- For the purpose of moving forward, it is unhelpful to represent the struggle over Senate Bill 403 as one between justice and injustice, truth, and untruth, and as a defense of the timeless teachings of Hinduism.
California Governor Gavin Newsom, on October 7th, 2023, vetoed a bill (Senate Bill 403), that would have named and outlawed caste discrimination in the state. The bill had significant support in the California legislature with a 31-5 vote in its favor. The governor did not deny the reality of caste discrimination but argued that caste discrimination is already covered under existing categories that include sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
The governor’s decision disappointed supporters of the bill that included civil rights and faith-based organizations. Many Dalit groups were at the forefront of the advocacy campaign on behalf of the bill. Opponents of the bill, mostly from Hindu groups, welcomed the veto and argued that the bill unfairly singled out and stereotyped members of the Hindu community.
Newsom’s veto, lauded and celebrated by opponents of the anti-caste bill, does not end the problem of caste in Hinduism. This is an ongoing challenge that calls for moral clarity, honesty, and self-critical reflection. Triumphalism and glee over Newsom’s veto will not move us forward in the work of overcoming caste and its historical injustices. At best, there was only mild acknowledgment by opponents of the bill of the reality of caste and its tragic impact on those who are relegated to the lower castes. Their argument was a singular one that the bill unfairly targeted Hindus. This, however, is not a moral argument against caste. More needed to be said for the equal dignity and freedom of all beings from the suffering of an oppressive social hierarchy like caste. Opponents of the bill claimed to be defenders of Hindus and Hinduism but ignored the ancient Hindu teaching to open our hearts to knowing the pain of others and acting to overcome suffering.
The grave danger in the argument against naming caste in the legislation is the impression it leaves that caste does not exist or that it is not a continuing problem. Refusing to name caste does not make it disappear and does not eliminate the need to speak about it within the Hindu community. Opponents of the legislation must admit the reality of caste structures and assumptions in Hindu communities and how caste has entered religious life and practices by appeals to teachings and traditions. Although caste is not static, the fact is that it continues to be an important element in the identity of significant numbers of Hindus and has traveled across national boundaries.
I found it particularly troubling that the organizations opposing the proposed bill showed little concern for affirming and understanding the experiences of those who describe stigmatization and denigration because of caste. The fact remains that caste groups are not neutral human clusters but a hierarchical ordering that assigns differing values to human beings. At the lowest levels are those who are regarded as polluting by contact. Caste thrives on instilling self-hate and diminished self-value. It instills fear of being “found out,” and makes it necessary for strategies to conceal identity and to present oneself as upper caste.
Yashica Dutta, in her memoir, “Coming Out as Dalit,” powerfully narrates her experience of concealing her Dalit identity, the fear of being discovered and her decision to come out as Dalit. Dutta’s experiences are not solitary, but the reality of the experiences that she describes was not acknowledged by those who came from privileged positions in the Hindu tradition. Dalits lobbying for the California bill felt that the truth of their life experiences was trivialized and negated.
It is most unhelpful and regrettable that one of the leading Hindu advocacy groups in the United States, an organization at the forefront of the opposition to Senate Bill 403, issued a call for donations with a misplaced and insensitive analogy. The organization likened the context to the great Mahabharata war and their own role to the reluctant warrior Arjuna fighting for justice and truth and to protect “timeless” teachings. The fight, in their words, was “Guided by Dharma,” and necessary to avoid being crushed. It was a fight to save Hindus and Hinduism from those who aim for their destruction.
The opposition to Senate Bill 403 had a single purpose. This was to prevent the naming of caste in a list of categories for which one may seek legal redress against discrimination. Would this naming be the end of Hinduism? Which timeless truths need to be protected? Where was justice to be found? Dharma is not static or always without ambiguity. Which dharma guided the opponents of Senate Bill 403? Paradoxically, the opponents of caste legislation seem to be conflating caste with the Hindu tradition in a way that suggests their inseparability and treats criticism of caste as an attack on Hinduism. Should it surprise us that those who have never experienced Hinduism as a compassionate tradition that lifts up their dignity are not invested in Hinduism’s survival?
Comparing themselves to Arjuna on the Mahabharata battlefield, opponents of the anti-caste legislation claim that they had no choice but to fight this battle. But the fact is that there is a choice, and it is a choice that Hindus must make after the public battle over Senate Bill 403. The choice is to truthfully acknowledge the reality of caste in teachings, interpretations, and practices of the tradition and to lift up those teachings, also in Hinduism, that refute caste and affirm the equal dignity of all human beings. Fear of stereotyping is a very weak argument for not admitting and challenging unjust structures in one’s tradition.
The choice is to acknowledge the injustice and oppression of caste structures and how these continue to painfully undermine the self-worth of those who are labeled as lower-caste. The choice is to commit to working in Hindu communities to educate about caste and to overcome its expressions. The choice is to undertake such work in partnership with those who are truly crushed (literal meaning of “Dalit) by caste oppression and to understand the historical reasons why they may be unwilling to work with Hindus.
To move forward, it is unhelpful to represent the struggle over Senate Bill 403 as one between justice and injustice, truth, and untruth, and as a defense of the timeless teachings of Hinduism. Such a polarized perspective makes finding common ground with marginalized communities and supporters of the Bill very difficult. The governor’s veto was no moral victory and ought not to be celebrated as one. Gov. Newscom did not veto caste and Hindus must not ignore its continuing challenge.
(Top photo, courtesy of Equality Labs.)
Anantanand Rambachan is emeritus professor of religion at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.