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California could become the first state to ban discrimination on the basis of caste

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

California could become the first state to ban discrimination on the basis of caste. Caste is a system of power and privilege based on hierarchy. It's often associated with India and other South Asian cultures. But this conversation around caste has exposed deep divisions in the South Asian American community. NPR's Sandhya Dirks has this report.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: Outside a gleaming government building in Sacramento, a group of about 100 plus protesters have been handing out samosas and chai and singing.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Sign SB 403.

DIRKS: They're asking California Governor Gavin Newsom to sign a bill now sitting on his desk. A bill that would make caste discrimination illegal.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Make Cali caste free.

DIRKS: You might have heard about caste in Hinduism, how Brahmins, the priestly caste, are born on top of a pyramid of privilege. At the bottom are people who used to be called Untouchables. They've now renamed themselves Dalits. But it's not just Hinduism. Caste permeates South Asian religions and cultures. One example - many Dalits converted to Buddhism to escape the caste system. It's not an easy system to escape, says Dalit activist, Thenmozhi Soundarajan. Her parents immigrated here to try and get away, but she says caste and casteism followed.

THENMOZHI SOUNDARAJAN: We are here to speak for those who have lost their jobs because of caste discrimination, and we are here to speak for those who have faced physical and verbal assault because of caste discrimination.

DIRKS: Which is why she says it's so important to explicitly legally ban it.

SOUNDARAJAN: You have the cards right?

DIRKS: Soundarajan is leading this group of protesters, many carrying big bouquets of flowers into the building through metal detectors.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Folks, I need wallets, keys, bags, metals, electronics...

DIRKS: They fill up elevator after elevator.

SOUNDARAJAN: Press the ninth floor, guys, again.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We're on a mission.

DIRKS: On a mission to the governor's office with offerings.

SOUNDARAJAN: We actually have a bunch of flowers and thank-you cards to give to your office.

DIRKS: A long line - mostly South Asian aunties, uncles, some kids and younger folks - make their way in single file to the security gate, delivering bouquet after bouquet of carnations and roses. The flowers, along with over 700 handwritten thank-you notes, represent people in cities across California, says Soundarajan. On the elevator ride back down, she says she believes the governor will stand up for social justice.

SOUNDARAJAN: This is a bill about freedom, and there's nothing that signifies our commitment to freedom and the state as those flowers and that act of love and sharing them with us.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Going down.

DIRKS: Soundarajan, along with some others, has been hunger striking for the past 24 days until the bill is signed, she says. But there are others, especially some Hindu American groups, that say caste and casteism isn't the problem it's been made out to be.

PUSHPITA PRASAD: It's absolutely overhyped, and it's a manufactured narrative of caste in U.S.

DIRKS: Pushpita Prasad is with the Coalition of Hindus of North America. She and some other Hindu Americans have also been protesting in Sacramento. They say the bill will target people like them - Hindus and Indians who are most associated with caste.

RITESH TANDON: This is the open attack on we Indians.

SANDEEP DEDAGE: This bill is a weapon to butcher the cultural existence of the very people this bill claims to represent.

DIRKS: That's Ritesh Tandon and Sandeep Dedage. And here's Geeta Sikand, using strong language to demand the governor veto the bill. If he doesn't, she says...

GEETA SIKAND: You will go in history as the Hitler for all of us. You will begin the cultural genocide of Hindus.

DIRKS: This idea and fear that addressing caste discrimination in America is thinly veiled Hinduphobia is growing. Amrutha Rachakonda (ph) says growing up both in India and in the U.S., she never experienced caste. She only learned of it in American textbooks.

AMRUTHA RACHAKONDA: When they showed me that pyramid and told me that's my culture. I'm sorry, but growing up in my country, I've never seen that.

DIRKS: She's terrified the bill puts a target on her back.

RACHAKONDA: Anyone can tell me that I'm an oppressor, and I won't have any control. Literally, anything you do could be made a crime just 'cause you do it and 'cause your last name is so-and-so or you're from some part of the country. Like, how can I have control over something that I'm born into?

DIRKS: But that's exactly what many caste oppressed people say they face because they were born into a lower caste. The U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Ashwini K.P., says caste, like race, has pushed some groups to the margins for centuries.

ASHWINI K P: You are countering an age-old system where a certain section of the society has had the privilege of maintaining the system.

DIRKS: Banning discrimination won't target Hindus and South Asians, she says, it will protect them, alongside others from communities who have also faced discrimination because of their caste. In Sacramento, I'm Sandhya Dirks, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.
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