By Kanishka Singh
(Reuters) – State Senator Aisha Wahab authored the bill vetoed by Governor Gavin Newsom that would have made California the first U.S. state to explicitly ban caste discrimination.
Wahab had called the bill a way of “protecting people from a long-standing form of discrimination.”
In vetoing the bill, Newsom called it “unnecessary,” arguing that since existing laws already banned ancestry discrimination, a separate legislation was not needed explicitly for caste discrimination.
Wahab was elected to the California Senate in 2022 and has positioned herself as a lawmaker who aims to reduce economic inequality and strengthen safety nets for seniors, women, children and working families, according to her website.
Wahab herself was placed in foster care after losing her mother and father at a young age.
Her election in 2018 to the Hayward City Council made Wahab the first Afghan-American woman elected to public office in the United States.
While Wahab won support from multiple human rights groups for her bill to ban caste discrimination and got the legislation passed, she faced vocal opposition from those who felt the bill would stigmatize an entire minority – mostly South Asians and Hindus – in the United States. The veto from Newsom marks a setback for her and for U.S. activists fighting caste discrimination.
The caste system is among the world’s oldest forms of rigid social stratification. It 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.
The issue is particularly important to Americans of Indian descent and to Hindus, especially as more Indians and other South Asians have moved to the U.S. over the years, particularly to California and the state’s Silicon Valley.
U.S. discrimination laws ban ancestry discrimination but do not explicitly ban casteism. Wahab’s bill passed in California that Newsom vetoed added caste as a protected class to the state’s existing anti-discrimination laws.
Activists opposing caste discrimination say it is no different from other forms of discrimination like racism. Opponents of the bill in California say that because U.S. laws already ban ancestry discrimination, legislation of this type only serves to stigmatize the entire community with a broad brush.
Wahab, who said she has faced threats after introducing the bill, saw it as an opportunity to expand access to the American Dream.
“This bill is about workers’ rights, women’s rights, and civil rights. This bill is about ensuring the American Dream is accessible to all those who pursue it,” she said on her website about the bill.
(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler)