California State Senator Aisha Wahab: SB 403 simply protects all people from caste discrimination

By Ritu Jha—

California State Senator Aisha Wahab (Democrat, 10th District) sprang into the spotlight late last year for becoming the first Muslim to be elected to the state law-making body. An Afghan American, Wahab has been in the crosshairs of Hindu advocacy groups the moment she introduced California Bill SB 403 in February 2023, which aimed at ending caste discrimination in the state.

SB 403 updates California’s existing civil rights law to include caste among other protected categories like race and sex.

However, Hindu advocacy groups opposed it because they feel it discriminates against South Asians, specifically Hindus.

ALSO READ: indica’s comprehensive coverage on SB 403

Wahab has always publicly said the bill is designed to protect groups across religions, nationalities and communities. It has the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, MeToo International and the California Labor Federation. In a press release in May this year, Wahab said that since she introduced the bill, she has received frequent threats, including death threats. Soundararajan and other Dalit activists say their work in the caste equity space has opened the door to doxxing and even physical harassment.

Earlier in July, however, SB 403 underwent significant changes when both the houses of the California Congress sat together in committee. The word ‘caste’ itself was changed almost through the entire bill to ‘ancestry’.

indica spoke to Wahab about the Bill, the challenges, the changes and what lies ahead.

What led you to work on CA Bill SB 403?

Seeing people experiencing discrimination, people asking how they can file a complaint for caste discrimination, constituents sharing their stories with me—however nuanced and different from mainstream stories—moved me to act.
When discussing representation, it also means we highlight issues that are prevalent, but not mainstream. We need to dig deeper to protect people.

In Bill SB 403 — Discrimination on the basis of caste has created confusion in the community, mainly Indian Americans. What steps have you taken to create awareness about the Bill?

I’ve had numerous conversations with stakeholders, organizations, and individual community members—including multiple meetings with opposition—prior to and since the introduction of the bill in March. It’s also been very prominent in the press, and we have an upcoming virtual town hall regarding SB 403. I think any confusion regarding the bill has been purposeful from some of the opposition who has been instilling a lot of fearmongering of this bill throughout the community. Some groups have been advocating for me to either kill the bill or remove the word “caste” altogether. Removing “caste” would be like removing “race” or “gender.”

A lot has changed in from the original Bill introduced February 9. The word, South Asian has been removed, and so has ‘caste’. Why?

The legislative process can be difficult to understand and follow. The intent and impact of the bill is exactly the same as it was when announced in March. As bills are introduced and passed through multiple committees, it is our goal to clarify, improve, and ensure the bill’s intent is prioritized; with each iteration, we made such improvements. Yet, the intent and impact were preserved at every step.
The amendments at the Assembly Judiciary Committee hearing after many long and thoughtful conversations with legal experts and attorneys who practice Civil Rights, Discrimination, and Constitutional law. If something makes the bill better, I want to know about it and understand if it’s worth incorporating. Legal experts have assured us that considering caste as a subset of ancestry would not impede victims’ legal recourse through the judicial system. Furthermore, this approach could potentially minimize the range of legal challenges that could arise, leading to a more expedited path to justice for individuals claiming caste discrimination.

What’s the most challenging part you have faced while working on this Bill?

The misinformation and fearmongering from groups that oppose the dignity and rights of all people has been the most challenging. There’s a point in this journey where we will come to the end of the legislative process, and the reconciliation of those injustices will have to come from within the community.

In brief, who benefits from this Bill?

It simply protects all people from discrimination based on caste.

The Hindu American Foundation has been campaigning hard against the Bill. What are some of the challenges you have faced with the arguments in their testimonies? Is there a middle ground?

There is no middle ground when advocating for the rights of people experiencing discrimination. Either we believe that discrimination exists and people experiencing that discrimination deserve the full support of the law; or we don’t.
The sad reality is the opposition have engaged in a lot of tactics resulting in people misunderstanding what the bill actually does. One opposition group invited a witness to the July 5th Assembly Judiciary hearing who engaged in in Islamophobic rhetoric by saying “India was attacked and ruled by many different Muslim rulers.” This type of discrimination should not be tolerated.

How do you explain caste to Americans? It is alien to their culture and ethos.

Caste systems are social hierarchies that limit human potential, crush spirits, and cause intergenerational trauma spanning centuries. People suffer in silence, forever trapped in bondage. No education, marriage, wealth, nor generations can break the invisible shackles of caste imposed at birth. Given the history of chattel slavery and racial discrimination in this country, I don’t think caste is as alien to this country as people may initially think.

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