Despite staunch advocacy from Berkeley and Bay Area-based Dalit activists and a month-long hunger strike by supporters, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill to abolish caste discrimination on Saturday.

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Berkeleyside Idea Makers

Our live series, Berkeleyside Idea Makers, returns Oct. 19 with a powerful conversation with influential leaders who are driving change for equity.

Senate Bill 403 was proposed by state Sen. Aisha Wahab (D-Fremont) in March and passed through the legislature with bipartisan support. 

It would have been the first state law in the country to outlaw caste discrimination, which is rooted in a centuries-old system of social hierarchy in South Asia, primarily India. The practice was banned in India shortly after its independence movement in 1947, but it continues to impact individuals considered “lower caste” in South Asia and its diaspora worldwide.

Newsom said in a veto statement Saturday that California’s discrimination protections regarding “ancestry” already cover caste without explicitly naming it.

“Because discrimination based on caste is already prohibited under these existing categories, this bill is unnecessary,” Newsom wrote.

But activists say explicit terms are necessary to prohibit caste bias and prevent adverse outcomes for those who pursue legal cases over discrimination.

In 2001, Dalit activism and caste discrimination in the U.S. were thrust into the spotlight when a Berkeley landlord was convicted of sex trafficking young Dalit women from India. 

It was a turning point for South Asian organizing in the U.S. and prominent local activists and advocacy groups. Alliance of South Asians Taking Action and Equality Labs were born in the aftermath of the case.

The conversation around caste in the Bay Area has recently ramped up due to prominent lawsuits at tech companies. The California Civil Rights Department sued Cisco in 2020, alleging that an engineer had been discriminated against based on his inherited social status as a Dalit. 

The Hindu American Foundation, which opposes the caste bill and claims it unfairly targets Hindus, has, in turn, sued the state over the Cisco lawsuit. The organization also pushed back against the Seattle City Council after the city became the first in the country to ban caste discrimination in February.

On Oct. 19, Berkeleyside will delve deep into the caste conversation to examine how caste continues to impact people living in the South Asian diaspora and how the ongoing fight to eradicate caste apartheid intertwines with other civil rights movements in the U.S. — despite its legal setbacks.

Berkeleyside’s Idea Makers will be held from 6:30-8 p.m. at the David Brower Center. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $15 through Friday and $20 afterward. 

Our guests include state Sen. Aisha Wahab, author of the bill, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder of Equality Labs, and Sonia Paul, a local journalist leading news coverage on caste in California. 

Wahab was born in New York City to Afghan refugees pursuing the American Dream. She was placed in foster care at an early age when tragedy struck her family. As a state senator, Wahab prioritizes policies that impact the lives of seniors, women and children and addresses housing affordability, civic engagement, education and economic inequality. She received her B.A. from San Jose State University and an MBA from CSU East Bay. She is the state senator for District 10, which includes Fremont, Union City, Milipitas, and parts of San Jose.

Soundararajan is a Dalit American artist, theorist and activist who works on the issues of race, caste and gender equity. She is the executive director of Equality Labs and the author of The Trauma of Caste. She co-founded the Californians for Caste Equity Coalition, which brought hundreds of organizations and thousands of Californians together to work on the historic bill SB 403 to end caste discrimination.

Sonia Paul teaches audio storytelling at Solano State Prison with KALW’s Uncuffed, a training program and podcast based in California prisons. As an independent journalist, writer and producer, she investigates how power hierarchies and transnational issues impact state systems and individual and community identity.

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...