New Delhi: Seattle on Tuesday (February 21) became the first US city to ban caste discrimination, based on a vote by the city council.
The legislation was drafted by councilwoman Kshama Sawant, the only Indian American on the council. “It’s official: our movement has WON a historic, first-in-the-nation ban on caste discrimination in Seattle! Now we need to build a movement to spread this victory around the country,” she tweeted after the vote.
In a video posted on Twitter, chants of ‘Jai Bhim’ could be heard after the law passed.
Jai Jai Jai Jai Jai Bhim! in @SeattleCouncil after the historic decision to outlaw caste discrimination. Thanks @cmkshama pic.twitter.com/kUorWqfBAX
— Obed Manwatkar (@obed_manwatkar) February 22, 2023
“Caste discrimination doesn’t only take place in other countries,” Sawant said, according to the BBC. “It is faced by South Asian American and other immigrant working people in their workplaces, including in the tech sector, in Seattle and in cities around the country.”
Several US universities, which see a large number of Indian students and faculty members, have recently introduced rules and policies against caste discrimination. In August 2021, the California Democratic Party added caste as a protected category to their Party Code of Conduct.
While rights groups have been raising issues around caste discrimination for some time now, the issue garnered international attention when employees at Cisco in California were accused of caste discrimination by a colleague. The California government filed a civil rights lawsuit on the matter in 2020, accusing two employees and the company itself of wrongful employment practices. The lawsuit claimed that more than 90% of Indian immigrants to the US are from the upper castes.
Some Hindu right groups have opposed the recognition of caste in the US, claiming that it would “single out and target Indian Americans for scrutiny and discrimination”. However, rights activists and experts have said there is no basis to this fear. As Rohit Chopra and Ajantha Subramanian wrote in Time, “Extending protections to oppressed castes will not scapegoat Hindus, Indians, and South Asians any more than extending protections to women scapegoats men. To the contrary, acknowledging the realities of caste discrimination and any actions for accountability and justice that follow upon it would only expand the commitment to equal rights, inclusion, and dignity.”