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California Assembly passes anti-caste discrimination bill

California is making moves to strengthen civil rights protections against caste discrimination.

On Monday, California Assembly passed SB 403 in a 55-3 vote. Authored by Senator Aisha Wahab (D-Hayward), the bill originally sought to add caste to a list of classes (including race, gender and sexual orientation) protected by state laws.

The bill’s language was altered in committee to categorize caste as a subset of ancestry after a handful of Hindu American organizations spoke out against the bill. They said it would unfairly target Hindu and South Asian Americans and asked for all mentions of caste to be removed from the bill.

Committees ultimately decided not to eliminate all mentions of caste. Despite continued pushback from groups like the Hindu American Foundation the bill ultimately passed.

“I appreciate every Assemblymember who voted in support of SB 403 today. I thank them for their courage in joining me on this journey of enshrining in our state laws protections against caste discrimination,” Sen. Wahab said in a statement on Monday.

“I also want to extend deep gratitude to the supporters of this bill, including the numerous civil rights organizations, legal organizations, and bar associations across the state and nation. We are protecting people from a long-standing form of discrimination with SB 403.”

Equality Labs, a Dalit (formerly known as untouchables) civil rights organization dedicated to ending caste apartheid, has voiced their strong support for the bill throughout the legislative process. On social media, the orgainzation shared the stories of people who have experienced caste discrimination.

On Monday, Equality Labs executive director Thenmozhi Soundararajan called the assembly vote “a win for the ages.”

“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 organized for over twenty years so we could have lives free from violent attacks and discrimination; now, the California assembly has voted decisively to bring us closer to victory,” Soundarajan said in a statement.

Soundarajan and other civil rights leaders have urged California Governor Gavin Newsom to sign the bill into law swiftly. If Newsom does sign the bill, it will be the first law of its kind in the United States to ban caste discrimination.

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