“Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire which prevents the Hindus from co-mingling and which has, therefore, to be pulled down. Caste is a notion; it is a state of the mind.”
These words from Dr. B R Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste are echoed every day in India whenever Dalits are flogged for sporting moustache or riding a horse. It finds resonance in the United States too with the right-wing Hindu-American organisations campaigning against a bill that merely wants to include ‘caste’ as a trajectory of discrimination.
More than 21 Indian-American organisations cutting across caste, class, and religions came together on June 25 to launch a campaign against caste discrimination in the United States. The campaign started in the backdrop of the efforts made by different right-wing organisations to implement changes in SB403, the anti-caste discrimination bill that aims to add ‘caste’ as a protected category to the Unruh Civil Rights Act.
In the last few months, SB403 has become a household name in the country as the movements both for and against the anti-caste discrimination bill have gained strength on the ground. Since it was passed in the California Senate by 34:1 vote with five absentees, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and other Hindu right-wing groups allegedly started using their political clout to halt it from sailing through the Democratic-controlled state assembly — a crucial stage for the bill to turn into a law.
The changes proposed in the judiciary committee of the Assembly, however, allegedly aim at diluting the bill. Anil Wagde, the spokesperson of Amebedkar International Centre, an organisation at the forefront of the struggle tells Outlook, “Internally, we have the information that there have been efforts to drop the word caste altogether from the bill. Then, what is the point of such exercise?”
Addressing the America Against Caste Discrimination (AACD) campaign,
, the Settle councilor who for the first time in US history got caste discrimination banned in any city, says, “All the whereas clauses, all the languages that provide statistical and social justification of why such a law is necessary is completely struck.”
In the proposed version, they have also tried to put caste in the category of ‘ancestry’, instead of separately recognising it as a form of discrimination, says Sawant.
The ‘whereas clauses’ though are not part of the operative section or the legally enforceable portion of the bill, it works as a justification to why such separate recognition for a category of discrimination is necessary. The removal of the justifications, Sawant notes, will affect the decision of judiciary when a caste-oppressed person would seek justice.
“The judge in the court may say, ‘I don’t understand what the motivation for the hill is’. This is very confusing as both the plaintiff and the defendant are South Asians,” says Sawant.
Such bill without the analysis and justifications reserved in the ‘whereas clauses’ would fail in its implementation.
However, in a letter dated June 20, Assembly members of California Evan Low and Alex Lee suggested “Official Study of the Extent of Caste Discrimination” or “Clarifying the definition of the protected class ‘Ancestry’”. Citing the possibilities of divergent outcomes in studies on caste discrimination in the United States, they said, “While anecdotal evidence and the lived experiences we have heard from activists are compelling, an official study is warranted.”
Further asking for redefining the category ‘Ancestry’ to include caste, they said how the protected class of ‘Sex’ had been clarified to include different and diverse gender expressions and gender identities.
Ram Kumar, the President of Ambedkar International Centre, countering such propositions, says, “The voices of Californians harmed by caste discrimination cannot be ignored, and it is reprehensible that opponents of the bill are seeking to dismiss our voices and our pain. Assembly members Low and Lee must realise that they are enabling the continuance of this harm, and acting in defence of one of the cruellest and most prevalent forms of injustice in existence today.”
Expressing their solidarities with the AACD, Raju Rajagopal of Hindus for Human Rights, nevertheless, says, “We are proud to add a progressive Hindu voice to the call to annihilate caste, even as we acknowledge the role of our dominant caste forebears in architecting and practicing the monstrous system of caste hierarchy and deep-seated bigotry against fellow human beings.”
Senator Wahab while passing the bill at the Senate referred to the necessity of such steps for strengthening democracy.
“California will start a domino effect to end caste discrimination with an aye vote on SB403. The world is watching. I trust my colleagues to stand on the right side of history on this matter,” said Wahab.
The bill was supported by several civil rights groups like Equality Labs and workers’ organisation like California Labour Federation and Socialist Alternative.
The proposed amendments to the Unruh Civil Rights Act that protects people against all forms of prevalent discriminations, added ‘caste’ as a distinctive clause alongside the already mentioned trajectories of “disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or specified other characteristics”.
Earlier, exclusively talking to Outlook about the resistances Sawant faced during her efforts to pass the caste-ban law in Seattle, she said, “The oppression against Dalits across India increased since Modi government came to power. We faced major challenges from the Hindu right-wing groups mostly led by VHP and Hindu American Foundation.”
In the case of California’s anti-caste bill as well, the Hindu American Foundation has been at the forefront of opposition. In a letter written to Senator Wahab, it says, “We oppose SB-403 because both its legislative intent and impact will result in an unconstitutional denial of equal protection and due process to South Asians (the vast majority of whom are of Indian origin) and other vulnerable ethnic communities.”
Emphasising on the suffering of the Indian Americans, it notes, “Despite this numerical presence and the many contributions of the community, Indian and Hindu Americans comprise less than 1.5 per cent of the state’s population and face significant negative stereotypes and misconceptions about their national origin, ethnicity, ancestry and religion, making them targets for hate crimes, discrimination, harassment and bullying.”