This includes a broad variety of individuals and organisations from all backgrounds.
A diverse coalition of nearly 100 organisations and businesses wrote to the Seattle City Council this week, urging it to vote ‘No’ on the proposed caste ordinance, which they argued is based on faulty data from hate groups and will violate the civil rights of the South Asian community.
“In effect, the proposed ordinance assumes that an entire community – primarily Hindu Americans – are guilty of ‘caste’-based discrimination unless they are somehow proven innocent,” remarked Nikunj Trivedi, president of CoHNA.
“This is un-American and wrong. It also smacks of McCarthyism, targeting people for their suspected beliefs,” he said.
Meanwhile, Council member Sawant intensified her campaign ahead of the vote. She wrote a letter to two Indian-American lawmakers – Congressman Ro Khanna and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal – and asked for their support.
“As Congressmember and Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, I hope that your office will stand with our movement against the right wing,” Sawant wrote in the letter to Jayapal. India banned caste discrimination in 1948 and enshrined that policy in the Constitution in 1950.