By Sameea Kamal and Jeanne Kuang for CalMatters
Like many recent arrivals to California, Prem Pariyar searched for work and a home within communities of fellow immigrants.
So when coworkers at a South Asian restaurant in Davis refused to room with him in an apartment his employer provided, he was shocked by their reason: his caste. Not his race, religion or nationality, but the centuries-old social hierarchies still prevalent in some South Asian societies.
Pariyar is Dalit, which means “broken” in Sanskrit and is considered the lowest-ranking caste, formerly known as “untouchables.” In Nepal, he said, his family faced violence and harassment. He thought he had escaped that here.
“I was speechless,” he said of his coworkers’ actions, which left him depressed, traumatized and living in a van for a month in 2015 until he quit the restaurant. “Why did these people practice these kinds of things here in the U.S.?”
Today Pariyar, who won asylum and became a U.S. citizen, is one of California’s most vocal activists for a ban on caste discrimination. After successfully pushing for California State University to adopt a ban in 2022, Pariyar, a social worker in the East Bay, is focused on getting protections for so-called lower-caste people into the state’s fair housing and employment laws.
Legislation to do that is contentious. In April, it drew one of the largest public hearing turnouts for any bill before California’s Legislature this session. It would be the first statewide measure of its kind in the nation, although Seattle passed a similar ordinance in February.
While many Californians may never know anyone who experiences caste discrimination, or even what it is, for some, it’s both hidden and inescapable.
For many worshipers at Shri Guru Ravidass Temple on the outskirts of Sacramento, the issue is about their families’ futures: Will the discrimination they experienced as Dalits in India follow them to California? Will it stop their children from achieving the American Dream?
Followers of the Ravidass religion, which is related to Sikhism, belong to the Dalit caste but formed their distinct faith as a move against caste discrimination. On a recent Sunday, between services and a meal, members swapped anecdotes about discrimination they encountered, including in the U.S.
In social settings among other South Asians, they said, they’ve heard derogatory comments about Dalits. One man, a hospital janitor, believes he got tougher assignments because his supervisors and colleagues from upper castes played favorites.
Some said bosses, coworkers and classmates asked probing questions — about their last names, the temple they attended, their relatives’ jobs back home — that to an outsider may seem innocuous, but are common ways to discern someone’s caste background in India.
Several who spoke to CalMatters work as truck drivers. In many ways, they said, the legacy of the caste system had already shaped the trajectory of their lives, because it limits the jobs and education available to them both in India and now the U.S.
“It was really hard for our people to get up, to get a high-paying job and higher education,” said Raj Rohl, 40. “We struggled a lot. We don’t want that to happen here, so our kids struggle again here to get the education they want, to get the jobs they want.”
“Honestly, we don’t really deal with that many Brahmins here,” said Raj Vadhan, 50, referring to the highest caste classification. The bill, he said, would help more with “discrimination going on at the upper-level jobs, the higher-paying jobs.”
South Asians on the other side of the debate say the bill is unnecessary — and unfair.
“To tackle discrimination, we have very strong existing laws and existing protections under categories of ancestry and national origin. They can, and should, be used to deal with any issues of caste-based discrimination as they arise — and they have actually already been used,” said Samir Kalra, managing director of the Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy group opposing the bill.
“Creating an entire separate category and law that only applies to minority communities is inconsistent with our constitutional norms.”
The bill’s historical roots
Sen. Aisha Wahab, a first-term Democrat from Fremont, wants to add caste as a protected category to the state Unruh Civil Rights Act, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and the state policy that bans discrimination in public schools.
“As our state and country become more and more diverse, our laws have to go further and deeper and clarify more specifically, what is being protected,” she told CalMatters. “And caste discrimination is something that should not take place here in the United States, let alone in California.”
The Senate approved her bill, SB 403, on a 34-1 vote on May 11, but advocacy groups opposed to the measure will try again to kill or change it in the Assembly. Senate Republican leader Brian Jones of El Cajon was the lone “‘no” vote, calling the bill “duplicative and unnecessarily divisive.”
The concept of the South Asian caste system has been in the U.S. since at least 1965, when a federal immigration law overhaul resulted in immigrants from more Asian countries receiving visas. But because those visas focused on skilled labor, the legacy of caste discrimination in India meant upper-caste Indian immigrants were able to establish themselves in the U.S. decades before lower-caste Hindus.
The issue became more prominent recently, partly because the rise of the Hindu nationalist movement in Indian politics reinforced caste divisions as it sought to unify and strengthen the Hindu identity in India.
One of the earliest examples of caste making headlines in California: In 1999, federal prosecutors charged Berkeley real estate magnate Lakireddy Bali Reddy, as well as his brother, sister-in-law and sons, for smuggling Indian women into the U.S. for illegal sexual activity. Prosecutors said Reddy “took advantage of casteism and economic class to exploit these women.” He was convicted of sex trafficking and spent eight years in federal prison before dying in Oakland in 2021.
Caste issues have surfaced prominently in Silicon Valley, where Indian workers with bachelor’s degrees made up 27% of tech workers in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties in 2021. In April 2021, the Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission held informational hearings about caste discrimination.
In 2020, what is now the state Civil Rights Department sued Cisco, the San Jose-based networking and cloud management company, and two engineers after an employee filed a complaint alleging he received less pay and fewer opportunities because he was Dalit. He also said the defendants retaliated against him when he spoke out.
The two engineers denied the allegations, saying in court filings they reject caste hierarchies and recruited the employee to Cisco with competitive pay and stock options. The state dropped its case against the engineers, but continues the suit against the company. The state and Cisco are in mediation talks. Attorneys for the company and the two engineers did not respond to requests for comment.
While caste discrimination is difficult for corporations to navigate, it’s also a thorny issue for politicians.
Rohit Chopra, a professor of global media and cultural identity at Santa Clara University, said some politicians don’t want to be seen as targeting any community — including the Indian community, which has political clout. That gives the opposition a window of opportunity, particularly those in the “Hindu right,” he said.
“Whatever organizations are sort of spearheading this … they keep appropriating this right to speak for all Hindus and all Indians,” he said.
Wahab, the first Afghan-American lawmaker in the Legislature, is not South Asian, but represents a district that is home to many. In response to the bill, she said she has been the target of threats and derogatory comments about her identity, as well as a recall campaign led by congressional candidate Ritesh Tandon, a San Jose-area former Cisco engineer. He says his platform includes protecting Silicon Valley jobs, addressing climate change and ending racial preferences in hiring.
There are two South Asians in the Legislature: Democratic Assemblymembers Ash Kalra from San Jose and Jasmeet Bains from Bakersfield.
Bains, who represents a large Sikh population, signed on as a co-sponsor to the bill in mid-April, but did not respond to requests for an interview on her reasons. Kalra, who is not a co-sponsor and represents part of Silicon Valley, declined an interview. Neither has had to vote on the bill yet.
Naindeep Singh, executive director of Jakara Movement, a community organizing group for Sikh Californians, said the group supports the bill because “while Sikh theology calls for caste abolitionism, still among some Sikh societies casteism is still practiced.”
While some opponents say the bill will make them targets for discrimination, Singh argues that much of the opposition is in bad faith. “The argument that the bill singles out South Asian communities is a canard,” he said. “It is rather simple: If you don’t discriminate against others based on caste, you have little to fear with SB 403’s passage.”
Kalra, of the Hindu American Foundation, pushed back on that argument.
“You’re already going to be assumed to be caste-ist just as a South Asian, so you are already facing suspicion. And if you are falsely accused, it’s a nightmare to go through that process,” he said.
The foundation has submitted amendments to the bill that would remove language such as “caste-oppressed,” which it says would result in racial profiling of South Asians, he said.
Amar Shergill, former chairperson of the California Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus whose family is from India, said politicians have hesitated to discuss caste, but “thankfully, we are at that place now.”
“Let’s face it, this is a difficult issue to discuss,” he said. “Like so many issues of oppression within the community — whether it’s sex discrimination or child abuse or caste opppression — folks don’t want to talk about the pain in their own community.”
It’s a small world
The caste bill is the latest flashpoint as immigrants bring conflicts from their home country to California.
The state is home to 10.5 million immigrants — 23% of the foreign-born population nationwide, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Nearly a third of California’s population is foreign-born, and almost half of California children have at least one immigrant parent. The fall of the Soviet Union, wars and other global conflicts touched off new waves of migration to California.
Included in those waves are Asian Americans, who make up about 15% of the state’s population, according to the 2020 Census. In 2021, nearly 1 million in California self-identified as South Asian — from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, according to an analysis by the University of Minnesota.
Data on subgroups of immigrants, such as by caste, can be more difficult to track.
A 2016 national survey by the Oakland-based activist group Equality Labs found that two-thirds of Dalit respondents said they had been mistreated at work, one-third said they experienced discrimination during their education and one half said they feared being “outed.” In a 2022 research paper Pariyar co-authored while studying at Cal State East Bay, 24 of 27 Dalit Nepalis interviewed in the Bay Area said they had experienced some form of caste-based discrimination, including two who said they were forced out by roommates or landlords when their caste was discovered.
Opponents of the bill say caste discrimination reports are overstated in the Equality Labs survey. They point instead to a broader 2021 survey of Indian Americans in the U.S. by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in which only 5% of respondents reported experiencing caste discrimination — though the study notes that the majority of respondents who were Hindu and identified with a caste reported being from an upper caste.
Scholars such as Audrey Truschke, a historian of South Asia and associate professor at Rutgers University, say California has set a precedent for addressing issues that affect even “micro-minorities.”
That may be due to California’s diverse population, which has long forced its lawmakers to confront broader issues.
Take, for instance, an international dispute between Armenian and Turkish people. Among California’s oldest and largest immigrant populations, Armenians first settled in Fresno as early as the 1870s and in larger numbers after World War I, following their deportation from what is now Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died from starvation or disease during the forced expulsion in 1915 and 1916 to Syria and elsewhere, in what most scholars call a genocide.
California officially recognized the genocide in 1968. But the Republic of Turkey balked, acknowledging the deaths but denying what occurred was systemic. And due to its alliance with Turkey, the United States did not recognize the conflict as a genocide until April 2021.
Former Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian, who pushed for a 2022 law establishing Genocide Remembrance Day in California, said he wrote the bill in a way that would not just solely acknowledge the trauma of the Armenian community.
“It’s only respectful if we have a day of commemoration that every community can identify with,” he said. “No one’s trauma is at the end of the day greater than the others, or at least we should never treat it that way.”
A more recent example was in 2017, when then-Assemblymember Rob Bonta authored a bill to repeal a Cold War-era ban on communists working for the state, though it was rarely enforced. Bonta, now attorney general, said he pulled his bill out of respect for Vietnamese immigrants who had fled the communist regime in Vietnam.
Vincent Tran, organizing director for VietRise, an advocacy group for the Vietnamese community in Orange County, said many immigrants’ political activism is rooted in both the conflicts they fled and quality-of-life issues such as affordable housing.
“It’s part of the bigger plan to institutionalize the identity,” Tran said. “What does it mean to be Vietnamese American?”
In the case of caste, Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan of Equality Labs said the anti-discrimination bill is more than a statement on international politics.
“It’s not about, ‘We need to make a moral stand,’” she said, “It’s actually that California institutions, California workers and California renters are being impacted.”
Necessary, or duplicative?
At the heart of the state’s debate now: Does California already prohibit caste discrimination?
The Cisco case shows that the state can already act on allegations of caste discrimination, though the company in court filings has contended that caste is not a protected identity. California’s civil rights department said current law allows renters and employees to make caste-based discrimination claims under the state’s bans of discrimination based on race or ancestry.
The department could not say — out of the more than 10,000 annual complaints of racial or ancestry-based discrimination — how many mention caste. Nor would it comment on how adding caste to the law would specifically affect how it handles those complaints.
“Generally speaking, any effort to further strengthen existing civil rights protections may result in an increase in complaints filed with our office,” a spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement. “Should that occur, the Civil Rights Department will work with the Legislature to ensure any new workload is adequately resourced.”
But Jessica Ramey Stender, policy director with Equal Rights Advocates, which provides legal assistance to workers, said the bill is necessary to add clarity, despite existing protections.
“The key to a discrimination case, of course, is that you are treated differently or adversely based on a protected characteristic,” she said. “And so if the two workers who are being treated differently are of the same race, national origin or ancestry, they may not be able to establish a claim if (they’re) being discriminated against based on being of a different caste.”
Guha Krishnamurthi, an associate professor of law at the University of Oklahoma who has studied the bill, said he understands the “ever-present anxiety that one might worry about being sued.
“You’re balancing the potential for frivolous cases against making sure people who are facing legitimate cases of caste discrimination have a way of remedying that,” he said. “As a lawyer who believes in the truth-finding function, I am not as worried about our system not being able to ferret out frivolous cases.”
He said that the bill also serves an educational purpose: “It tells managers and companies, don’t do this. But it also tells HR departments — be vigilant about this.”
While state law could address discrimination in the workplace, it would be far more difficult to do so in other parts of daily life.
In interviews, several Californians of Dalit descent described experiencing how other South Asians had subtly divided them based on caste. Some said it came in the form of ostracism at school — sometimes by parents of their classmates who found out about their family background — and in university groups or immigrant social circles.
Pooja Singh, founder of Hindus for Caste Equity, one of the bill’s sponsors, said that when a health care colleague bragged about her family’s upper-caste background, she could see her promotion opportunities shrink because her boss was also from that upper-caste.
“When I found out you could go to HR, I just didn’t even take it, because nobody would understand that,” she said. “Americans see, like, Asians fighting Asians. They think it’s personal grudges or something. They don’t understand it’s a caste issue.”
CalMatters newsletter writer Lynn La contributed to this story.