California becomes first US state to pass bill banning caste discrimination

Bill passed by margin of 31-5 and now needs to be signed into law by governor

Namita Singh
Thursday 07 September 2023 10:59 BST
New Bill Aims to Outlaw Caste Discrimination in California

California’s state legislature has become the first in the US to pass a bill banning discrimination on the basis of caste – a centuries-old rigid system of hierarchy in the Hindu religion.

On Tuesday, the California state senate passed SB 403 by a margin of 31-5, giving added protection to people from the south Asian subcontinent who were not included in the country’s pre-existing anti-discrimination law.

The bill now needs to be signed by governor Gavin Newsom before it becomes 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,” said Democratic state senator Aisha Wahab, who also sponsored the bill.

“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 was supported by a wide array of civil rights and social justice organisations that hailed the move.

The history of the caste system is still hotly debated, but scholars generally agree that it dates back at least 3,000 years and was used to divide followers of the Hindu religion into hierarchical groups.

While its rigidity may have shifted over the centuries, the system has long been used to entrench the privilege of members of the so-called upper castes while condemning those of lower castes to specific, less desirable roles or occupations.

Historians say the system persisted unchanged for centuries until it was actually reinforced by British colonial rulers as a way of simplifying the various censuses undertaken of the Indian population and making it easier to govern.

Most definitions of the modern-day caste system describe it as dividing Hindus into four main umbrella categories, with upper-caste Brahmins at the top.

Dalits have historically existed as outcasts from the Hindu hierarchical system, and have been forced into menial labour. Individuals belonging to the community were formerly called “achchoot”, a derogatory term in the Hindi language that means “untouchable”.

They represent a repressed community in many ways and still face prejudice and other obstacles to social mobility, though some Dalit leaders have risen to occupy the country’s highest offices.

In California, some members of the Dalit community shared experiencing caste discrimination.

“My family never talked about caste or told me about us being Dalit,” Shahira Kaur, associated with the Dalit rights group Equality Labs to promote the bill, said in a briefing following last week’s state assembly vote, reported Al Jazeera.

But she once heard her friend’s mother referring to her by a slur used against a section of Dalits.

“That was a very hard moment,” she said, adding that she was also asked to sit separately after being called “dirty”.

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