California’s Hindu organizations protest anti-caste-discrimination legilslation in Sacramento

Ritu Jha–

On September 9, several Hindu American civil rights organizations traveled to Sacramento from across California and organized a peaceful protest against SB 403, the now-passed bill on Discrimination on the Basis of Ancestry’. They called it “unconstitutional” and urged Governor Gavin Newsom to veto it.

The silent march was organized to draw the Governor’s attention to the fear of the community that SB403 would single them out from all other California residents.

ALSO READ: indica’s comprehensive coverage of SB 403

CoHNA (Coalition of Hindus of North America) board member Pushpita Prasad told indica, “The event was marked by speeches from community leaders including those from Ambedkar-Phule Network of American Dalits and Bahujans (APNADB) and a memorial for Milind Makwana, a Bay Area Dalit activist who passed away on July 18, fighting to get lawmakers reject SB 403.

Samir Kalra, managing director, Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy group that has always opposed SB 403, told indica, that the protest was a “collective community effort.”

“We’re hopeful that Governor Newsom will support the civil rights of Indian Americans and other South Asians by vetoing this bill,” Kalra told indica.

Prasad said that last week, the governor’s office received a letter from more than 125 businesses, organizations, and temples opposing SB-403. The effort was led by CoHNA.

“They appealed to the Governor to veto the unjust bill,” she said. “It fails the basic standard of being facially neutral, and weaponizes the already Hinduphobic term of caste, which is defined by leading dictionaries and California textbooks in terms of Hindu hierarchy,” Prasad added.

She said, “We are pleased that community pushback and activism has watered down the bill, removing much of the outright racist and un-American language defining certain groups as oppressors and others as oppressed as well as listing many parts of the world populated by people of color as more problematic.”

Prasad said that if passed into law, “this bill would unfairly target people of South Asian descent or origin, along with other communities of color, subject them to additional scrutiny, leave them vulnerable to bullying in schools, and deprive them of their fundamental civil rights in the workplace or elsewhere.”

In January 2022, the California State University (CSU) System with 23 institutions added caste to its non-discrimination policy under the “race or ethnicity” category and that has been challenged in a federal court by two professors of Indian origin who asserted that anti-discrimination policy itself amounts to discrimination against Indian origin and Hindu staff and students.

Soon, the Ivy League Brown University joined CSU. And City of Seattle councilmember Kshama Sawant made history when she authored the caste discrimination bill and succeeded in making it a law in the city.

But CoHNA believes Caste is not a facially neutral category and the South Asian (and particularly, Hindu) communities continue to face the stigma of being associated with “caste” and will more likely be targeted by such a law.

Senator Aisha Wahab (D-10th District), the author of SB 403, calls it a “simple bill that will protect all people against caste discrimination, regardless of caste: upper caste, lower caste.”

Despite controversy, and protests from the opposition, SB 403 passed the California Assembly floor with 50-3 votes, on August 28 and the Senate in May cleared it by 34-1 votes.

SB 403 will revise California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act,
Education, and Housing codes by adding: caste” as a protected category under “ancestry.”

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