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Ban on caste discrimination deemed ‘unnecessary’ by California governor

California activists against caste discrimination faced a defeat on Saturday as Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill that would add caste to a list of protected categories under the state’s existing anti-discrimination laws.

In a statement, Newsom called the bill “unnecessary”, explaining that California “already prohibits discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other characteristics, and state law specifies that these civil rights protections shall be liberally construed”.

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“Because discrimination based on caste is already prohibited under these existing categories, this bill is unnecessary,” he said in the statement.

Caste is primarily associated with India and Hinduism, but caste-based divisions are found in several faiths and countries. Although India outlawed caste discrimination more than 70 years ago, bias still persists, including in diaspora communities. Dalits have reported experiencing violence, discrimination and marginalization at school, work and places of worship in the US.

California, which has one of the largest south Asian populations in the US, has been home to a growing movement of anti-caste activism, much of it focused on Silicon Valley, which has a large number of south Asian immigrants working in the tech sector.

This led state senator Aisha Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan American woman elected to the state legislature, to author the bill. California’s civil rights law outlaws many forms of discrimination, including medical conditions, genetic information, sexual orientation, immigration status and ancestry. Wahab’s bill expands the definition of “ancestry” to include “lineal descent, heritage, parentage, caste, or any inherited social status”.

The bill sparked an intense response in California’s south Asian community. A public hearing on the bill this summer lasted hours as hundreds of people lined up around the Capitol to testify for and against. Opponents like the nonprofit Hindu American Foundation have argued that the law unfairly targets Hindus and “seeks to codify” negative stereotypes.

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Earlier this week, Republican state senators Brian Jones and Shannon Grove called on Newsom to veto the bill, which they said will “not only target and racially profile South Asian Californians, but will put other California residents and businesses at risk and jeopardize our state’s innovate edge.”

Grove said the law could open up businesses to unnecessary or frivolous lawsuits.

Wahab argued it was essential to expand California laws to “protect more vulnerable people in communities that we don’t often talk about”.

In 2020, Cisco became the first company in the US to be sued for casteism after two high-caste Indian managers were accused of discriminating against a Dalit engineer. Cisco argued that the engineer was not a part of a protected class; California’s civil rights department dismissed the case against the managers earlier this year but is still investigating the company.

In response to the work of Dalit activists, Google and Apple updated their employee handbooks to explicitly name caste as a protected group.

Last year, California State University became the first university system to add caste as a protected category to its anti-discrimination policy. And on 28 September, California’s largest central valley city, Fresno, became the second city in the US to ban caste discrimination.

Proponents of the bill launched a hunger strike in early September pushing for the law’s passage. Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder of the Oakland-based Equality Labs, the largest Dalit civil rights group in the US which has been leading the movement to end caste discrimination nationwide, said the goal of the fast is to end caste bias in every area, including employment and housing.

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“We do this to recenter in our sacred commitment to human dignity, reconciliation and freedom and remind the governor and the state of the stakes we face if this bill is not signed into law,” she said.

“[California] is a unique place for us to be able to take the conversation of a community that’s suffering and ensure our rights and safety. Not just for our state but the rest of the nation,” said Soundararajan.

Soundararajan, who is Dalit and worked with Wahab to push the bill, said that she had faced harassment, vitriol and misinformation campaigns led by upper-caste people in the US. Last year, she said, she was invited to lead a talk at Google focused on caste discrimination, but it was cancelled after outcry from employees who argued that the talk was anti-Hindu.

Wahab had hoped the new law would help spur the anti-caste movement, but it is already growing outside California. Earlier this year, Seattle became the first US city to ban caste discrimination. In 2022, Brown university in Rhode Island became the first Ivy League school to add caste protections, and was followed by Harvard and Brandeis, both in Massachusetts, which have also added specific protections for caste.

Wahab said, in her remarks before the state assembly: “Caste systems are a social hierarchy that limits human potential, crushes the spirit and causes an intergenerational trauma that spans centuries.”

  • The Associated Press contributed to this report

This piece has been updated to omit an outdated term used against the Dalit community.