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California Assembly Passes Anti-Caste Discrimination Bill With Overwhelming Bipartisan Support

California Assembly Passes Anti-Caste Discrimination Bill With Overwhelming Bipartisan Support

  • Supporters of the bill included the (only) two South Asian Americans in the state legislature — Ash Kalra and Jasmeet Bains. Opposition came from just three Republican Assembly members.

The California state Assembly today passed a bill that would outlaw caste discrimination by an overwhelming 50-3 margin. SB 403 adds caste to the list of traits and categories protected under the state’s anti-discrimination laws, which ban bias in employment, housing, and public schools. Supporters of the bill included the (only) two South Asian Americans in the state legislature — Ash Kalra and Jasmeet Bains. Opposition came from three Republican Assembly members — James Gallagher  (R-Yuba City), Vince Fong (R-Bakersfield) and Megan Dahle (R-Redding). he bill was  introduced in the Assembly by Assembly member Damon Connolly. 

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.  ThIt came a few weeks after Seattle became the first city in the U.S. to specifically ban caste discrimination. On Feb. 24, the city council voted 6-1 to approve the legislation, proposed by Council Member Kshama Sawant, a socialist and the only Indian American in the council, to ban caste-based discrimination in the city, prohibit businesses from discriminating based on caste, and ban discrimination based on caste in places of public accommodation.

Although an earlier version of the bill had won approval from the Senate, the new version needs a re-vote from the Senate, before it can go to Gov. Gavin Newsom. This July, the Assembly’s judiciary committee cleared the bill with some revisions. Rather than make caste a protected class like gender, race or religion, the bill was amended in committee to make caste a form of ancestry — which is already protected under anti-discrimination laws.

Assembly member Gallagher, one of the three who opposed the bill, spoke on the floor, The Sacramento Bee reported. He cited concerns about “equal protection under the law for some religious groups, and the influence of rising Hindu nationalism that has targeted religious and caste minorities in India,” the SacBee said. 

Supporters of the bill were ecstatic with today’s development. “California is still a state that stands for civil rights,” the SacBee quoted Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs. Mentioning the death threats reported by activists and the bill’s author, she said: “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 Ambedkar Association of North America called the news “landmark,” “historic,” and “unprecedented.” 

Calling it “a huge step towards equality and justice,” the Ambedkar King Study Circle, USA tweeted that “this monumental bill puts an end to caste discrimination, extending legal protection to all facing caste oppression.”

Meanwhile, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and the Coalition of Hindus of North America issued statements against the bill. Executive director Suhag Shukla called it “a sad day,” as California “reawakened its racist past in passing legislation that demonizes and targets South Asians and Hindus.” 50 California legislators “chose to side with anti-Hindu hate groups rather than showing moral courage and upholding the Constitution,” she said. “When a state legislator pushes a law with the intent of targeting an ethnic community, it’s not only racist, it’s unconstitutional.” Noting that HAs will “explore every option to protect the rights of Hindu Californians,” she thanked the 27 legislators who abstained and the three who voted no “for standing on the side of equality and justice.”

CoHNA or Coalition of Hindus of North America called today “a black day for California history,” adding that “the passing of a bill which is not facially neutral and written to specifically target Hindu Americans is the latest in a long line of unjust bills, like the Asian Exclusion Act, which were popular at the time of their passing and were used to target minorities of color.” The group said “the bill will be no different and is indeed worse since it ignored the mounting body of evidence about the overreach of CRD in the Cisco lawsuit, the flawed data from a hate group that underpinned the whole effort, the championing of this bill by foreign actors and the rising numbers of Dalit and Bahujan voices speaking against it.”

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