California moves closer to historic caste discrimination ban

By Kanishka Singh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - California moved closer to becoming the first U.S. state to ban caste discrimination after a bill to outlaw the practise passed the California Assembly late on Monday.

U.S. discrimination laws ban ancestry discrimination but do not explicitly ban casteism. California's legislation targets the caste system in South Asian immigrant communities by adding caste to the list of categories protected under the state's anti-discrimination laws.

The bill was introduced and authored by state Senator Aisha Wahab, an Afghan American Democrat, in March. An earlier version of it passed the state Senate before undergoing revisions.

The bill was passed on Monday by the state Assembly with a near unanimous vote. The revised version will now move back for a vote to the state Senate, where it is expected to pass, before heading to the desk of California Governor Gavin Newsom to be signed into law.

Activists opposing caste discrimination say it is no different from other forms of discrimination like racism and hence should be outlawed.

The movement to fight the caste system in North America has picked up energy in recent months.

Earlier this year, Seattle became the first U.S. city to outlaw caste discrimination after a city council vote and Toronto's school board became the first in Canada to recognize that caste discrimination existed in the city's schools.

The issue is particularly important to Americans of Indian descent and Hindus.

The caste system is among the world's oldest forms of rigid social stratification. It dates back thousands of years and allows many privileges to upper castes but represses lower castes. The Dalit community is on the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system; members have been treated as "untouchables."

India outlawed caste discrimination over 70 years ago, yet several studies in recent years show that bias persists. One study found people from lower castes were underrepresented in higher-paying jobs.

Dalits still face widespread abuse across India, where their attempts at upward social mobility have at times been violently put down.

Debate over the caste system in India and abroad is contentious and intertwined with religion. Some people say discrimination is now rare, especially outside India. Indian government policies reserving seats for lower-caste students at top Indian universities have helped many land tech jobs in the West in recent years.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington; Editing by Marguerita Choy)