Proposal to Outlaw Caste Discrimination Sparks Backlash Against CA Senator

A lawmaker introduced an anti-caste discrimination bill in California’s Senate on March 22 amidst persisting caste discrimination in the United States and other parts of the world. If passed, the state would become the first in the country to outlaw caste discrimination explicitly.

The proposal was filed in California’s upper house by state senator Aisha Wahab, the first female Muslim and Afghan American elected into California’s state Senate. The bill seeks to include caste as a protected category in the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

Even though caste discrimination was banned in India after its independence from the British Empire, it continues to persist in the South Asian country and in the United States, where employment laws do not explicitly prohibit caste-based discrimination.

For state Senator Wahab, who represents Fremont, San Jose, and other hubs of South Asian American communities in northern California, she understands the negative impacts of casteism in her life and the lives of many South Asians who immigrated to the United States.

“The more diverse California becomes, and the United States becomes, we need to protect more people in the way the American dream was originally supposed to,” Wahab said. “Our laws need to expand and cover more people and go deeper.”

Her proposal came after Seattle became the first city in the United States to ban caste discrimination. Kshama Sawant, the city’s only socialist Indian American council member, successfully passed her proposal in the city council last March.

The bill also came when several of the state’s educational institutions, such as Brown University, UC Davis, and California’s State University system, added caste as a category in their non-discriminatory policies.

California is no stranger to pervasive caste discrimination, especially in housing and work. One of Berkley’s richest landlords, Lakireddy Bali Reddy, was accused of illegally transporting 25 workers from India under false pretenses in 2001, some of whom were Dalits.

In another case of caste discrimination in California, the state government sued Cisco Systems in 2020 for allowing two higher-caste Indian engineers to discriminate against a Dalit Indian engineer.

A survey conducted by Equality Labs in 2018 also found that one in four Dalits in the US experiences some form of caste-based discrimination. The civil rights organization and its founder, Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan, have been instrumental in passing Seattle’s first anti-caste discrimination law.

Nevertheless, Wahab’s proposal received significant pushback from many Indian-Amricans, who argued that passing an anti-caste discrimination law discriminates against Hindus. She even received death threats and anti-Muslim slurs from various people.

But despite the threats and name-calling, Wahab said her proposal is relevant across different religions and ethnicities, and she’s ready to fight any pushback against the bill.

“I’m happy to take the hits from opponents of this bill,” Wahab said. “I know that this is the right thing.”

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