How anti-caste activism in the United States has grown over four decades

In its early years, the Ambedkarite movement in the United States focused its efforts on drawing global attention to caste discrimination, seeking out individuals from caste-marginalised identities, and building communities through social events such as meetings that highlighted the contributions of BR Ambedkar—the architect of the Indian constitution, often called Babasaheb. ILLUSTRATION BY SUKRUTI ANAH STANELEY; IMAGES COURTESY MILIND AWASARMOL; COURTESY YOGESH VARHADE
30 June, 2023

On 11 May 2023, the California State Senate passed SB 403, a bill introduced by Senator Aisha Wahab. It aims to add caste as a protected category to the state’s existing laws that prohibit exclusionary practices in housing, employment, and education. It was approved with a near-unanimous vote of 34-1 and is currently in the state assembly for consideration. If the bill is also approved by Governor Gavin Newsom, California—which is home to nearly two million people of South-Asian descent—will become the first state in the United States to effectively ban caste-based discrimination.
The bill was met with virulent opposition from far-right Hindu groups that portrayed it as a cultural affront. A collective backed by the Vishva Hindu Parishad of America claimed that “the bill perpetuates the colonial narrative of ‘caste,’” and would “lead to harassment, discrimination, bullying and violence against Hindus.” In April, the Hindu American Foundation, a non-profit that claims to advocate for Hindus in the United States, argued in a letter to Wahab that the proposed legislation could potentially deny “due process as a result of prejudicial presumption of wrongdoing for those South Asians not identifying as nor perceived to be ‘caste-oppressed.’”

Wahab is the first Afghan-American and Muslim person to be elected to California’s state senate. She faced violent threats and Islamophobic slurs soon after she introduced the bill in March. Vinod Kumar Chumber—the chairman of the San Francisco Bay Area’s chapter of the Shri Guru Ravidass Sabha, or SGRD Sabha, which derives its name from the fifteenth-century saint and poet revered by the Dalit community—recalled that such organisations, “protested outside her office saying that there is no caste in America.” Chumber told me that institutions and people who supported the bill, including members of the Ravidassia community—a caste-oppressed group among Sikhs—defended the initiative in response. “We demonstrated in support of Wahab outside her office,” he said.

By the end of April, before the state senate’s Judiciary Committee voted in favour of the proposed legislation, hundreds of people, both supporters and opponents of the bill, appeared at the hearing. Individuals from caste-marginalised communities provided powerful testimonies about their experiences of systemic social exclusion. “All the gurudwara committees coordinated with each other. We organised meetings and educated our people, saying that this is what is going on and that we need to get ready to go the State office to vote for SB 403,” Chumber recalled.

The passage of the bill in California reflects the success of a constellation of diverse organisations and individuals working towards caste equity in the United States. As Thenmozhi Soundararajan—the co-founder and executive director of the Dalit civil-rights organisation Equality labs—noted in an essay for The Caravan, the movement is “inter-caste, inter-faith and multi-racial, with Dalit Ambedkarite feminist activists at the core.” Chumber hailed the development as a major achievement when I spoke to him a few hours after the state senate voted in favour of the bill. Maya Kamble, a founding member and president of the anti-caste organisation Ambedkar Association of North America, hoped that the victories achieved through the work of anti-caste activists in the United States would infuse fresh momentum into such efforts in parts of India, where she believed the movement was not as active has it had once been under the stewardship of the iconic Bahujan politician Kanshi Ram. “What we see is, when there is a reform happening in the United States, it builds the movement, it builds the self-esteem for our people back in India,” she said.

Wahab’s bill is among the latest strides that the anti-caste movement in the United States has made over the last few years. In February, Seattle became the first city in the country to prohibit caste-based discrimination by law. In 2020, the state of California sued the technology conglomerate Cisco Systems when it allegedly failed to protect a Dalit employee from harassment by his Brahmin colleagues. A year later, the Hindu sect BAPS came under scrutiny when a lawsuit was filed against it for the alleged exploitation of Dalit workers employed to construct temples across the United States.