A California lawmaker has introduced a bill in the state Senate that would explicitly ban caste discrimination.
CNN  — 

A California lawmaker has introduced a bill in the state Senate that would explicitly ban caste discrimination – the first such effort by a US state legislature.

The bill, announced Wednesday, would add caste as a protected class to California’s anti-discrimination laws alongside categories such as race, physical disability and gender expression. Advocates of the measure said it’s intended to clarify existing protections for caste-oppressed people and to formally acknowledge that the effects of the age-old South Asian system of social stratification can also be found in the US.

“This is a civil rights bill, and this is a human rights bill,” state Sen. Aisha Wahab, who authored the bill, told CNN. “In the United States, and specifically California, we are trying to be as inclusive as possible the more diverse we are growing. This is one bill that is a step in the right direction.”

Wahab, who is Afghan American, said growing up in Fremont opened her eyes to how caste affected lives. She said she had friends whose parents came to the US because they married outside their caste and were no longer accepted by family members back home. Caste has also been an issue for constituents in her district, which includes parts of the East Bay and Silicon Valley.

As South Asian immigrants have come to the US, the politics of caste have sometimes followed – and as South Asian immigration continues to grow, caste discrimination stands to become more of an issue.

Caste-oppressed people have reported experiencing discrimination and social exclusion in the tech industry, higher education and other sectors with high concentrations of South Asian immigrants. But because this form of bias and discrimination typically operates within South Asian communities, it isn’t always understood or recognized by other Americans, leaving caste-oppressed people with little recourse. Wahab said her bill would change that for workers in the state.

“This is a lot of old country politics,” Wahab said. “The majority of Americans (have) never understood it, heard about it, been exposed to it. Our goal is just to make sure that more people and more Americans feel safer in this country and feel heard and seen and protected.”

California state Sen. Aisha Wahab, pictured at a January event, authored a bill that will  add caste as a protected class to the state's anti-discrimination laws.

The caste system is a social hierarchy that places people in rigid categories at birth. Those on the lowest rungs of the ladder – many of whom self-identify as Dalits – can be subjected to slurs, discrimination and even violence. Despite its origins in ancient India and Hinduism, the contemporary caste system developed under centuries of Muslim and British rule and can now be found in most South Asian countries and religious communities. And though India formally banned caste discrimination after attaining independence, caste-based prejudice remains a serious problem in the country.

The California bill is the latest indication of momentum around caste equity in the US. Seattle recently became the first US city to explicitly ban caste discrimination, and several colleges and universities have adopted similar policies. California State University, the nation’s largest four-year public university system, notably added caste to its anti-discrimination policy last year.

Now that the bill has been introduced, it will go to the Senate Rules Committee, where it will then be assigned to a policy committee. If it makes it out of the committee stage, it will need to pass the state Senate and Assembly and be signed by the governor before it becomes law.

Caste has been a contentious issue in California

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and executive director of the Dalit advocacy organization Equality Labs, said the California Senate bill has been a long time coming.

“It’s my ancestors’ wildest dreams to see their daughter be able to dream bigger than the oppression and to also create a platform for us to heal,” she said.

Born and raised in California, Soundararajan said she has seen and experienced how caste operates in various aspects of life. She recalls being bullied in grade school and experiencing caste discrimination while attending the University of California, Berkeley. When she was in college, she was involved in activism against a dominant caste Indian American landlord in Berkeley who was accused of exploiting caste-oppressed workers for personal pleasure and profit and who pleaded guilty to sex trafficking in 2001.

Caste has also been at the heart of controversies around how Hinduism is portrayed in California textbooks. From 2005 to 2009, and again from 2016 to 2017, some Hindu groups argued that the proposed textbook language perpetuated bias and stereotypes against Hindus and lobbied to remove or change certain references to the caste system.

More recently, issues around caste have surfaced in the tech industry. A California state court is set to hear a case from a former Cisco Systems employee who alleged he was discriminated against because of his caste. Caste also became a point of contention at Google last year, when Tanuja Gupta, a former senior manager at Google News, invited Soundararajan to give a talk on caste equity. After some employees characterized the presentation – and Soundararajan’s activism – as offensive to Hindus, Google canceled the talk.

Gupta, who resigned after the incident, said she hopes the California bill will force Silicon Valley employers to reckon with caste and develop cultural competency around the issue.

“If there’s going to be a state that pioneers (protections against) caste discrimination, this is the perfect state. And if this state can show that it’s possible, there’s no excuse for any other state to not have (protections against) caste discrimination,” she told CNN.

Though a coalition of people across faiths and caste backgrounds is supporting the bill, Soundararajan said that caste equity advocates are already bracing for opposition from some Hindu groups. Still, she’s optimistic about the bill’s chances of success.

“The law is the most important part that we need to make explicit,” she said. “Once that’s there, we can then really begin the process of healing in our community.”