by Akemi Tamanaha, AsAmNews Associate Editor
Civil rights advocates have recently begun a hunger strike to urge the passage of SB 403, a bill that would add caste to a list of classes protected under the California Civil Rights Act.
The hunger strike was announced on Wednesday during a press conference hosted by California State Senator Aisha Wahab, who sponsored the bill, and the California Coalition for Caste Equity.
For years, groups like Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization, have been outspoken about the impact of caste discrimination. Dalits, formerly known as the untouchables, are the lowest stratum of the caste system. Many Dalits in California say they have faced microaggressions and workplace discrimination from those belonging to a higher caste.
SB 403 would protect Californians from caste discrimination. The bill was amended to address concerns from Hindu organizations that it would unfairly target South Asians. Ultimately, SB 403 passed in the State Senate on September 4 with a 31-5 vote. It now awaits a signature from Gov. Newsom.
If Newsom signs the bill into law, it will be the first law of its kind in the United States to offer protections against caste discrimination. The goal of the hunger strike is to urge the governor to sign the bill.
“Until this bill becomes law, we will not eat,” Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the executive director of Equality Labs, said at Wednesday’s press conference. “And part of it is a sacred commitment to love, to unity, to healing and reconciliation. Because we believe we are stronger together. We are stronger when we are united.”
Soundararajan said members of the California Coalition for Caste Equity know that Gov. Newsom is “passionate about civil rights.” His leadership, she said, is the reason “we are here today.”
The hunger strike is currently underway in front of the California State Capitol Building. Dani Sher, Director of Marketing & Communications at Equality Labs, told AsAmNews in an email that the coalition has “a team of medical professionals on site monitoring blood pressure, heart rate, and other key vitals.”
The strikers want people to know the hunger strike is about love.
“Ultimately, we view this hunger strike as an act of love and community,” a statement posted to Equality Labs’ Instagram reads. “We are dedicated to ending caste and we are engaging in this nonviolent protest to remind the state that caste-oppressed people have lost their jobs, have been unhoused due to caste discrimination, and they have been harmed irrevocably by physical, sexual, and verbal violence.”
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