Splainer

Tuesday, January 25 2022


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Muslimness was raised as an issue.

That’s UK MP Nusrat Ghani claiming that she lost her cabinet post in the Boris Johnson government due to her religious identity—and was told at a high-level meeting that her “Muslim woman minister status was making colleagues feel uncomfortable.” After outrage expressed by other leading Tory MPs, Johnson has now ordered an inquiry into Ghani’s claims. This is disastrous timing for Johnson who is already bracing for results of an inquiry into parties held at 10 Downing Street during the lockdown. 

 

Important reminder: We will not be publishing the daily edition tomorrow—which is Republic Day. But we will be back bright and early on Thursday morning.

 

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Big Story

A heated battle over caste in California

The TLDR: California State University System has added ‘caste’ to the list of categories protected from discrimination—alongside race, gender etc. The decision has infuriated the Hindu American Foundation—and a number of faculty members who belong to it. They claim the move, in fact, discriminates against all Indians. 

 

Researched by: Sara Varghese

 

What happened here…

The California State University System: has over 23 campuses and eight off-campus centres—with 485,550 students and 55,909 faculty and staff. This is different from the University of California system—which includes the likes of UC, Berkeley or UC, Los Angeles. Cal State is, however, the largest four-year public university system in the United States.

 

A new category: Cal State has added ‘caste’ to the categories listed in its official policy prohibiting discrimination. In other words—just as with age, disability, gender, religion—anyone found discriminating against a student or employee on the basis of caste will face a hearing—and possible disciplinary sanctions. FYI: Caste has been clubbed under the broader category of ‘Nationality, Race or Ethnicity’.

 

Part of a pattern: While Cal State is the first university system to recognise ‘caste’ as a protected category, individual institutions like University of California, Davis, already made the move last year. In fact, Brandeis College was the first to ban caste discrimination in 2019. At Harvard, the Graduate Student Union has embraced the ban—and it applies to the undergraduate and graduate students who work on campus—but it is not part of the official university policy. 

 

A big awareness campaign: The push to recognise caste-based discrimination primarily came from student groups and a prominent Dalit civil rights organization Equality Labs. The organisation has played a prominent role in raising awareness of what it calls “caste apartheid” across campuses. And most such policy changes often cite its research. For example, the Cal State move came on the heels of a resolution passed by its student body—which in turn cited an Equality Labs survey: 

 

“One in three Dalit students report being discriminated against during their education in the US, two out of three Dalits surveyed reported being treated unfairly at their workplace in the US.”

 

An Equality Labs presentation was also key to passing the anti-caste discrimination measure at Harvard.

 

Quote to note: Equality Labs director Thenmozhi Soundararajan says this of the Cal State decision:

 

“It’s really a moment where we're seeing Dalits saying we are not willing to suffer in silence anymore. We want to have our rights that are due to us under the law, and we want to be in workplaces and universities and community institutions, where we're not facing discrimination, harassment, assault—you name it. We are getting support from these institutions because they don't want those civil rights liabilities either.”

 

So who is upset about this?

For starters, the Hindu American Foundation which calls itself an “advocacy” organisation focused on “educating the public about Hindus and Hinduism and advocating for policies and practices that ensure the well-being of all people and the planet.” Also, a number of Cal State faculty have sent a petition opposing the decision—but no one has put their name to it. Instead it says: “List of 80+ CSU Faculty suppressed.” 

 

Here are the reasons they offer:

 

One: Unlike other categories like gender, race etc, the protection extended to ‘caste’ will focus specifically on allegations of discrimination against those of Indian and South Asian descent—hence, it is discriminatory. The HAF said in its letter:

 

“This new category will apply to, make vulnerable, and implicate only faculty of Indian and South Asian descent given the fact that ‘caste’ is singularly associated and falsely equated with Hindus, Indians and to a lesser extent, South Asians… A clause that will apply to only particular faculty on the basis of their national origin, ethnicity, ancestry, and religion, is by definition not only a restriction, but denial of rights.”

 

Two: Caste discrimination is rare—unlike discrimination against all Indians based on their ethnicity and colour. They point out that not a single caste-based complaint has been filed within the Cal State system.

 

Three: HAF also insists that ‘caste’ is “a class category that is widely misunderstood, has no universally accepted definition, and is neither apparent nor inherent”.

 

Four: The faculty letter also takes aim at Equality Labs—challenging the validity of its “non-scientific” research and calling it “an anti-Hindu activist organization.”

 

Point to note: The faculty letter also hints at the possibility of legal action if Cal State moves ahead:

 

“We strongly urge you to exercise due diligence, and in addition to conducting basic fact-finding, consult legal counsel about the liabilities CSU will incur by instituting a policy change that singles out and applies only to a particular group of faculty on the basis of our national identity, ethnicity, ancestry, or religion.”

 

Another key point to note: HAF is closely associated with the BJP—and supports many of its policies, including the citizenship laws and revoking of Kashmir’s special status.

 

What’s this Equality Labs research?

In 2016, the organisation conducted the first caste-focused survey of Indians in the US. The sample included 1,500 respondents to the 47-question survey—described as a “web-based, self-reported, self-administered questionnaire.” It found the following:

 

  • 25% of the Dalits who responded said they had faced verbal or physical assault based on their caste.
  • One in three were discriminated against in colleges, while two out of three were treated unfairly in workplaces.
  • 60% report experiencing caste-based jokes or comments.
  • One in four Shudras and one in two Dalits fear that their caste will be “outed.”

 

Added point to note: There is more to this than surveys of discrimination. In our past explainer, we looked at a 2020 caste discrimination lawsuit filed by California state authorities against Cisco and two of its upper caste employees—who are accused of discriminating, harassing, and retaliating against a Dalit employee. And Cisco is charged with doing nothing to protect him. 

 

The bottomline: Speaking about the Cisco lawsuit, an expert said: “Then it doesn’t matter what Microsoft thinks, it doesn’t matter what Google thinks, it doesn’t matter what Amazon thinks. They have to pay attention to the law.” Well, the law has changed in Cal State. 

 

Reading list 

LAist has the best overview of the Cal State decision. The News Minute talked to Soundararajan and student activists about it. Read the HAF letter here, and the faculty petition here.  You can also read the original Equality Labs report. WGBH did a series on caste in America: part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4.  Last not least, check out our previous explainer on the Cisco lawsuit—which has more on the history of caste in the US

 

 
Headlines that matter

India has a ‘democracy’ problem

We keep blaming the netas, but even our citizens aren’t exactly wedded to democratic values. According to a new survey, more than half of urban voters have little time for democracy or democratic values. No, party affiliation doesn’t matter:

 

“A majority (51%) of respondents support authoritarianism over democracy and approve of the idea of dismantling Parliament and elections in favour of a strong leader or technocrats, the survey found. A similar share of people also advocated for military rule… Supporters of the Congress, the BJP and regional parties are surprisingly similar in their responses.”


Mint has more charts and data—which also reveal a stark partisan divide.


Breakups are bad for men

A Danish study reveals a link between being a lone male and persistent inflammation. To be very specific:

 

“Men who went through the most breakups had 17% higher levels of inflammatory markers and men who spent the most years living alone had 12% higher levels of inflammatory markers than the reference group.”


Researchers are not sure why there is a marked gender difference in terms of health effects. “But it has previously been theorized, by others, that the difference may stem from men experiencing greater health gains from marriage than women—which means that a divorce will put them at higher risk of health declines.” (Inverse)


Emirates & AI have a ‘weight’ problem

Air India cabin crew members will now have to undergo pre-flight checks of body mass index and grooming. The unions have opposed the new rules saying they violate airline regulations—since BMI checks have to be conducted by medical staff, not so-called “grooming associates.” Also: It "dehumanizes and denigrates" the crew. (NDTV)

 

Meanwhile at Emirates: Former employees say the company has absurdly strict rules around appearance—especially of women employees. Emirates employees who put on weight have to attend an ‘Appearance Management Program’ run by “image and grooming officers.” Here’s how it works:

 

“Those in the program are given diet and exercise plans and meet with HR representatives to assess their progress… Failure to make progress incurs a series of warnings, weight checks, and in some cases punishments such as pay cuts.”


Typically, anyone who receives a “weight warning” has two weeks to lose it. (Insider)


A big fat metaverse shaadi

An Indian couple in Tamil Nadu has decided to go hi-tech thanks to Covid restrictions. They are throwing a big wedding bash for 2,000 people in a Hogwarts-themed space in the virtual world. The pricetag: Rs 150,000 ($2,016). CNN has more details. Check out their avatars below.

 

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In today’s edition

Sanity Break

  • TM Krishna’s rendition of ‘Abide With Me’ 

 

A list of intriguing food things

  • What do you get when you marry state-of-the-art 3D technology with a very expensive meal at the Ritz?
  • Face masks with witch hazel botanical and seaweed-derived ingredients that look like lunch meat
  • A bowl of hot piping ramen served with an entire ice cream cone on top
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