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California may become first US state to outlaw caste discrimination

California may become the first US state to outlaw caste-based discrimination, a safeguard that people of South Asian descent, especially Indians, say is necessary to protect them from discrimination in housing, education and the tech sector where they hold key roles.

State Senator Aisha Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to the state legislature, introduced the bill on Wednesday.

It adds caste — a division of people related to birth or descent — as a protected category in the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

Those at the lowest strata of the harsh caste system, known as Dalits, have been increasingly calling for such legislation, saying they have faced this kind of discrimination in the United States.

Wahab said caste discrimination is “a social justice and civil rights issue.”

“People came to this country so they can be free and can pursue their American dream without any disruption to their lives,” Wahab said, adding that she heard about this form of discrimination growing up in Fremont, California, and living in the San Francisco Bay Area.

But some groups, such as the Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America oppose such policies.

Samir Kalra of the Hindu American Foundation says it is “a dangerous and misguided bill that targets, racially profiles, and institutionalises bias against all residents of Indian and South Asian origin, as well as a few other vulnerable communities of colour.”

The legislation is being backed by other groups such as Hindus for Human Rights and Hindus for Caste Equity.

READ MORE: Seattle becomes first US city to ban caste discrimination

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Oldest forms of rigid social stratification

India’s caste system is among the world’s oldest forms of rigid social stratification.

The caste system dates back thousands of years and allows many privileges to upper castes but represses outcasts or lowered castes.

References to a societal hierarchy can be found in the millennia-old Rig Veda, where a hymn describes the origin of all life from the Purusha or “supreme being.” 

A verse states that the four categories [varnas] of Hindu society came from this infinite being. The Brahmins [priest class] appeared from the being’s head, the Kshatriyas [warriors] from his arms, the Vaishyas [business class] from his thighs and the Shudras [labourers] from his feet. 

Those who are outside the caste system became known as the outcasts or untouchables, and later as the Dalits. Members of the Dalit community have historically performed tasks such as manual scavenging, the dangerous and inhumane practice of removing human waste by hand from sewers. The practice continues in many parts of India even though the government banned it in 2013.

A United Nations report in 2016 said at least 250 million people worldwide still face caste discrimination in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Pacific regions, as well as in various diaspora communities. 

Wahab said she is “deeply sensitive to how minority religions and groups are depicted.”

“Caste goes beyond religion and nationality,” she said. “This legislation primarily protects millions who live in silence and have never had such protection because there is little understanding of this issue. This bill is about protecting people who are vulnerable.”

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Discrimination against Dalits

A 2016 Equality Labs survey of 1,500 South Asians in the US showed 67 percent of Dalits who responded reported being treated unfairly because of their caste.

According to a 2021 report by the Silicon Valley Institute for Regional Studies, Asians, including South Asians, hold 37.8 percent of technical roles and 25.3 percent of leadership roles at Silicon Valley’s largest tech companies.

In 2020, California regulators sued Cisco Systems, saying a Dalit Indian engineer faced caste discrimination at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters.

In another case, Tanuja Gupta, quit her senior manager job at Google News last year after a blowback over inviting Soundararajan to speak to employees during April, which is Dalit History Month.

The talk was cancelled and Gupta accused her former employer of retaliation, which Google has denied.

Gupta said she is backing the bill because those facing caste discrimination have no protection or legal recourse right now.

“This is the form of accountability we need,” she said.

Shakeel Syed, executive director of South Asian Network in Artesia, California, said he sees caste discrimination among workers and he has helped in cases where caste played a role in wage theft and housing discrimination.

“When hardworking people are not respected or valued simply because of their caste, that is just blatantly wrong,” he said.

In February, Seattle became the first US city and the first jurisdiction outside South Asia to add caste to its anti-discrimination laws.

Several colleges and universities have also enacted similar policies barring caste discrimination on campuses, including the University of California, Davis.

READ MORE: A silent invasion: How Hindutva infiltrated US politics

READ MORE: Toronto school board recognises Hindu caste discrimination in Canada

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