California considers ban on caste discrimination


On Wednesday, a California lawmaker introduced a bill to make caste discrimination illegal in the state’s senate. If it’s passed, California – home to some of the world’s biggest tech companies – will become the first US state to outlaw discrimination based on caste.

The bill was authored and introduced by Senator Aisha Wahab, a lawmaker from the Democratic Party, who proposed to add caste as a protected category in California’s anti-discrimination laws alongside gender, race and disability.

It comes a month after Seattle became the first US city to ban caste-based discrimination after a vote by the local council.

Ms Wahab represents a district in north California which has a large number of South Asians, many of whom work in technology firms. The Afghan-American lawmaker, who was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area by a US couple after her parents died, says that while she has not experienced caste discrimination herself, she understands it because of the place she grew up in.

“I’ve had friends tell me that their parents immigrated to this country because they belong to different castes and [their] families weren’t accepting of that,” she told the BBC.

The caste system is one of the oldest forms of surviving social discrimination in South Asian countries, including India and Nepal. In India, Dalits (formerly untouchables) and other lower castes are seen as historically disadvantaged groups and offered constitutional protections in the form of quotas and anti-discriminatory laws.

Dalit activists and academics say such recognition is needed in the West too, especially in the US. Many of them have been working towards spreading a similar awareness of caste and its complexities there for years.

The country’s tech industry has been grappling with the issue in recent years. In 2020, California regulators sued Cisco Systems on the basis of a complaint that a Dalit Indian engineer faced caste discrimination at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters. The next year, Tanuja Gupta, a senior manager at Google News, resigned after the company cancelled an invitation to Dalit rights activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan to speak to employees.

These incidents highlight that Californians “deserve workplaces and educational institutions free from discrimination”, says Ms Soundararajan, founder of Equality Labs, a civil rights organisation.

Supporters of the bill say that caste discrimination needs a legislative solution. One of them is Maya Kamble, who uses a pseudonym for her advocacy work. She works as a manager at a big US firm and says she decided not to reveal that she was a Dalit to her current colleagues.

At a former workplace, she says, a manager who once trusted her with challenging assignments changed his attitude once he found out her caste. When the next big project came up, she says that he told her to stay away from it as she was “ill-fated”.

“That was a big shocker for me and my colleagues,” she says, adding that she would have filed a complaint if there was a caste discrimination law.

“The [human resources representative] didn’t know anything about caste. How do I tell them that this is rooted in untouchability?” she says, adding that she had similar experiences when she came to the US as a student decades earlier.

Several educational, corporate, and political institutions in California have already formulated anti-caste discrimination policies.

Last year, California State University (Cal State), the largest public university system in the US, approved a policy change which added caste as a protected category. The same year, Apple announced that it had updated its employee policy two years earlier to prohibit caste discrimination. In 2021, the California Democratic Party added caste as a protected category to its code of conduct. The workers’ union at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has issued a statement supporting Ms Wahab’s bill.

But as the South Asian population in California continues to rise, caste stands to become a bigger issue.

The bill has several opponents, who argue that such laws will single out Indian and South Asian communities for unique legal scrutiny and make them less likely to be considered for jobs.

In 2021, Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara County’s Human Rights Commission stalled a vote on a measure that recognized caste as a protected category in the face of intense opposition from some South Asian groups.

Before the Seattle city council vote, nearly 100 organisations and businesses had written to it, asking it to oppose the caste ordinance. At the time, Suhag Shukla, co-founder and executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, had told the BBC that while caste discrimination was wrong and violated core principles of her religion, she was against the law because it sent a message “that our community, which makes up less than 2% of the population, is so uniquely bigoted that we need a special category under the law to police us, reinforcing xenophobic stereotypes we had hoped the US had moved beyond”.

The Foundation is currently suing the state of California in a federal court for a “similarly unconstitutional definition of caste” and assisting with a challenge to Cal State’s addition of caste to its non-discrimination policy.

But Ms Wahab says she is hopeful her colleagues will support her. Fellow Democratic senator Josh Becker, who represents the district where Alphabet and Meta are headquartered, says he is “supportive of anything to turn the tide” because he is alarmed that in a “country where hate and racism are on the rise, such behaviour [referring to caste] is being accepted and normalised”.

Ms Wahab is now prepared for “roughly a year of not an easy process” – the bill will have to be passed by senate committees, the state senate, the assembly and get the governor’s sign before it becomes a law.

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