The California Senate on Thursday voted overwhelmingly to pass SB 403, a much-debated caste discrimination bill in a historic move that will make the state the first in the country to pass such a law, if the State Assembly also approves it and Governor Gavin Newsom signs off on it.
The Bill, passed with a 34-1 vote, is authored by Senator Aisha Wahab. The Bill states: “Caste discrimination is present across South Asia and the South Asian diaspora, as well as around the world. While caste systems are strongly associated with South Asia, similar systems exist in regions including, but not limited to, South America, Asia, and Africa. Caste discrimination is also found across communities of religious practice.”
The first-of-its-kind caste discrimination legislation now goes to the Assembly and 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. The bill was introduced February 9 this year, and has been facing a huge backlash from thousands of Indian Americans belonging to the Hindu faith, who have accused Wahab of targeting Hindus.
The Bill, approved by a vote of 34-1, provides individuals with legal options to address allegations of caste bias and discrimination in housing, employment, education, and other contexts.
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Those who have suffered systemic harm as a result of caste bias and prejudice are explicitly protected by SB 403’s provisions. Additionally, it establishes clear legal repercussions for anyone who tries to escape accountability or responsibilities for condoning or taking part in caste-based violence.
Senator Wahab through a press release stated, SB 403 is one of the most high-profile bills in the legislature this session, and brought out a record number of people to comment on the bill at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April. Senator Wahab, who has been working on this bill since November 2022, has received numerous threats, including death threats. The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee with unanimous bipartisan support.
“California reaffirms its commitment to stand against discrimination and I’m proud that this is a bipartisan effort amongst my colleagues,” Senator Wahab who represents Senate District 10 stated May 11, after the bill cleared the Senate.
She reiterated this bill is about workers’ rights, women’s rights, and civil rights. This bill is about ensuring the American Dream is accessible to all those who pursue it.
But not all are convinced why Senator Wahab wants this bill.
Rakhi Israni, an Indian American Hindu community leader and a member of SEWA International who spoke during the Senate Judiciary hearing on April 25 in Sacramento on the consequences of the bill told indica that she is surprised Wahab expedited the whole thing. “This shows her agenda,” Israni said. “This is unfortunate.” She said that despite so much opposition from the Hindu community, “they [the senate] did not listen to anybody.”
Israni said, “When we met her before the Senate Judiciary hearing, she pretty much had made up her mind and she was not even entertaining talks and thoughts on the bill.”
The Indian American Hindu community has started a WhatsApp campaign asking its members to reach out to Assembly lawmakers. “Now it goes to the Assembly and our job now is to reach as many Assemblymembers as possible,” Israni said. “We will continue our outreach and made them listen to our point of view. There are better ways to solve the problems but they are not even willing to listen.”
She said she wanted Wahab to “listen to our concern.” She added, “There is a lot of effort to educate the lawmakers on exactly what ‘caste’ means to the community.”
Meanwhile, Dalit rights activist, founder of Equality Labs and author Thenmozhi Soundararajan stated on Twitter: “On behalf of all Dalit Californians and caste-oppressed people around the world, we are ecstatic that the California Senate has passed SB403 off the Senate floor. This is a win rooted in years of Dalit feminist organizing, and we are just getting started in making the state safe for our entire caste-oppressed community. We know that we have a long journey ahead of us with this bill, but we have made history with this vote and are proud to look forward to working with the California Assembly on this historic bill! Equality Labs thanks all of the partners in Californians for Caste Equity who worked tirelessly to get us this far!! Jai bhim and Jai Savitri.”
Soundararajan has been campaigning for caste to be added in the discrimination list in universities since 2010. In a January 2022 interview with indica, she had said, “American institutions have stepped up to the plate to support our civil rights. And I think it’s amazing. We only heal from systemic oppression by shedding light on it, talking about it and creating policy remedies. So more and more, especially for the younger generation, they know they have to start taking a stand on issues of caste equity. It’s really powerful to see that change.”
Rajeev Singh, member, Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a Washington, DC-based Hindu advocacy group, told indica that he was not aware about the Bill going for a vote on Thursday. “The community has been and will continue to educate Assembly members on why this is a dangerous legislation,” he told indica.
Ritesh Tandon, who is running against Congressman Ro Khanna (CA-17), says there are many more serious issues in the community and her constituency, but “she is more focused on a agenda-based Bill.”
Tandon is planning to start a recall petition against Wahab.
He said, “It’s not only me, a broad coalition of people, including Americans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Latinos, Indians, and even some Afghans (Wahab is of Afghan heritage), has formed to initiate the recall of Senator Aisha Wahab due to her loss of public trust and failure to effectively represent the people who elected her. The reasons for recall are based on her broken promises, failed priorities, and missing actions while in office. Senator Wahab has been unapproachable and inaccessible, failed to address affordable housing and public safety concerns, and has pursued her own agenda rather than focusing on critical issues facing her constituents.”
He added, “She has been missing in action and has not taken any concrete steps to address the rise in gun violence and keep our streets safe. The recall is a necessary response to her job “non-performance” and the people’s right to remove someone who is failing in their duties. It is not about a single issue but rather the overall dissatisfaction with her record as a senator.”