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Caste Bill 403 passes CA Judiciary Committee 8-0

Senator Aisha Wahab’s controversial bill that would ban caste-based discrimination made its way through the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and is heading to the Senate Appropriations Committee. The bill seeks to amend the anti-discrimination policy under the Unruh Civil Rights Act by adding caste as a protected category. 

“Caste is a civil, racial, gender, workers, and human rights issue,” said Wahab, (D-Hayward), who has received death threats since announcing the bill.

The picture shows people in a room
Sen. Wahab proposing SB 403 (source: Twitter)

April is Dalit History Month

The furor over anti-caste-based discrimination is an ironic reminder that April is celebrated as Dalit History Month. Caste represents a hereditary hierarchy present across South Asian communities and diasporas. But its existence and interpretation as a social construct is fiercely debated.

“We need to dismantle India-centric conversation around caste,” wrote Prem Pariyar, an advocate for Dalit rights. Pariyar led the caste protection campaign at CSU East Bay after which the California’s university system in 2022, added caste to its anti-discrimination policy across all 23 campuses, in a historic win for caste equity.

The picture shows a man holding a placard
Prem Pariyar demonstrates against caste-based discrimination in the US. (Photo courtesy Prem Pariyar)

Caste discrimination hurts Dalit tech workers

At tech giant Google, Dalit tech workers said that caste-based discrimination is the company’s ‘best-kept secret.’ In 2020, California regulators sued Cisco on behalf of a Dalit engineer who alleged that he was paid less and offered fewer opportunities than his higher caste team members at Cisco’s San Jose headquarters. However, on April 10th, the California Civil Rights Department voluntarily dismissed a three-year-long investigation into accusations of caste discrimination against two Indian engineers at Cisco.

Senate Bill 403 was met with strong opposition from some members of the Indian-American community across the state. They say that it will enable racial profiling against South Asians.

Opponents reject caste Bill

Thousands of Indian American businesses and Hindu temples joined HinduPACT in an appeal urging the California Senate to Reject Caste Bill SB 403. In a statement, they claimed the Bill is built on unsubstantiated data and an unproven court case.

“SB 403 is deeply flawed, ill-intentioned and targets children and youth from the Indian Subcontinent and those who follow the Hindu dharma (Hinduism),” said Ajay Shah, Convenor of HinduPACT.

The signatories to the statement outlined reasons for opposing California SB 403, saying that the Bill presented “a convoluted and broad definition of caste. ….which makes every person from the Indian subcontinent and businesses run by them suspect of discrimination, including those who practice vegetarianism!”

Opponents express concern

“This bill is based on the fabricated narrative of caste discrimination in America,” said Vipul Patel, President of Asian American Shop Owners Association (AASOA). He called the Bill misguided, adding that it would “promote prejudice against all Indian American small business owners including shop owners who form the backbone of California 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.”

“AAHOA is strongly against SB 403,” said Kalpesh Joshi, a Board Member of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA). “We believe that it will disproportionately impact Indian hotel and motel owners.”

The statement also said that the Bill perpetuated the colonial narrative of caste introduced by the Portuguese and promoted by British colonialists, and could “lead to harassment, discrimination, bullying and violence against Hindus.”

Impact on Hinduism

Even though the Bill does not single out Hindus, opponents fear the Bill could trigger an assault on followers of Hinduism. “Passage of SB 403 will legitimize this assault on the freedom of religions and make Hindu temples more vulnerable to physical attacks,” said Tejal Shah, Convenor of Hindu Mandir Executives’ Conference (HMEC).

Nirav Patel, Convenor of Hindu Business Network (HBN) said, “The implications of SB 403 on Hindu and Indian businesses is shocking. Small business owners came to the US to achieve their American dream of equal opportunity and entrepreneurship. It will also deter companies from hiring Indian Americans. If SB 403 passes, Hindu and Indian businesses will have to deal with politically and religiously motivated lawsuits. We believe that many of these businesses will not survive the frivolous lawsuits.”

Shah was concerned about the impact on children. “These youth and children will be branded as upper caste and then bullied in their schools. They will be deprived of many academic, opportunities. They will be made to feel guilty for their supposed privileged lives. ‘When they grow up, they will be deprived of employment and business opportunities” he added.

Can existing CA laws quell caste discrimination?

The statement reiterated that the existing laws in California suffice to address any instance of discrimination if they arise.

In a 2018 survey Equality Labs, a nonprofit found that one in four Dalits in the U.S. say they faced verbal or physical assault. Two out of every three reported facing discrimination at work. Wahab’s proposal comes after Seattle City Council passed legislation to add caste to its anti-discrimination laws last month. It’s the first city in the country to do so.

“Caste systems are not widely understood,” Wahab said. “This bill does not target any specific community, religion, nor does it create more harm. It simply protects people from discrimination and allows people to know they are protected under California law.”

India Currents’ Stop The Hate campaign is made possible with funding from the California State Library (CSL) in partnership with the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs (CAPIAA). The views expressed on this website and other materials produced by India Currents do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the CSL, CAPIAA or the California government.

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Meera Kymal is the Managing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at She produces multi-platform content on the South Asian diaspora through the lens of social justice,...