California’s Caste Discrimination bill SB403 clears Judiciary panel, Assembly to vote soon

Ritu Jha-

Hundreds of Indian American community advocates, leaders and members traveled in car, special rented coach buses to Sacramento July 5 to be part of the California Assembly Judiciary Committee hearing of the Discrimination on the Basis of Caste bill SB403 which without much hurdle was voted 11-0, sending it to the floor of the Assembly.

The bill passed with a few changes from the original bill drafted by its author Senator Aisha Wahab. But advocacy groups sounded concerned that the word ‘caste’ should not be used, as it is a targeted word.

The Senate passed the Bill SB 403 in April this year. From the time the bill was introduced on February 9, it has been intensely debated in both legislative, media and community circles.

Hindu American Foundation opposes SB403

Samir Kalra, attorney at the Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy group opposing SB403 and who testified to the Assembly Judiciary committee, said that if the goal is actually to address all forms of social status discrimination, then clarifying ancestry with the facially neutral, “inherited social status” instead of “caste” is the constitutional path forward.

He wrote: “Here to express strong opposition to SB 403. While the Committee Consultant’s recommendations are a step in the right direction, any use of “caste”, even as a clarification of ancestry, is unconstitutional. The analysis affirms that the bill’s author and supporters equate caste with South Asians and repeats their xenophobic claims about South Asians from a study whose methodology is so faulty it was refused as evidence by the presiding judge of the Cisco caste case. This is precisely what concerns us – their intent to add a category that implicates one particular ethnic group, premised on questionable data and false stereotypes.”

Kalra said that regardless of how SB403 defines it, “caste will always be associated with South Asians. “Just look around the room. It will demonize, profile and target us as a matter of law. Since we all agree that caste is covered under existing law, we urge you to oppose the bill or amend it to remove any mention of “caste” and instead clarify ancestry with facially neutral phrases such as “inherited social status.” I ask you to protect everyone, target no one, and uphold the promise of equal protection.”

Amar Shergill, attorney and Chair of the Progressive Caucus & Executive Board Member of California Democratic Party, told indica he has been working with Senator Wahab. “It has been my pleasure to work closely with Senator Wahab and a diverse coalition to advocate for this historic bill,” he said. “Ending caste discrimination helps fulfill our promise of equality for every Californian.”

He added, to refute Kalra, “Sex discrimination bills do not target men, race discrimination does not target any race, and caste discrimination does not target any community; it’s simply a method to ensure equality for all.”

Asked on the amendments in the bill, he said, “The amendments were relatively minor and were accepted by Wahab. Essentially, it categorized caste as an aspect of ancestry.”

The original Bill introduced on February 9 carried strong language that “Caste discrimination is present across South Asia and the South Asian diaspora, as well as around the world…Caste discrimination at work and school continues to exist in California.” These words have been removed.

The amended version states: “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 will additionally provide that all persons within the jurisdiction of the state are so entitled regardless of their caste, as defined.

Existing law states the policy of the State of California to afford all persons in public schools, regardless of their disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or specified other characteristics, equal rights and opportunities in the educational institutions of the state, and states that the purpose of related existing law is to prohibit acts that are contrary to that policy and to provide remedies therefore.

This bill would additionally include caste, as defined, as a protected characteristic in that policy statement.

Existing law prohibits discrimination in any program or activity that is conducted, operated, or administered by the state, or by any state agency, that is funded directly by the state, or that receives any financial assistance from the state, based upon specified personal characteristics. This bill also prohibits discrimination based upon caste.

Pushpita Prasad, a steering committee member of the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA) and who testified against the bill, told indica, “We asked to the legislators to do the right thing by voting ‘no’ and don’t profile us.”

“They(Assembly members) don’t asked questions and it looks so one sided and in 30 seconds what you can say,” she asked and added, it seemed they were not even interested us appearing and adding SB403 into the agenda in the last minute…There are so many amendments made. But word ‘caste’ still remains and it is put under sub category but at the end of the day caste is way to target Indian American and so absolutely we are disappointed that none of the Assembly people have the courage to do the right thing.”

“I am not surprised we saw the process and there was no desire to engage honestly,” she told indica and asked, “When they say themselves this is the most contentious bill the legislature is considering, then why they are not having a proper debate on it.”

Ram Kumar, president of Ambedkar International Center, who, during his testimony said he is in favor of the Bill SB403 because it’s a ‘human rights issue’, told indica, “Today’s voting on SB403 was a step forward for recognition of caste discrimination as a serious issue. Any ambiguity in the law to identify caste discrimination should not be allowed. The bill has more steps to proceed before it becomes a law. Ambedkar International Center and our coalition AACD will continue efforts and keep raising voice until there is a law that identifies caste as a clearly defined separate category.”

Kumar said over 300 people attended Sacramento.

Another supporter of the bill Shan Shankaran told indica, “It’s a good beginning because globally there is a change happening….and it a may become a snowball momentum before 2024 globally. “

“This bill is unifying all the voices across, and this is a step towards fighting fascism,” Shankaran said.

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