The California State Senate on Thursday cleared a bill to outlaw discrimination based on caste in the State. The bill passed with a 34-1 vote and will now go to the State Assembly for consideration.
If it passes in the State Assembly and is enacted, California could become the first state in the the United States to outlaw caste discrimination by adding oppressed castes as a protected category in the state’s anti-discrimination laws.
Earlier in February, the Seattle city council added caste to its anti-discrimination laws with a vote of 6-1, becoming the first US city and the first jurisdiction outside South Asia to ban caste discrimination. Several colleges and universities have also enacted similar policies barring caste discrimination on campuses, including University of California, Davis. Two weeks ago, striking students and workers in Rutgers University, New York, demanded that caste-based discrimination be banned on campus.
According to a report by Equality Labs from 2018, caste discrimination is rampant in the United States. 25% Dalits surveyed faced verbal or physical assault based on their caste, 60% Dalits faced derogatory caste-based jokes, 40% Dalits and 14% Shudras were made to feel unwelcome in places of worship, and 20% Dalits felt discriminated against at a place of business. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found that 5% of Americans face caste-based discrimination, with high discrimination in areas with a large South Asian population.
State Senator Aisha Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to the legislature, introduced the bill in March. On April 25, hundreds on both sides of the issue came to voice their opinions during a Senate Judiciary hearing on the matter. Proponents said that caste discrimination is a reality in California and that clarifying the state’s anti-discrimination laws will help protect caste-oppressed communities. Opponents maintained that the law will single out Hindus and people of Indian descent.
Only Sen. Brian Jones voted against the legislation saying that he had heard concerns from numerous constituents and agrees with them that the legislation unfairly targets a specific group. He contended that caste bias is already covered under existing anti-discrimination laws.
In April, the California Civil Rights Department voluntarily dismissed its case alleging caste discrimination against two Cisco engineers, Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella, while still keeping alive its litigation against the Silicon Valley tech giant. The case of caste discrimination goes back to 2016 when the complainant had reported Iyer to Human resources in November 2016 for outing him as a Dalit to colleagues. Iyer allegedly retaliated, but Cisco determined caste discrimination was not illegal and issues continued through 2018, the lawsuit states. Cisco reassigned and isolated the employee, rejected a raise and opportunities that would have led to one, and denied two promotions, according to the lawsuit.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and executive director of Equality Labs, told Associated Press that the dismissal of the case against Iyer and Kompella does not change anything as the case “has given so many Dalits the courage to come forward with their stories about caste discrimination in education, the medical and tech industries”. She further added that “This is not a loss, but progress. The Dalit community owes [the engineer] and the Civil Rights Department gratitude for having the courage to bring such a historic case forward.”
Similarly, Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant, in reference to the California bill, told the Indian Express that the fight does not end here. “We will be looking at going all the way to the US Congress for a similar Bill at the Federal level,” she stated.
Source: Associated Press