California’s legislature passed a bill that aims to protect individuals of South Asian descent who face unfair treatment due to their caste. The bill, sponsored by Democratic state senator Aisha Wahab, passed by a vote of 31-5 and would add caste as a protected category in the state’s anti-discrimination laws, alongside gender, race, religion, and disability.

With this bill, California joins Seattle, which became the first US city to ban caste discrimination in February.

The caste system in India divides Hindu society into hierarchical groups based on occupation and social status. Caste discrimination is illegal in India. Article 14 of the Indian constitution ensures that every individual in the country is guaranteed equal treatment under the law and the safeguarding of their legal rights. Article 15 further prohibits any form of discrimination by the state based on factors such as religion, race, caste, sex and place of birth.

However, the issue persists among Indian diaspora communities around the world, including the United States.

Senator Aisha Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan-American woman elected to the California state legislature, championed this bill to address discrimination. She referred to caste discrimination as “invisible shackles on the wrists of millions of people.”

The bill is currently pending the decision of California’s governor, who holds the authority to determine its fate. Governor Gavin Newsom, a democrat sharing political affiliation with Senator Aisha Wahab, has indicated that he will thoroughly evaluate the bill when it reaches his desk before making a final determination.

If signed into law, it will provide individuals of South Asian descent with legal protections against caste-based discrimination in employment, education, housing, and other aspects of daily life.

Five Republican state senators voted against the bill, asserting that discrimination was already illegal under existing state law.

Some Hindu groups have argued that the caste system is not a significant issue in North America and question the necessity of such legislation. They note that it could potentially infringe upon religious and cultural freedoms.

The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) expressed opposition to the bill, characterising it as divisive. They suggest the bill implicitly singles out South Asians. HAF called for Governor Gavin Newsom to veto the bill, citing concerns about its impact on religious practices and freedom.

Dalit activists noted that they have experienced discrimination from individuals of privileged castes. They argue that caste discrimination is a real problem that must be addressed.