A bill that would outlaw caste-based discrimination in the state of California has been passed by a large margin in the Senate amid fears in scores of Indian-Americans that it will single out Hindus.
SB 403, sponsored by Senator Aisha Wahab, passed the Senate with a vote of 34-1. The bill now heads to the Democratic-controlled State Assembly and, if passed, to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk. Newsom hasn’t had a public opinion on the measure.
California will become the first state to protect caste if the law is approved.
“There are so many people that want to heal from the trauma of caste,” a Dalit activist and the founder of the caste equity organization Equality Labs Thenmozhi Soundararajan told NBC after the voting. “What’s been incredible about this moment is to see these really beautiful inter-caste and interfaith alliances, groups that have all said that they’ve been harmed by caste and want freedom from it.”
With the passage of this measure, caste will be added to the list of protected categories, along with race and sex, in California’s current civil rights law.
“The more diverse California becomes and the United States becomes, we need to protect more people in the way the American dream was originally supposed to,” Senator Wahab told NBC News at the time when she introduced the bill. “Our laws need to expand and cover more people and go deeper.”
The legislation was initially introduced in the California Senate on March 22 by state senator Aisha Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to the state senate.
But the law has its detractors as well. Some Indian American organisations have spoken out against SB 403, claiming that it discriminates against Indians and Hindus and that adding protection against caste discrimination is unnecessary in the United States.
Wahab, however, asserted that the legislation is intended to safeguard people of all nations, faiths, and cultures. The California Labour Federation, MeToo International, and the American Civil Liberties Union all endorse it.
Wahab said in a news release on Thursday that she has received numerous threats, including death threats, ever since she filed the bill. Soundararajan and other Dalit activists claim that because of their work in the area of caste equity, they have become targets of doxxing and even physical abuse.
“I really, truly hope that our opponents will join us and put down the sword of bigotry,” Soundararajan said.
“Regardless of their fragility, their discomfort is not the equivalent of the grave discrimination our community is facing. We’re just thrilled for what this means for our community to have the opportunity to reconcile and heal from this violence.”