California’s Anti-Caste Discrimination Bill Advances as Opposition From Hindu Groups Intensifies
- “Even though the bill says it does not single out Hindus,” many upper-caste Hindus fear “its targeting of Hindus is implicit.”
Most Americans may not have even heard about the bill SB 403. Probably many will not, irrespective of what happens to it. But more than 4 million-strong Indian American community has been riled up about it since it was tabled in the California State Legislature in March.
Introduced by State Sen. Aisha Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to the state legislature, the bill adds caste as a protected category in the state’s anti-discrimination laws.
On April 25, as supporters and opponents chanted slogans for and against the bill outside the state capitol in Sacramento, the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously voted in favor of the legislation, sending it on to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration.
State Sen. Wahab earlier told the committee that she has been receiving death threats since she tabled the bill, because “We’ve hit a nerve and exposed a form of discrimination many never even knew existed.”
“Caste is an invisible shackle placed on people at birth. Those of us not raised in that system can’t possibly understand what it does to one’s psyche, the inter-generational trauma it causes,” Wahab added.
Oakland, California-based Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and executive director of Equality Labs, a Dalit advocacy group, told the AP that “receiving such overwhelming approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee is heartening.”
While caste has always been an animating issue among Indian Americans, most of whom belong to the so-called upper castes, it has become a lightning rod ever since the so-called low-caste Hindus started asserting themselves by launching organized campaigns against alleged caste discrimination in workplaces and educational institutions.
Following the highly-publicized 2020 suit brought about by California state against tech giant Cisco on behalf of a Dalit employee who accused an upper caste supervisor of discrimination — a case that the state has withdrawn without prejudice only recently — there have been concerted efforts by progressive groups to demand legal protections against caste-based discrimination.
Seattle became the first major city in the U.S. to pass a law that bans caste-based discrimination. The law was the handiwork of socialist Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, who received nationwide support from progressive Indian American groups.
Conservative Hindu organizations that unsuccessfully campaigned against the Seattle legislation, are also spearheading opposition to the California bill by rallying Indian Americans across the country.
They contend that the proposed legislation is “unconstitutional” and it would unfairly target Hindus and people of Indian descent. The latter point resonates with even some liberal Hindus who fear such a law could unfairly target them, or at least cast aspersions on them merely because of their caste status.
Several organizations including HinduPACT (Hindu Policy Research and Advocacy Collective), Hindu Mandir Executives’ Conference, Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), Asian American Store Owners Association (AASOA), and
Hindu Business Network condemned the bill for presenting “a convoluted and broad definition of caste.”
Ajay Shah, convenor of HinduPACT called the “deeply flawed, ill-intentioned and targets children and youth from the Indian subcontinent and those who follow the Hindu dharma (Hinduism).”He further noted that “the youth and children will be branded as ‘upper caste’ and then bullied in their schools. They will be deprived of many academic, opportunities. They will be made to feel guilty for their supposed privileged lives. When they grow up, they will be deprived of employment and business opportunities.”
Talking about the implications of the bill, Nirav Patel, HBN convenor noted that “if the bill passes, Hindu and Indian businesses will have to deal with politically and religiously motivated lawsuits.”
Pushpita Prasad, a spokesperson for the Coalition of Hindus of North America told the Associated Press that even though the bill says it does not single out Hindus, its targeting of Hindus is implicit. “When you look at the history textbooks in California, the word ‘caste’ is only mentioned in the chapter about Hinduism,” she said. “Those who know little about this subject associate caste with Hindus and Indians.”
(Top photo, Twitter/@singhkhars)