California’s caste-discrimination bill SB 403 passes Judiciary Committee with an 8-0 vote

Ritu Jha-

Protests, petitions, and meetings with lawmakers did not stop the California Senate Judiciary Committee to vote ‘Yes’ to SB 403: Discrimination on the Basis of Caste, which passed the committee with a resounding 8-0 vote on April 25.

SB 403 or State Bill 403 is a piece of legislation introduced to make the state free of caste-based discrimination. If signed into law, California will become the first state in America to make caste bias illegal by adding it as a protected category in the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

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

California Senator and SB 403 author Aisha Wahab, said at the committee hearing: “The state of California has shown a commitment to inclusion time and time again. Today we see a need to strengthen those commitments and ensure that all people are protected under the law and clarify that discrimination based on the past is unacceptable here in California.

“That is why I stand here now, with the world watching as California once again commits to protecting the most vulnerable, and balancing power. This is what the Golden State stands for. And I urge you all not to feel pressured by the opposition, but instead, instead, feel proud of the domino effect. You start where other jurisdictions will follow our brave stand against caste discrimination.”

Wahab is the first Muslim and Afghan American to be elected to the California state legislature. She introduced the bill in March 2023.

There is no dearth of opposition to SB 403, though. Washington, DC-based non-profit Hindu American Foundation (HAF) has been at the forefront of protests against SB 403. HAF board member Rajiv Singh was in Sacramento for the hearing, and was allowed to speak for a few seconds during the proceedings. He spoke to indica over the phone. “Over 250 Hindu Americans travelled to Sacramento,” he said, “and the room was full of people carrying placards saying ‘No to SB 403’.”

He said the bill passed the committee because, he thinks, “Everyone [the senators] are of the opinion that America is a country of immigrants and discrimination still prevails. A couple of senators talked about how their great-grandparents when they migrated to this country, had to change their last name or letters so that they can fit more into the society and the American culture.”

He added, “The point they [the senators] were trying to make was that they understand what discrimination means. One senator talked about how the American Mexican heritage caste system is deep in Mexican society.”

Some lawmakers recommended to Senator Wahab that she should clarify SB 403’s language further in the definition of ‘caste’ and the intent of the bill, as it could bring in more lawsuits against the state.

Wahab responded in a statement, “With respect to the concern that including ‘caste’ will force persons, and particularly persons of South Asian descent, to identify as having a caste, the bill was crafted carefully to avoid this outcome. The bill’s definition of “caste” deliberately refers to a person’s perceived caste. To take advantage of this bill’s protections, no one has to affirmatively embrace a caste identity (though of course they may); they simply need to establish that the discriminator believed that the person was a member of a particular caste and engaged in discrimination on that basis. This is consistent with the existing prohibitions on discrimination on the basis of perceived characteristics, without reifying caste as a phenomenon that exists objectively outside of the discriminator’s belief in the system and the victim’s position in it.”

Singh said he made a brief point to the committee that, “The question or concern is how do we deal with caste discrimination when it happens. It is in that ‘how’ that the unintended consequences lie. It creates more discrimination against South Asians, specifically Hindu Americans, than actually solve discrimination in society. The reason we say this is because there is no law in this country that has been made only for one specific set of people, there is no law only for White or Chinese Americans or Black Americans, but somehow this law [SB 403] applies only to South Asians and that is precisely where the issue lies.”

He elaborated that caste is present in Mexican or Japanese communities as well, “but when you talk about the caste system and educate people about the caste system, you talk only about Hindus.”

A United Nations report in 2016 said at least 250 million people worldwide still face caste discrimination in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Pacific regions, as well as in various diaspora communities. Caste systems are found among Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Muslims and Sikhs.

In February this year, Seattle became the first American city to add caste to its anti-discrimination laws. Several colleges and universities have also enacted similar policies barring caste discrimination on campuses, including University of California, Davis.

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

HAF’s Singh said, “You are telling the world that caste originated among Hindus and that is where you are creating more bias about Hindu American society. Imagine what this will do, students in school will be bullied more.”

Dalit rights activist, founder of Equality Labs and author of ‘The Trauma of Caste’ Thenmozhi Soundararajan said Twitter: “We are unanimous!! Sb403 has passed and Dalit Californian voices have won the day. We now take the battle forward as our ancestors stood with us as we turned pain into power! Thank you to all to all who turned out! And to @aishabbwahab for your courage #jaibhim #jaisavitri.”

Wahab added, “I have heard from constituents about their experiences with caste-based discrimination – which is an unfamiliar concept for many – in the workplace, in education, healthcare, and housing. Dalit women, for instance, have spoken to me about receiving death and rape threats for speaking out about the discrimination they have endured here in California. While existing anti-discrimination laws cover discrimination on the basis of caste, the term is not expressly listed, and I believe adding the term will strengthen our laws and Page 4 of SB 403 Page 4 makes it clear that California does not tolerate any type of discrimination. Just because we are in the United States does not mean biases that originated elsewhere are not present here.”

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