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Hindu American Groups Applaud Revision of ‘Racist, Anti-Indian Language’ in California Caste Bill

Hindu American Groups Applaud Revision of ‘Racist, Anti-Indian Language’ in California Caste Bill

  • The July 5 hearing on SB 403 included testimony from Assembly member Ash Karla who supports the bill, while the Hindu American Foundation managing director Samir Kalra, who said the revision was a “step in the right direction, but not enough.”

California State Sen. Aisha Wahab’s controversial bill — SB 403 — that would outlaw caste discrimination has been cleared by the Assembly’s judiciary committee, but 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. The bill has now been sent to the the Assembly appropriations committee. Wahab, D-Hayward, the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to the legislature, introduced the bill in March.

The July 5 hearing was attended by both supporters and opponents of the bill. Supporters of the bill contend that it is necessary to protect Dalits, belonging to the lowest rung of the Hindu social hierarchy, and protect them from bias in housing, education, and in the tech sector — where they hold key roles. Those opposing the bill argue see the legislation not only as unnecessary as the existing laws protect such discrimination but also singles out the Hindu community and stereotyping its customs and traditions.

Supporters cheered the hearing outcome by marching out of the room chanting “SB 403 zindabad,” reported CalMatters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California politics and policy. “They continued to celebrate outside the Capitol with more chanting, joyful embraces and even a little dancing,” the report added. 

The bill was also supported by assembly members Ash Kalra and Jasmeet Bains, the only two South Asians in the state legislature. Bains from Bakersfield signed on as a cosponsor of the bill. Kalra, who tested during the July 5 hearing said “the bill felt personal to him, and  spoke about the divisions he had witnessed. He said he  understood concerns from constituents, but noted that the amendments address those. “Ultimately, there are certain things we must do as a state to protect everyone in our state.” He said he hopes both opponents and advocates can commit to “healing” their tensions as the legislation moves forward.

Opposition primarily came from the organizations like the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA). HAF managing director Samir Kalra and director of Community Outreach Ramya Ramakrishnan attended the hearing. Kalra testified during the hearing as well. “Since we all agree that caste is covered under existing law, we urge you to oppose the bill and clarify ancestry with facially neutral phrases such as inherited social status,” he said. “I ask you to protect everyone, target no one & uphold equal protection.” He told CalMatters that he was disappointed, but that the group plans to continue to try to “educate lawmakers on the issue” before the bill is voted on by the full Assembly.“We feel it was a step in the right direction but not far enough,” he told the publication after the hearing. “We’re disappointed that the committee didn’t remove ‘caste’ entirely from even the clarification of ancestry.” 

In a press release issued today (July 6), the HAF lauded the stripping away of the “racist, anti-Indian” language from the bill. Leaders said they are relieved that “language in the original text singling out and targeting South Asian and other ethnic communities” had been removed, but remained concerned “that SB-403 retains a mention of ‘caste’ given its singular association with South Asians.” At the same time, they “applauded the expansion of the clarification of ancestry with facially neutral terms like  lineal descent, heritage and parentage.” She restated HAF’s commitment to fighting for the final removal of ‘caste’ from the bill at the next stage. 

CoHNA members who attended the hearing called it “a day of mixed emotions.” Although the group is “disappointed that California lawmakers passed up a chance to #SayNoToHate and voted for a bill that still contains the #Hinduphobic word “caste,” “ the are also “proud of the tireless grassroots work of our volunteers, other Hindu organizations and allies, which resulted in the CA Assembly Judiciary Committee voting on a bill that has been stripped of much of the outright xenophobic language of the original version.” While “the final nail in the coffin still remains,” CoHNA said it intends to “fully fight this all the way to the courts.”

Last month, CoHNA sent an opposition letter critiquing the Legislative Analysis and why SB403 “unnecessary, is in violation of the 14th and First Amendments and unconstitutionally vague.”

The judiciary committee’s motion was based on recommendations made in an analysis submitted by Committee Consultant, Tom Clark. “These recommendations included removing caste as a stand-alone category, keeping the definition of ‘caste’ from the original bill and clarifying ‘ancestry’ as the amended SB-403 does,” HAF said. Clark, who described Wahab’s resistance to the use of ancestry in the bill as “perplexing,” noted that he “echoed the frustration many in the Assembly have the bill.”

Meanwhile, Axios reported that Wahab was “not thrilled” with the amendments. “The word caste is incredibly important to utilize here, primarily because this is the system of discrimination we want to fight against,” she said at the hearing. “It is just as important as using the word gender or race or age or anything like that.”

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