SB-403: California's Caste Ban Bill Generates Debate and Discord Amongst Indo-American Community
The proposed Caste Ban Bill i.e SB-403, in California has sparked controversy and divided the Indo-American community. The bill aims to add caste as a separate non-discrimination category, which opponents argue is unconstitutional and discriminatory towards people of South Asian origin. Critics have launched an online petition to oppose the bill and have been educating lawmakers about their concerns. On the other hand, senator Aisha Wahab, who proposed the bill, has received life threats, which have been strongly condemned by the community.
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a strong critic of the bill, has condemned the
hateful messages and threats aimed at the law maker.A tweet from the official handle of the HAF read, " We strongly condemn hateful messages & threats that Aisha Wahab reported receiving after proposing SB-403. HAF is actively educating lawmakers about why we oppose the bill—including a letter campaign for CA residents, but we insist on civil, constructive & respectful dialogue." The bill's proponents argue that it is necessary to eliminate discrimination based on caste, which is not currently covered under existing laws.
Threats from domestic & foreign sources
The introduction of the bill by the determined California state lawmaker to outlaw caste-based discrimination has brought Islamophobic threats from both domestic and foreign sources. Senator Aisha Wahab who introduced the bill on March 22, reported that her office has been bombarded with a tsunami of vitriolic calls, scathing emails, and individuals yelling at her staff at the local office, as a result of the proposed legislation. Mean while , the proposed bill to ban caste-based discrimination has been met with opposition from a few right-wing groups.
Caste-based hierarchy is a social classification system that has been particularly entrenched in South Asia for over three millennia. It is still very much operational today and remains the foundation for discriminating against people deemed to belong to a lower caste, or those who are beyond the caste system. One such group is the Dalits, who have historically been cast out as “untouchables.”
However, caste-based discrimination has also found its way to the United States. In a 2018 survey, Equality Labs, a non-profit organization advocating for the Dalits’ rights, found that one in four of them in the US had suffered from verbal or physical assault, whereas two out of three had reportedly faced some form of discrimination at work.
Senator Wahab's legislation came after Seattle passed the first series of caste-based discrimination laws in any city in the U.S. a month ago. Furthermore, last January, the University of California expanded its non-discriminatory policy to include caste across all of its 23 campuses.
The HAF Online Petition
Hindu American Foundation launched an online petition urging people to disapprove the bill as , the organisation claims, it could lead to 'reverse discrimination ' against the entire Indo American community which constitutes a meager 1 percent population in the USA.
The HAF's petition argues that the bill violates the religious freedom and cultural rights of the Hindu community. The opponents believe that existing laws cover caste discrimination and that SB-403 perpetuates harmful stereotypes and misconceptions about South Asians. They also claim that the bill would divide the community, label them as oppressors or oppressed, and force them to answer intrusive questions.
The petition says, the addition of “caste” is not only unnecessary with the current laws, but it is intentionally punishing and discriminating against only people of South Asian, South American, Japanese and African descent. The addition of caste as a specific category unfairly and unconstitutionally singles out and targets only certain ethnic or racial communities with policies that presume guilt of wrongdoing.
Critics of the proposed bill in California also highlighted the results of a survey conducted on 1000 Indo-Americans, which showed that less than 5% of respondents reported experiencing caste-based discrimination. Moreover, 2.5% of those who reported such discrimination claimed that the perpetrators were not of Indian origin. The survey also showed that 50% of respondents had experienced some form of discrimination, out of which 30% reported color discrimination, 18% reported gender and religious discrimination each, and only 1% reported discrimination based on ethnicity. Critics argue that this survey shows that the proposed bill is unnecessary and could harm the Indo-American community by promoting harmful stereotypes and misconceptions.
Supporters dismiss criticisms as attempt to preserve caste privilege
Many supporters of the proposed Caste Ban Bill, including dalit activists like Maya Kamble from Ambedakar Association of North America, Vijay Pule from the South Asian Dalit Advocates Network (SADAN), and Thenmozhi Soundararajan from Equality Labs, have dismissed criticisms of the bill as an attempt to maintain the caste system in the United States. They claim that the bill aims to protect vulnerable communities, including Dalits and those of lower caste backgrounds, from caste-based discrimination. Supporters argue that the opposition's concerns are rooted in a desire to preserve caste privilege, rather than cultural values or religious freedom. They also point out that the laws of the state guarantee equal treatment and freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or national origin, and that the proposed bill is necessary to eliminate discrimination based on caste. Supporters have amplified the voices of those directly affected by caste-based discrimination and argue that the opposition's concerns are misplaced.
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