Will California Ban Caste-Based Discrimination Allegedly Perpetrated by Indian Immigrants?

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s dilemma

By David North on October 6, 2023

[Update: On October 7, Gov. Newsom vetoed the bill that would ban caste-based discrimination.]

It is easy enough for politicians to support anti-discrimination laws when the people whom the laws aim to protect are relatively numerous and influential. But what happens when one large population of immigrants treats another, much smaller, group of immigrants from the same country badly (as it has done for centuries)? I am writing about the high-caste Hindu Indian immigrants and the much smaller group of immigrant Dalits, or “untouchables” of an earlier vocabulary.

For most of us, this is a highly obscure, hypothetical question, but for Gov. Gavin Newsom of California (D) this is a real problem.

You see, his legislature, with big Democratic majorities, has passed anti-caste discrimination legislation (as we reported recently). The bill has passed both houses, which are heavily Democratic, but, at this writing, he has not acted on it.

There is a sound reason for his concern; while Dalit organizations and other civil rights groups solidly support it, that is not the case with many of the state’s Hindu organizations, which in turn are dominated by those in the higher castes. They say that the bill is anti-Hindu.

The governor is thus in a bind; though liberal on most issues — he has just appointed a lesbian, black woman to the U.S. Senate, for example — he also can count. He knows that there are a lot more higher-caste Hindus in the California electorate than Dalits. Though the data is not recent, Wikipedia reports that a 2003 study showed that 1.5 percent of the Indian immigrants in the U.S. were Dalits, while a 2016 study showed that more than 90 percent of them were in the higher castes. I had not realized until now the lopsidedness of those numbers.

NBC News had a long and thoughtful article recently about caste discrimination in the workplace, and it is well worth reading, but I disagree with one of its conclusions, which is basically that HR departments are clueless on this matter.

As one who for decades has been dealing with the H-1B program, the part of our immigration system that is most impacted by Hindu migrants, I can state that the reverse is true. Unlike any other migration streams known to me, a large number of the H-1B workers don’t work directly for the employers whose offices they use; instead, they work for Indian-controlled body shops such as Infosys or Tata, which rent these workers out. Another large chunk of them work for non-Indian firms that have hired Indians (again, largely high-caste ones) to HR positions. They are in a key location to discriminate against both Dalits and (in many cases) against American workers as well.

Non-Hindu managers do not discriminate along caste lines, which are invisible to them, but the same lines are very visible to Hindus.

It will be interesting to see what Gov. Newsom does. Will he do the right thing, in my eyes, and sign the bill? Will he veto it? Will he do what some governors do and let the bill become law without his signature?

Those are his three choices.