Why I am hunger striking to end caste discrimination

We ask Gov. Newsom to sign California's historic anti-discrimination bill.

Supporters of SB 403 rally at the California Capitol, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, in Sacramento. Photo courtesy of Equality Labs

Supporters of SB 403 rally at the California Capitol, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, in Sacramento. Photo courtesy of Equality Labs

(RNS) — A historic piece of legislation aimed at ending caste discrimination in California, known as SB 403, has passed the state’s Legislature and awaits the signature of Gov. Gavin Newsom to become law. Today, (Sept. 15), I am gathered alongside fellow members of the Californians for Caste Equity Coalition, assembled outside the governor’s office, representing hundreds of thousands of Californians eagerly anticipating the bill’s passage into law.

Championed in the California Legislature by state Senator Aisha Wahab, the passage of this bill marks the culmination of an eight-monthlong campaign by workers, lawyers, educators and immigrants from caste-oppressed backgrounds. Together with Wahab, a historic interfaith, multiracial civil rights coalition broke the silence about the severity of the discrimination that caste-oppressed Californians, like Dalits, endure and urged a legal remedy.

Now, to press the signing of the bill, I and other leaders from Californians for Caste Equity Coalition are leading a statewide hunger strike until SB 403 becomes law.

We engage in this fast as survivors of caste violence and discrimination. We fast so that no more Californians are unhoused due to caste discrimination. We fast so that no one else loses their job due to caste. And we fast so that no one else must endure verbal, physical and psychological abuse due to caste. We do this to recenter in our sacred commitment to human dignity, reconciliation and freedom and remind the governor and the state of the stakes we face if this bill is not signed into law.

As we fast, we hold with us our ancestors who have endured the unspeakable so that we might come to this point of history to stand for our freedom and dignity. We fast as an ultimate act of love for all our people and everyone in the state of California. We must come together and end this discrimination. 

Caste systems, which exist globally, create social hierarchies based on inherited status. It occurs across industries, including technology, education, construction, restaurants, domestic work, medicine and more. Those from caste-oppressed backgrounds face bullying, harassment, bias, wage theft, sexual harassment, housing discrimination and hate crimes.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, center, leads a groups of demonstrators marching in favor of SB 403 in Sacramento, California. Photo courtesy of Equality Labs

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, front center, leads demonstrators marching in favor of SB 403 near the California Capitol building in Sacramento, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023. Photo courtesy of Equality Labs

All my life, I’ve experienced caste discrimination. I was bullied in school, faced threats of violence and even fled to a safe house because bigots were trying to harm my family and me for speaking out about caste. Even as part of our advocacy for SB 403, supporters of the bill have faced open bigotry and discrimination, as well as denial that caste discrimination exists. We will not be intimidated.

Our lived experiences and data are telling. In our research at Equality Labs, we found that 1 in 4 people from caste-oppressed backgrounds face physical and verbal assault, 1 in 3 educational discrimination, and 2 in 3 workplace discrimination. This data set is buttressed by research from Harvard, Columbia, Stanford and hundreds of scholars across the United States. The issue is not whether or not caste exists in the U.S., but rather how we should address the liability created by such severe discrimination.

The coalition that helped push through this bill represents constituents from San Diego to Bakersfield, Fresno to Sacramento, Yuba City to the Bay Area and Shasta County. We are farmers, truck drivers, nurses, restaurant staff, small business owners, doctors and techies, each with our own story of heartbreak and a shared determination to end caste discrimination once and for all.

The United Nations’ Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which recognizes caste as a form of descent- and work-based discrimination, have urged action in all jurisdictions. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance has also recognized the urgent need to end caste discrimination and worked with legal experts to help draft Wahab’s bill according to U.N. standards. 

Many companies are already moving to add caste as a protected category in their policies. Apple, IBM and Cisco have added caste to their protected categories and urged the Legislature to do the same. Support for SB 403 and caste equity comes from major civil rights organizations like the American Bar Association, the National Asian Pacific Bar Association, South Asian American Bar Association, the ACLU and the NAACP.

We are aware there are a few organizations in opposition. Such is the reality of civil rights discourse today. We live at a time when affirmative action has been repealed by the Supreme Court; libraries and curricula that feature queer content are banned; and teaching the history of slavery is being increasingly criminalized. Our opponents, too, would roll back progress on civil rights while pulling the ladder up behind them to prevent caste-oppressed communities from exerting our rights to mobilize against exclusion. Motivated by fragility, they attempt to appropriate civil rights discourse to preserve the right to discriminate.

They also claim that SB 403 will divide the South Asian community in California. But declaring caste a protected category simply ensures equal opportunity for all Californians. The only people that it impacts are those that discriminate. SB 403 did not divide our community; we have been divided already by severe and grave discrimination. This bill would protect all Californians — including our opponents. 

We ask Gov. Newsom to stand with millions of Californians who require remedy for unlawful discrimination. Under his leadership, our state stood firm during Trump’s “Muslim ban.” Our state also stood fast on the issue of Marriage Equality and so many other critical human rights issues. The world is now watching to see if California will stand again with those who have suffered or will cave to special interests that would deny us our dignity. We urge our governor, with deep respect, to sign SB 403 without delay and free California from caste.

(Thenmozhi Soundararajan is the executive director of Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization, and the author of the book “The Trauma of Caste.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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