California Governor vetoes bill that would have added caste to discrimination categories


On Oct. 7, 2023, California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed Senate Bill 403, introduced by State Senator Aisha Wahab, which added caste as another category to the existing list of prohibited discrimination.

“I am returning Senate Bill 403 without my signature,” Gov. Newsom said in his explanation. “This bill would define “ancestry” for purposes of the Fair Employment and Housing Act, the Unruh Act, and the Education Code to include “caste” and other dimensions of ancestry.”

“In California, we believe everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, no matter who they are, where they come from, who they love, or where they live. That is why California already prohibits discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other characteristics, and state law specifies that these civil rights protections shall be liberally construed. Because discrimination based on caste is already prohibited under these existing categories, this bill is unnecessary.”

This signaled a victory for several Hindu groups which had opposed the attempt to explicitly ban caste discrimination. The bill had been passed unanimously by the State Assembly in August and the State Senate in September.

The Hindu American Foundation which was one of the leading organizations opposing the caste bill, called it a “Historic victory for Hindu Americans.”

In a statement released Oct. 7, HAF HAF Managing Director Samir Kalra thanked Gov. Newsom, adding, “This is a victory for the civil rights of all Californians.”

“With the stroke of his pen, Governor Newsom has averted a civil rights and constitutional disaster that would have put a target on hundreds of thousands of Californians simply because of their ethnicity or their religious identity, as well as create a slippery slope of facially discriminatory laws,” Kalra maintained. “We thank Governor Newsom for listening to the thousands of voices that contacted his office and seeing that SB-403 was premised on racist rhetoric, a baseless lawsuit, egregious Civil Rights Department misconduct, false claims about the Hindu religion and South Asian community at large, and the self-serving, methodologically flawed, caste survey by Equality Labs.”

Kalra also thanked leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties in all levels of government, for opposing what he characterized as a “racist bill,” adding, “we will never forget that you defended the Hindu and South Asian communities at a critical moment in California history.”

Executive Director of HAF Suhag Shukla, in her statement, said, “We at HAF have always said that any discrimination on the basis of ‘caste’ violates not only Hindu teachings, but also existing state and federal law. The fight over SB-403 has always been about the best solution for any intra-community discrimination, not whether such protections are needed.”

She recounted the actions taken by sections of the Indian American community to advocate against SB-403. “We’re grateful to Hindu Americans across the state who have shown tremendous resilience and to our allies for coming together like never before,” Shukla said.

“To all those who have suffered discrimination, we stand with you. We hope to move forward together, educating our community to live the values of our shared traditions that insist on equality based on teachings of oneness of all of existence. We hope to move forward without hatred or malice to bring together our community which SB-403 so unnecessarily divided,” she added.

Caste was defined in the bill as “an individual’s perceived position in a system of social stratification on the basis of inherited status.” Some cities have already banned caste discrimination, including Seattle, Washington, earlier this year, and Fresno, California more recently.

HinduPACT thanked Governor Newsom for vetoing what it said was a “blatantly Hinduphobic SB-403, a bill that would have weakened California’s privacy protections.” Leaders of HinduPACT, Rakhi Israni, executive director, and Amitabh Mittal of Vishwa Hindu Parishad America,

Supporters of the bill to add caste as a specific discrimination, expressed disappointment.

“I grew up in Orange County, where I was bullied for my caste throughout my education,” Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of California-based Dalit civil rights organization Equality Labs, is quoted saying in a Reuters report. She also testified in April in support of the bill, asserting that California is “ground zero” for caste discrimination.Equality Labs called it “heartbreaking” to see Newsom’s veto.

Some major rights groups supported the bill that the Governor vetoed, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, and MeToo International.

In its statement following the veto, Equality Labs called it a victory nevertheless.

The landmark first-of-its-kind anti-caste discrimination bill would have added “caste” as a protected characteristic under ancestry in California’s anti-discrimination laws, it noted. “Though Newsom has rejected the legislation for now, the caste equity movement still views this as a win. SB403 is the first anti-caste discrimination bill to have made it all the way through the California legislature,” the press release said. “The bill’s overwhelmingly positive trajectory is a manifestation of the enduring power of the intersectional organizing of the California Coalition for Caste Equity which empowered hundreds of organization intersectional grassroots organizers, civil rights leaders, legal scholars, Ravidassia community members, and workers’ rights groups from across California.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statement explaining his veto of SB-403 on caste. PHOTO: Gov.


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