The California state legislature has become the first in the United States to pass a bill banning discrimination based on caste, a centuries-old system of social stratification with roots in South Asia.
On Tuesday, the State Senate passed SB 403 by a margin of 31-5, adding caste as a form of ancestry protected under state civil rights law, as well as education and housing codes.
The bill now heads to the desk of Governor Gavin Newsom, with activists calling on the Democrat to sign it into law.
“I’m proud to stand in solidarity with every person who said they, as a Californian, experienced caste discrimination, and others who say they want it to stop,” Democratic State Senator Aisha Wahab, the bill’s author, said in a news conference on Wednesday.
“We shined a light on a long-hidden form of discrimination thousands of years old, invisible shackles on the wrist of millions of people.”
The passage of the bill, supported by a wide array of civil rights and social justice organisations, has been hailed as the most significant victory yet in combatting casteism in North America.
Before its passage in California’s Senate, the bill had also cleared the State Assembly on August 29 with a 55-3 vote, a sign of broad support.
Senator Wahab presents SB 403, the Caste Discrimination Bill, for its Senate Concurrence Vote. SB 403 passes 31-5 and is on the way to the Governor! pic.twitter.com/nNIGRyu4Tq
— Senator Aisha Wahab (@SenAishaWahab) September 5, 2023
Dalits, who occupy the lowest rung of the caste system, say that caste-based discrimination remains prevalent within the South Asian diaspora, taking place in workplaces, classrooms and social settings.
Caste has existed for millennia in countries like India, which formally abolished the system following the country’s independence in the late 1940s. However, Dalits say discrimination and violent enforcement of social division have remained persistent realities.
In California, some members of the Dalit community say they only became aware of their caste after experiencing discrimination from privileged-caste individuals.
“My family never talked about caste or told me about us being Dalit,” Shahira Kaur, who worked with the Dalit rights group Equality Labs to promote the bill, said in a briefing following last week’s State Assembly vote.
That started to change, she said, when she overheard her friend’s mother refer to her as a “chamar”, a slur used against Dalits, in high school.
“That was a very hard moment,” she said, adding that some of her South Asian friends stopped associating with her at school afterwards. One friend even asked her to sit at a separate lunch table because she was “dirty”.
Governor Newsom has not commented on the bill, but activists are confident that the wide margins by which it passed in the State Senate and Assembly indicate it will successfully be signed into law.
“We united hundreds of organisations to come together with one purpose: to make our state more accessible for opportunity for all and to free out institutions from discrimination,” Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the director of Equality Labs, said at Wednesday’s news conference.
Soundararajan added that she and other members of California Coalition for Caste Equity (CCCE), an alliance of groups that promoted the bill, have launched a hunger strike in support of its final passage.
“Until this bill becomes law, we will not eat. And part of it is a sacred commitment to love, to unity, to healing and reconciliation. Because we believe that we are stronger together,” she said.
While SB 403 passed with relatively little resistance in the state legislature, it faced fierce opposition from a number of Hindu American groups, who are now calling on Newsom to veto it.
“This divisive bill that still implicitly singles out/targets South Asians must be vetoed @GavinNewsom!” the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) said in a social media post following the bill’s passage in the State Assembly.
Such groups dispute that caste-based discrimination is a serious issue in North America and argue that the legislation singles out Hindus.
Dalit rights groups firmly rejected those claims and have portrayed them as a form of backlash against political mobilisation by caste-oppressed people.
“While my staff and I have always seen this as a common-sense bill, it has not been an easy bill,” Senator Wahab, who is California’s first Afghan-American female legislator, said on Wednesday. “There has been a lot of discussion, misinformation and, frankly, bigoted comments directed at me, as well as the larger movement.”
Other supporters of the bill also deny that it will open the door to discrimination against South Asians.
“Caste is a brutal system of social stratification. It is the antithesis of equality and human dignity,” Kiran Gill, director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), told Al Jazeera over a recent phone call.
“The Sikh community has experienced civil rights abuses. We know what it means to be marginalised, and we felt the need to support and uplift this cause.”
While the California bill marks the most significant effort yet to bring caste under the protection of civil rights law, it follows a string of victories in cities and municipalities across North America.
1/ The #casteequity civil rights movement wins again! Today, anti-caste discrimination bill SB403 made California history and passed in the Senate. Now, the bill heads to the desk of Governor @GavinNewsom pic.twitter.com/vaHwQaXOM5
— Equality Labs (@EqualityLabs) September 5, 2023
The US city of Seattle voted to ban discrimination based on caste in February. The following month, the school board for the Canadian city of Toronto moved to recognise caste-based discrimination and work towards a framework for combatting it.
“We thank Kshama Sawant who started this in the Seattle City, Aisha Wahab who initiated this in California,” Anil Wagde, an activist with the group Americans Against Caste Discrimination, told Al Jazeera.
After the bill passed the State Assembly last week, supporters gathered outside of the State Capitol building to celebrate with chants honouring Dalit civil rights leader Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who wrote India’s constitution and was a fierce critic of the oppressive nature of the caste system.
“Jai bhim! Jai bhim!” the crowd chanted, using a slogan popular among Dalits. It translates to: “Victory to Bhim!”