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  • Writer's pictureSavira Gupta

Caste-discrimination bill sb403: a personal perspective.

NOTE: Writing has always been a practice of svadhyaya for me (self-inquiry) especially when tackling issues that are sensitive, diverse and tough! It is how I assimilate, digest and understand my own bias and views.

The state of California has been at the forefront of addressing social issues and inequalities. One such issue is 'caste discrimination'. SB403 has sparked intense debates and discussions with some arguing that it's a necessary step to address, while others feel it disproportionately targets the South Asian and Hindu community.

What is SB403: California's legislation targets the caste system within the South Asian immigrant community by adding caste to the list of categories protected under the state's anti-discrimination laws. The bill was introduced and authored by state Senator Aisha Wahab.

The first draft of the bill clearly discriminates against us South Asians even though it is meant to protect! Since then the bill has gone through several changes but the seed of intent to discriminate has already been planted and the damage, well it has been done!

It is essential to acknowledge that caste discrimination is NOT just limited to South Asia; it exists within ALL communities. But when a bill targets only one community, it inadvertently marginalizes other groups and downplays the seriousness of caste-based discrimination within other communities.

Supporters of SB403 state that it's a necessary step to combat caste-based discrimination and harassment and aims to provide legal protections against caste discrimination in various spheres of life, including employment, education, and housing. In principle, this sounds like the right move, as discrimination in any form must not be tolerated but why single out South Asians only? What about addressing caste discrimination in other faiths and communities?

The framework of ‘caste’ is a complex system and though it is linked to India it is also found in other parts of the world. There is valid concern about its persistence and impact on individuals today. While SB403 has the potential to provide much-needed protection against discrimination, its focus in the media and by anti-Hindu organizations on the Hindu and South Asian community is not only harmful but goes against what this bill is trying to accomplish.

How can a country that has very little understanding on the matter take a major action without addressing the complexity of caste through extensive research, dialogue and collaboration with all parties to ensure that the solutions put forth will have clear and precise guidelines to prevent the abuse and misuse of this bill?

In bill SB403 'caste' means; an individual’s perceived status in a system of social stratification on the basis of inherited status may be characterized by factors that may include, but are not limited to, inability or restricted ability to alter inherited status; socially enforced restrictions on marriage, private and public segregation, and discrimination; and social exclusion on the basis of perceived status.

Using marriage choices of a South Asian as an indicator of caste discrimination seems unfair and discriminatory when this happens within every other community.

I ask “how can one determine a caste-based offense in today’s environment when clearly people have many different perceived positions and will this lead to the bill being misused?”

This brings me to yoga of which there are so many concerns and questions. Already within yogaland, yoga has been equated to politics, social activism and now casteism. India, a diverse country with 28 states, 8 union territories (federal territories governed by the Central Government of India) and 23 recognized languages. Each state has their own unique culture and practice. There is bound to be diverse cultural views, festivals lived experiences and rituals.

Take the example of ‘Namaste’ with so many perspectives, opinions and experiences it has led to confusion and uncertainty within yogaland that many have dropped it for fear of appropriating yoga or hurting the sentiments of both Desi Americans/Hindus.

This diverse understanding mixed with personal opinions have created a significant divide within the South Asian yoga community, there is no universally agreement on the teachings, practice and definition of yoga!

· Who gets to decides if a certain ritual or practice is a caste-based offense?

· What aspects of yoga would fall under a caste-based offense?

· How would this affect those that have grown up with ancestral yogic teachings?

· Will spiritual practices, rituals and festivals like Diwali or Holi fall under caste-based offenses?

Writing on SB403 and its impact has been difficult. I am curious and worried at the same time as to how this will affect the South Asian community within the US. I fear that this could further alienate yoga from its roots, leading to further appropriation.

The worry for today’s children and future generations to come is very real. Many do not identify with a caste and in the present environment where racial profiling is frowned upon, wont sb403 lead to caste profiling?

The bill does subtly target the South Asian community regardless of one's individual choices, beliefs politics, practice, color and ancestry.

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