Amidst Outcry, California Senate Committee Passes Bill On Caste Discrimination
Photo : Ambedkar International Center (Left), Twitter, Richa Gautam (Right)
India-West News Desk
SACRAMENTO, CA – A bill seeking to ban caste discrimination in California was unanimously passed by the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee on April 25, amidst strong opposition from Indian American business and temple organizations.
This will now move the California Caste Bill SB 403 forward to the Senate. If passed, the bill introduced by State Senator Aisha Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to the state legislature, would make California the country’s first state to make caste bias illegal by adding it as a protected category in the state’s anti-discrimination laws.
Over a hundred California Dalits testified before the committee and spoke of bias, exclusion, and violence they’ve experienced at the hands of what they said was meted out to them by caste-privileged co-workers and bosses. In all, between the live testimony and phone calls, a little over 200 people said they support the bill and over 400 said they oppose it.
Equality Labs, the brain behind the anti-caste discrimination resolution in Seattle, WA, has been spearheading a nationwide campaign. Seattle became the first US city to outlaw caste discrimination in February.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan founder of Equality Labs told the media, “Today, I proudly stand in solidarity with my caste-oppressed community members, caste equity movement organizers, and allies to say that caste-oppressed Californians are now one step closer to attaining the protections they deserve and are entitled to.”
The protestors at the hearing were vociferous too. Several people were on the sidewalks holding signs against the bill. Many referred to what had transpired earlier this month, when the California Civil Rights Department voluntarily dismissed its case alleging caste discrimination against two Cisco engineers, Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella. The litigation against the Silicon Valley tech giant remains though.
Major Indian businesses and temples issued a joint statement against it.
Asian American Hotel Owners Association, the largest hotel owner’s association in the US with 20,000 members strongly opposed it. Kalpesh Joshi, a Board Member, said “We believe that it will disproportionately impact Indian hotel and motel owners.”
Vipul Patel, president of Asian American Shop Owners Association, representing over 8,300 stores, said the bill was based on the fabricated narrative of caste discrimination in America. “This bill is misguided and will promote prejudice against all Indian American small business owners including shop owners who form the backbone of California’s economy in these challenging economic times.
“We fear that this bill, if passed, will encourage frivolous lawsuits against small businesses, causing many of them to go out of business,” he said.
Tejal Shah, convenor of the Hindu Mandir Executives’ Conference, an umbrella organization of Hindu temples in North America, said the organizations and individuals behind the bill have made their disdain for Hindu customs and traditions very clear. “Common Hindu greeting ‘Namaskar’ (‘I bow to the divinity within you’), traditional Hindu practices such as classical dance, music, and sacred festivals such as Diwali and Holi have been vilified. Passage of SB 403 will legitimize this assault on the freedom of religions and make Hindu temples more vulnerable to physical attacks,” Shah said.
Led by the Coalition of Hindus of North America, over 100 other organizations said the bill targets South Asians, along with other people of color such as those from other regions. “We fear the bill will encourage religious profiling and stereotyping of a minority. We believe it advances baseless hateful narratives against these communities by legalizing a presumption of guilt and turns a long-standing bedrock principle of American justice on its head. If passed, the bill violates the civil rights of South Asians and other people of color and denies them equal protection and due process,” it said.
India banned caste discrimination in 1948 and enshrined that policy in the Constitution in 1950.