Supporters and opponents of SB-403 in Sacramento, July 5, 2023 (Courtesy: Semantha Norris Calmatters)
ON OCTOBER 7, California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed Senate Bill 403 (SB- 403). What is the significance of this veto for the Indian diaspora and for India, where caste issues dominate not just politics, but almost all aspects of our life? What, more specifically, can we learn from the progress and—at least for now—proscription of this Bill?
To answer such questions, we would first need to know what SB-403 is. For those who haven’t been following the developments, and now, hopefully, the demise, of the Bill, a brief history might be apposite. One of California’s Democratic Senators, Aisha Wahab, authored this Bill aiming to include caste as a protected category in the state’s legal system. SB-403’s aim was to amend the existing laws in California so that discrimination based on caste would be legally prohibited wherever it might be claimed to exist, as in housing, employment, education, and so on.
Seemingly innocuous, especially to the uninitiated? But the Bill was hotly contested in the Indian diaspora in the US. Earlier in February this year, Seattle, home of big corporations such as Amazon and Microsoft, became the first city in America specifically to ban caste discrimination. Those opposing the legislation had argued that it would target Indians in general and Hindus in particular, identifying them with caste. This divisive colonial construct was now being promoted, they said, by members of the community themselves in a cynical, self-stigmatising way. Like the proverbial dead albatross, caste would now hang forever around the necks of Hindu Americans.
Before jumping to conclusions or taking sides on the Bill, it might be salutary to quote Governor Newsom’s veto letter to the state’s senators: “I am returning Senate Bill 403 without my signature. This bill would define ‘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. 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. That is why California already prohibits discrimination based on sex, race, color, 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.”
Apart from its clarity of content, the pithiness of the letter must be noted and appreciated.
The fundamental premise of the veto is its most relevant part to India. Newsom reminds the proponents for SB-403 that “California already prohibits discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other characteristics.” Moreover, these “protections shall be liberally construed.” This means that anyone claiming discrimination based on caste is already protected. If so, SB-403 is redundant: “Because discrimination based on caste is already prohibited under these existing categories, this bill is unnecessary.”
If SB-403 was so obviously and patently unwarranted, what would have been the implications of adding “caste” to the list of already protected criteria for discrimination, including “sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation?” Simple. It would have marked Hindus, perceived to be the most caste-oriented of communities, with a giant “X” on their backs.
The illogicality, if not malevolence, of SB-403 might be exposed by asking a simple question. How does one know (some)one’s caste? Even in India, there were, traditionally, only two ways—ascription (by others) and affirmation (by oneself). How can we come to this conclusion? Because all other markers, including name, physical appearance, social traits, or social status, let alone genetic evidence, are neither foolproof nor failsafe. Today, when we have moved away from our ancestral homes, it is difficult to pin down who someone is—unless they self-identify as a particular caste or others recognise them as such.
Consider names, for instance. We know how prevalent, in a well-established process of social ascension, individuals and communities opt for name changes. This process, arguably rule-bound, was called Sanskritisation by eminent sociologist MN Srinivas. But, after colonialism, Anglicisation could well be added to it, even replacing it in some instances. For example, Aniruddh becomes Andy. Even in BR Ambedkar’s own case, his last name was no indication of caste. His birth surname, Sakpal, was changed by his father to Ambadawekar when he was admitted to school. Krishnaji Keshav Ambedkar, a Brahmin teacher, changed it to “Ambedkar” in the school records, thereby giving young Bhim his own caste name. Entire communities, in fact, change surnames, as when agriculturists in Uttar Pradesh adopted “Patel”, already prevalent in western India, especially Gujarat. Since time immemorial, Singh has been the ubiquitous surname of many communities, regardless of their actual varna or jati position. Similarly, many in recent times, have preferred caste-neutral surnames such as “Kumar.”
Those opposing the legislation had argued that it would target Indians in general and Hindus in particular, identifying them with caste
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Indeed, the fundamental defect with the modern colonial imposition of “caste” as a category is the conflation of varna and jati, two “untranslatables” that were so often used to determine a person’s position in Indian society. Varnas (literally colours or letters) were limited to four classes or orders, similar to classifications in many other parts of the world, including Europe. The fifth or panchama, referred to those outside the four-fold stratification of priest, warrior, businessman, and worker. But jatis, or the exact endogamous group, were far more numerous, numbering in tens of thousands. Thus, “Dalit” too is a contemporary construct, which refers not to a particular jati, but includes all those formerly considered “untouchable.” We need not repeat that untouchability was abolished in the Indian Constitution.
When we leave aside names, then all other markers of caste become even harder to establish. Ambedkar, to return to our prime example, was much fairer than Gandhi; in fact, the latter considered him to be a Maharashtrian Brahmin on first encountering him. Ambedkar himself rejected race as the basis of caste, though recent attempts have been made to conflate the two. There is, instead, increasing evidence to show the degradation and humiliation of entire communities, especially those who refused to convert or cooperate with ruling elites. Or their obverse rise when rewarded with patronage in return for support, as with several caste groups who served or fought for the British during colonialism. Hence the idea of the permanence and fixity of the caste system is at best a pernicious myth imposed from above, as in the preamble of the Mandal Commission Report, or worse, a deliberately divisive political conspiracy. All other apparently objective ways of determining caste, whether genetic, sociological, or historical similarly fail to meet rigorous or replicable criteria.
We are, therefore, faced with an unpalatable and harsh truth. There is no way to prove caste, even in India, except by a government-issued certificate. Caste, then, is maintained by the state. And the state itself has been captured, in greater or lesser measure, by caste-based political mobilisation, with parties almost entirely devoted to single castes, ensuring upward mobility and government benefits to its members and the perpetuation of caste identities. Of course, all the while pretending to champion the end of caste.
If this contradiction is all too evident in India, what then of the US? How would anyone be able to establish caste outside the boundaries of India and without government certification? The answer that SB-403 offers is revealing. In the Bill, caste is defined as “an individual’s perceived position in a system of social stratification on the basis of inherited status.” The key here is “perceived.”
Perceived by whom? We can easily imagine a situation in a workplace where a person who perceives themselves to be Dalit charges someone they perceive to be Brahmin as discriminating against them. What if the latter were actually a Dalit who had taken on a Brahmin surname and—for the sake of argument—vice-versa? Who would adjudicate the facticity of either’s claims or counterclaims?
As if to mitigate if not obviate such conundrums, SB-403 set out additional criteria such as “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.” But, once again, “inherited status” is already covered in the present California laws.
“For this reason,” Governor Newsom concluded, “I cannot sign this bill.” In the next column, we shall explore the broader implications of the veto.