Deelip Mhaske, a 43-year-old Princeton attorney, is fighting a lonely battle in New Jersey and nationally to get lawmakers to add caste as a protected class under state and federal anti-discrimination laws, according to media reports.
Mhaske, who has six master’s degrees from universities like Harvard, Rutgers, and Johns Hopkins and worked at the White House, says he has been discriminated against because of his Dalit caste.
Because of his caste, he told the New Jersey Monitor he’s been denied promotions, barred from temples and social gatherings, and threatened for his advocacy on behalf of others like him.
Mhaske, who has started a nonprofit called Human Horizon to fight caste discrimination, told the daily he has reached out to most of the New Jersey 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.
While India banned caste discrimination in 1948, it persists culturally, and because of the Indian diaspora, it has spread worldwide, Mhaske told the Monitor.
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 was quoted as saying.
“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.”
READ: Seattle’s historic ban on caste discrimination begins (March 28, 2023)
It’s tough to track how common caste discrimination is in New Jersey, the Monitor said as the State police, the state Attorney General’s Office’s civil rights division or the state Civil Service Commission, do not specifically track caste-related claims.
Mhaske also claimed that many temples exclude low-caste people, denying them entry and forbidding their participation in rituals and events. Caste bias doesn’t disappear at the temple doors, he told the Monitor.
“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 was quoted as saying.
READ: California Assembly approves anti-caste discrimination bill (August 29, 2023)
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.
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, Monitor noted.
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.
Mhaske told the Monitor he suspects New Jersey lawmakers’ reluctance to sponsor a bill against caste discrimination 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 was quoted as saying.