Seattle has become the first US city to outlaw caste discrimination after its local council passed a resolution, moved by an Indian-American politician and economist, to add caste to its non-discrimination policy.
The resolution moved by Kshama Sawant, an upper-caste Hindu, was approved by the Seattle City Council by six to one vote. The results of the vote could have far-reaching implications on the issue of caste discrimination in the US.
”It's official: our movement has won a historic, first-in-the-nation ban on caste discrimination in Seattle! Now we need to build a movement to spread this victory around the country,” Sawant, a city council member, said soon after the resolution was voted.
Hours ahead of the vote, Indian-American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal lent her support to the move.
"Caste discrimination has no place in society anywhere in the world, including here in America. That is why some colleges and universities have banned it on campuses, and workers are fighting for their rights and their dignity in cases involving caste discrimination,” she said.
Equality Labs, the brain behind the anti-caste discrimination resolution in Seattle and which has been spearheading a nationwide campaign said: ”Love has won over hate as Seattle has become the first in the nation to ban caste discrimination. We have braved rape threats, death threats, disinformation, and bigotry.”
It has created a coalition of some 200 organisations in support of its efforts over the issue.
”Central to this coalition is a network of more than 30 anti-caste Ambedkarite organisations,” Equality Labs said. Among them are the Ambedkar King Study Circle, Ambedkar International Center, Ambedkarite Buddhist Association of Texas and Boston Study Group.
The Hindu American Foundation, which had campaigned against the resolution, said singling out South Asians and the addition of ’caste' to the non-discrimination policy violates the very policies it now amends.
”The city of Seattle has voted to treat South Asians (and Southeast Asians and African) in a manner that no other ethnic or racial community is treated under the guise of non-discrimination. It has voted yes to discriminating against ethnic minorities, repeating the ugliness of nativists in the state nearly a century ago,” Suhag Shukla, co-founder and executive director of the Hindu American Foundation said.
In passing this resolution, Seattle is now in violation of the US constitution's guarantees of equal protection and due process that prohibit the State from treating disparately people on account of their national origin, ethnicity, or religion, and implementing a vague, facially discriminatory and arbitrary category, Shukla alleged.
”Seattle has taken a dangerous misstep here, institutionalising bias against all residents of Indian and South Asian origin, all in the name of preventing bias,” said HAF managing director Samir Kalra.
”When Seattle should be protecting the civil rights of all its residents, it is actually violating them by running roughshod over the most basic and fundamental rights in US law, all people being treated equally,” Kalra said.
Madhu T from Ambedkar-Phule Network of American Dalits and Bahujans said this "ill-intended and rushed" ordinance by a "controversial council member" will only harm South Asians, in particular Dalit Bahujans.
"It is traumatising to witness that a propaganda which is no less than a war on Dalits, makes this far, with no data, and with a fraudulent survey, while the real Dalit Bahujan voices continue to go unheard," said Madhu.
"The 2022 report by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania not only discredited the caste survey referred by Seattle City Council, but it had shown that there are multiple reasons like 'country of origin', gender and 'skin colour' that need to be addressed as cause for discrimination. The ordinance will only increase the instances of hatred against South Asians, including Dalits," said V Kadam from Dalit Bahujan Solidarity Network.
Many Indian-Americans fear that codifying caste in public policy will further fuel instances of Hinduphobia in the US.
Over the last three years, 10 Hindu temples and five statues, including those of Mahatma Gandhi and Maratha emperor Shivaji, have been vandalised across the US as an intimidation tactic against the Hindu community.
Indian-Americans are the second-largest immigrant group in the US. According to data from the 2018 American Community Survey (ACS), which is conducted by the US Census Bureau, there are 4.2 million people of Indian origin residing in the United States.
India banned caste discrimination in 1948 and enshrined that policy in the Constitution in 1950.