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Specter of Religious Profiling Raised at a Rally Protesting California’s Proposed Anti-Caste Bill

Specter of Religious Profiling Raised at a Rally Protesting California’s Proposed Anti-Caste Bill

  • About 250 Hindu Americans unsuccessfully tried to submit a petition to State Sen. Aisha Wahab, the sponsor of the bill.

A chilly afternoon in the Bay Area on April 4 saw about 250 Indian Americans gathered in a silent rally organized by the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA) outside California State Senator Aisha Wahab’s Fremont legislative office. The community members were there to express their sorrow and protest against her proposed SB-403 Bill which seeks to single out South Asians by adding “caste” as a protected anti-discrimination category to California laws.

The scene was spirited but solemn as the protestors silently raised their placards which included messages like “Dalit and Bahjans oppose SB 403,” “Stop Racism Against Asians”, “Profiling South Asians is Discrimination” and requested a meeting with Sen. Wahab to discuss the concerns of the Hindu and Indian-American community regarding her Bill.

The primary concern of the protestors was that, if passed, this legislation would single out South Asians from all other communities. It would also create a stigma around American Hindus as a group and encourage religious profiling and unwarranted stereotyping of a minority. All this without proof of any systemic problem. 

One of the organizers, Harsh Singh, a Fremont resident and tech sector worker said: “I have lived in this wonderful city and state for over 25 years. I love its embrace of diversity and voted to elect Sen. Wahab last year, inspired by her progressive ideals. That’s why I am so disappointed by SB-403, which goes against the fundamental principles of equality and justice for all regardless of race, religion and ancestry.” 

Harsh added: “Growing up in Fremont, my children had an encounter with the term caste, in their middle school when it was taught to them as part of a class discussing Hinduism. In one class, kids were made to role-play along caste lines. This led to unwanted jokes and bullying comments towards them due to their Indian and Hindu background. We shrugged it off back then but I am appalled and horrified to think they will live in a world where the state of California will tag them with this term and identity irrespective of their own will, judge them for religion and lifestyle choices and subject them to double standards no other minority group faces.”

Many of the protestors pointed out that existing laws at the state level already include protections against discrimination under broad categories such as national origin and ancestry, rendering SB-403 redundant. Indeed, the California Civil Rights Department (CRD) has previously sued two Indian American engineers in 2020 on caste discrimination grounds using existing state law. The fact that the state has been unable to obtain a guilty verdict over three years of litigation is illustrative of the frivolity of the claims and laughs at the assertion that there is widespread caste discrimination in California. 

The protestors also objected to the fact that Sen. Wahab’s bill was relying on false narratives supplied by biased special interest groups, such as Equality Labs, that are known for their bigotry and hate speech against the Hindu American community — openly calling for Hinduism to be dismantled and publicly. In March 2020, Equality Labs attacked the extremely popular Hindu festival of Holi by falsely claiming that the festival celebrates the burning of a “low caste” woman and where men advance violence against women, including throwing semen. Such hate should not be mainstreamed by a state as committed to diversity as California is.

“Never in my 40 years in the U.S. as a student, technology employee, or community member did anyone bother about my caste, even when informed of my supposed Bahujan roots which so-called experts claim should have been a handicap my whole life.”

Despite the claims advanced by SB-403 supporters, the Dalit community in America is not monolithic. Groups like the Ambedkar-Phule Network of American Dalits and Bahujans have spoken up against the bill-rejecting the claims of Equality Labs. And the rally saw Americans of all backgrounds join in, including some from the Chinese American community.

Sudha Jagannathan, a Bahujan Hindu American and mother said: “Never in my 40 years in the U.S. as a student, technology employee, or community member did anyone bother about my caste, even when informed of my supposed Bahujan roots which so-called experts claim should have been a handicap my whole life.” Sudha continued: “It angers and frustrates me that California is forcing this identity on me while all my life this was never an issue. SB 403 will mainstream the false and Hinduphobic concept of caste into the US and I oppose it.”

A similar perspective was shared by Aldrin Deepak, a tech industry worker and Dalit American activist: “I live in San Francisco as a proud Hindu American gay man, interacting with any number of South Asians — at work, as a volunteer at temples, a host for community Diwali events, at work or in social outings. I am dismayed at how hate groups like Equality Labs seek to co-opt my identity and weaponize it against the very traditions that nourished and gave succor to millions through the ages. I reject the attempts from Equality Labs and California lawmakers to speak for me or my community, by silencing any debate. SB403 will profile us  and leave us subject to being judged by so-called experts, based on subjective criteria like last names, dietary preferences, skin color and more.”

Despite gathering silently in the hundreds, Sen. Wahab and her office refused to engage with her constituents or hear their grievances against the proposed legislation, refusing to open the door to accept a petition from a small group that visited her office. The silencing of the constituents seems reflective of how this whole process has been. 

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CoHNA, which is leading the pushback against the bill, believes that SB-403 would create perverse incentives to ostracize and discriminate against Indian Americans, particularly Hindu Indian Americans. For example, corporations and other organizations might be less inclined to hire Indian Americans and South Asians more broadly because of perceived exposure to additional litigation risk in matters of employment discrimination especially given the complex and vague nature of this new legally protected category. And then there’s the small fact that there is literally no data showing any systemic caste discrimination in the U.S.

We already have one real-world example from UC San Diego where their Ethnic Studies Department announced a policy that would target “caste-privileged” South Asian scholars, students and administrators by deprioritizing their hiring and admissions and attacking them as casteists. 

CoHNA strongly condemns all forms of discrimination, including caste-based discrimination, and  firmly believes there is no place for prejudice and mistreatment of anyone in our diverse and pluralistic society in America. Fortunately, federal and state laws already provide protection from discrimination under categories of national origin, ancestry and religion which is sufficient to encompass any alleged caste discrimination.

Hindu Americans in California intend to build on the momentum from this rally for equality to raise awareness about the harmful impact of SB-403. They will continue to seek engagement from California legislators to block or vote against this pernicious proposal. It is unprecedented legislation in post-1965 Civil Rights Act America, one that would create a new crime for which only one social group can be found guilty. 

 Pushpita Prasad is a storyteller and communications professional with a background in working with media, technology and history. She is passionate about topics related to India, Human Rights, Hinduism and Culture. Pushpita is involved with organizations focused on advocating for minorities  —  finding their stories, and helping to elevate their voices through multiple media and channels.

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