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In May, a suit was filed on behalf of more than 200 Indian construction workers against their employer, Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, alleging violations of federal and state labor laws as well as anti-human trafficking laws. The suit alleges that workers from India were brought over and forced to work on a Hindu temple in New Jersey for more than 87 hours a week for $450 a month, or about $1.20 an hour. New Jersey’s minimum wage is $12 an hour and U.S. law stipulates the pay rate for most hourly workers rise to time-and-a-half when they work more than 40 hours a week.

The suit also alleges that their passports were confiscated shortly after they arrived in the United States, and they were forced to live in isolation, in a spartan, fenced-in, and tightly monitored compound and prohibited from leaving the grounds unsupervised.

One thing that makes this case more challenging is the fact that the victims, in this case, are Dalits, former untouchables and a socially ostracized group in India, thus, being more vulnerable to fall into this trap of forced labor.

Previous instances

This is not the first instance of caste-based discrimination. In 2020, California regulators had sued Cisco Systems for discriminating against an Indian American employee. The employee, belonging to a lower Indian caste, was harassed by two Indian American managers from an upper caste.

Dalit and tribal women in rural India. (European Union)

This lawsuit will be the first in the U.S. to deal with caste-based discrimination. The lawsuit accuses Cisco Systems of violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which makes it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of religion, ancestry, national origin/ethnicity, and race/color.

Though federal, as well as state laws, do not recognize caste bias as a form of discrimination, there has been evidence to suggest that caste-based discrimination does occur in the U.S. According to a survey conducted by Equality Labs, a South Asian American human rights organization, 26% of respondents of South Asian descent claimed that they had suffered from a physical assault because of their caste in the United States, while 60% reported that caste-based derogatory jokes or remarks had been directed at them. More than half said they were afraid of being “outed” as a Dalit. “Caste in America,” a Pulitzer Center series, along with WGBH News, also finds that caste-based discrimination in the U.S. hampers job, marriage, and economic prospects for Dalits.

Acknowledging caste-based discrimination

Even in the absence of federal and state laws, Brandeis University, a private university, was the first American university to ban caste-based discrimination on its campus. Now, after the recent incident of caste subjugation in New Jersey, Cal State, which represents 23 college campuses across the state of California, unanimously passed a resolution supporting the addition of Indian castes as a protected category against discrimination.

Indian children from the Pardhi tribe. At one point, the British Raj declared the tribe illegal. (Harini Calamur)

The Cisco Systems case sheds light on rampant and unaddressed caste-based discrimination in American companies. Similarly, the inclusion of Indian castes as a category of discrimination at California state universities is historic because after years of struggle the issue of caste discrimination is being recognized and Dalit students who have been at the receiving end of this discrimination at U.S. universities will not have to remain silent for any longer.

Understanding the problem

Caste discrimination predominantly occurs in Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Japan, and India. Hindus traditionally grouped people into four major castes based on ancestry, with Dalits at the bottom of the closed social hierarchical system. Once a person is born in a Dalit family, he/she will remain a Dalit and could not move out of this hierarchy. Dalits in India still struggle with access to education, jobs, and a safe living environment as “untouchability” continues to be practiced in some parts of the country, even though 71 years have passed since the Indian Constitution strictly prohibits caste-based discrimination.

Caste-based discrimination is prevalent in the United Kingdom to such an extent that the government was underway to include caste-based discrimination in the Equality Act of 2010; however, due to opposition from Hindu groups, the act failed to pass. In 2014, Tirkey v. Chandhok directly addressed caste-based discrimination in the UK. The tribunal, in this case, held that “[ethnic origins] had a wide and flexible ambit, including characteristics determined by ‘descent.’” Therefore, castes may be within the scope of “ethnic origins,” and thus a precedent was set to deal with caste-based discrimination in the United Kingdom.

Caste divides even during the pandemic

Instances of caste-based discrimination were evident in India even during the pandemic. In Delhi, half of COVID deaths under municipal corporations were of the Safai Karamcharis, which are mostly Dalits. Most of such workers are forced to work without proper protective gear even during the pandemic. In West Bengal, selective hiring of Dalits was done for the disposal of COVID positive dead bodies thus legitimizing and reinforcing their caste-based occupation and throwing them to do these hazardous tasks. According to a report released by the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) “almost all” workers at Bengaluru city’s crematoriums are Dalits because, in India, cremation is caste-based work. Workers were denied basic rights such as leave of absence and health insurance. None of them were vaccinated and neither were they given basic self-protection equipment including PPEs. Even hand sanitizer and soap were not provided.

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According to the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, only 1.5% of Indian immigrants in the United States are Dalits or members of lower castes. In 2003, more than 90 percent were from high or dominant castes. This explains why there have been instances of caste-based discrimination in the first place and how the hegemony created by the upper castes has stopped Dalits from confronting caste-based discrimination where they study, live, or work.

Back in 2001, there was the case of Lakireddy Bali Reddy, an Indian-American landlord who had been trafficking Dalits from his ancestral village in India who were then forced into sexual slavery, servitude, and were often raped. Though the case was related to labor and sexual exploitation, the perspective of castes was ignored. The Cisco Systems case and the forced labor incident in New Jersey have thrown a light upon what was in the shadow in the Reddy case: subjugation and subordination due to membership of a group caste. Back then, there was not much discussion regarding castes and hence the matter was ignored. But now there is ample evidence and discussion among the Indian diaspora related to castes and thus, it is a chance for the U.S. to stand and acknowledge castes as a protected class, and save thousands of Dalits who are at the receiving end of this practice which is so embedded with inequality.

Aniket Chaudhary is a third year student at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow.