(Featured Photo provided by TWITTER/@CMKSHAMA)
Seattle, Washington, is becoming the first city in the United States (U.S.) to ban discrimination specifically based on caste.
The caste system is a social hierarchy of sorts that categorizes people based on their birth. Factors can include their past lives, karma, and their family lineage. The caste system in India has its origins based on Hinduism and has existed since ancient times. It has also evolved over time during the rule of India by the Mughals and the British. However, the caste system has been known to be extremely discriminatory and violent towards its lowest rung, the Dalits, sometimes branded as the “Untouchables,” purely based on their caste.
Although India formally banned the caste system in its constitution after gaining independence from the British Empire, caste-based prejudice is still prevalent in today’s India. In fact, it’s also a problem in other South-Asian countries, such as Bhutan and Nepal.
But why is Seattle passing anti-caste laws? They’re not situated in Southern Asia where it’s a huge problem, so why are they doing this? Asians have become one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in America, even surpassing the amount of Hispanics that come to the U.S. every year. Many Asian immigrants who come to America are from places like China, India, the Philippines, etc. Seattle takes in a large number of Asian immigrants, especially ones from South Asia, as the city is one of the country’s largest tech hubs, and relies on South-Asian labor.
However, there are fears that because of this, the caste system might make its way into the U.S. Many Dalit groups say that it has already found its way into small diaspora communities, and it can take on the shape of alienation and discrimination in school, housing, and other aspects of life.
The legislation that proposed to ban discrimination based on caste was written by Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, who said that fighting against caste bias “is deeply connected to the fight against all forms of oppression”. When the Seattle City Council met on Tuesday to vote on the legislation, numerous civilians from different castes provided their own experiences dealing with caste bias. “We’ve heard hundreds of gut-wrenching stories over the last few weeks showing us that caste discrimination is very real in Seattle,” said Sawant.
After the deliberation, the court ruled 6-1 in favor of the passing of the legislation. When the ruling was announced, the court chambers erupted with cheers from supporters and the words “Jai Bhim,” which translates to “victory for Bhim” (Bhim was another name for B.R. Ambedkar, an Indian Dalit rights icon). “This was a win centuries in the making and it was really the fruition of many years of organizing in Seattle across racial and gender and worker lines,” said executive director of Equality Labs, Thenmozhi Soundararajan.
Even though an overwhelming majority of those present in the chambers during the hearing were in favor of the ordinance, there was still a very vocal opposition. Sara Nelson, the council member who had cast the one vote against the legislation, and many Hindu Americans argue that this ordinance could lead people to have the wrong idea about Hindus and dissuade employers from hiring South Asians. Nelson called it: “a reckless, harmful solution to a problem for which we have no data or research.”
Regardless of any opposition, Sawant says that she hopes other cities in the U.S. will follow in Seattle’s footsteps and implement similar measures.