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California Senate passes bill that would make caste discrimination illegal

If the bill passes the Assembly and is signed by the governor, California will be the first state to ban caste discrimination.
California state Sen. Aisha Wahab proposes SB 403, a bill which adds caste as a protected category in the state’s anti-discrimination laws, in Sacramento on March 22, 2023.
State Sen. Aisha Wahab has proposed a bill to make caste a protected category under California's anti-discrimination laws.José Luis Villegas / AP file

The California state Senate has overwhelmingly passed a bill that would make discrimination on the basis of caste illegal in the state. 

Sen. Aisha Wahab’s bill, SB 403, flew through the Senate in a 34-1 vote. It now goes to the Democratic-controlled State Assembly and, if it passes, on to the desk to Gov. Gavin Newsom, who hasn't taken a public position on the bill. If the bill clears both, California would become the first state to protect caste.

“There are so many people that want to heal from the trauma of caste,” Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit activist and the founder of the caste equity organization Equality Labs, told NBC News following the vote. “What’s been incredible about this moment is to see these really beautiful inter-caste and interfaith alliances, groups that have all said that they’ve been harmed by caste and want freedom from it.”

Over the last few years, Soundararajan has been one of the leaders of a nationwide push to offer more protections for Dalits, those born into oppressed classes under the Indian caste system. Though the rigid hierarchy of social stratification is now illegal in India, advocates say its affects are far from gone. And in diaspora communities in the U.S., many say they still face exclusion, violence and discrimination. 

This bill would update California’s existing civil rights law to include caste among other protected categories like race and sex.

“The more diverse California becomes and the United States becomes, we need to protect more people in the way the American dream was originally supposed to,” Wahab told NBC News when she introduced the bill in March. “Our laws need to expand and cover more people and go deeper.”

But the legislation isn’t without its opponents. Some Indian American groups have spoken against SB 403, saying that adding protection against caste discrimination isn’t necessary in the U.S. and that it discriminates against Indians and Hindus. 

But Wahab said the bill is designed to protect groups across religions, nationalities and communities. It has the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, MeToo International and the California Labor Federation. 

In a press release Thursday, Wahab said that since she introduced the bill, she has received frequent threats, including death threats. Soundararajan and other Dalit activists say their work in the caste equity space has opened the door to doxxing and even physical harassment. 

“I really, truly hope that our opponents will join us and put down the sword of bigotry,” Soundararajan said. “Regardless of their fragility, their discomfort is not the equivalent of the grave discrimination our community is facing. We’re just thrilled for what this means for our community to have the opportunity to reconcile and heal from this violence.”