Proposed by Senator Aisha Wahab, the bill, which would outlaw caste discrimination against Dalits in the US state, is approved by state's Senate Judiciary Committee by 8-0 votes.

"We've hit a nerve and exposed a form of discrimination many never even knew existed," says Senator Aisha Wahab. (AP Archive)

A bill that would outlaw caste discrimination in the US state of California has cleared its first big legislative hurdle.

On Tuesday, the state's Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favour of the legislation, sending it to the next committee for consideration.

If passed, the bill could make California the first state in the nation to make caste bias illegal by adding it as a protected category in the state's anti-discrimination laws.

State Senator Aisha Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to the state legislature, introduced the bill last month. 

"We've hit a nerve and exposed a form of discrimination many never even knew existed," said Wahab, D-Hayward, who told committee members that she has received death threats after proposing this legislation.

"Caste is an invisible shackle placed on people at birth. Those of us not raised in that system can't possibly understand what it does to one's psyche, the inter-generational trauma it causes."

India's Hindu caste system, which dates back thousands of years, divides society into a rigid hereditary hierarchy based on a belief in so-called upper-caste purity, with Dalits on the lowest rung facing discrimination and even violence.

Activists say caste-based discrimination has followed the South Asian diaspora to the United States.

Caste is a division of people related to birth or descent and those at the lowest strata of the caste system, known as Dalits, have been pushing for legal protections in California and beyond.

References to a societal hierarchy can be found in the millennia-old Hindu text Rig Veda, where a hymn describes the origin of all life from the Purusha or "supreme being." 

A verse states that the four categories [varnas] of Hindu society came from this infinite being. The Brahmins [priest class] appeared from the being's head, the Kshatriyas [warriors] from his arms, the Vaishyas [business class] from his thighs and the Shudras [labourers] from his feet. 

Those who were outside the system became known as the outcasts or untouchables, and later as the Dalits.

The varna system initially served to classify individuals on the basis of their attributes and aptitude. However, with time, it evolved into the caste system where a person's occupation and status in society became determined by birth.

READ MORE: California may become first US state to outlaw caste discrimination

Caste discrimination in US companies

Supporters of the bill say it is necessary to protect Dalits from bias in housing, education and in the tech sector — where they hold key roles.

Opponents called the proposed legislation "unconstitutional" and said it would unfairly target Hindus and people of Indian descent. 

Wahab asserted on Tuesday that the bill "does not target any specific community or religion."

A United Nations report in 2016 said at least 250 million people worldwide still face caste discrimination in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Pacific regions, as well as in various diaspora communities.

According to a 2021 report by the Silicon Valley Institute for Regional Studies, Asians, including South Asians, hold 37.8 percent of technical roles and 25.3 percent of leadership roles at Silicon Valley’s largest tech companies.

In 2020, California regulators sued Cisco Systems saying a Dalit Indian engineer faced caste discrimination at the company's Silicon Valley headquarters. 

In another case, Tanuja Gupta, quit her senior manager job at Google News last year after blowback over inviting Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and executive director of Oakland, California-based Equality Labs, a Dalit advocacy group, to speak to employees during April, which is Dalit History Month. 

The talk was canceled and Gupta accused her former employer of retaliation, which Google has denied.

Dalits being treated 'unfairly'

Rakhi Israni, an attorney and California resident, who testified before the committee said the legislation is an "unconstitutional denial of my community's rights to fairness and equal protection under the law."

"If this bill is adopted, caste will be the only discrimination law category that is not facially neutral," she said. 

Ann Ravel, who served on the Federal Election Commission under president Barack Obama, testified that she views this bill and the movement to end caste discrimination "as an important civil rights issue."

"Unless caste is explicitly added [as a protected category], it will be very difficult for those who have been discriminated against to seek legal remedy," she said.

A 2020 survey of Indian Americans by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found caste discrimination was reported by 5 percent of survey respondents.

While 53 percent of foreign-born Hindu Indian Americans said they affiliate with a caste group, only 34 percent of US-born Hindu Indian Americans said they do the same.

However, a 2016 Equality Labs survey of 1,500 South Asians in the US showed 67 percent of Dalits who responded reported being treated unfairly because of their caste.

Committee members said they understood opponents' concerns, but are inclined to move the legislation along because they believe it will help prevent such discrimination.

The bill received bipartisan support on the committee.

Next, the legislation will move to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration.

In February, Seattle became the first US city and jurisdiction outside South Asia to add caste to its anti-discrimination laws.

READ MORE: Seattle becomes first US city to ban caste discrimination

Source: AP