California State Judiciary Committee Unanimously Backs Bill to End Caste Discrimination

The Bill will be now introduced in the California State Senate for discussion and passage. If enacted as legislation, California will become the first US state to have anti-caste legislation in place.

New Delhi: The California state senate judiciary committee has unanimously decided to forward to the Senate a Bill to ban caste discrimination in the western state of the United States.

On Tuesday, April 25, the committee members unanimously voted ‘yes’ to the Senate Bill SB 403 after Senator Aisha Wahab – California’s first Muslim and Afghan Senator – introduced the Bill. The move by the senate committee comes after weeks of advocacy by caste equity civil rights leaders from Equality Labs, the California Coalition for Caste Equity, Aisha Wahab, among others, according to a press release issued by Equality Labs.

California could become the first state in the US to have a law enacted against caste if it successfully sees through the Senate. In February this year, Seattle city in Washington became the first US city to ban caste discrimination. Even Harvard University, University of California Davis, California State University, and many others have recently added caste to their non-discrimination policies.

Lately, there has been greater recognition of the challenges faced by the people of marginalised castes in the US due to the efforts of Dalit American organisations. The new thrust on caste among the civil society organisations in the US is an “acknowledgment of the fact that as the Indian-American population grows, the deep-rooted divisions that migrated with them will also become readily apparent”, wrote Prachi Patankar and Kshama Sawant in Indian Express.

Also read: Listen: ‘Caste Discrimination Shows Up in US Workplaces Too, As Jokes, Slurs and Other Indignities’

According to Equality Labs, the discriminatory practices of caste have been carried over by the South Asian diaspora to the US and currently affect nearly 5.7 million South Asian Americans. Among the South Asian diaspora in the US, Equality Labs’ data has found one in four caste-oppressed people has faced physical and verbal violence, one in three education discrimination, and two out of three workplace discrimination.

“Today, I proudly stand in solidarity with my caste-oppressed community members, caste equity movement organisers, and allies to say that caste-oppressed Californians are now one step closer to attaining the protections they deserve and are entitled to…  I am thrilled to say California is well on its way to becoming the first US. state to recognise our status as human beings and redefine caste equity protections,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder of Equality Labs and author of The Trauma of Caste.

Another anti-caste activist, Pooja Ren of the Hindus for Caste Equity, said, “As a Dalit Hindu, I want to make sure we can create a California and an entire world that is safe for my children. Future Dalit generations must have legal protections to ensure that they can thrive… Real change is happening due to protections like SB 403. Hindus must band together in this powerful interfaith, intercaste, and multiracial movement to remedy caste inequality. Caste discrimination is unlawful and unjust—this bill will heal us all from the horrors of caste.”

Several anti-caste activists have often objected to the portrayal of the Indian diaspora in the US as the ‘model minority’ given that such characterisation ignores the deep-seated casteism among its members. “It is a damaging term for the working class,” Kshama Sawant, a member of the City Council of Seattle, had told The Wire earlier. Sawant had introduced an Ordinance in the Council to ban any kind of discrimination on the basis of caste in Seattle, the home of tech giants. The Ordinance then became law in Seattle, making it the first city in the US to have anti-caste legislation.

While anti-caste activists have been working towards sensitising people at large in the US about caste-based discrimination whilst making efforts to have legislations in place to criminalise such discrimination, there are allegations that various Hindu organisations, including Hindu American Foundation and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, have been objecting to such legislations. They have been saying that legislations against caste would result in demonising Hindus.