The California State Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favour of a bill proposed by state Senator Aisha Wahab that could make California the first state in the US to outlaw caste-based discrimination by adding it as a protected category in the state’s anti-discrimination laws.
The bill, which was sent to the next committee for consideration, has received global attention, highlighting caste as a social justice and civil rights issue.
Wahab, who introduced the bill last month, has received death threats after proposing the legislation. She is the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to the state legislature. Wahab stated that “we’ve hit a nerve and exposed a form of discrimination many never even knew existed”. She emphasized that caste is an invisible shackle placed on people at birth, which causes intergenerational trauma and affects their psyche.
The Hindu caste system is an ancient social hierarchy based on birth that divides society into a rigid hereditary structure. It has been the source of discrimination and violence, especially against Dalits, who are at the lowest rung of the system. Caste-based discrimination has also followed the South Asian diaspora to the United States, and those at the lowest strata of the caste system, known as Dalits, have been pushing for legal protections in California and beyond.
The Rig Veda, an ancient Hindu text, references the societal hierarchy and describes the origin of all life from the Purusha or “supreme being”. The four categories of Hindu society (varnas) came from this infinite being, with Brahmins (priest class) from his head, Kshatriyas (warriors) from his arms, Vaishyas (business class) from his thighs, and Shudras (labourers) from his feet. Those outside the system became known as the outcasts or untouchables, later called Dalits. The varna system initially classified individuals based on their attributes and aptitude, but over time, it evolved into the caste system, where a person’s occupation and status in society became determined by birth.
The bill has garnered support from organisations such as Hindus for Human Rights and the Sikh Coalition. The latter noted that Sikhs know “firsthand the pain and trauma that comes with being repeatedly targeted by hate and discrimination”.
“HfHR is proud to be on the right side of history, saying YES to #SB403 !!”, Hindus for Human Rights tweeted.
However, the legislation has also faced pushback from groups such as the Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America, who argue that the bill targets Hindus and Indian Americans who are commonly associated with the caste system. These organisations have submitted letters of opposition, saying the bill “seeks to codify” negative stereotypes and stigmas that Hindus and Indian Americans face. They also argue that current laws in place offer protections against any form of discrimination, including caste.
The California State University system, the largest public university system in the US, passed a resolution adding caste as a category of discrimination in January 2022, following a 2018 study conducted by the anti-caste advocacy organisation Equality Labs. The study found that of the 1,500 participants surveyed, 25% of those identifying as Dalit reported experiencing verbal or physical assault based on their caste. One in three Dalit students reported discrimination in educational settings. However, critics of the report have raised concerns about its methodology and the representativeness of its sample.
In 2020, California regulators took legal action against Cisco Systems, alleging that a Dalit Indian engineer experienced caste discrimination while working at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters. Additionally, Tanuja Gupta, who held a senior manager position at Google News, resigned in 2020 following backlash over her invitation to Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the founder and executive director of Equality Labs, a Dalit advocacy group based in Oakland, California, to speak to employees during Dalit History Month in April. The talk was ultimately cancelled, and Gupta claimed that her former employer engaged in retaliation, which Google has refuted.
Although committee members acknowledged opponents’ concerns, they expressed their inclination to advance the legislation, believing it would aid in preventing discrimination. The committee passed the bill with bipartisan support.
The next step for the legislation is to be reviewed by the Senate Appropriations Committee.