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Governor Newson Vetoes Caste Discrimination Bill

California has over 650,000 people who are Indian, either by birth or by descent. Often, they come here for more opportunities and a better life. However, for some of these Indians, they are followed by a type of discrimination many may not even know exist --- caste discrimination, or discrimination based on their ancestry. Recently, a bill was suggested that would specifically outlaw caste discrimination in California, but it was vetoed by Governor Newsom.


Illustrated by Angie Che

Written by Padma Balaji and Gavia Grewal

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The caste system of India originated thousands of years ago, serving as an integral part of Hindu society that ordered people into social groups based on ritual purity. The system was justified by the notion of karma, the Hindu belief that the place of one’s life is determined by the actions made in their previous lifetimes. Therefore, these castes, which people were born into and died in, determined almost every aspect of one’s life—from the education one received, to who they married, and what jobs they could occupy.


At the top of the caste system were Brahmins, composed of priests and teachers, and at the very bottom were Dalits, also known as untouchables. Dalits occupied such a low social standing that they were often relegated to the lowest, most demeaning tasks, and thus deemed “untouchable” or incapable of interacting with other caste groups. Although the caste system was abolished in 1950 by the Indian constitution, castes and the principle of untouchability were so deeply ingrained into Indian life that they persist to this day. Especially in villages or rural areas, Dalits still face extreme segregation and discrimination, something that is often referred to as India’s ‘hidden apartheid.’


Caste discrimination, although seemingly a dark secret of India’s past, persists in South Asian countries and communities around the world today, including in the US, where Indian Americans are the second-largest immigrant group. In 1965, the US Immigration Act legalized a preference for highly-skilled immigrant workers, leaving a caste discrepancy in America in which most immigrants were high caste and thus better educated and skilled. The effects of this discrepancy persist today in which many Dalit immigrants find themselves facing caste discrimination, despite being thousands of miles away from the country where it originated.


Although caste discrimination has existed invisibly in India and the US for many decades, many are now speaking up and advocating to end caste discrimination. In California, where caste discrimination is especially rampant in the tech industry, where 27% of workers are Indian, many have come forward with their experiences of being harassed and denied opportunities because of their low caste. Prem Pariyar, a Nepali Dalit, became a prominent advocate to end caste-based discrimination after facing constant humiliation, prejudice, and harassment from his peers at Cal State University. Since calling for protection for caste, CSU added caste to its non-discrimination policy. Other organizations in California, such as Cisco, have soon followed suit in addressing this issue.


About the Bill

The Council on Foreign Relations states that Senator Aisha Wahab introduced the Caste Discrimination Bill, SB 403, In response to the growing concern over caste-based prejudice. This bill would ban discrimination based on caste by modifying previous anti-discrimination bills, such as the Civil Rights Act, and adding caste as a protected category. Those who supported the bill, mainly South Asian activists, went on strike to push the governor to sign this bill. Certain members of the South Asian community greatly support this bill because the caste system is a large part of their religion and identity. These people and others feel discriminated against and believe that without this bill being passed South Asian communities will be further divided in California.


If the bill was signed by Governor Gavin Newsom and came into effect, it could potentially put an end to caste discrimination and inequity in and outside of the workplace, at least on paper. Those who support the bill, such as the Hindu American Foundation, have made large efforts to get the bill enacted. Many organizations and coalitions organized strikes and protests in support of the bill. NBC News reported that activist Nirmal Singh and a group of caste equity leaders went on a hunger strike for more than two weeks outside Newsom’s office to emphasize their support.


Despite the bill garnering support from politicians and advocacy groups across California and the US, the bill was vetoed by Newsom in October. He, among other politicians and certain companies, mainly in Silicon Valley, oppose the bill. They believe that the bill is unnecessary as several other acts cover caste discrimination and that the bill is a duplicate of a current law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Thus, the passing of this bill would put residents and businesses at risk. Similarly, other South Asians believe the bill is unnecessary, citing many of the same rules as Governor Newsom. Those who are opposed to this have also made efforts to show their opposition to the bills. TheHindu.com states that, in Fremont, a protest against the caste discrimination bills was staged in front of Wahab’s office, organized by the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA). Nearly 100 people went to speak at Fremont City Hall about their concerns that the legislation goes against the fundamentals of equality and unfairly stereotypes Hindus & Asians.


The same website mentions that another strong advocate against caste discrimination legislation is The Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a South Asian advocacy group based in the Bay Area. The organization has been one of the key opposing voices of the bill and has consistently lobbied against it. As per the organization, “Creating an entire separate category and law that only applies to minority communities is inconsistent with our constitutional norms,” Managing Director Samir Kalra said. Kalra also argues that caste is a colonial weapon that was forced on South Asians, and making a caste a protected category would only perpetuate this “colonial violence.” They believe that signing this bill would target South Asians, especially Indians, for ethno-religious profiling, monitoring, and policing. They believe that supporting the bill would only add to the hate and harassment South Asians already endure, which is why they oppose this legislation.


Conclusion

The state of California is becoming a more diverse state which is why people believe laws need to clarify what is being protected, one being caste. If the bill had been signed caste would be added to the list of protected classes in the state’s civil rights, employment and housing laws, alongside race, gender and sexual orientation. It would end caste discrimination and protect millions of citizens from harassment, bullying, oppression, and more. Those in favor of this bill believe that it would be a step toward a more equitable society and workplace for many.


Because the bill was not signed, many South Asians and people from lower castes must continue to face discrimination in and out of the workplace. There are still no bills that deal fully with caste discrimination, although there are certain bills that “cover” this topic. Hindus and others of South Asian descent, specifically those in lower castes, face discrimination in work and social settings because of their caste. The issues that these minorities are facing can not be solved because Gov. Newsom vetoed this bill (saying there are other similar laws). Many people opposed the bill for various reasons and on October 7th the bill was not passed. Although it was not signed, politicians and some organizations are still fighting to get this bill back and hope that someday it will be signed.

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