Buzz builds ahead of caste discrimination bill in California senate on April 25

Ritu Jha-

On April 25, the California Senate Judicial Committee is scheduled to hear ‘Bill SB 403, Discrimination on the Basis of Caste’, an event that has gained global media attention as well as concern among the Hindu American community, with some civil rights groups claiming that the passing of the bill will target certain people and that it is not uniform.

Hindu American Foundation (HAF), the Washington, DC-headquartered advocacy group, is running a campaign to get lawmakers to vote against SB 403, saying it “perpetuates harmful, negative stereotypes and misconceptions about South Asians, and specifically Indian and Hindu Americans, based on their national origin, ethnicity, and ancestry, making us targets for hate crimes, discrimination, harassment, and bullying”.

However, California Senator Aisha Wahab, author of Bill 403, says: “Caste discrimination is present across South Asia and the South Asian diaspora, as well as around the world. The existing law – the Unruh Civil Rights Act –provides that all persons within the jurisdiction of this state are free and equal, and no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sexual orientation, citizenship, primary language, or immigration status are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.”

SB 403 additionally provides that all persons within the jurisdiction of the state of California are so entitled regardless of their caste.

This bill aims to revise Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) to prohibit prescribed discriminatory employment practices on account of caste.

The draft states, “Caste is today inextricably intertwined with existing legal protections in state and federal civil rights laws such that discrimination based on one’s caste is effectively discrimination based on the intersection of other protected identities. However, because of the grave discrimination caste-oppressed Californians face, these existing protections must be made explicit.”

It adds, “Caste discrimination at work and school continues to exist in California and Caste discrimination occurs across industries, including technology, construction, restaurant, and domestic work. In these sectors, caste discrimination has included harassment, bias, wage theft, and even human trafficking.”

Wahab did not respond to emails or phone calls from indica. We will update this story as soon as we hear from her.

Samir Kalra, managing director, HAF, told indica, “It’s unclear to what extent she (Wahab) understands caste, which is a complex issue with no universally agreed-upon definition. The definition of caste she herself provides in SB 403 has already changed multiple times, which shows a general lack of understanding of this issue.”

Kalra says Wahab also represents a district with a significant number of Indian and Hindu Americans. “But she didn’t hold any town halls or gather focus groups to better understand the community or its challenges. Instead, she’s working with activists with a long history of anti-Hindu activism to push a bill that will actually strip her constituents and all South Asians across the state of their fundamental rights, even if unintentionally.”

When indica asked Kalra why HAF never met her on the issue, he said, “We haven’t yet met with her since the bill was drastically amended to add caste on March 22, 2023, but we look forward to meeting with her soon to have an open dialogue and discuss our legal concerns with the bill.”

The caste issue came into the limelight when a Cisco employee – a Dalit – complained to California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing now called California Civil Rights Department (CRD) about caste discrimination at the workplace, leading to a case against another two Indian-origin upper caste Cisco employees.

On the Cisco case, Kalra told indica the CRD dropped its case against the two Indian-origin engineers because “it simply did not have the factual or legal basis to support its claims. In fact, there is reason to believe that the CRD may have engaged in prosecutorial abuse and suppression of evidence. Of course, the legal action against Cisco is still pending, but the fact is that the State believes that caste discrimination, which is a form of ancestry-based discrimination, is already covered. It’s also what we’ve said all along as well.”

He added, “So Senator Wahab’s bill is not only necessary, it’s punitive in the way that it targets and stigmatizes all South Asians.”

The city of Seattle, on February 21, was the first in the country to pass a bill banning caste discrimination. However, last year, the California State University (CSU) System, with its 23 institutions, added caste to its non-discrimination policy under the “race or ethnicity” category followed by Brandeis, Harvard and Brown universities.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit rights activist and the Executive Director at Equality Labs, the force behind this anti-discrimination movement told indica after Seattle bill was passed: “First Seattle, next the nation. It’s a huge campaign for which people are so ready. I know our opponents want to litigate their bigotry, but that’s when I think they could actually invest that into services for their community. I would just urge them not to litigate their fragility and take time to listen and build and connect back to the rest of the South Asian community that’s moving beyond them and their bigotry.”

Soundararajan, whose book The Trauma of Caste was published recently, is on a national promotional tour.

“We are working to make sure that every institution in America is committed to making its workplaces safe for all workers,” said Pushpita Prasad, a steering committee member of the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA), who hosted a protest on April 4 at Wahab’s office opposing Bill SB 403. She said they have been “trying for weeks to meet her but she has not responded to not even her constituents people who voted for her.”

Another CoHNA member and LGBT and Dalit activist Aldrin Deepak, said, “The Bill will profile us and subject us to being judged by so-called experts, based on subjective criteria like last names, dietary preferences, skin color and more.”

Sudha Jagannathan, a Bahujan Hindu American who was part of the protest, says SB 403 “will entrench the false and dangerous concept of caste as solely connected to Hindus. It reinforces the very discrimination that its supporters claim to stop SB 403. My children and their children will be branded with a caste, despite not knowing what it is.”

Related posts