A new bill introduced in the California state senate on Wednesday, 22 March, seeks to provide protection from harassment and discrimination on the basis of caste in matters such as employment and housing. This comes exactly a month after Seattle became the first city in the country to pass a similar legislation on 22 February.
If the bill receives assent of the governor after completing all the intervening steps, California will become the first state in the United States to include caste as a protected category in its anti-discrimination statutes.
It will be a major victory for the caste oppressed groups as California is the biggest state in the US in terms of population and the size of the economy. If it were a sovereign nation, its economy would rank fifth in the world, ahead of India.
Aisha Wahab, the Democratic Party senator representing the 10th district, is at the forefront of these efforts, aided by a number of Ambedkarite and anti-caste groups.
"We want to ensure organisations and companies do not entrench caste discrimination in their practices or policies, and in order to do that we need to make it plainly clear that discrimination based on caste is against the law, ” Wahab was quoted as saying in a statement released by Equality Labs.
From Foster Care to State Senate
Wahab was born in Queens, New York to refugee parents who had fled war-torn Afghanistan in the 1980s. Wahab and her sister lost both their parents before they turned 10, leaving them in foster care. Their father was murdered in New York while their mother too died soon after.
They were adopted by an Afghan American couple from California. Wahab went on to earn a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's in business administration.
Wahab won the 2018 Hayward City Council elections, making her one of the first Afghan Americans to be elected to a public office in the US. In November 2022, she was elected to the California State Senate from the 10th district.
In her campaigns, Wahab has highlighted progressive causes such as housing for all, healthcare reforms and reproductive rights. She is often compared with congresswoman and a fellow Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
As the author of the anti-caste discrimination bill, Wahab will be shepherding the efforts to get it passed as it goes through multiple iterations over the next few months.
California Not New to Caste Discussions
California currently bans discrimination on the basis of national origin, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, etc. If Wahab's bill is passed, caste too will be added to this list of protected categories.
In 2020, the California Civil Rights Department had brought a case against the networking gear and business software company Cisco in which it was alleged that two upper caste employees at the company subjected a Dalit employee, who was identified by the pseudonym John Doe, to caste discrimination.
This case spurred many Ambedkarite groups into action and they gathered testimonies of many other Dalits who had faced similar harassment and discrimination on the basis of caste. A number of technology companies had conducted caste sensitisation workshops for their employees in the wake of this incident.
Apple, which is headquartered in Cupertino – a city in California – updated its employee conduct policy in August 2020 to explicitly prohibit caste discrimination.
In August 2021, California Democratic Party, an affiliate of the Democratic Party, too updated its code of conduct to ban caste discrimination.
A few months later, the California State University system, which has 23 campuses across the state, followed suit.
California, home to many technology companies, has a sizeable South Asian population. As in the previous cases, the Hindu right groups such as the Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America, are expected to put up a stiff opposition to the bill.
In 2016, they had strongly objected to the mention of caste system and other critical points related to Hinduism in the California school textbooks meant for the 6th and 7th grade students.