- Hindu American groups laud the decision as “historic victory” for the community, while critics of the veto say it confirms strength of right-wing Hindu nationalism in the U.S., and that it is a “huge rebuke” to Dalit activists.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom today vetoed bill SB 403 that would have explicitly banned caste discrimination in the state. The law would have inserted caste into the definition of ancestry, making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of caste under the Unruh Civil Rights Act, Fair Employment and Housing Act, and education discrimination law. His decision comes despite being pressured by a group of anti-caste activists who launched a hunger strike and held rallies outside the Capitol.
“The bill is unnecessary,” Newsom said in his veto message. “In California, we believe everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, no matter who they are, where they come from, who they love, or where they live,” he wrote. “That is why California already prohibits discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other characteristics, and state law specifies that these civil rights protections shall be liberally construed.”
Earlier this year, Seattle became the first city to pass a caste discrimination ordinance earlier this year, and Fresno last month was the first city in California to do so.
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF), which vehemently opposed the bill, called Newsom’s decision “a historic victory for Hindu Americans. “With the stroke of his pen, Governor Newsom has averted a civil rights and constitutional disaster that would have put a target on hundreds of thousands of Californians simply because of their ethnicity or their religious identity, as well as create a slippery slope of racially discriminatory laws.,” states Samir Kalra, HAF managing director. He thanked Newsom for “listening to the thousands of voices that contacted his office.” The bill was “premised on racist rhetoric, a baseless lawsuit, egregious Civil Rights Department misconduct, false claims about the Hindu religion and South Asian community at large, and the self-serving, methodologically flawed, caste survey by Equality Labs,” he said.
CoHNA, the Coalition of Hindus of North America, applauded Newsom’s decision as well. “This is a culmination of the efforts of the entire #HinduAmerican community, and the hundreds of organizations, temples, businesses, and allies that fought against #profiling,” the group tweeted. “We rose above the lies, the insinuations, and the wild accusations – and we prevailed.” In a series of posts, CoHNA gave “a huge shout-out to everyone who came out fought for justice, and pushed back against a hate group.”
On the other hand, critics said the veto confirms the strength of right-wing Hindu nationalism in the U.S. and is a “huge rebuke” to Dalit activists.
The bill was introduced in the state Senate in March by state Sen. Aisha Wahab (D-Hayward), the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to the legislature. It was passed in the Assembly by a 55-3 vote in late August, and the Senate 31-5 in September. passed the Assembly by a 55-3 vote in late August, and the Senate 31-5 in September. The bill was amended several times, including listing caste as a subset of ancestry instead of a separate category.
According to Politico, hearings on the bill, which divided the community, “were among the most attended of the session, with lines stretching down hallways, public testimony lasting for hours, and demonstrations outside the Capitol.
The bill was supported by dozens of civil rights, legal, and South Asian groups, including the Sikh American Legal Defense Fund, which sent a letter to Newsom in early September, noting that caste discrimination can take the form of bullying, harassment, wage theft, and housing discrimination.
On Oct. 3, Republican state senators, Brian Jones and Shannon Grove, wrote a letter to Newsom, asking him to veto the bill, calling it “a discriminatory bill that will not only target and racially profile South Asian Californians, but will put other California residents and businesses at risk and jeopardize our state’s innovative edge.” The letter further stated that “by adding the term ‘caste’ to the definition of ‘ancestry,’ this bill puts our state on track to add the first and only explicitly racially discriminatory term to California law, resulting in the denial of constitutional rights of equal protection and due process for South Asians, and Hindus in particular.”
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.
(Top photo, courtesy Coalition of Hindus of North America. Inset, Facebook)