Thenmozhi Soundarrajan on SB 403: Caste is present in the US, and we very much need an anti-discrimination law

Ritu Jha–

Thenmozhi Soundarrajan is a happy American. The California State Assembly passed the landmark anti-caste-discrimination bill SB 403 on August 28 with a 50-3 vote. It now moves to the Senate for its final concurrence vote before heading to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk to be signed into state law.

What started as a lawsuit at one of the Silicon Valley big tech companies Cisco is today on the verge of becoming a historic ‘caste’ law that never an Indian community would have imagined. When the lawsuit was filed in 2019, many wondered even ‘caste’ still dominates the Indian mind, but advocates of the Bill such as Soundararajan say it still does, and that such a law is very much needed.

ALSO READ: Complete coverage of SB 403

Soundararajan, often referred to as ‘Dalit Diva’, is the founder of Equality Labs, the largest Dalit civil rights organization in the United States. She told indica in an interview that during the entire process, several people called her derogatory names, including calling her a terrorist.

According to an AP report, a 2020 survey of Indian Americans by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found that caste discrimination was reported by 5% of survey respondents. While 53% of foreign-born Hindu Indian Americans said they affiliated with a caste group, only 34% of U.S. born Hindu Indian Americans said they did the same.

The report added, “However, a 2016 Equality Labs survey of 1,500 South Asians in the U.S. showed 67% of Dalits who responded reported being treated unfairly because of their caste.”

On SB 403 passing the Assembly, Soundararajan sounded pleased. She wants to go on a long vacation, she told indica, in a moment of candor.

The change in the Bill’s headline from Caste discrimination to Ancestry, Soundararajan said it is not such as big deal. She explained, “Opponents of the bill are giving lay people’s opinions, not legally-informed opinions. Essentially, the bill, as amended, and the bill before, execute exactly the same legal function, which is — to clearly define caste, and add caste throughout the entirety of the three areas of the government code that we’re editing. Whether it’s as a standalone or a parenthetical of ancestry, it does not in any way, shape, or form, dilute the ability for companies to now list caste.”

She added, “The employees of any firm or anyone experiencing caste discrimination can get help. The ABA, the South Asian Law Caucus, and the National Asian American Pacific Bar Association, all of these entities have stood by the bill through its very different variations, because nothing has changed about the impact of the bill. We’re very proud to get it to this phase. And if we get it through the assembly, that will be a historic victory. After that, it’s two more steps. I think it’s something to celebrate because it was tough to endure, to get to this place, but we’re here.”

The next destination for the Bill is the Senate. “There’s a reconciliation vote where the Senate has to approve the bill. It’s a fairly technical process. We imagine it’s going to go quickly through the Senate, but we will do our work and whatever we can on that level.”

After the bill clears all the hurdles, Thenmozhi plans to go on a long vacation because advocating for Dalit rights and for this Bill has proved to be a tough, uphill task. “The opponents have been resorting to a continuous stream of disinformation and violence. The problem is whoever was informing them, informed them badly because they don’t know how to do advocacy in California. They just lie, smear Dalit civil rights organizations and everyone’s just going to automatically believe them. But many Californian legislators don’t work like that. The more they attacked, the more that people felt uncomfortable to work with them.”

She continued, “I think it’s really unfortunate what the opponents did. They spent a lot of money and then wasted it not being strategic and being very unlikeable in their advocacy because the main pivot in their advocacy was just to attack Dalit civil rights organizations and leaders. When you attack the oppressed community in that way relentlessly, people just start to dismiss them. They didn’t have lawful arguments. They weren’t winning. And none of their arguments took traction because it didn’t make sense. The first thing they would say is, that caste doesn’t exist. If discrimination is there and people are coming forward, one cannot deny that the discrimination is there, especially when oppressed people are saying so. So that argument didn’t stand.”
“We have evidence and we have lawyers. We have evidence and experts in the law explaining the lawfulness and pervasiveness, and we have hundreds of activists who came in and gave testimony from all across the state. Our campaign not only featured hundreds of organizations, but we have people from San Diego all the way up to Shasta County. Every part of this state was activated for this campaign.”

“It’s really hard for the opponents of this campaign to say, that this isn’t a California-wide problem when we had people from Shasta County, San Diego County, Fresno County, Bay Area, Los Angeles County, and Orange County. Our opponents didn’t have that statewide apparatus because they did not have the numbers, nor did they have the organizing mobilization capacity that our side builds through the California Coalition at Caste Equity. I think that really was the turning point.”