Calls to ban caste discrimination grow as New Jersey’s South Asian population swells

By: - October 24, 2023 7:05 am

Deelip Mhaske of Princeton has been asking state and federal lawmakers for years to introduce legislation that would ban caste discrimination. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

By any measure, Deelip Mhaske has led an accomplished life.

The 43-year-old Princeton resident is an attorney with six master’s degrees from universities like Harvard, Rutgers, and Johns Hopkins. He’s testified before the United Nations, worked at the White House, and held the ear of presidents and prime ministers.

But some people see only his last name.

The surnames of Hindu Indians signify their social class, or “caste,” and Mhaske is Dalit, the lowest level in caste hierarchy commonly known as “untouchables.” Because of his caste, he said, he’s been denied promotions, barred from temples and social gatherings, and threatened for his advocacy on behalf of others like him.

His struggles have made him one of the world’s leading activists fighting caste discrimination through a nonprofit he started called Human Horizon. He’s leading the charge both in New Jersey and nationally to get lawmakers to add caste as a protected class under state and federal anti-discrimination laws.

It’s been a lonely fight.

Here in New Jersey, he said he has reached out to most of the Legislature’s 120 members with little success. The lone lawmaker who’s embraced his cause, Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer (D-Somerset), will leave office in January and said she’s not sure if she’d introduce a bill before she goes.

Nationally, Mhaske successfully lobbied California legislators to pass what would have been the nation’s first ban on caste discrimination — but Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this month vetoed the bill, calling special protection because of caste unnecessary.

But Mhaske remains undaunted. While India banned caste discrimination in 1948, it persists culturally, and because of the Indian diaspora, it has spread worldwide, Mhaske said.

More than 4 million Indian-Americans and 2.5 million Hindus live in the United States, census figures and Pew data show. Indians are the largest demographic in New Jersey’s growing South Asian population, and New Jersey has the biggest share of Hindus of any U.S. state — according to Pew, 3% of adults here are Hindu.

“They are bringing in the culture of India and Hinduism here — and they’re bringing caste, and they don’t treat the lower caste as human beings,” Mhaske said. “Wherever you go, there will be always discrimination. As a civilized person, our responsibility is to remove that discrimination. Irrespective of your birth, which country you came from, which parents you came from, you — as a citizen of this democratic country and one of the oldest democracies — should be able to protect people who are vulnerable.”

Jaffer pointed out that other cultures and religions besides Hindu Indians believe in castes. Caste hierarchies can be found in Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, and other faiths and in countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Bhutan.

Jaffer said this fight is ultimately about “protecting the rights of minorities and those who have historically been under-resourced and underprivileged.”

“Many, many communities would benefit, and those who have experienced this situation feel it in their everyday lives, and so I think it’s important to show them that we stand in solidarity with them and that we want them to have the protections that they deserve under the law,” she said.

Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer (D-Somerset) talks with a colleague on the Assembly floor on June 29, 2022. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

An unmeasured problem

It’s tough to track how common caste discrimination is here.

State police don’t consider caste a cause of bias incidents, with the closest categories offering no hint if caste bias motivated the incident. There were six “anti-Hindu” incidents reported this year through September and 107 “anti-Asian” incidents.

The state Attorney General’s Office’s civil rights division, which investigates and prosecutes discrimination complaints, also doesn’t specifically track caste-related claims. Neither does the state Civil Service Commission, which investigates discrimination claims by state employees.

Mhaske knows it happens, though, because he’s a state employee who has sued the state for a denied promotion he blamed partly on caste discrimination.

And claims of caste discrimination have dogged a mammoth Hindu temple in Robbinsville for years.

More than 200 Dalit workers who built the recently opened temple filed a federal class-action lawsuit in 2021 accusing the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam (BAPS) Shri Swaminarayan Mandir of wage theft, human trafficking, and caste discrimination, prompting the FBI to investigate. The civil lawsuit is on hold until the criminal probe ends; the judge has directed attorneys to update her by Nov. 30.

Construction of the $96 million temple — the second largest worldwide — has resulted in two deaths, and Robbinsville authorities last spring evacuated two rooming houses, where dozens of temple volunteers stayed, that were deemed unsafe because of dangerous carbon monoxide levels and blocked exits.

The $96 million BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, which opened in October 2023, is the largest Hindu temple in the U.S. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Temples tend to be the religious and social hub for Indian Americans, where they network in ways that benefit them in both the community and their businesses, Mhaske said.

Yet many temples exclude low-caste people, denying them entry and forbidding their participation in rituals and events, he added. Caste bias doesn’t disappear at the temple doors, he added.

“The rise of temples throughout the country is really, really alarming for us because that’s the center point of starting the caste system untouchability and discrimination,” Mhaske said.

If lawmakers added caste as a protected class under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination, he added, policymakers would have a better idea of how often it occurs and victims would have better protections.

A BAPS spokesman said the temple “firmly and vocally opposes any discrimination based on caste or class,” welcomes visitors of all castes and religions, and has swamis, lay leaders, and priests from every caste.

“In the 19th century, our founder, Bhagwan Swaminarayan, was among the first Hindu leaders to oppose caste-based discrimination – and we have continued to fight the effects of the caste system for more than 200 years,” spokesman Ronak Patel said.

Expanding anti-discrimination protections

Recognizing the threat of caste discrimination, universities like Harvard, Brandeis, and Brown have added caste as a specially protected class under their anti-discrimination policies. Rutgers University faculty approved a contract in April with caste discrimination protections after their five-day strike for better pay and working conditions.

Seattle in February became the first U.S. city to ban caste discrimination, and California would have been the first state to do so. While Congress held a hearing on caste discrimination in 2005, federal lawmakers haven’t acted to ban it.

In New Jersey, Jaffer has endorsed Mhaske’s cause and said she’s willing to sponsor legislation on it.

But lawmakers won’t return to Trenton from their summer break until after November’s legislative elections and have just six weeks to act on bills before the current session ends Jan. 9, meaning any new bills introduced have a narrow window for passage.

Jaffer didn’t run for reelection, so she can’t carry the cause into the next legislative session. She said she’s “strategizing” with other lawmakers to determine who might be best to introduce a bill.

Other lawmakers Mhaske said he’s talked with but hasn’t persuaded to back a bill did not respond to requests for comment from the New Jersey Monitor.

Deelip Mhaske of Princeton has been asking state and federal lawmakers for years to introduce legislation that would ban caste discrimination. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Mhaske suspects their reluctance to act is rooted in a fear of turning off high-caste donors.

“They are more interested in getting elected. All governors and legislators are controlled by donations,” he said.

In California, Ramesh V. Kapur, a Massachusetts businessman who has ties to wealthy Indian American donors, lobbied Newsom to veto the caste discrimination ban, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination now singles out 11 classes for protection: race or color; religion or creed; national origin, nationality, or ancestry; sex, pregnancy, or breastfeeding; sexual orientation; gender identity or expression; disability; marital status or domestic partnership/civil union status; military service; housing (familial status and source of income for rental or mortgage payments); employment (age, atypical hereditary cellular or blood trait, genetic information, and refusal to submit to a genetic test).

“Where caste discrimination constitutes discrimination on the basis of one or more of those protected characteristics, it is prohibited by the LAD,” said Tara Oliver, a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.