By Kanishka Singh
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A bill to ban caste discrimination was introduced in the California Senate on Wednesday by a Democratic lawmaker, which, if passed, could make California the first U.S. state to outlaw the practice, a problem for the state’s substantial South Asian diaspora.
The bill was introduced and authored by state Senator Aisha Wahab, an Afghan American Democrat, and comes weeks after Seattle became the first U.S. city to outlaw caste discrimination after a city council vote and Toronto’s school board became the first in Canada to recognize that caste discrimination existed in the city’s schools.
The issue is particularly important to Americans of Indian descent and Hindus. India’s caste system is among the world’s oldest forms of rigid social stratification.
The caste system dates back thousands of years and allows many privileges to upper castes but represses lower castes. The Dalit community is on the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system; members have been treated as “untouchables.”
India outlawed caste discrimination over 70 years ago, yet several studies in recent years show that bias persists. One study found people from lower castes were underrepresented in higher-paying jobs.
Dalits still face widespread abuse across India, where their attempts at upward social mobility have at times been violently put down.
Debate over the caste system in India and abroad is contentious and intertwined with religion. Some people say discrimination is now rare, especially outside India. Indian government policies reserving seats for lower-caste students at top Indian universities have helped many land tech jobs in the West in recent years.
Activists opposing caste discrimination say it is no different from other forms of discrimination like racism and hence should be outlawed. U.S. discrimination laws ban ancestry discrimination but do not explicitly ban casteism.
(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington; Editing by David Gregorio)