A bill strengthening civil and human rights protections against caste discrimination earned approval from the California Assembly on August 28, taking the step one measure closer to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk for his signature. Senate Bill 403 passed the Assembly by an overwhelming 55-3 margin.
Earlier changes in committee de-emphasised “caste” in the bill’s language, but the measure withstood months of campaigning by critics who called on lawmakers to remove the word or kill the bill in its entirety. “California is still a state that stands for civil rights,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, among a crowd of cheerful supporters. She also commented on the death threats reported by activists and the bill’s author, Senator Aisha Wahab D-Hayward. “I think the opponents lead with ‘caste doesn’t exist’ and then lead with political violence, and lead with insinuation and fear and bigotry. That won’t get you very far in California.” The bill, which cleared the Senate in its original form, goes back to that chamber for a re-vote.
US Lawmakers chose to put aside any opposition that the bill would unfairly target South Asian Americans due to stereotypes linking caste with India and Hinduism. Instead, they backed progressive legal scholars and Dalit civil rights group, Equality Labs. The term, Dalit refers to those violently relegated to the bottom of the South Asian caste system, which has historically controlled people’s jobs and education across various religions.
Supporters of the bill contend that clarity in the law is needed for a state that is seeing a growing number of South Asian Americans in sectors like Bay Area tech, housing, and employment. They also say there’s no point pretending that caste discrimination hasn’t made its way here, and naming “caste” secures clarity in investigations and court rooms where officials are often unaware of what the system is. “I appreciate every Assembly member who voted in support of SB 403 today. I thank them for their courage in joining me on this journey of enshrining in our state laws protections against caste discrimination,” said Wahab in a press release after the vote.
Opponents requested the Assembly Judiciary Committee sideline caste as a subcategory of ancestry or pause the bill for further study. The committee approved the change on July 5, after Wahab had stripped the bill’s background information on South Asia and the caste system. But the opposition maintains the revisions to the bill don’t go far enough.
“So long as caste is equated with India in the public imagination and the state of California requires public schools to teach caste as something unique and inherent to India and Hinduism, ‘caste’ will always be associated with South Asians,” stated Samir Kalra, HAF’s Managing Director and co-counsel, who testified before the Assembly Judiciary Committee in July. “The specific inclusion of the word (caste) under ‘ancestry’ will be used to stigmatize and profile us as a matter of law,” he added after the hearing. Supporters of the bill have previously railed against the requested changes, calling on Lee and Low to come out in support of the bill after the amendments. Lee spoke in support on Monday, but Low abstained. Advocates argue that opponents would’ve come to the table by now if they were operating in good faith.
“This is Asian hate. This is a civil rights issue. This is a women’s rights issue,” the bill’s author, Wahab, told the Sacramento Bee back in July. “If the word caste is not in there. It’s not the caste bill, we’re not tackling caste.” A flashpoint for other issues None of those who voted against the bill spoke out, but Assemblyman James Gallagher R-Yuba City, shared some of his thoughts. He cited concerns about equal protection under the law for some religious groups, which some lawmakers have previously said they will leave up to the courts. The bill has become a flashpoint for a variety of political issues, some of which extend beyond the United States. The influence of rising Hindu nationalism that has targeted religious and caste minorities in India has been one point of concern. Opponents of the bill deny any ties to extremism and argue that they’ve left behind caste in South Asia. “Some of the things that we have been seeing going on in India…we have called out on this floor,” Gallagher said, adding that general law already covers caste discrimination. “But whether or not we should pass this law, to me, is something that I think needs a lot more thought.”
The vociferous opponents were not to be fully silenced however.
In a press release, HAF Executive Director Suhag Shukla condemned the decision and pointed to over twenty abstentions in the final tally. “Fifty California legislators chose to side with anti-Hindu hate groups rather than showing moral courage and upholding the Constitution,” Shukla said. “When a state legislator pushes a law with the intent of targeting an ethnic community, it’s not only racist, it’s unconstitutional. We will explore every option to protect the rights of Hindu Californians.” The three no votes included Assemblyman Vince Fong R-Bakersfield. Assemblywoman Megan Dahle, R-Bieber, and Assemblyman Josh Hoover, R-Folsom.