California State Capitol building in Sacramento, Calif., on April 19, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
California could become the first state in the nation to include caste as a protected anti-discrimination category after a bill to add such passed the state Senate Sept. 5.
After a revision and then approval in the Assembly, Senate Bill 403, authored by Sen. Aisha Wahab (D-Hayward), passed the Senate on a 31–5 vote and will now head to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk to be signed into law.
“I thank [every Assemblymember] for their courage in joining me on this journey of enshrining in our state laws protections against caste discrimination,” Ms. Wahab said in a statement Aug. 28 when the bill passed in the Assembly. “I also want to extend deep gratitude to the supporters of this bill, including the numerous civil rights organizations, legal organizations, and bar associations across the state and nation.”
The caste system is rooted in ancient India and is one of the world’s oldest forms of social classification, dividing Hindus into four main castes—Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. Those outside of the system are called the Dalits, or the “untouchables.”
Though caste-based discrimination was outlawed by the Indian government in 1948, several recent studies suggest that bias of such persists in various settings including workplaces in both India and the United States.
Those in support of the bill said discrimination based on one’s caste, in this case, Indian social status, bears similarities to other types of bias, such as racism, and thus should be prohibited by law.
Equality Labs, one of the major sponsors of the bill, said in a recent statement that it would “broaden legal protections for caste-oppressed communities throughout the state.”
However, opponents of the bill argue that it will do harm to the population it deems to protect.
Ambedkar-Phule Network of American Dalits and Bahujans, a nonprofit that represents Indians in the United States including the so-called “untouchables”—expressed opposition to the bill in a letter addressed to Mr. Newsom and the state Senate Appropriations Committee saying because there is no official documentation to indicate a person’s social status in India, the law would be meaningless in California as Indians can self-identify however they like.
The letter continues saying that labeling the American Dalits as oppressed victims would create more social tensions.
“This targets millions of ‘upper caste’ Indian Americans as oppressors (which is unconstitutional), and permanently labels us American Dalits as oppressed victims,” the letter, which was shared with The Epoch Times, said. “The implicit labeling of our communities as oppressed will eventually erase our identities, because future generations of Dalit Americans do not want to be referred to as victims.”
There are reportedly close to 900,000 Indian Americans living in California, according to the Indian American Impact, a national political organization based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Such caste discrimination of Indians now living in the United States, came to the forefront after a California agency that enforces civil rights law sued Silicon Valley-based Cisco Systems in 2020 for caste discrimination alleging one of the company’s engineers—a Dalit—received less pay and fewer opportunities, due to his caste status, according to court documents.
Although the case filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court was ultimately voluntarily dismissed by the agency, the case made headlines in the United States and in India, setting off a wave of discussions on caste discrimination.
Earlier this year, Seattle became the inaugural U.S. city to ban caste discrimination through a city council decision.