Group opposes protection from caste discrimination in California Varsity’s faculty union

CBA only be approved after caste, as a category, is removed, demands the group

January 24, 2022 08:23 pm | Updated 10:56 pm IST

Photo used for representation purpose only.

Photo used for representation purpose only.

A group of faculty in the California State University (CSU) system has written to the Board of Trustees asking that caste not be added as a ‘protected category’ to the system’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA), on the grounds that it would apply to Indian origin faculty alone and single them out for targeted scrutiny.

A protected category in the U.S., refers to a category that has specific protections against discrimination.The proposed changes to the agreement with the union follow from a change across the system’s 23 campuses announced on January 20, in which caste was specifically made part of the institutions’ anti-discrimination policy.

The faculty letter, a copy of which was released by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), was, according to the writers, written by over 80 CSU faculty (the list of names was withheld, so the number has not been verified by The Hindu ). The letter requests that the CBA only be approved after caste, as a category, is taken out. Meetings to ratify the agreement between the CSU and the union (the California Faculty Association or CFA) , are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

The letter’s signatories say that union leaders, whom they met on January 14, “had no understanding” of the issue and were unable to answer “basic questions”such as, how many Indian and South Asian faculty were consulted before the change, whether existing policy – which already covers national origin, ethnicity, and ancestry - failed to provide protection, and how caste would be defined and adjudicated.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Executive Director of Dalit rights organisation Equality Labs, says that caste is already covered by other categories but explicitly including it as a category will spur institutions to action, including collecting data.

“The reason why caste oppressed people are asking for the category to be made explicit, is that when institutions make it explicit, they’re extending the existing rights more clearly, for caste oppressed people,”she told The Hindu on Monday over the phone. “Because once it’s listed, institutions then will build competency around it.”

The faculty letter alleges that Equality Labs is an “anti-Hindu activist organization” and that a member of the group was called in as a witness to the January 14 Union meeting.

Organisations working in the rights space are helping to inform Americans of caste-based discrimination( an unfamiliar concept to many) and to include caste as a protected category in institutions. In December, Harvard University ratified a contract with its Graduate Student Union that included caste as a protected category.

The signatories of the letter to the CSU Board urge the body to engage in “due diligence” about the role of caste in the university system and say that it will find that “…rather than redressing discrimination, [ including caste as a protected category] will 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.”

“Anyone that looks at this letter sees it for what it is, which is dominant caste fragility. And fear mongering and misinformation and gaslighting,” Ms. Soundararajan said, explaining that adding caste as a protected category doesn’t discriminate against any other category.

Lawyers for HAF have also sent the CSU Board of Trustees and Chancellor as well as the CFA President letters about the issue. However, the California Trade Justice Coalition, an alliance of unions and rights organisations, is also sending a letter to CSU and CFA leadership, commending the addition of caste as a protected category.

“We strongly believe that attempts to discredit these vulnerable stakeholders and their demand for equity and safety are rooted in casteism and make it even clearer that these institutional protections are imperative to ensuring equity,” their letter says.

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