Lawmaker Faces Violent Threats for Trying to Make California the First State to Ban Caste Discrimination

The California state lawmaker who introduced a bill that would make the state the first in the nation to outlaw caste-based discrimination is receiving Islamophobic threats from the U.S. and abroad. State sen. Aisha Wahab says her office was flooded with dozens of hateful calls, hundreds of emails, and individuals yelling at staff in her district office after she introduced the legislation last week.

Caste is a system of social hierarchy that has been especially pervasive in South Asia. It dates back more than 3,000 years but even today is the basis of discrimination for those considered to be lower caste or falling outside the system, including Dalits, who have been ostracized as “untouchables.”

Caste discrimination has made its way overseas to the U.S., too. A 2018 survey by Equality Labs—a nonprofit that advocates for Dalits—found that one in four Dalits in the U.S. say they faced verbal or physical assault and two out of every three reported facing discrimination at work.

Wahab’s proposal comes after Seattle became the first American city to add caste to its anti-discrimination laws last month. California’s university system added caste to its non-discrimination policy across its 23 campuses last January.

California has long been in the spotlight for caste-related discrimination. In 2001, Lakireddy Bali Reddy—one of Berkeley’s richest landlords, who owned more than 1,000 rental properties, was convicted of transporting minors for illegal sexual activity; federal officials accused him of bringing at least 25 Indian laborers to the U.S. through false pretenses, some of whom were Dalit. More recently, in 2020, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued Cisco Systems over a Dalit Indian engineer who alleged caste discrimination. Last year, Tanuja Gupta, a senior manager at Google News, resigned after a talk that she organized with Tehnmozhi Soundararajan, the founder of Equality Labs, was canceled amid a disinformation campaign claiming Soundararajan was Hindu-phobic.

This is the environment into which Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to California’s state senate, introduced a bill that would explicitly include caste as a protected category in California’s anti-discrimination laws. The bill has been introduced but not yet come up for a vote in either chamber.

TIME spoke with Wahab about the issue of caste discrimination, how her legislation would address the problem, and the threats she has received in recent days.

How did you first learn about caste discrimination?

I first learned about caste like many other Americans did—through public school education and world history. I heard stories from friends; one mentioned that her parents immigrated from India to the U.S. because they belonged to different castes and their families didn’t accept each other. Some friends spoke about how their families expected them to marry people who shared the same last name, suggesting they were of a higher caste. In the last couple of years, I heard a lot about how caste can emerge as an issue in job interviews, especially in the tech world.

How have you seen caste manifest in the U.S.?

You see it in the hiring process, as well as in the education, health care and housing world. Landlords sometimes will not rent out to people of a lower caste. The discrimination is happening in a lot of different industries. It’s hard to identify and explain when it’s not one of the mainstream groups that are being discriminated against.

How would your legislation address caste-based discrimination?

It’s largely believed that California’s civil rights law does cover caste to some degree, because some people will put it under the concept of ancestry or race. But caste is very specific; it encompasses more than just those two factors. We are just trying to clarify the law to explicitly include protection against discrimination based on a person’s caste, which we define as a system of social stratification, in which people are characterized by hereditary status, social barriers and other forms of segregation.

What have you been hearing from your own constituents? Was there a particular incident that spoke to the urgency of this legislation?

My constituents have spoken to me about caste-based discrimination in housing and education. Many Dalit women have spoken about receiving death and rape threats for speaking out.

I’ve been asked: don’t you think that an Indian American should carry this particular bill? And to that I would say, as an individual who cares about civil and human rights, if you see something wrong, you fix it. You don’t have to be of a particular community to do that.

Can you tell me about the kinds of threats and harassment you and your staff have received?

My last name is Wahab, so they love to tie it to Wahhabism, or call me a jihadist or a Talibani. Basically, every racial slur and dog whistle.

My office has received a lot of violent threats. Within the first 24 hours of introducing the bill, the Senate received hundreds of emails in opposition to and in support of the legislation. Some who felt very strongly came into our district office and tried to intimidate our staff by talking about the Mughal Empire, which is several hundred years old. It doesn’t have any place in this country to base any type of discrimination on something that happened overseas hundreds of years ago.

We’ve had several people come into the office with varying levels of anger. Some just wanted to learn more. Others have been far more belligerent—yelling, screaming and being very verbally abusive to staff.

People filed formal complaints with the California senate, the senate committee on legislative ethics, the secretary of the senate, the California fair political practices commission and the office of the governor. These are just to deter us from focusing on the bill. It’s a distraction. We will comply with any investigation; there’s nothing for us to hide.

International communities have been watching this bill, too. Some, including a former Indian colonel, appeared on news panels

in India asking for the death of individuals who are opponents to India inside and outside the country—as it pertains to this bill.

I’m proud to carry this bill. I’m happy to take the hits that I’m taking. All the racist slurs against me, the calls, emails, and people harassing my staff at our office. They are talking about several-hundred-year-old empires and old country politics. They’re conflating different issues to distract us from the job at hand, which is making sure this bill passes.

How have you been navigating your own safety?

I’ve never actually worried too much, to be honest with you. I’m one of those people who believe that any day you can potentially get hit by a bus, so I try to live my life as freely as possible and I’m also not going to cower in the face of threats.

The secretary of the senate has been concerned by some of the responses their office has received. They have asked me if I need armed security or fitting for a bulletproof vest. The state legislature is focused on making sure that all of us are safe, including my staff, which is my number one priority. But at the same time, I’m going to continue moving this bill forward. It’s not going to scare me.

How’s your Ramadan been? Has this affected how the month has felt for you?

I’ll be honest with you, I don’t actually practice. I’ve never claimed to be a religious individual and I’m not a representative of the entire religious community. But we can be intersectional in our identity and we’re not always 100% what people expect us to be based on our identities.