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California is one step closer to banning caste-based discrimination

The California Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a bill that would add caste as a protected category in the state.
Image: Aisha Wahab
State Sen. Aisha Wahab at a news conference March 22 in Sacramento, where she proposed SB 403, which would add caste as a protected category in California's anti-discrimination laws. José Luis Villegas / AP file

A bill aiming to protect caste has unanimously passed the California Senate Judiciary Committee, bringing the state one step closer to being the first to ban caste-based discrimination. 

Over a hundred Californian Dalits, those born into oppressed classes under the Indian caste system, testified before the committee on Tuesday, citing bias, exclusion and violence they’ve experienced at the hands of caste-privileged coworkers and peers. 

“Everyone came to weigh in and turn pain into power,” Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit activist and the founder of the caste equity organization Equality Labs, told NBC News. “We were there to say: ‘We want freedom. We want everything that any other community gets in California, and we want workplaces and educational institutions free from discrimination.’”

The caste system, a hierarchy of social stratification in India, has long been used to oppress those born into its lower classes. Though it’s now illegal on the subcontinent, its effects, including exclusion, economic suppression and overt violence, have remained in Indian communities all over the world. 

Senate Bill 403 was introduced by state Sen. Aisha Wahab in March after years of efforts by civil rights groups to bring conversations about casteism to the fore in the U.S. It aims to clarify existing anti-discrimination law to ensure caste-oppressed individuals are protected. 

“I think most Americans do support civil rights,” Wahab told NBC News last month. “This is a human rights bill. This is a bill that will allow people to pursue their American dream to the fullest potential without any restrictions based on where they come from, how they look or how they were treated somewhere else.”

In February, Seattle became the first city in the U.S. to ban caste discrimination after work by Equality Labs and other civil rights partners. Before that, universities like Harvard and Brown added caste to their official anti-discrimination policies. 

But as the movement to protect caste across the country has grown, so has the counter-movement of Indian nationalism, Soundararajan said. At the Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, she says Dalit speakers were outnumbered by other Indian Americans who came to protest the bill. 

In the last few months of pushing for SB403, she’s been doxxed, threatened and physically harassed by opposition. 

“We are up against bigots who want to deny and diminish the fact that caste exists, that intimidate and mock us when we tell our stories of pain, and exclusion and violence,” Soundararajan said. 

But as the bill easily clears its first barrier, she’s hopeful that the momentum her coalition has built will only continue. 

“Every step of the way, we’re really building power,” she said. “You had 80-year-old women who didn’t speak English but who had experienced caste discrimination and wanted their voices heard. It was so powerful, and I think that the senators saw it.”