Indian-Americans divided on Seattle’s ordinance to ban caste-based discrimination

Placards made by opponents saying “No to Ordinance.” PHOTO: CoHNAOfficial/twitter

On February 21, 2023, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance banning caste-based discrimination with a 6-1 vote, thus becoming the first City in the nation to pass an ordinance that will prohibit discrimination by businesses “based on caste with respect to hiring, tenure, promotion, workplace conditions, or wages.”

The ordinance that was proposed by Indian-American City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant evoked mixed reactions from South Asian businesses and organizations launching nationwide campaigns asking people to vote “Yes” or “No” on the ordinance in the days leading up to the vote. While supporters of the ordinance say it will “promote social justice and equality,” those who reject it say the ordinance is based on “faulty data provided by a hate group” and aimed at targeting “South Asians especially Indian-Americans,” and will exacerbate concerns of Hinduphobia in the United States.

Ambedkar Phule Network of American Dalits and Bahujans, in a statement said, “If passed, this law will make Seattle employers less likely to hire South Asians as a whole, which will have unintended consequences of reducing employment/opportunities of all South Asians including us Dalits/Bahujans.”

“I condemn in the strongest terms the ordinance passed by the Seattle City Council. Caste discrimination simply doesn’t exist now. Adding it to their non-discrimination policy is Hinduphobic, and is a tool those who are anti-Hindu use to discriminate against Hindus in America, in India, and around the world,” said Indian-American Ohio State Senator, Niraj Antani, in a statement, while urging Seattle to pass policies aimed at protecting Hindus from discrimination.

On Feb. 22, Antani introduced introduced Senate Bill 70 to make the month of October “Hindu Heritage Month” in Ohio. Senator Antani is the first Hindu & Indian American State Senator in Ohio and is the youngest Hindu & Indian American elected official in the nation, a press release from his office said..

“Designating October as ‘Hindu Heritage Month’ in Ohio will give Hindu Americans in our state great recognition for our contributions to our state. I am proud to lead this effort in Ohio as part of the national movement to gain this recognition in October. I look forward to working to pass SB 70.” Ohio would only become the third state in America to put this recognition into law, the press release said.

Following the passage of the bill in Seattle City Council, Sawant tweeted, “It’s official: our movement has WON a historic, first-in-the-nation ban on caste discrimination in Seattle! Now we need to build a movement to spread this victory around the country.”

The ordinance passed will now ban discrimination in “hotels, public transportation, public restrooms, or retail establishments. It will also prohibit housing discrimination based on caste in rental housing leases, property sales, and mortgage loans,” said a press release from Indian American Coalition.

Proponents of the ordinance. PHOTO: ambedkar_center/twitter

Prior to the vote, Sawant wrote to Indian-American lawmakers Pramila Jayapal (D-Seattle), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Ro Khanna (D-California), chair of Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, seeking their support for the ordinance.

Sawant wrote, “… as you know, with the emigration of hundreds of thousands of South Asian people to the United States, caste oppression has followed. Caste discrimination is increasingly a grave contributor to workplace discrimination and bias across many industries,” stressing it is prevalent in sectors such as technology, construction, and restaurant.

The ordinance by the Seattle City Council is akin to the 2021 Equality Labs proposal, brought before the Santa Clara Human Rights Commission, which demanded “caste protections for Santa Clara residents under California discrimination law.” However, due to fierce objections raised by Bay Area Indian-Americans the resolution failed to pass.

Executive Director of Equality Labs, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, said, “Love has won over hate as Seattle has become the first in the nation to ban caste discrimination. We have braved rape threats, death threats, disinformation, and bigotry,” while thanking Sawant, and over 200 organizations that supported the ordinance. “We are United as a South Asian American community in our commitment to heal from caste. First Seattle, now the nation,” she added.

However, nearly 100 groups including a Dalit organization, representing businesses, cultural associations, and temples, condemned the ordinance and wrote to the City Council members prior to the vote, urging them not to pass it. “This is not just a local only issue-it is likely to have national consequences, given its immediate impact on major technology companies located in Seattle…” the Coalition of Hindus in North America (CoHNA) tweeted before the vote.

“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,” Nikunj Trivedi, president of CoHNA, who led the group, said in a statement. “This is un-American and wrong. It also smacks of McCarthyism, targeting people for their suspected beliefs.”

Pointing out that the proposed ordinance has no “evidence of systemic discrimination among South Asians in Seattle that would justify the need for such a law…” the statement added “The only case offered as “evidence” of systemic discrimination (Cisco vs California Civil Rights Department) has not had a single word of testimony offered in open court yet… Adding to that, the legislation has been rushed to a full council vote in secret with one-sided representation. Councilmember Sawant has used the provision under City Rules III (A)1(c) to bypass the normally required Committee hearing for this ordinance.”



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