California Governor Gavin Newsom has vetoed a landmark anti-caste discrimination bill recently passed by the state assembly, terming it “unnecessary” and underlining that laws to ban caste-based discrimination already exist in the US state. The governor’s move has been welcomed by a large segment of the Indian-American community who were opposing the bill based on the same argument.
“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,” Newsom said in a statement on Saturday.
“That is why California already prohibits discrimination based on sex, race, colour, 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,” he said.
For this reason, Newsom asserted that he “cannot sign” the bill, known as ‘SB403’, which was recently passed by a large majority by both the House of Representatives and Senate of the California State Assembly. California would have been the first US state to formally ban discrimination on the basis of caste if the Governor had signed the bill.
The bill was introduced in March by Democratic state Senator Aisha Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to the California Legislature.
The bill defines “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. The opponents of the bill described it as historic and said that such a move by the Governor has prevented the efforts of many to target the South Asian community and the Hindus in the state.
Reacting to the development, Castefiles, an educational platform which challenges false caste and race narratives in media, described the move as a historic decision.
“Governor Newsom has taken a stance to veto SB403 - an attempt to sully the Civil Rights Act by adding discriminatory notes to it with the highly contentious term ‘CASTE’. Newsom has recognised the pain and fight of the South Asian micro minority. Democracy wins today in America - the Vox populi that fought to be heard amidst the deafening roar of fake caste narratives,” it said. Samir Kalra, managing director of the Hindu American Foundation, said, “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.”
Leading Democrat Ajay Bhutoria, in a statement, expressed his gratitude to Newsom for vetoing the bill and described it as a “momentous development”.
During a recent engagement at a Democratic National Committee (DNC) event in Chicago, Bhutoria from California and Rakesh Kapur from Boston urged the governor to veto the bill.
Vetoing the SB403 Caste Bill was the right course of action, elucidating the detrimental impacts it could have on the community, they told the governor in Chicago last month.
“This legislation was undeniably redundant and unnecessary, and I am pleased that our discussions in Chicago bore fruit. The veto of this bill is a testament to the power of constructive dialogue and collaboration,” Bhutoria said in a statement.
“This is a culmination of the efforts of the entire #HinduAmerican community, and the hundreds of organisations, temples, businesses, and allies that fought against #profiling. We rose above the lies, the insinuations, and the wild accusations - and we prevailed,” Coalition of Hindus of North America said.
“It was an effort that saw hundreds of volunteers turn out in person, dozens of organisations, and thousands of California residents who wrote, called, and texted their lawmakers. Proof that if we unite and take action, nothing is impossible,” CoHNA said.
Khanderao Kand from the Foundation for India and Indian Diaspora (FIIDS) thanked Newsom for “this historic and correct” decision.
“I reject all and any form of discrimination, however as the governor said California law already covers all discriminations, moreover, this bill would have caused facial and ethnic profiling leading to difficulty for industries, particularly the tech industry to operate,” he said.
The recently formed Americans for Hindus said the bill was not facially neutral.
“It relied on misleading narratives, strawman arguments, and a questionable survey that actively encouraged falsification of data,” it said, thanking the governor for vetoing the bill.
In a statement, Deelip Mhaske, president of the Foundation for Human Horizon and prominent Ambedkarite, said while the governor ideologically supported the bill, he was against anything that would further divide the Indian-American community or promote negative sentiments towards India.
“Consequently, he vetoed the bill, not because he opposed the legislation per se, but due to concerns over divisive groups hijacking the movement,” he said.
According to Mhaske, after the bill was passed by the California Assembly, several organisations supporting the bill initiated a hunger strike, prompting an investigation into the participants, especially Equality Lab.
“Concerns were raised that some groups were using the bill as a means to promote financial interests, as well as fostering divisive anti-India and anti-Hindu sentiments within the Indian community in America,” he said, welcoming the decision of the governor to veto the bill.
Vaishali V, president of the Ambedkar-Phule Network of American Dalits and Bahujans, congratulated Newsom for seeing through the flaws in the bill and how it would adversely impact people from South Asia, including the marginalised communities.
“As California’s Governor has rightly pointed out, California’s law on civil rights already covers all instances of discrimination. We believe that this bill was brought with the sole intention of stereotyping Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Muslims and other communities from South Asia.
“While we welcome the veto, we know that nothing can bring back the life of our leader Milind Makwana who was the voice marginalised and at the forefront of the struggle against SB-403 Nothing can heal the loss and the trauma that this bill has caused to the families of the marginalised communities,” Vaishali said.
Expressing profound relief and gratitude following the governor’s decision to veto bill SB403, Hindu Parents said this significant decision stands as a beacon against prejudice, discrimination, and misinformation about Hinduism and its followers in California.
“With this development, our children can look forward to a future where they are not subject to undue stereotyping and profiling based on perceptions. This ensures they can practise their faith peacefully, with pride, and without the looming shadows of colonial-era stereotypes and prejudice,” Hindu Parents said.
“While we celebrate this victory, we recognise there’s more work ahead. The portrayal of Hinduism and Hindu-Americans, especially in educational materials, remains a concern. It is our hope that the state of California will address these systemic biases and stereotypes in our textbooks. True reconciliation can be achieved when education reflects the rich diversity and historical contributions of Hinduism,” said the organisation representing Hindu Parents.
“Standing against all forms of hatred, bullying, and discrimination is our collective responsibility,” it said.
Eminent Indian American Yogi Chug said Governor Newsom’s veto of SB403 demonstrates the outcome of a protracted and long effort by the Indian-American community to advocate for the limitations of the original bill as authored.
“One must applaud the relentless effort of so many community members who diligently made the case for ensuring that no one is singled out or profiled as it iterated through various versions in the California legislature,” he said.
“The key is to ensure that the Indian-American community continues to remain engaged and recognise that they have the potential to be a responsible and meaningful voice in the American political process. Equally important is to focus on this ongoing political journey with the utmost humility and purpose,” Chug said.
Equality Lab, which had relentlessly worked for the bill and its passage, said though Governor 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, it said.
“We are very proud of the power and resilience that caste-oppressed people across the state have shown in their advocacy for SB403. While it is heartbreaking to receive the Governor’s veto, it is not a reflection of the incredible democratic power that our communities showed. We did the impossible,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Executive Director of Equality Labs.
Kiran Kaur Gill, Executive Director of SALDEF, said they are deeply disappointed by Governor Newsom’s veto of SB 403, which would have banned caste discrimination in California.
“This veto is a missed opportunity to protect millions of Californians from a form of discrimination that is deeply rooted in our society. But we won’t stop fighting for a more just and equal society and will continue fighting for California to be the first state to ban discrimination based on caste,” Gill said.
Rasheed Ahmed, Executive Director of Indian American Muslim Council, said the Indian-American Muslims are shocked, disheartened and deeply disappointed to see that Governor Newsom backed down from the chance to uphold the civil rights of all Californians and make history for caste-oppressed people throughout the state by vetoing SB-403.
The Sikh Coalition is deeply disappointed to learn that Governor Newsom has chosen to veto SB403, said Harman Singh, Policy and Education Director, Sikh Coalition.
“Millions of American Hindus, and people from the Indian subcontinent can take a sigh of relief, that they won’t be targeted for hate and prejudice under the garb of “caste”,” said Hindu Action in a statement.
“Kudos to the California governor for vetoing the racist bill on caste. It turned an existing law against discrimination and used it to target Hindus specifically. What hypocrisy by those claiming to fight prejudice? Our pushback has finally produced results,” said author Rajiv Malhotra.