The banning of caste disrimination by Seattle local government in the United States is an "extraordinarily historic victory" of the oppressed castes across the world, said politician Kshama Sawant who led the efforts for the ban.
Last week, Seattle became the first US city to outlaw caste discrimination after its local council passed an ordinance on the subject. It passed by the Seattle City Council by six to one vote.
Caste discrimination refers to the practice of discriminating people on the basis of their birth in South Asia. Adherants of the system classify people in various birth-based castes which follow a social hierarchy. A number of castes have historically been marginalised and discriminated against as they have been considered "low" by "high" caste persons.
The caste disrimination has emerged as an issue in the United States as persons of South Asian heritage and diaspora have increased in number and influence in the country. There are nearly 5.4 million South Asians in the United States, according to group South Asian Americans Leading Together.
Who is Kshama Sawant?
Kshama Sawant is an Indian-American economist and a socialist politician. She is 49.
Sawant is a member of the Seattle City Council from 2014. Her current term will last till 2024.
Sawant is an upper-caste Hindu from Pune. She migrated to the United States in the late 1990s.
Sawant's profile on the Seattle Council's website notes she is part of the international socialist movement.
"Kshama Sawant is not a career politician. She is an activist who brings a passion for social justice to her work as a public servant...Alongside being a teacher, Kshama is an activist, organizer, and socialist, and is a member of Socialist Alternative, in solidarity with the International Socialist Alternative, which organizes for working-class interests on every continent," notes the website.
Sawant has also been active in union politics and anti-war movements.
The website notes, "She boldly ran on a platform of fighting for a $15/hr minimum wage, rent control and taxing the super-rich to fund mass transit and education. In November she defeated a 16-year incumbent Democrat to become the first socialist elected in a major US city in decades."
What did Kshama Sawant say?
Indian-American Kshama Sawant said the Seattle caste discrimination ban is an "extraordinarily historic victory for oppressed caste people" worldwide.
She told PTI, "The ordinance that we won this past Tuesday is an extraordinarily historic victory for oppressed caste people not only in Seattle but also in the United States and in India and the rest of the world. Because this ordinance is the first-ever ban on caste discrimination."
Sawant alleged that caste discrimination is prevalent in some of the major tech giants.
Sawant told PTI that she was able to achieve this historic feat despite a tough opposition mounted by a group of Indian-Americans, whom she described as "right-wing Hindus", resistance from the tech companies, and almost no cooperation from the Democrats.
She said, "So this is an absolutely earth-shattering victory because this is the first time outside South Asia that the law has decided that caste discrimination is not going to be invisible eyes, but instead it's going to be codified in the law that it is illegal."
The principal mechanism with which the new law works is that it gives the right to any caste-oppressed worker who is facing discrimination at the workplace to sue the corporation.
Sawant said, "Obviously victories in the courts are not going to be automatic because the judicial system under capitalism is not on the side of workers and the oppressed."
Sawant added that winning such victories in the court will itself be a fight for the working people.
Sawant said she had to face tough resistance from the "Hindu right-wing" and also an "entrenched Democratic establishment" which did not want this ordinance to pass.
She said, "We had to build a powerful rank-and-file United movement that was able to overcome these forces of opposition."
Sawant said the only reason she was able to do that was because of her socialist, or Marxist City Council Office, her organisation Socialist Alternative and many Dalit-oppressed caste-led organisations.
Incidents of caste-based discrimination have increased rapidly, she said in response to a question.
This form of discrimination, said Sawant, is being under-reported in the country in general and her city of Seattle in particular because there are many oppressed-caste workers who are "justifiably" afraid of reprisals if they come out and openly speak about the discrimination that they're facing in the workplace.
She said, "In addition to the statistical evidence, we've also seen hundreds of workers throughout the US and also hundreds of workers in Seattle. In the process of fighting this legislation, we have heard hundreds of courageous, oppressed-caste workers speak openly about the discrimination that they face.
"We are primarily talking about the workplace, but I don't believe that it's only limited to the workplace. But that's where you have most of the data and testimonials from hundreds of workers especially in the tech sector and Seattle being one of the tech hubs it's not surprising that we have seen many cases of oppressed workers speaking up about the discrimination that they're facing."
This discrimination, noted Sawant, comes all the way from being denied raises or promotions, or having bad appraisals or peer reviews, just because of being from an oppressed cast, not because of their workplace-based performance; to a daily dose of derogatory remarks, slurs are other ways of being targeted because of being from a lower caste.
She said, "As far as the tech sector is concerned, I can also share that it really runs the spectrum, all the way from IBM to Google, Amazon, Cisco and Microsoft."
Sawant hoped that this "extraordinarily historic victory" will help build courage and also solidarity among the oppressed-caste workers for them to be able to speak more openly.
She said, "I would imagine that if there is more momentum around this issue if you're able to win more big trees on this issue, we will probably see more and more evidence of this type of thing happening in other spheres as well, whether it's education or more in social settings."
The victory in the Seattle City Council, said Sawant, has electrified the vast majority of workers and oppressed caste. She noted that she and her team are receiving a large number of emails from India, the United States, and other parts of the world in support of the ordinance.
The best way to protect the victory in Seattle is to also win it in other cities, said Sawant.
(With PTI inputs)