- Her social media posts and close ties with Equality Labs, suggest affiliations with factions that hold anti-India and anti-Hindu perspectives.
Last Saturday, on October 7, 2023, there was breaking news that California Governor Gavin Newsom had chosen to veto Senate Bill SB-403. This bill aimed to include caste as a part of one’s ancestry. Newsom explained his decision by stating that the existing anti-discrimination categories already encompassed caste discrimination, rendering SB-403 redundant.
The prelude to this veto began on October 3, 2023, when two California State Senators, Brian Jones, and Shannon Grove, penned a letter to Newsom, urging him to veto SB-403. They argued that the bill had the potential to jeopardize the state’s innovative edge and put other California residents and businesses at risk. The Senators expressed concerns that including “caste” in the definition of “ancestry” would introduce the first and only explicitly racially discriminatory term into California law. They claimed this would deny South Asians, especially Hindu Americans, their constitutional rights of equal protection and due process. They pointed out that Equality Labs, the bill’s sponsor, had stated in sworn court documents that “Caste derives from Hindu scripture” and “caste exists in all South Asian religions.”
The senators questioned the claims of alleged widespread caste discrimination, noting the lack of concrete evidence or data demonstrating its prevalence in California. They also highlighted that a caste survey frequently cited by Equality Labs had been dismissed as evidence by a judge in the 2021 Cisco Systems case. The senators emphasized the discriminatory intent and impact of SB-403, emphasizing that the definitions of “caste” and “inherited social status” in SB-403 were overly broad and could lead to various interpretations, potentially leaving millions of Californians vulnerable to accusations of discrimination.
The senators also referred to an analysis by the California Assembly Judiciary Committee, which was based on letters and background information supporting the association of caste with South Asians. Committee consultant Tom Clark had expressed frustration over State Senator Aisha Wahab’s resistance to the bill, noting that none of the supporting letters and related background material submitted to the committee suggested that caste was not part of one’s ancestry. Clark also pointed out that SB-403’s co-sponsors had clearly stated that one is born into a caste, citing an example from an Equality Labs flier: “Caste is inherited. If your parents, grandparents, and so on are of a particular caste, you are also.”
Long before the veto on Saturday, two California State Assembly members, Alex Lee and Evan Low, wrote a letter dated June 20, 2023, to the Chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. They advised that no hard evidence demonstrated extensive caste discrimination in California. While they acknowledged anecdotal evidence and lived experiences as compelling, they emphasized that these were not substitutes for scientifically collected data. They recommended conducting an official study in California to determine the actual extent of caste discrimination.
Had Gov. Newsom signed SB-403 into law, the California Civil Rights Department (CRD) would have overseen its enforcement. It’s worth noting that this same CRD defines Caste as “a strict Hindu social and religious hierarchy” and assigns a “Brahmin” caste to a publicly irreligious person based solely on their last name.
It’s worth contemplating the motivations behind Wahab’s decision to draft this bill and why it received unanimous support from the supermajority in both legislative bodies. Was this a mere performance? What pressing issues necessitated an amendment to the Unruh Civil Rights Act? The committees should have addressed these inquiries before presenting this legislation for a vote in front of the entire legislature.
Wahab appears to have overlooked the anomalies within the Cisco case and the targeting of the defendants. Her social media posts and close ties with Equality Labs, a for-profit advocacy group known for promoting divisive content, suggest affiliations with factions that hold anti-India and anti-Hindu perspectives.
Wahab has made broad assertions, accusing South Asians in California of using caste to perpetrate severe crimes like oppression, human trafficking, and sexual assault, without any legal or police complaints to substantiate claims of such misconduct within the Asian American community. Alternating between viewing caste as a South Asian regional concern and a universal issue, she eventually categorized it as a cross-regional system. She has also rejected the legitimacy of Hindu American voices and their concerns about including caste-related topics in California schools as part of Hindu traditions.
Following the immense opposition to her authorship of the contentious caste bill SB403 from Indian American, Sikh, and Hindu communities, resulting in the bill being vetoed, the movement to RECALL WAHAB has gained significant traction. This momentum has built due to Wahab’s affiliation with other unsuccessful and widely disliked legislation and her perceived ineffectiveness in representing her constituents.
The recall is led by a diverse coalition of individuals from various backgrounds and ethnicities, including Vietnamese, Chinese, Latino, Indian, and Afghan supporters. Notably, the central driving force behind the recall movement comprises residents of Fremont who had initially thrown their support behind Wahab during her election. The basis for the recall stems from her perceived “non-performance” in her role. Serving as the chair of the Public Safety Commission in the California Senate, Wahab has demonstrated a disconcerting lack of action in the face of escalating crime rates. Her apparent absence and lack of accountability are evident in her failure to address substantial threats that pose a significant risk to the safety of her constituents. Despite the pressing nature of these issues, Wahab has yet to take meaningful steps or respond to concerns raised by the public.
Wahab was on the brink of adding her controversial caste bill to California’s regrettable history of discriminatory policies, which could have negatively impacted Indian Americans. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, California enacted laws driven by nativist sentiments that targeted various communities of color. One such law was the 1850 Foreign Miners’ Tax, which imposed a substantial monthly fee on Mexican natives and foreign immigrants in California for mining rights. Furthermore, the California Alien Land Laws of 1913 and 1920 targeted “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” seeking to strip immigrant farmers of their agricultural land and long-term leases from Japan, China, Korea, and India.
It is difficult to fathom why Wahab was so obstinate in her absolute insistence on using the term caste, knowing fully well that the average American equates Caste to Hinduism courtesy of the elementary school textbooks going all the way to post-doctoral programs which, despite claiming that caste is a global phenomenon focus exclusively on India and Hinduism alone. Several Hindu American organizations tried to work with Wahab, proposing using an alternative term like “inherited social status or class” that was neutral and would have covered all forms of class discrimination, including caste. Yet, Wahab refused to replace caste with a neutral term without giving a valid reason for her stubbornness. The only logical conclusion for this obsession with caste is that Wahab and the caste equity organizations and activists supporting Wahab wanted to target South Asians, mainly Indian and Hindu Americans.
This malicious motive of targeting Hindu Americans is confirmed by the previous iterations of the bill and its legislative history, which holds particular relevance in the examination of impermissible reasons. This earlier version included language that significantly emphasized the South Asian population, both as perpetrators and victims, in a more pronounced manner. Hindu Americans were deeply dismayed by the bill’s language, perceiving it as needlessly insulting. They believed, and rightly so, that, in its inclusion of Caste, the bill unfairly singled them out, perpetuated stereotypes, and diminished their racial and ethnic identity.
Further, the Hindu American community was correct in pointing out that the bill was designed to zero in on and censure specific communities traditionally linked to the term “caste,” further perpetuating stereotypes. Additionally, the language in SB 403’s text, which narrowly and selectively identifies where caste is present, only strengthens the likelihood of such an ulterior motive of singling out Hindu Americans as inherently more discriminatory than others.
To make matters worse, Wahab alleged that South Asian Californians, particularly, have been implicated in various troubling behaviors, encompassing biases, discrimination, and serious crimes such as torture, rape, murder, and even human trafficking, all tied to caste-related issues. Wahab made these wild and serious allegations without providing objective evidence of the thousands of discrimination complaints, police reports, and court dockets that should have come into existence by now in the California judicial system. Instead, Wahab blindly quoted the dubious caste survey from Equality Labs that made astonishing claims of “rampant” caste discrimination in the United States based on anecdotal stories from unknown sources. Wahab deliberately chose to ignore the subsequent caste survey from Carnegie Endowment that clearly stated that the Equality Labs caste survey was flawed and that claims of “rampant” caste discrimination in the United States were questionable.
Fortunately, Gov. Newsom intervened and prevented adding another discriminatory law to this list of xenophobic policies. It is time for Wahab, Equality Labs, the caste equity organizations, and the academics blindly supporting them to do some retrospection. They cannot get away with calling Hindus “Nazis,” accusing them of being rapists, murderers, and human traffickers En masse, and then expect them to sit back quietly. As most Hindu American organizations and individuals have iterated repeatedly, they are against all forms of discrimination, including caste-based discrimination. However, the solution to eliminate bias is not to add new forms of discrimination targeting specific ethnicities.
In every racial and ethnic community in the United States, both positive and negative internal dynamics exist. These negative dynamics can sometimes extend into environments like workplaces where discrimination is forbidden. However, as noted by Newsom, legal safeguards are in place to provide protection and suitable remedies in such cases. As diversity in the United States continues to grow, addressing more subtle forms of intra-community discrimination should not involve expanding specific categories that may intentionally or unintentionally discriminate against certain ethnic groups. Instead, the solution lies in utilizing existing laws with inclusive and impartial categories that ensure protection and require fair treatment for all individuals, irrespective of their background. It is about time the caste equity cabal realizes this; only then can we move forward and have a meaningful dialogue on removing bias and eliminating all forms of discrimination.
(Top photo, courtesy https://www.aishawahab.com)
Abhijit Bagal is the Legal Director for Castefiles.com and a HealthCare Analytics Professional.