New York: In a reprieve for Indian and other South Asian California communities, ‘caste’ was removed as a stand-alone nondiscrimination category from SB-403. The amended version of the bill, which relegates ‘caste’ to one of several terms and phrases clarifying the existing category of ‘ancestry,’ passed the Assembly Judiciary Committee on July 6th.
“But for ‘caste’ being added as a clarification of ‘ancestry,’ we’re pleased to see suggestions and language we proposed being used to significantly defang the bill,” stated Suhag Shukla, Hindu American Foundation’s (HAF) Executive Director, reacting to the Committee vote.
HAF leaders said they are relieved that language in the original text singling out and targeting South Asian and other ethnic communities had been removed, but remained concerned that SB-403 retains a mention of ‘caste’ given its singular association with South Asians. At the same time, they applauded the expansion of the clarification of ancestry with facially neutral terms like ‘lineal descent’, ‘heritage’ and ‘parentage.’
“While the move to amend the bill is a step in the right direction, the use of ‘caste’, even as a clarification of ancestry, is still problematic,” stated Samir Kalra, Esq., HAF’s Managing Director and co-counsel, while delivering the lead opposition witness testimony. Satnam Singh, a prominent Sikh American leader from Yuba City also delivered moving opposition testimony.
“So long as caste is equated with India in the public imagination and the state of California requires public schools to teach caste as something unique and inherent to India and Hinduism, ‘caste’ will always be associated with South Asians. The specific inclusion of the word under ‘ancestry’ will be used to stigmatize and profile us as a matter of law,” he added after the hearing.
The amended SB-403 is a major departure from the wording of the bill first introduced by Senator Wahab that blanketly depicted South Asians as engaging in horrible criminal conduct including oppression, human trafficking and rape.
Senator Wahab reiterated these unsubstantiated claims during the hearing, but the Assembly Judiciary Committee passed a dramatically stripped-down version of her bill that removed every such reference. Whereas ‘South Asian’ was mentioned six times in the original bill and ‘caste’ 65 times, ‘South Asian’ has now been eliminated and ‘caste’ reduced to one reference as “caste, or any inherited status.”
The Committee’s motion was based on recommendations made in an analysis submitted by Committee Consultant, Tom Clark. These recommendations included removing caste as a stand-alone category, keeping the definition of ‘caste’ from the original bill and clarifying “ancestry” as the amended SB-403 does.
Echoing the frustration many in the Assembly have with Wahab’s bill, Clark described as “perplexing” Wahab’s resistance to the use of ‘ancestry’ noting, “None of the support letters and related background material submitted to the Committee suggests that caste is not a part of one’s ancestry.”
“The author’s intention to target South Asians has been clear since she first introduced her bill. And regardless of the bill’s attempt to define caste through verbal gymnastics, it won’t change the likelihood of disparate impact on our community,” Shukla concluded.
While relieved with this incremental gain as a result of opposition by many Indian American, civil rights and faith-based organizations, HAF leaders restated their commitment to fighting for the final removal of ‘caste’ from the bill at the next stage.