California Passes Anti-Caste Bill
India-West News Desk
SACRAMENTO, CA – The California State Assembly has passed the anti-caste discrimination bill with an overwhelming 50-3 margin. The two Indian American lawmakers Jasmeet Bains and Ash Kalra supported the bill, while another 27 assembly members abstained, including AAPI Caucus Chair, Evan Low.
Introduced by Senator Aisha Wahab in March, SB 403 adds caste as a protected category to an existing law, the Unruh Civil Rights Act, which provides that all people in the state of California are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments.
Approved on August 28, the bill will now return to the Senate for a floor vote on the Assembly’s amended version. Although an earlier version of the bill had won approval from the Senate, this July, the Assembly’s judiciary committee cleared the bill with some revisions which need to be voted on again. 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 will then be sent to Governor Newsom’s desk who will sign it into law, making California the first US state to add caste as a protected category in its anti-discrimination laws.
“Thank you to all the Assembly members who voted in support of SB 403 today. We are protecting people from a long-standing form of discrimination with SB 403,” Wahab posted.
The Ambedkar Association of North America (AANA), a non-profit working towards underprivileged castes, called the development “landmark”, “historic” and “unprecedented”. “This is what Educate, Agitate, and Organize looks like,” it wrote.
“California is still a state that stands for civil rights,” Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, was cited as saying in The Sacramento Bee. “I think the opponents lead with ‘caste doesn’t exist’ and then lead with political violence, and lead with insinuation and fear and bigotry. That won’t get you very far in California,” Soundararajan said, mentioning the death threats reported by activists and Senator Wahab.
A lot of Hindu groups in the US expressed strong opposition to SB 403, which they said would specifically add “caste” to California’s non-discrimination policy.
Many of them feared that codifying caste in public policy would further fuel instances of Hinduphobia in the US.
Calling the bill’s passing a “black day for California history”, advocacy group Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA), said that “casteism and Hinduphobic profiling won today.”
“The passing of a bill which is not facially neutral and written to specifically target Hindu Americans is the latest in a long line of unjust bills, which were popular at the time of their passing and were used to target minorities of color,” CoHNA said in a statement. “This bill will be no different and is indeed worse.”