If the bill passes as expected and Governor Gavin Newsom signs it, California would become the first state to explicitly ban caste-based discrimination, although Seattle has done so and other cities are considering doing so. TO DO. Caste, a social hierarchy in which a group is inherited, is historically associated with South Asians and Hindus, and opponents argue that such a ban stigmatizes the religious group.
The case had repercussions for Wahab, in his district with a heavy South Asian concentration. It has become a bitter lesson in the pitfalls of approaching nuanced cultural issues in an increasingly diverse nation.
Wahab, a progressive approached by Newsom to highlight her gun control effort, seemed taken aback by the vitriolic response to what she sees as a simple problem.
“This is a civil rights bill,” she said in an interview. ” It is very simple. We try to protect people.
For her, it started while campaigning in her San Francisco Bay Area district, hearing about an issue that had surfaced in some employment discrimination cases in Silicon Valley as well as a divisive measure in Seattle and elsewhere. But no bill explicitly banning caste discrimination had been introduced in the California Legislature, even by the two members of South Asian descent.
The fact that this topic came up in the first place is perhaps unsurprising. Indians are the second largest group of American immigrants after Mexicans, and the Wahab District has one of the largest populations of Indian Americans. More broadly, South Asians have become more visible in American politics, with Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy running in the Republican presidential primary.
Wahab Legislation, Senate Bill 403, is one vote away from reaching the governor’s office, but not before a tough legislative process in which she was rebuffed even by her fellow progressive Democrats. Newsom’s office would not say whether he supports the bill.
The commission hearings were packed, with queues for public comment. Social media is on fire on both sides, and lawmakers have received tens of thousands of calls and emails. When the Cupertino City Council adopted a resolution Opposing the bill, city officials said it was the busiest public meeting they had ever seen in the predominantly Asian suburb.
A gradual split
Backlash from voters and local officials prompted two Democratic lawmakers whose districts overlap with Wahab’s, Assemblymen Evan Low (Democrat-Campbell) and Alex Lee (Democrat-San Jose), to take the unusual measure of openly disagreeing with their progressive colleague, suggesting amendments. this ultimately watered down the legislation. All three are also part of the Legislative Assembly’s Asian American and Pacific Islander caucus.
“It’s not politically expedient, but it’s the right thing to do,” Low said in an interview. “It is my real interest, because it breaks my heart to see the members of our AAPI community divided. »
Lee’s office, which typically registers about 10 voters giving their position on a bill, received more than 600 messages on SB 403. Only 26 were in favor, according to a spokesperson. Low said the ratio of opposition to support was “99 to 1”.
The two men met with Wahab to share their concerns. Eventually, Wahab agreed to place caste under “ancestry” rather than listing it as a stand-alone category such as race, gender identity and age, ensuring the word remained in the bill, but less visible way.
Low did not vote on the proposal. But the amendments won over Lee, who gave a speech explaining why he supported the bill – and noting that he was trying to ensure the ban “doesn’t unfairly target anyone”.
Low and another Bay Area lawmaker, Sen. Josh Becker (D-Menlo Park), said caste hasn’t emerged as an issue for decades in tech circles in Silicon Valley, where there are had accusations of caste discrimination. Activists on both sides of the debate have focused on educating lawmakers about caste.
“Many staff members have asked, ‘What is a caste? ‘” Wahab said of the backlash when she first considered introducing the bill. “They must have Googled.”
Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation – one of the groups opposing the bill – said the term “caste” was different from other protected categories in the state.
“Everyone has a race. Everyone has ancestry. Everyone has a gender. Everyone has an age,” Shukla said. “Not everyone has a caste. »
Shukla believes the bill passed the Legislative Assembly because no one wants to be perceived as being against an anti-discrimination bill.
The issue affects Assemblyman Ash Kalra (Democrat of San Jose), the first American Indian elected to the state legislature and one of two South Asian lawmakers serving in either other of the bedrooms. Kalra voted for the proposal but said it was an emotional matter for him. He lamented at a committee hearing that he saw his community “torn apart on social media” and hoped both sides would commit to healing.
Heart of the movement
Silicon Valley, home to a large South Asian population and some of the biggest tech companies in the world, has been at the heart of a movement to tackle caste-based discrimination.
A 2020 lawsuit filed by the California Department of Civil Rights – believed to be the first in the state to be filed for caste-based discrimination – accused two Cisco supervisors of discriminating and harassing an employee who identified as Dalit, the lowest class in the country. the caste hierarchy. The lawsuit against Cisco is ongoing, although claims against the two supervisors were dropped earlier this year.
Proponents of the bill see the trial as a milestone that has allowed more people oppressed by their caste to come forward.
“Right now it’s such a gray area,” said Tanuja Gupta, who left her senior role at Google News in 2021 in a high-profile departure after an event she had been postponed. organized on caste issues.
Gupta is now at law school in New York. She said one of the most frustrating things about promoting SB 403 has been the argument that caste discrimination doesn’t take place because there have been so few documented cases, calling it a ‘chicken and egg argument’.
Using a different last name to protect against discrimination is not uncommon, said Prem Pariyar, National Association of Social Workers delegate and Cal State East Bay alumnus who helped lead a successful campaign the last year for the CSU school system to include caste in its anti-discrimination curriculum. – policy of discrimination.
Pariyar was born into a Dalit family in Nepal and came to California in 2015 to escape caste discrimination. Friends told him that the state was progressive, friendly to immigrants, and accepting of different cultures. Instead, he recalls being alienated by fellow Nepalese, who refused to share accommodation with him because of his caste. Pariyar said he was forced to live in a van for a month, an experience he described as depressing and frightening.
“I thought they wouldn’t repeat these kinds of practices here,” Pariyar said.
In mid-July, about 250 people gathered at an event center in Fremont, an East Bay suburb in the Wahab district, for “Caste Con,” a full day of programming against the bill. Several Fremont city officials attended, as well as Palo Alto Mayor Lydia Kou. Fremont Mayor Lily Mei, who lost to Wahab last year in the race for the local state Senate seat, received a standing ovation during her presentation.
The event was moderated by Satish Sharma, President of the UK-based World Hindu Federation. Copies of Sharma’s book “Caste, Conversion: A Colonial Conspiracy” were available free of charge in the lobby.
At one point, Sharma asked ChatGPT to define the term “caste,” then pointed out the number of times the word “Hindu” appeared in the computer’s response. “It’s not an accident,” Sharma said later in an interview. “It has been sown for so long. The word is a mark of hate.
Later, attendees heard talking points on how to defend their position at the State Capitol. Salvatore Babones, a sociologist and associate professor at the University of Sydney, said people need to “accept the debate” about caste, pointing out that simple arguments such as “I’m not a ” and “I’m not a white supremacist” do not work in the United States.
“You have to fight it on American terms,” Babones said. “If you don’t fight it on American terms, you’re going to lose. »
Sejal Govindarao contributed to this report.