California: Senate judiciary committee passes bill to ban caste discrimination

This is for the first time that a US State legislature would consider legislation on caste. If passed, it could make California also the country’s first to make caste bias illegal

Aisha Wahab, California, Senate judiciary committee, anti-caste discrimination bill
State Senator Aisha Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to the state legislature, introduced the bill last month. (Image courtesy: AP / Twitter)

A bill seeking to explicitly ban caste discrimination in California has been unanimously passed by the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee, amidst strong opposition from Indian-American business and temple organisations.

The California Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday (April 25) unanimously voted “Yes” to move the anti-caste discrimination bill forward to the Senate. This is for the first time that a US State legislature would consider legislation on caste.

If passed, the bill could make America’s most populous state also the country’s first to make caste bias illegal by adding it as a protected category in the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

Bill is result of 15 years of hard-won organising: Thenmozhi Soundararajan

“Today, I proudly stand in solidarity with my caste-oppressed community members, caste equity movement organisers, and allies to say that caste-oppressed Californians are now one step closer to attaining the protections they deserve and are entitled to,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Equality Labs and author of The Trauma of Caste.

Also read: Seattle becomes first US city to ban caste discrimination

Earlier at a news conference, she said the bill was a result of 15 years of hard-won organising in the state by caste-oppressed people.

“The need for this bill is urgent. We have seen some of the highest rates of discrimination of any Asian American community in the state. That is why we are here to stand in our truth to organise for our freedom,” she had said.

Equality Labs – the brain behind anti-caste discrimination campaign in the US

Equality Labs, the brain behind the anti-caste discrimination resolution in Seattle, has been spearheading a nationwide campaign. Seattle became the first US city to outlaw caste discrimination in February.

California, a western US state located along the Pacific Coast with nearly 39.2 million residents, is the most populous US state and the third-largest by area.

“Caste discrimination is unlawful and unjust. This bill will heal us all from the horrors of caste,” Pooja Ren from Hindus for Caste Equity said after the bill cleared its first big legislative hurdle.

Also read: Bill against caste-based discrimination introduced in California Senate

Amar Shergill, Democratic Chair of Progressive Caucus, said California had made it clear that it would not tolerate discrimination or violence of any kind.

State Senator Aisha Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to the state legislature, introduced the bill last month.

The move came exactly one month after Seattle became the first US city to outlaw caste discrimination after its local council passed a resolution moved by an Indian-American politician and economist. The resolution, moved by Kshama Sawant, an upper-caste Hindu, was approved by the Seattle City Council by six to one vote.

Indian-American business, temple organisations oppose Caste Bill

Major Indian businesses and temples issued a joint statement opposing the proposed California Caste Bill SB 403.

Asian American Hotel Owners’ Association (AAHOA), the largest hotel owners’ association in the US with 20,000 members, Asian American Store Owners’ Association (AASOA), representing over 8,300 store owners throughout the nation, condemned it.

Also read: Seattle city resolution on caste shows rise of Hinduphobia in US: Indian-American state senator

Hindu Mandir Executives Conference (HMEC), an umbrella organisation of Hindu temples in North America, the Hindu Business Network (HBN), and the Hindu Policy Research and Advocacy Collective (HinduPACT) also criticised the bill.

Kalpesh Joshi, a Board Member of the Asian American Hotel Owners’ Association, said AAHOA was strongly against the bill. “We believe that it will disproportionately impact Indian hotel and motel owners,” he said.

Bill will promote prejudice against Indian-American small businesses: Vipul Patel

Vipul Patel, president of Asian American Shop Owners’ Association (AASOA), 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,” he said.”We fear that this bill, if passed, will encourage frivolous lawsuits against small businesses, causing many of them to go out of business,” Patel continued.

Also read: Seattle City resolution seeking ban on caste discrimination sparks heated debates

Tejal Shah, convenor of the Hindu Mandir Executives’ Conference (HMEC), said the organisations 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 legitimise this assault on the freedom of religions and make Hindu temples more vulnerable to physical attacks,” Shah said.

Bill will encourage religious profiling: Coalition of Hindus of North America

Led by the Coalition of Hindus of North America, over 100 other organisations said the bill was biased against minority groups and targets South Asians, along with other people of colour 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 legalising 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 colour and denies them equal protection and due process,” it said.

Many Indian Americans fear that codifying caste in public policy will further fuel instances of Hinduphobia in the US.

Also read: What it took for the West to wake up and notice casteism

Over the last three years, ten Hindu temples and five statues, including those of Mahatma Gandhi and Maratha emperor Shivaji, have been vandalised across the US as an intimidation tactic against the Hindu community.

Indian Americans are the second-largest immigrant group in the US. According to data from the 2018 American Community Survey (ACS), which is conducted by the US Census Bureau, there are 4.2 million people of Indian origin residing in the United States.

India banned caste discrimination in 1948 and enshrined that policy in the Constitution in 1950.

(With inputs from agencies)