Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing

The Hindu American Foundation’s warped position on the Cisco caste-discrimination case

The attempt to sue Cisco Systems for alleged caste-based discrimination at the company is being watched as a potential landmark in the United States. The Hindu American Foundation has denounced it as an effort “to decide the scope and nature of Hindu religious teachings and practices.” David Paul Morris / Bloomberg / Getty Images
28 February, 2021

Addressing the people in Baltimore in 1864, US President Abraham Lincoln said, “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty.”

On 9 March, the case California Department of Fair Employment and Housing vs Cisco Systems, Sundar Iyer & Ramana Kompella will come up for hearing before a state court in California. Last June, the DFEH filed suit before a federal court alleging that the IT giant Cisco had failed to address discrimination and harassment against one of its engineers, anonymised as “John Doe,” by two others, Iyer and Kompella. John Doe, a Dalit, had accused Iyer and Kompella, both Brahmins, of prejudiced treatment on the basis of his caste. The DFEH later withdrew the case from the federal court and filed in the state court instead. (It is generally believed that Californian state law has stronger anti-discrimination protections than US federal law.)

The Cisco case is being widely watched as a potential landmark in the United States, which does not have laws that recognise or punish discrimination on the basis of caste. It has also caught the attention of the Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy group that claims to speak for all Hindus in the United States and is closely aligned with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing organisation promoting the divisive ideology of Hindutva in India and across the world. In February, the HAF filed a motion to intervene in the case. The document claimed that the HAF was acting “to protect the religious freedoms of Hindu Americans … from the unconstitutional efforts of the State of California to decide the scope and nature of Hindu religious teachings and practices. In this case, the DFEH claims that caste-based discrimination is religious discrimination because the caste system is ‘a strict Hindu social and religious hierarchy,’ and therefore an integral part of Hindu teachings and practices.”

On its website, the HAF wrote that “California’s actions blatantly violate the rights of Hindu Americans. The US Constitution prohibits the state from interfering in questions of religious doctrine and prevents the state from depriving any American of their right to liberty.” Further, “In the United States, there is no role for government to define our religious beliefs, whether it be Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity or any other. In fact, the Constitution expressly prohibits it.”