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Caste equality advocates in the US vow not to give up

Leah Carter in Los Angeles
November 23, 2023

California's governor has vetoed a historic bill to add caste as a protected category, but efforts to recognize discrimination in the United States continue to pick up steam.

Prem Pariyar, far right, and other members of Californians for Caste Equity pose together
Prem Pariyar (far right) and other members of Californians for Caste Equity have said they will continue their fight for recognitionImage: Prem Pariyar

When Prem Pariyar arrived in the United States from Nepal in 2015, he didn't expect that he would be sleeping in a van or on couches in employee housing due to his caste affiliation.

"I thought caste discrimination does not exist here. I was very depressed," Pariyar told DW.

Pariyar, a descendant of a family in the Hindu Dalit caste, sometimes referred to discriminatorily as the "Untouchables," is one of many South Asian advocates pushing forward efforts to legally recognize caste discrimination in the US.

While caste is commonly referred to in the context of Hinduism and India, it is a social hierarchy system that is thousands of years old and recognized in several countries across the region, including Nepal, where Pariyar grew up.

"We need to educate everyone so that this system will be stopped," he told DW. "We are isolated generation to generation. There is intergenerational trauma."

Caste discrimination crossing borders 

Pariyar decided to come to the US after his family was violently attacked because of their caste in the middle of the night in their home in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu.

When he tried to file charges against the assailant, the authorities did nothing, and even threatened him for taking action.

Pariyar proceeded to find a job at a restaurant in the US, where his employer offered to house him. However, his colleagues in the house wouldn't share a room with him, making casteist claims and slurs. So, he slept on the couch instead.

Pariyar, who is now on the board of directors for the California chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said his story is not unique. While he had hoped to leave this form of discrimination behind in Nepal, he said he and several others have faced significant hurdles in employment and even safety upon coming to the US.

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There are over 5.4 million South Asians in the US, with the majority concentrated in California. They are one of the largest growing demographic groups in the country, with many people coming to work in the tech industry in California's Silicon Valley.

Many US-based Dalits have said the system of discrimination has followed them, resulting in harassment, sabotage in the workplace and even violence.

In recent years, activists have united under new groups such as the Californians for Caste Equity Coalition and Equality Labs, both instrumental in the push for legal recognitions.

Legal setback after California vetoes bill

In October, following over a year of advocacy and a monthlong hunger strike by supporters, California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed Senate Bill 403, which would have made the state the first to include caste in the list of protected classes under civil rights laws.

The bill would have offered employment and housing protections alongside categories such as race, gender and sexual orientation.

However, despite an overwhelming majority (31-5 in the Senate), Newsom called the bill "unnecessary," saying that protections against caste-based discrimination are covered legally under already existing protections that "shall be liberally construed."

The veto created an uproar on both sides of the South Asian community, spurring rallies at the capitol, lobbying lines through hallways, and a hunger strike in favor of the bill.

Those opposing the bill, such as the Hindu American Foundation, called it both racist and a potential "constitutional disaster," which would have "put a target on hundreds of thousands of Californians simply because of their ethnicity or racial identity."

Hard life of India's Dalits on display in Berlin gallery

Critics of Newsom's veto decision have said he made the move in order to maintain relations with a growing Hindu voting base, which largely upholds the caste system.

"Through this process, we shined a light on a long-hidden form of discrimination that persists across multiple communities in California," said Senator Aisha Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan American woman elected to the state legislature, and the author of the bill.

Efforts pick up steam

Despite the veto, Fresno, a city in California's Central Valley, unanimously agreed to ban caste-based discrimination specifically about a week prior to the veto at the state level.

In February, Seattle became the first US city to outlaw caste-based discrimination. Educational institutions, including California State University, Harvard, Brandeis and the University of California–Davis, have all in recent years have made separate legal provisions on the matter.

Meanwhile, the corporate world has also added to the movement, with tech giants including Apple and IBM updating employee policies to include caste discrimination in recent years.

Those protections follow a 2020 lawsuit initiated by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing against Cisco, a $195 billion (€178 billion) company, on the grounds that a Dalit employee had been severely discriminated against by supervisors of a "higher" caste.

Had caste discrimination been recognized then, advocates have said, the employee could have won the case.

For now, Pariyar said recent legal efforts have united the Dalit community and others fighting for protections.

"Many more cities are rethinking caste," he said. "Before, I was alone. Now, our people are united, and our voice is one to combat this."

Edited by: Shamil Shams