The California Assembly on Monday passed a bill to ban caste discrimination taking it one step closer to enact the first such law in the United States.
The bill was passed with an overwhelming majority of 55-3 and will now be sent back to the state senate that had passed its earlier version for a concurrence vote. Once the bill is approved by the senate, it will be sent to Governor Gavin Newsom. The bill will become a law after Newsom signs it.
On March 23, Democratic Party state Senator Aisha Wahab had introduced the bill in the California Assembly. Wahab is the first Muslim and Afghan-American to be elected to the state legislature. While moving the bill, Wahab had said that caste discrimination was a matter of denying social justice and civil rights.
“The Assembly Vote is a win for the ages,” Equality Labs founder and Executive Director Thenmozhi Soundararajan said on Monday. “After conducting over 700 advocacy meetings across the entire state of California the people have spoken resoundingly for caste equity protections. As a Californian who has endured caste my whole life I know the struggles and adversity caste-oppressed Californians have unjustly faced firsthand.”
What does the bill say?
The bill titled “Discrimination on the basis of ancestry” defines ancestry as including, but not limited to lineal descent, heritage, parentage, caste, or any inherited social status.
“Nothing precludes a person from alleging discrimination on the basis of ancestry in combination with discrimination based upon other protected characteristics,” it says.
The legislation defines caste as a person’s “perceived position in a system of social stratification on the basis of inherited status.”
It further says: “‘A system of social stratification on the basis of inherited status’ may be characterized by factors that may include, but are not limited to, inability or restricted ability to alter inherited status; socially enforced restrictions on marriage, private and public segregation, and discrimination; and social exclusion on the basis of perceived status.”
The bill aims to revise California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, education and housing codes by adding caste as a protected category under ancestry.
In February, Seattle had become the first city in the United States to ban caste discrimination. The city’s local council had voted to add caste under its non-discrimination laws. The council had voted on a resolution moved by Kshama Sawant, Seattle’s only Indian-American city councilor.
US-based Hindu group calls it a ‘black day in California history’
The Coalition of Hindus of North America said that the bill was “not facially neutral and written to specifically target Hindu Americans”. It said that the development was the latest in a list of “unjust bills”.
“We thank the 3 brave voices who voted no today and the many lawmakers who abstained,” the Hindu group said in a tweet. “It takes true courage to stand against a popular witch hunt against a silenced minority and history will remember you kindly.”
Caste-based discrimination in US
Over the years, several cases of caste-based discrimination have been reported in the US, especially among South Asians working in technology companies many of which are based in California’s Silicon Valley, reported the Washington Post
In July 2020, a California Civil Rights Department lawsuit had alleged that a Dalit engineer at technology company Cisco faced caste discrimination at workplace from two of his supervisors, Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella, reported the Associated Press.
The lawsuit said that Iyer and Kompella had retaliated against the engineer when he opposed “unlawful practices, contrary to the traditional order between the Dalit and higher castes”.
The litigation against the company is still underway.
In another incident, Google had cancelled a talk about caste discrimination by Soundararajan last year after some South Asian employees at the technology company had claimed “reverse discrimination” and said supporting Dalit rights was “Hinduphobic”.
In October, two Hindu professors had filed a lawsuit against the California state authorities for adding caste to its anti-discrimination policy.