- As a Dalit, I am speaking for all those who cannot speak for themselves; and as a Hindu, it’s my duty to speak to the violence that our community has now brought into California and throughout the nation.
California is poised to make civil rights history with California Senator Aisha Wahab’s historic new bill SB 403 to end caste discrimination.The bill has passed the California Senate and and now enters the State Assembly. Because of the progress made in the legislative process so far, caste equity organizers, and Sen. Wahab’s office have been viciously targeted with political violence. It was terrifying to watch the organizers facing casteist disinformation, bigoted slurs, and threats of intimidation and violence. As a Dalit Hindu, I am outraged. For caste is a historical faultline and the opponents of SB 403 are weaponizing their fragility to block civil rights progress and it just breaks my heart.
Caste is everywhere in California: in our community institutions, housing complexes, family networks, and in our workplaces. Caste contributes to trafficking, wage theft, discriminatory hiring practices, coercive control in interpersonal relationships, and even sows discord among parent groups in K-12 schools. I know this because I have seen it. As a Dalit parent and public health worker I have worked with many traumatized Dalit Californians who struggle in oppressive conditions.
In my case, I was discriminated against in the Cal State System and was terrified of being outed on the basis of my caste. As I now work with victims of caste discrimination in workplaces and in personal relationships I am conscious of how much Dalits like myself risk by being outed. Even during this campaign I was accosted by the opposition who targeted me, hurling insults, denying my lived experience. It was terrifying and yet I felt their open bigotry was a reminder that I am speaking for all those who cannot speak for themselves.
As a Hindu, I feel it is my duty to speak to the violence that our community and all global communities that practice caste have now brought to California and throughout the nation.
I want it to end. To say this does not mean I am against my religion, I am actually fulfilling my faith’s ambition of one united humanity. I am ashamed that a few of my fellow Hindus are so virulently opposed to this bill. Their actions remind me of the violent white supremacists who opposed the tenacious leaders of the civil rights movements as they courageously fought for inclusion and equality.
Thanks to their bravery, we stand now as Dalits for our own civil rights—even as we face hostility, disinformation, and threats. SB 403 will change lives by outlawing discrimination based on caste. I was born into a Dalit Arya Samaj family and we learned from an early age that caste should not divide us. Yet it has—in our homelands and in our new home in California.
We must speak up about caste discrimination and ally ourselves with the intercaste, interfaith, and multiracial caste equity movement. We must do better. I know that some of my Hindu kin are behaving in ways that are unlawful and painful. But let’s be clear, they speak only for themselves and not for the entire Hindu community.
There are many of us who are allies to the caste equity movement and refuse to accept violence done in our name because many of us are also caste-oppressed. The South Asian community like other caste-impacted communities is a reckoning about the historical trauma related to caste. We are having difficult and courageous conversations for the first time, breaking taboos and bringing unflinching truths to the surface. Some of it is unpleasant and there is a lot of grief and quite a good deal of denial from bad actors. And that is also part of the process of what we need to heal. I’m here for it. Because I’m tired of being silenced as a Hindu Dalit — of people speaking in my name while erasing my rights, and gaslighting the discrimination I go through every day.
The opponents are welcome to their opinion, but do not mistake them for being representative of the whole South Asian community. Many have spoken out and most significantly the South Asian Bar Association of North America—the legal voice of South Asians—has actually endorsed caste equity. They join legal powerhouses like the American Bar Association, Asian Law Caucus, and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association.
Why are our opponents so persistent? Their anger is fueled by fragility; people in power do not want to concede that power to discriminate against the vulnerable. Our opponents are wealthy who use their education, access, and wealth here and back at home to bully the caste-oppressed.
In the U.S., we are empowered by the tenacity of the civil rights movement and the courage of black, indigenous, API, and Latinx civil rights leaders who stood as unwavering minority communities for their rights. Their leadership has endowed caste-oppressed Californians with a fighting chance to get remedy for the discrimination we endure every day. It is also notable that many of our opponents are against the civil rights of other communities aligning themselves with anti-affirmative action movements and are against critical race theory and queer rights. This is why we must have a united front against all forms of discrimination. Our opposition is united and so too
We have precedents of caste violence back at home too. The great Dalit Hindu leader Ayyankali in Kerala led numerous fights to desegregate our casteist society and provide education to Dalit children. In fact, when Dalit sharecroppers asked for schools to be desegregated, dominant caste landlords would not allow it and set fire to their homes. In response, Dalit sharecroppers held a strike saying, “If our kids are not allowed to enter your schools, your paddies will grow mere weeds.” Ayyankali held the line, issuing the historical declaration: “No classroom, no tilling.”
Make no mistake: caste is a historical wound for South Asians. That is why it brings up such strong feelings in our opposition. But, it doesn’t need to define us. We have to have the necessary, but uncomfortable conversations and return to each other. However, we can’t do that if a small, bigoted minority is stopping the flow of civil rights progress with harsh political violence, hysteria, and rampant bigotry.
Our movement remains rooted in peace and love in order to succeed. The movement for caste equity is proudly interfaith, intersectional, and multiracial. Our coalition Californians for Caste Equity consists of various international coalitions, labor unions, and groups such as TechEquity Collaborative, California Labor Federation, Vday, Me Too Movement, South Asian Network, Alphabet Workers Union, Bend The Arc, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance of the AFL-CIO, Amnesty International USA, Sikh Coalition, Equality Labs, Indian American Muslim Council, Sikh American Legal Defense Fund, Jakara Movement, and many others.
We welcome anyone working to peacefully protect the civil rights of all and encourage you to join us in our journey toward liberation. Even if you are our opponents, if you are a genuine civil rights actor, please de-escalate your members, stop the violence, and stop the disinformation—because enough is enough. We all have a right to democratic discourse, but this political violence and bigotry is unlawful and must stop.
We can pave a new path to reconciliation if we come together around caste equity during times like these to advance civil rights, social justice, and healing for all. For the reality is that SB 403 also valiantly protects all of us. We look forward to winning this battle for caste equity and we hope that by the end of this campaign, even our opponents will join us in this momentous step forward for all Californians.
Pooja Singh is a Dalit activist and a founder of Hindus for Caste Equity and the California Coalition for Caste Equity.