The California State Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill that would make caste-based discrimination illegal in the state.
Senator Aisha Wahab’s bill, SB 403, flew through the Senate in a 34-1 vote. She now goes to the Democratic-controlled State Assembly and, if she passes, she goes to the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has not taken a public position on the bill. If the bill passes both, California would become the first state to protect caste.
“There are so many people who want to be cured of caste trauma,” Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit activist and founder of caste equality organization Equality Labs, told NBC News after the vote. “The incredible thing about this moment is to see these really beautiful intercaste and interfaith alliances, groups that have said they have been harmed by caste and want to be free of it.”
In recent years, Soundararajan has been one of the leaders of a national campaign to offer more protection to Dalits, those born into classes oppressed under the Indian caste system. Although the rigid hierarchy of social stratification is now illegal in India, proponents say its effects are far from over. And in diaspora communities in the US, many say they still face exclusion, violence and discrimination.
This bill would update existing California civil rights law to include caste among other protected categories such as race and sex.
“As California and the United States becomes more diverse, we need to protect more people the way the American dream was originally supposed to,” Wahab told NBC News when he introduced the bill in March. “Our laws need to expand and cover more people and go deeper.”
But the legislation is not without its opponents. Some American Indian groups have spoken out against SB 403, saying that adding protection against caste discrimination is not necessary in the US and that it discriminates against Indians and Hindus.
But Wahab said the bill is designed to protect groups of all faiths, nationalities and communities. It is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, MeToo International, and the California Federation of Labor.
In a press release on Thursday, Wahab said that since he introduced the bill, he has received frequent threats, including death threats. Soundararajan and other Dalit activists say their work in the caste equality space has opened the door to doxing and even physical harassment.
“I really hope our opponents will join us and put down the sword of bigotry,” Soundararajan said. “Despite their fragility, their discomfort is not equivalent to the severe discrimination our community faces. We are excited about what this means for our community to have the opportunity to reconcile and heal from this violence.»