Scores of Indian-Americans held a peaceful rally in California to register their protest against a Democratic senator for introducing a bill in the state's Senate seeking to explicitly ban caste-based discrimination.
State Senator Aisha Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to the state legislature, introduced the bill in the California Senate on March 22. If the bill gets passed, California, America’s most populous state, could also become the country’s first state to outlaw caste-based bias.
At the peace rally organised by the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA) on Wednesday, participants said that the legislation introduced by Senator Wahab goes against the fundamental principles of equality and justice for all, regardless of their race, religion and ancestry.
“This bill presumes guilt, profiles and stereotypes Hindus and Asians, which will increase hate and target our kids,” said Harsh Singh, a Fremont city resident and tech worker.
Displaying posters and banners against the legislation, the protesters appealed to California lawmakers to not single out Hindus or presume that they are guilty of being oppressive simply due to their birth.
Participants of the peaceful rally in front of Senator Wahab's Office said that legislation SB-403 proposes to add "caste" as a protected category in California.
They said it is based on unproven and biased data that targets South Asians, along with other people of colour such as those from the Japanese, African and South American communities.
“If passed, the bill violates the civil rights of South Asians and other people of colour and denies them equal protection and due process,” CoHNA said.
The bill was introduced exactly one month after Seattle became the first US city to outlaw caste discrimination after its local council passed a resolution moved by an Indian-American politician and economist.
The resolution, moved by Kshama Sawant, an upper-caste Hindu, was approved by the Seattle City Council by six to one vote.
Sudha Jagannathan, Bahujan Hindu American and a mother, said it angers and frustrates her that America is forcing this identity on her while “all my life this was never an issue”.
"SB 403 will entrench the false and dangerous concept of caste as solely connected to Hindus. It reinforces the very discrimination that its supporters claim to stop via SB 403! My children and children will be branded with a caste, despite not knowing what it is!” she said.
“I am dismayed at how hate groups like Equality Labs seek to co-opt my identity and weaponise it against the very traditions that nourished and gave succour to millions through the ages," said Aldrin Deepak, tech worker, LGBTQ and Dalit American activist. They seek to deny the place of Valmiki and Vyasa, authors of the world’s most glorious and influential epics-the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the activist said.
“They negate the thousands upon thousands of subaltern-led temples that dot the landscape and attempt to refashion our sacred spaces to fit preconceived notions more grounded in monotheism.
"I reject the attempts from Equality Labs and California lawmakers to speak for me or my community. SB403 will profile us and leave us subject to being judged by so-called experts, based on subjective criteria like last names, dietary preferences, skin colour and more,” Mr. Deepak said.
After the peace rally, nearly 100 people went to speak at Fremont City Hall to make their concerns heard.
After introducing the legislation last month, Ms. Wahab told reporters that the "historic legislation is about workers’ rights, women’s rights, queer rights, and civil rights”.
“We want to ensure organisations and companies do not entrench caste discrimination in their practices or policies, and in order to do that we need to make it plainly clear that discrimination based on caste is against the law,” she had said at a news conference in Sacramento, California.
“Caste goes beyond religion and nationality. This legislation primarily protects millions who live in silence and have never had such protection because there is little understanding of this issue. This bill is about protecting people who are vulnerable,” Ms. Wahab said.
Equality Labs, the brain behind the anti-caste discrimination resolution in Seattle which has been spearheading a nationwide campaign, had claimed that in California, caste discrimination occurs across industries, including technology, education, construction, restaurants, domestic work, and medicine.
Many Indian Americans fear that codifying caste in public policy will further fuel instances of Hinduphobia in the US.
Over the last three years, ten Hindu temples and five statues, including those of Mahatma Gandhi and Maratha emperor Shivaji, have been vandalised across the US as an intimidation tactic against the Hindu community.
Indian Americans are the second-largest immigrant group in the U.S. According to data from the 2018 American Community Survey (ACS), which is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 4.2 million people of Indian origin residing in the United States.
India banned caste discrimination in 1948 and enshrined that policy in the Constitution in 1950.