A peaceful rally was held by Indian Americans in California to protest against a Democratic senator’s proposed bill in the state’s Senate seeking to ban caste-based discrimination. State Senator Aisha Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to the state legislature, introduced the bill on March 22. If passed, California, America’s most populous state, could become the first state to outlaw caste-based bias in the United States.
Participants at the peace rally organized by the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA) expressed that the legislation introduced by Senator Wahab contradicts the fundamental principles of equality and justice for all, regardless of race, religion, and ancestry. Harsh Singh, a Fremont city resident and tech worker, said, “This bill presumes guilt, profiles and stereotypes Hindus and Asians, which will increase hate and target our kids.”
Protesters displayed posters and banners against the legislation, appealing to California lawmakers not to single out Hindus or presume that they are guilty of being oppressive simply due to their birth. Participants of the peaceful rally in front of Senator Wahab’s office said that legislation SB-403 proposes to add “caste” as a protected category in California. The protesters argued that the proposed bill is based on unproven and biased data that targets South Asians, along with other people of color such as those from the Japanese, African, and South American communities. CoHNA argued that if passed, the bill would violate the civil rights of South Asians and other people of color and deny them equal protection and due process.
The bill was introduced 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, Kshama Sawant. Sudha Jagannathan, a Bahujan Hindu American and a mother, expressed her anger and frustration that America is forcing this identity on her while “all my life this was never an issue.” She said, “SB 403 will entrench the false and dangerous concept of caste as solely connected to Hindus. It reinforces the very discrimination that its supporters claim to stop via SB 403! My children and children will be branded with a caste, despite not knowing what it is!”
Aldrin Deepak, a tech worker, LGBTQ, and Dalit American activist, expressed dismay at how hate groups like Equality Labs seek to co-opt his identity and weaponize it against the very traditions that nourished and gave succor to millions through the ages. He said, “They seek to deny the place of Valmiki and Vyasa, authors of the world’s most glorious and influential epics-the Ramayana and Mahabharata.” He rejected the attempts from Equality Labs and California lawmakers to speak for him or his community. Mr. Deepak expressed his concern that SB403 would profile them and leave them subject to being judged by so-called experts based on subjective criteria like last names, dietary preferences, skin color, and more.
Nearly 100 people went to speak at Fremont City Hall to make their concerns heard after the peace rally. After introducing the legislation last month, Ms. Wahab told reporters that the “historic legislation is about workers’ rights, women’s rights, queer rights, and civil rights.” She said, “We want to ensure organizations and companies do not entrench caste discrimination in their practices or policies, and in order to do that, we need to make it plainly clear that discrimination based on caste is against the law.” Ms. Wahab also said, “Caste goes beyond religion and nationality. This legislation primarily protects millions who live in silence and have never had such protection because there is little understanding of this issue. This bill is about protecting people who are vulnerable.”
Equality Labs, which led the movement against caste discrimination in Seattle and is now spearheading a nationwide campaign, has asserted that caste-based discrimination exists in various sectors in California, such as technology, education, construction, restaurants, domestic work, and medicine. However, some Indian Americans are apprehensive that including caste in public policy could exacerbate instances of Hinduphobia in the US.
There have been reports of Hindu temples and statues, including those of Mahatma Gandhi and Maratha emperor Shivaji, being vandalized in the last three years, which many believe is aimed at intimidating the Hindu community.
Indian Americans constitute the second-largest immigrant group in the US, with approximately 4.2 million individuals of Indian origin according to the 2018 American Community Survey (ACS) conducted by the Census Bureau. It is worth noting that India has prohibited caste discrimination since 1948 and enshrined it in the Constitution in 1950.