Photo by CalMatters
For the past few months, California was on the road to becoming the first state in the U.S. to ban caste discrimination. With the passage of Senate Bill (SB) 403 in the California State Legislature on September 6, 2023, the ‘Golden State’ could have become the first state in the nation to outlaw any forms of discrimination that have roots in casteism—if Governor Gavin Newsom had signed it into law.
There has been enormous national and international press coverage around this bill, but why? What exposure does the average American citizen have to the caste system? What even is caste?
HISTORY OF CASTE
The caste system is a manifestation of religiously codified discrimination based on Hindu scriptures, dating back millennia. It is based on the idea of ‘division of labor’ and a hereditary assignment to certain occupations. The hierarchical system is most commonly depicted in a pyramid structure.
[Source: Equality Labs]
This system passes through the caste status of one’s parents. If your father is a Dalit and your mother is a Dalit, so are you. Based on this, caste-privileged Hindus were usually assigned to work in the priesthood or academic sectors due to their privileged position within the hierarchical structure. On the other hand, Dalit individuals are often forced to work under harsh, inhumane, and—more often than not—unsanitary conditions, ergo, dubbed “untouchable,” a term that has caused unfathomable amounts of systemic violence and brutality.
The effects of this system of social suppression have played out over thousands of years, with lower life expectancies for Dalits and Adivasis (indigenous and tribal people), higher levels of violent discrimination, and unconscionable forms of violence expressed towards Dalit and Adivasi women, to name a few.
However, for a nation like the U.S., where the majority of its residents are not South Asian, how does the process of banning caste discrimination unfold?
DOES CASTE TRANSCEND BORDERS?
Many Americans who were only introduced to the caste system through the debate surrounding SB 403 tend to wonder what the role of caste is in American society. If this institution originated in South Asia and is currently practiced in predominantly Hindu communities, what does this have to do with systems of discrimination in America?
The short answer: The South Asian Diaspora.
Long answer: After the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which eliminated nationality-based immigration quotas, an influx of South Asians came to the United States. However, the Act gave people with either family ties to the US or high levels of education—usually only caste-privileged immigrants—priority over all others. Along with their belongings and cultural heritage, they brought the caste system with them.
Based on the economic conditions and resources necessary, to make a life-changing decision like immigrating, most of the Hindu Americans that live in the United States today identify themselves as ‘upper-caste’. This, in turn, has created hostile environments and cultures for Dalit-Americans who have immigrated and aim to find community within these South Asian dominated spaces. As a result, many of these immigrants are afraid to speak out to workplace ‘Human Resources’ and other systems of accountability, with many such accounts coming from Silicon Valley and other workplaces with high-density South-Asian workforces. This reluctance can also be attributed to the fear of not being recognized for the discrimination they are experiencing, or because of their immigration status (most H-1B visa holders are Indian workers): once you lose your job, you lose your visa.
Caste discrimination is an undeniable reality in the United States, and Dalit individuals who have come to the United States to escape this brutal systemic oppression deserve to be protected under the law.
As Reina Patel stated in an article for the Council on Foreign Relations, “Caste, being a fixed and arbitrary social status, thrives on inequality. The concept is fundamentally at odds with the American ethos of ‘liberty and equality for all.’ Most concerning, caste poses an inherent threat to any democratic nation.”
Many Dalit Rights activists have been campaigning within the anti-caste movement in America long before the inception of SB 403.
According to a survey conducted by Equality Labs, an organization dedicated to anti-caste activism, one in three Dalits in America have reported experiencing discrimination in education, and two in three have reported unfair treatment in their workplace.
“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,” said California State Senator Aisha Wahab, the bill’s author. “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 bill had stalled at Gavin Newsom’s desk for months, and many activist groups pressured Newsom’s administration through a hunger strike. Thenmozhi Soundarajan (@dalitdiva), an acclaimed author and activist, was one of the people on the front lines of the cause.
As she stated in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter: “Day 32 and we are not stopping! Our chants are ringing through the streets. @GavinNewsom stand with us and know our words and deeds will define the [California] we leave for the next generation. #signsb403 and make history!!”
WHY SB 403, AND WHY NOW?
Prior to the veto of SB 403, California had the chance to set a precedent for not only the rest of the United States but any country that has a significant immigrant population that originates from South Asian countries where caste is a predominant structure of oppression amongst the Hindu population, like India and Nepal.
But with the veto of the bill by Governor Newsom, who believed that the bill rang redundant in relation to the current anti-discrimination law being enforced in California, many anti-caste activists have viewed the decision as a huge setback. However, they remain undeterred.
“The introduction of SB-403 represents the shifting tide in California to understand caste-based discrimination,” said Nirmal Singh, one of the activists who participated in the hunger strikes. “The fact that caste-oppressed people were given a platform to stand up for our basic human rights is a huge win in and of itself.”
It is vital that Californians continue to advocate for anti-caste legislation. For a future where Dalit individuals will no longer have to silently tolerate the discrimination that they experience in their places of worship, schools, and workplaces. Californians should advocate for a future where ‘upper-caste’ Hindus will no longer be allowed to preach and spread casteist hate speech in the name of their culture and heritage, a future where Dalit-Americans can file court cases and experience the power of having a legislative body and legal system that can protect them from these hostile experiences in the future.
Anti-caste legislation has the power to make real change in California and allow the South Asian American community to heal from the existence of caste and work toward a more prosperous future.
This article was edited by Blakely Kehl and Marielle Bianchi.