A bill that would outlaw caste discrimination in California has cleared its first big legislative hurdle.
On Tuesday, the state's Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the legislation, sending it on to the next committee for consideration. If passed, the bill could make California the first state in the nation to make caste bias illegal by adding it as a protected category in the state's anti-discrimination laws.
State Senator Aisha Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to the state legislature, introduced the bill last month. Tuesday's hearing showed just how contentious the issue has been in the South Asian community, with hundreds of supporters and opponents gathering outside the state Capitol with signs.
"We've hit a nerve and exposed a form of discrimination many never even knew existed," said Wahab, D-Hayward, who told committee members that she has received death threats after proposing this legislation.
"Caste is an invisible shackle placed on people at birth. Those of us not raised in that system can't possibly understand what it does to one's psyche, the intergenerational trauma it causes."
Caste is a division of people related to birth or descent and those at the lowest strata of the caste system known as Dalits, have been pushing for legal protections in California and beyond. They say it is necessary to protect them from bias in housing, education and in the tech sector — where they hold key roles.
Between Tuesday's live testimony and phone calls, about 220 people said they support the bill and about 420 said they oppose it. Many proponents said they have experienced caste discrimination or wish to get this law on the books to prevent such bias.
Opponents called the proposed legislation "unconstitutional" and said it would unfairly target Hindus and people of Indian descent. Several who spoke during the hearing identified as lower caste, but said they are opposed to the legislation because it is divisive.
Wahab asserted Tuesday that the bill "does not target any specific community or religion."
A United Nations report in 2016 said at least 250 million people worldwide still face caste discrimination in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Pacific regions, as well as in various diaspora communities. Caste systems are found among Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Muslims and Sikhs.
Rakhi Israni, an attorney and California resident who testified before the committee, said the legislation is an "unconstitutional denial of my community's rights to fairness and equal protection under the law."
"If this bill is adopted, caste will be the only discrimination law category that is not facially neutral," she said. "Everyone has a race. Everyone has a color. Everyone has an age. Not everyone has a caste. This bill is facially discriminatory."
Ann Ravel, who served on the Federal Election Commission under President Barack Obama, testified Tuesday that she views this bill and the movement to end caste discrimination "as an important civil rights issue."
"Unless caste is explicitly added [as a protected category], it will be very difficult for those who have been discriminated against to seek legal remedy," she said.
A 2020 survey of Indian Americans by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found caste discrimination was reported by 5% of survey respondents. While 53% of foreign-born Hindu Indian Americans said they affiliate with a caste group, only 34% of U.S.-born Hindu Indian Americans said they do the same.
However, a 2016 Equality Labs survey of 1,500 South Asians in the U.S. showed 67% of Dalits who responded reported being treated unfairly because of their caste.
Committee members said they understood opponents' concerns but are inclined to move the legislation along because they believe it will help prevent such discrimination. The bill received bipartisan support on the committee.
Senator Dave Min, D-Irvine, said he believes this legislation will clarify existing anti-discrimination laws.
"This has been a tough and emotional issue to consider," he said. "But I believe the pros [of the bill] outweigh the cons."
Senator Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, said he would vote in favor because he agrees with the intent of the bill but would like to see the definition of caste clarified as the bill moves along.
"That definition needs to be tightened up for everyone's protection," he said.
Next, the legislation will move to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration.
Receiving such overwhelming approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee is heartening, said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and executive director of Oakland, California-based Equality Labs. The Dalit advocacy group has been leading the movement against caste discrimination in the United States.
"We are so happy that this bill will now move forward," she said. "Supporters of this bill came from all over California today."
Opponents also came from all over the state to make their voices heard. Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, said her organization is disappointed that "the legislative analysis of the bill completely ignored our core concerns."
"[The bill] seeks to deny equal protection and due process under the law for only South Asians," she said. "The fact that there were hundreds of mostly Indian Americans at the hearing goes to show … the efforts of those opposing the bill to block this assault on the civil rights of all South Asians, Dalits and non-Dalits alike."
Pushpita Prasad, a spokesperson for the Coalition of Hindus of North America, said even though the bill says it does not single out Hindus, its targeting of Hindus is implicit.
"When you look at the history textbooks in California, the word 'caste' is only mentioned in the chapter about Hinduism," she said. "Those who know little about this subject associate caste with Hindus and Indians."
Earlier this month, the California Civil Rights Department voluntarily dismissed its case alleging caste discrimination against two Cisco engineers, Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella, while still keeping alive its litigation against the Silicon Valley tech giant.
In February, Seattle became the first U.S. city and the first jurisdiction outside South Asia to add caste to its anti-discrimination laws. Several colleges and universities have also enacted similar policies barring caste discrimination on campuses, including the University of California, Davis.