Brandeis University stands by caste-bias ban despite pushback from Hindu activists

A year-old ban against caste bias, says the Hindu American Foundation, is a ‘deeply problematic’ remedy for a largely nonexistent problem.

(RNS) — Last December, when Brandeis University announced a first-of-its-kind policy banning discrimination based on caste, administrators hoped other institutions would follow suit and adopt similar policies of their own.

But nearly a year later, the policy has not caught on. Instead, it’s drawing fire from Hindus who say it’s fraught with anti-Hindu bias along with risk of inept and unfair enforcement.

Though caste-based discrimination goes largely unnoticed in Western societies, South Asian immigrants of low- and sub-caste status say they routinely encounter it, according to Dalit activists. Dalits, or “untouchables,” rank lowest in Hinduism’s caste system.

Suraj Yengde, a Dalit scholar at Harvard University and author of “Caste Matters,” said he was twice assaulted as a graduate student in Birmingham, England, in caste-bias attacks by fellow Indian students. But when he reported it to police, they didn’t grasp the severity.

“They just couldn’t understand it,” Yengde said. “If there had been legislation that said ‘you cannot exercise caste-based discrimination,’ I would have gone and told them that this was basically a hate-filled crime.” 

People of high caste, such as Hinduism’s Brahmins and Kshatriyas, have traditionally enjoyed power and privilege in Indian society. Those of low caste have sometimes left Hinduism for other religions, where they hope to find more promising status and treatment, according to Yengde, who comes from a Buddhist family.

Yengde applauds Brandeis for blazing a trail with its discrimination policy, which already prohibited prejudicial treatment based on race, gender identity and sexual orientation, among other categories. Allegations of bullying or denying opportunities based on caste are now to be referred to Brandeis’ Office of Equal Opportunity and could lead to disciplinary action. The ban applies to students, faculty and staff.

“We are going to raise the issue of caste, as we’ve raised other forms of nondiscrimination, to educate the community about the institution’s position,” said Mark Brimhall-Vargas, chief diversity officer at the school of 5,500 students in Waltham, Massachusetts, earlier this year. “We want to normalize the ability of people to come forward and press their complaints.”

Previously, the school has hosted conferences calling out caste-based social dynamics. A year ago, Brandeis launched a new academic journal, Caste: A Global Journal on Social Exclusion.

But the Hindu American Foundation, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group, is pushing back against what it sees as a “deeply problematic” policy aimed at remedying a largely nonexistent problem.

“In my work with thousands of Hindus and hundreds of Hindu communities throughout the U.S. (predominantly South Asian), caste identity is largely irrelevant in their day to day lives and interactions with one another,” said HAF Executive Director Suhag Shukla in an email. Most U.S.-born, second-generation Hindus wouldn’t even know how to identify someone’s caste, she said.

Because caste is complex and hidden from the naked eye, Shukla said, predominantly white Judeo-Christian administrators with little understanding of its dynamics will be hard pressed to recognize and adjudicate allegations of caste-based discrimination.

“How will they know what questions to ask to ensure that a complaint perceived as caste discrimination is not the result of something else?” Shukla said. “How will those accused of caste discrimination be guaranteed fairness and due process?”

Brandeis investigators will have difficulty ensuring fairness, she suggested.

“Even if Brandeis employs South Asians to assist in the implementation of the policy, or consults with them, the politics of caste and how it is presented by some activist circles is fraught with problems, including deep-seated bigotry,” Shukla said.

But the Brandeis administration insists the accused can and will be treated fairly. Allegations of caste bias will be treated no differently than race discrimination, according to Brimhall-Vargas.

“The process is the same,” he said. “The only thing that was changed was we added an identity to our non-discrimination policy. So it would be processed in the exact same way that any other form of discrimination would be addressed.”

To what degree caste-based discrimination occurs in America is unknown. Anecdotally, those of low caste say it’s common enough to warrant institutional policies like the one at Brandeis, if only to ensure that ideas about caste don’t take hold in the United States.

A former engineering student at a nearby school, requesting anonymity for fear of retribution, told Religion News Service that his college roommates excluded him from future housing when they learned of his low-caste status.

At Brandeis, the fight against discrimination is woven into the school’s identity. Its founders established the school in 1948 at a time when Jews were routinely excluded from top-tier institutions of higher education. The new policy simply builds on that tradition of expanding opportunity, according to Brimhall-Vargas.

As a practical matter, however, Brandeis isn’t facing a scourge of caste-based discrimination. The school has in past years learned of social ostracism on campus, but serious infractions such as denying someone a job on the basis of caste are unknown, Brimhall-Vargas said.

“We want to be sure that we head that off before that ever would become a problem,” Brimhall-Vargas said.

Meanwhile, Shukla said her organization’s members are concerned that they and their faith are being unfairly tarred with the taint of discriminatory practices.

According to HAF, caste categories evolved as a result of European contact and became a catch-all for classifying Hindus; the categories are also a result of colonial racism and religious bigotry, among other factors. Though commonly associated with Hinduism, caste is such a prevalent concept in Indian society that Sikhs, Muslims and Christians are reported to practice versions of it.

“Caste is predominantly conflated with Hindus and Hindu teachings,” Shukla said in her email. Trying to enforce a ban on caste-based discrimination runs the risk of “singling out, targeting, and inadvertently discriminating against Hindu students and faculty … as presumed perpetrators,” Shukla said.

“Our policy applies non-discrimination protection to people of any caste category,” said Brimhall-Vargas in an email. “It does not contain an a priori assumption that someone bears caste animus based on religious identity alone.”

HAF says it condemns all forms of caste-based discrimination. However, caste is not an inherently discriminatory concept, according to Shukla.

With caste categorization, she said, “to the extent that different group identities gave communities a means to bring out positive qualities, such as compassion, nurture, service and unity, it had value. To the extent it served to limit, divide, discriminate, or harm others, it didn’t. The same holds true today of any community we belong to or create.”

Eradicating social discrimination needs to happen, she said, as an outgrowth of Hindu teachings. “Social reform has come and should continue to come from the community,” she said.