‘Caste’ almost erased, ‘Ancestry’ added in amended California caste-discrimination bill SB 403

Ritu Jha–

The amended version of SB 403, the legislation introduced by California State Senator Aisha Wahab to counter caste discrimination, shows that the word ‘caste’ has been almost erased from the bill and has been replaced by ‘ancestry’.

The first instance of the word ‘caste’ appeared in the first line of the original legislation. However, in the amended version, which was made public on July 10, reads: “SB 403, as amended, Wahab. Discrimination on the basis of caste ancestry.” The word ‘caste’ has been struck through.

A subsequent paragraph that originally read, “This bill would additionally provide that all persons within the jurisdiction of the state are so entitled regardless of their caste, as defined,” now reads “This bill would define “ancestry” for purposes of the act to include, among other things, caste, as defined.”

READ: The amended version of SB 403

READ: indica’s comprehensive coverage of SB 403

Perhaps most significantly, the line, “This bill would also prohibit discrimination based upon caste, as defined” has been completely erased. Instead, a part of the legislation now reads, “This bill would define “ancestry” for purposes of the FEHA (California Fair Employment and Housing Act) to include, among other things, caste, and would also define “caste” for purposes of those provisions.”

Another paragraph originally read, “The amendments in this act are declarative of and clarify existing law. This act shall not be construed to mean that caste discrimination is not already prohibited under existing law, including by protections for religion, ancestry, national origin, ethnicity, race, color, or any other protected characteristic under existing law.”

It now reads: The amendments in this act are declarative of and clarify existing law. This act shall not be construed to mean that discrimination on the basis of ancestry does not already include discrimination on the basis of lineal descent, heritage, parentage, caste, or any other inherited social status.”

California’s 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.
This bill would additionally provide that all persons within the jurisdiction of the state are so entitled regardless of their define “ancestry” for purposes of the act to include, among other things, caste, as defined.

Despite the changes, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a caste equity activist and founder of the civil rights organization Equality Labs, feels that passing the bill SB403 is a step in the right direction.

Speaking to indica over the phone, Soundararajan highlighted the amendments made to the original bill that passed the California Assembly Judiciary Committee July 5 even though the opponents urged to remove the word ‘Caste.”

She said, “Section One of the bill has been removed before being passed. But the section’s removal does not dilute the bill because it contained a simple declaration of facts. Nothing in Section One has to do with the actual function of the law. The functional law pieces are all the section two, which is what we wanted. That’s why I feel that the amendment is more like cosmetic editing.”

She added, “The only thing I wish we didn’t have to do is the ancestry parenthetical, but the remainder of the bill is actually all that we asked for. So, I don’t have a problem fighting for the bill in its current form. If we had removed caste entirely, I would have been upset, but it’s everywhere that we needed to be. Every Californian who is experiencing caste discrimination will for sure be able to get coverage and fight for their rights if they are in a situation of vulnerability. All of the changes that were made to the bill were not done because of a need to do it from a lawful perspective, they were done in political considerations, to try to have the bill reflect the concerns of the opposition.”

The author of SB403, Senator Aisha Wahab, has not responded to indica’s queries. We will update this story as and when she responds,

Soundararajan blamed the opposition for not being rooted in lawfulness while trying to create hurdles in the path of SB 403 becoming law. “The opposition is rooted in bigotry and fear, and they were using a lot of disinformation. We held off many, many attacks and there was an attempt even up to the last minute to remove caste entirely from the caste bill. This is their attempt to create a compromise, which is that caste is still in there, caste is defined in the bill, but not listed as a separate category.

She said, “It’s still very clear that caste discrimination is the purpose of this bill. And it’s also saying that caste is a result of many intertwining existing categories. So, anyone who had a case previously will be for sure covered. Under section two caste is listed under number eight – caste needs an individual’s perceived position in the system of social stratification. Then under section three too caste is listed with gender, ethnicity, and race.”
She further said, “The senator accepted the amendments at the last minute as they represent the version of a bill that does not compromise on the protections needed against caste discrimination. Every functional place in the bill where caste needed to be added, cast is listed as part of the code, and it’s being listed clearly as a parenthetical of ancestry, which is fine. Whether it’s a parenthetical or it’s listed explicitly, it’s great. And it doesn’t matter about the removal of the declarations of findings. We don’t need the declarations of findings to say that caste is covered. What you need is for the sections of the code to be amended. And that’s been done, which is good.”

When asked about the impact of the term South Asian being removed from the bill, Soundararajan replied that it will expand the scope of the bill.

“I think that it is a good thing because caste is found in many different global communities. There are the Burakumin communities in Japan, and Roma people in Northern Europe. In the UN, the category of caste fits all of these communities. In fact, they’re called communities based on discrimination, work, and dissent.”

At the outset, SB 403 was focused on caste discrimination within the South Asian community. “The UN rapporteur on racism and discrimination was part of this process when the bill was being drafted,” Soundarrajan said.

“The UN rapporteur brought up the global conversation. That’s an important thing because again, caste as it operates as a category is broader than the South Asians experiencing it. And, at the UN, that’s very much the solidarity and communities that work around this. I think that while the South Asian people have been driving this conversation, there are many members who want to see this bill become law. For me, a bill that passes with caste in it says caste discrimination is not allowed is a victory for us. We have won. And that’s the great thing here,” she added.

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