California assembly passes anti-caste discrimination bill

Some of its supporters went on a hunger strike demanding Governor Gavin Newsom to sign it into law as soon as possible

Representative image of caste discrimination (Photo: Getty Images)
Representative image of caste discrimination (Photo: Getty Images)


California inched closer to becoming the first US state to ban caste discrimination after a bill to ban the practice passed in the state assembly. Soon after the passage of the bill by the California State Assembly on Tuesday, some of its supporters went on a hunger strike demanding Governor Gavin Newsom to sign it into law as soon as possible.

If signed into law, California would become the first State in the United States and the first jurisdiction outside India to outlaw discrimination based on caste.

Seattle earlier this year became the first US city to outlaw caste discrimination.

Completing procedural formalities, the California Senate overwhelmingly passed SB403 “Discrimination on the basis of ancestry” with 31-5 votes on Tuesday.

The landmark anti-caste discrimination bill will now go to Governor Newsom’s desk where he will decide whether to sign the bill into law. The legislation revises California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act by adding caste as a protected category under “ancestry”.

The bill was introduced by Senator Aisha Wahab in February. On Tuesday she presented SB 403, the Caste Discrimination Bill, for its Senate Concurrence Vote.

“After conducting over 700 advocacy meetings across the entire state of California, the people have spoken resoundingly for caste equity protections," said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, the force behind the bill and similar actions in other parts of the country.

"As a Californian who has endured caste my whole life, I know the struggles and adversity caste-oppressed Californians have unjustly faced firsthand. Caste-oppressed people have organised for over twenty years so we could have lives free from violent attacks and discrimination,” Soundararajan said.

The bill will ensure those permitting or participating in caste-based discrimination in California will be held accountable and face legal ramifications for their actions, a media release said.

Govind Acharya from Amnesty International USA said caste discrimination is an inherent violation of civil rights.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues states that caste-based discrimination and violence goes against the basic principles of universal human dignity and equality, as it differentiates between “inferior” and “superior” categories of individuals which is unacceptable.’, he said.

“SB 403 makes it clear that defining the rights of caste-oppressed communities is necessary for justice and dignity. SB 403 reinforces the fact that the opportunity to live a life free from discrimination and violence plays an essential role in advancing international human rights,” Acharya said.

“I am fasting as a reminder of how important this bill is to my two daughters. I cannot live in this state knowing that caste discrimination can continue unabated. We fast now for all those who have not been able to speak out,” stated Dr Nirmal Singh, a doctor, father, proud member of the Shri Guru Ravidassia Community of California, and a lead organiser of the Californians for Caste Equity coalition.

A large number of South Asians and Indian Americans have opposed the bill, and argue that this would criminalise the Hindu community in particular.

Hindu American Foundation’s executive director, Suhag Shukla said California has reawakened its racist past by passing legislation that demonises and targets South Asians and Hindus.

“When a state legislator pushes a law with the intent of targeting an ethnic community, it's not only racist, it’s unconstitutional. We will explore every option to protect the rights of Hindu Californians,” Shukla said.

HAF is planning to file a lawsuit against this.

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Published: 06 Sep 2023, 11:10 AM