Seattle has become the first US city to ban caste discrimination and the first in the world to pass such a law outside South Asia.

Calls to outlaw discrimination based on caste, a division of people based on birth or descent, have grown louder among South Asian diaspora communities in the United States.

But the movement has been getting pushback from some Hindu Americans who argue that such legislation maligns a specific community.

People celebrate the passing of an ordinanceMost of those in the council chambers were supporters of the ordinance (John Froschauer/AP)

Tensions within the community were visible at Seattle City Hall on Tuesday as a noisy hearing culminated with a 6-1 vote with a majority of the council agreeing that caste discrimination crosses national and religious boundaries, and that without such laws those facing caste discrimination in the US will have no protections.

The packed room, which overflowed with activists from both sides bearing banners, chanting slogans, challenging speakers and city officials as they made their comments, laid bare stark divisions over this issue within the South Asian diaspora.

A majority of those present in council chambers were supporters of the ordinance and those opposed were a vocal minority.

As council members voted in favor of the ordinance, the chamber erupted into cheers of “Jai Bhim,” which means “victory for Bhim” a rallying cry adopted by followers of BR Ambedkar, an Indian Dalit rights icon whose given name was Bhimrao.

Dalit groups and their supporters say caste discrimination is prevalent in US diaspora communities, manifesting itself in the form of social alienation and discrimination in housing, education and the tech sector where South Asians hold key roles.

Yogesh Mane, a Seattle resident who grew up as an untouchable in India, broke into tears as he heard the council’s decision.


He said: “I’m emotional because this is the first time such an ordinance has been passed anywhere in the world outside of South Asia. It’s a historic moment.”

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Oakland, California-based Equality Labs, whose advocacy work along with community partners continues to push caste discrimination laws forward, called the council vote “a culture war that has been won”.

“We got the support of over 200 organisations from Seattle and around the country,” she said.

“It’s a powerful message that Dalit people are not alone. The South Asian community has united to say we want to heal from the trauma of caste.”