Cast in Stone: Indian Americans React to Seattle City Council’s Approval of Legislation to Ban Caste-based Discrimination
- Supporters hail the first in the nation ordinance as historic, setting precedence for similar laws across the country, those opposing it say it unnecessarily singles out Hindus.
Seattle has become the first city in the U.S. to specifically ban caste discrimination. This afternoon, the city council voted 6-1 to approve the legislation to ban caste-based discrimination in the city, prohibit businesses from discriminating based on caste, and ban discrimination based on caste in places of public accommodation. The city now joins several national organizations and universities in banning caste-based discrimination.
The ordinance was proposed by Council Member Kshama Sawant, a socialist and the only Indian American in the council. In a press conference announcing the legislation on Jan. 24, she said it does not single out one community, but it accounts for how caste discrimination crosses national and religious boundaries. “The fight against caste discrimination is deeply connected to the fight against all forms of oppression.”
Several activists and organizers from human rights and caste-oppressed civil rights organizations were at the city hall on Feb. 21, many of them braving rape threats, death threats, disinformation, and bigotry. They held a rally before the voting took place, urging the importance of the passing of the resolution as caste is not covered under existing civil rights protections. Holding banners of support and chanting slogans, many addressed the rally as well. Leading up to the vote, several of them wrote op-eds in leading community newspapers.
Representatives from Hindu American groups opposing the resolution were present at city hall as well.
“Love has won over hate as Seattle has become the first in the nation to ban caste discrimination,” tweeted Equality Labs, whose members played a significant role in drafting the legislation along with Sawant and other South Asian community leaders.
Writer and journalist Yashica Dutt called it a historic win. “Caste-oppressed people, Dalit Americans, Adivasi Americans, and Dalits from Nepal have been working toward this specific campaign for months,” she told American Kahani. “Everybody is extremely excited because this is first in the nation law, and there is hope that many other cities might follow suit.” Noting that caste-oppressed people have had no resources, no protections, and have been enduring oppression at their workplaces as most are immigrants and have immigration limitations, this resolution is going to have an impact across the country and globally. Seattle has headquarters for big tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon and if the city laws affect those tech companies then they have to make changes to their global policies.”
Prashant Nema, a member of the Coalition of Seattle Indian Americans (CSIA) called the passage of this legislation “a watershed moment for the South Asian community in Seattle and a significant step towards the elimination of caste-based discrimination in the U.S.” He believes “it will help in creating a more inclusive and equitable society for all.”
In a press release, Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization, congratulated the city of Seattle “for adding caste to its non-discrimination policy,” and applauded “the powerful interfaith and inter-caste organizers and organizations from throughout the northwest and many more who helped usher in this historic win.” The group noted that “adding caste as a protected category in the city of Seattle’s anti-discrimination policy ensures a place of access and equity” for all residents of Seattle. “We commend the Seattle City Council for making history with a policy that ensures an equitable future by supporting the rights of caste-oppressed. This policy change not only validates the experiences for caste-oppressed folks within the city, but it also affirms the need for institutional protections against the experiences of caste discrimination that Dalit voices nationally brought to the table.”
Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal tweeted her support as well. “I’m proud to see Seattle leading the country by taking steps to end this discrimination and ensure that all people are able to live freely and thrive.”
Ohio State Sen. Niraj Antani, a Republican, condemned the ordinance, calling it “anti-Hindu,” “Hinduphobic,” and “a travesty for all Hindus.”
The Equality Labs press statement included quotes from Dalit American activists.“Caste-based discrimination is a deeply entrenched and harmful practice that has no place in our society,” said Maya Kamble of the Ambedkar Association of North America (AANA). “The legislation passed with a 6-1 vote in Seattle today is a major milestone in our fight for social justice and human rights. It will not stop until we have a nationwide ban on this inhumane practice.”
Similarly, Nepali Dalit rights activist Prem Pariyar noted how “proud” he is to “witness this historical moment in Seattle supporting banning caste discrimination in the city of Seattle.” According to him, “this historical win has given hope for many Dalits and organizers.”
Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR) sent a statement of support as well. “As progressive Hindus, it is our duty to dismantle caste and fight caste discrimination,” the group said, and provided public comments and endorsements of the caste protection ordinance from board members, staff, and community members. Co-founder Raju Rajagopal said the organization “strongly supports this ordinance,” and disagrees with claims that it will “mainstream hate against the South Asian community, and that existing laws are adequate.” He noted that “the issue of caste discrimination is no more complex than race and gender discrimination for those who have the resolve to fight it.”
Groups like the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), the Hindu Pact, and the Coalition of Hindus of North America opposed the resolution for unnecessarily singling out Hindus for additional legal scrutiny. While the HAF has maintained that “caste discrimination is wrong, violating core Hindu principles of the divine oneness of all beings,” co-founder and executive director Suhag Shukla says that the Seattle vote “treats 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.” Additionally, it discriminates against ethnic minorities, repeating the ugliness of nativists in the state nearly a century ago.”
Before the Feb. 21 vote, the HAF wrote a letter to Seattle City Attorney Ann Davidson apprising her of the organization’s concerns about the ordinance. “We share the admirable goals of standing up for civil rights and eliminating all forms of prejudice and discrimination, including based on caste,” read the letter, signed by Shukla, managing director Samir Kalra, and co-founder Nikhil Joshi.
Similarly, a diverse coalition of over 100 organizations and businesses wrote to the Seattle City Council urging them to vote no on the proposed caste ordinance. Led by the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA), the letter’s signatories include Dalit and Bahujan community groups, major Hindu and Jain temples, cultural and social organizations, business groups as well as non-Hindu groups such as the Iranian Students Association and the New England Indian Christian Forum.
The letter expressed shock and outrage that the city council is entertaining such a proposal, which peddles bigotry and singles out the South Asian community by using racist, colonial tropes of “caste” and ensures that the community is subject to special scrutiny and tramples up their rights to freedom of religion and equal protection. “In effect, the proposed ordinance assumes that an entire community – primarily Hindu-Americans – are guilty of ‘caste-based discrimination unless they are somehow proven innocent,” remarked Nikunj Trivedi, president of CoHNA. “This is un-American and wrong. It also smacks of McCarthyism, targeting people for their suspected beliefs.”
The HinduPACT, a Hindu Policy Research and Advocacy initiative of the World Hindu Council of America said the legislation “disproportionately targets Hindus by adding the word ‘caste’ to the protected classes thereby perpetuating racist colonialist stereotypes and misconceptions about people from the Indian Subcontinent.
HinduPACT convener Ajay Shah called the ordinance “overwhelmingly Hinduphobic,” noting that it “seeks to negative stereotypes about Hindus.” He said the ordinance “unfairly targets the Hindu community and leaves people of Indian Subcontinent descent vulnerable to bullying in schools and subjecting them to a hostile work environment.”
However, according to Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal, professor of Ethnic & Gender Studies at Westfield State University, the resolution doesn’t malign the South Asian community as casteism has followed us to the diaspora.”We see it in the shameful marginalization of Dalits even in the hallowed halls of Silicon Valley,” Rajgopal told American Kahani she’s “very glad that liberal and secular Indians have stepped up to the challenge by voting to end such discrimination in Seattle. More cities with a large South Asian population need to follow suit, with those of us who have caste privilege stepping up to the plate to support those who do not. It is as clear as that.”