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Colleges and universities across the US are moving to ban caste discrimination

<i>Nani Walker/Los Angeles Times/Shutterstock</i><br/>Prem Pariyar
Nani Walker/Shutterstock
Nani Walker/Los Angeles Times/Shutterstock
Prem Pariyar

By Harmeet Kaur, CNN

On paper, the change was subtle — the word “caste” appearing in parentheses after the term “race and ethnicity.”

But for many advocates and student leaders, the tweak to California State University’s anti-discrimination policy that quietly went into effect on January 1 was a civil rights victory: An acknowledgment from the nation’s largest, four-year public university system that the insidious form of oppression that has long haunted some on campus is, in fact, real.

Caste-oppressed students, who mostly hail from South Asian immigrant and diaspora backgrounds, say that casteism tends to manifest in US colleges and universities through slurs, microaggressions and social exclusion. But because these dynamics play out within these minority communities, most other Americans have little understanding of how they operate — leaving these students, many of whom refer to themselves as Dalits, without recourse.

The move by Cal State, which came after nearly two years of student organizing, stands to change that. By explicitly mentioning caste in its anti-discrimination policy, Cal State has made it a protected status, thereby prohibiting caste-based discrimination, harassment or retaliation. For a university system with more than 485,000 students and about 56,000 faculty and staff members, that could have significant implications.

“This is very important for us because we can feel safer,” said Prem Pariyar, a recent alumnus of Cal State East Bay who helped advocate for caste protections across CSU’s 23 campuses. “At least the university has a policy to recognize our pain and to recognize our issues.”

Now that Cal State has declared caste a protected status, Dalit students and employees on its campuses have an avenue for accountability, activists said. And now that the largest university system in the country’s most populous state has committed to caste protections, they hope that the movement for caste equity will continue to grow.

Caste has followed South Asians to the US

Originating in ancient India, the caste system is a social hierarchy that historically assigned people to groups based on their occupations or work (karma) and obligations or religious duty (dharma). The system would evolve to assign a certain degree of “spiritual purity” based on the family they were born into. That degree of so-called purity, in turn, determined the path of a person’s life: their rank in society, their career options, what they ate and who they married. At the bottom of the hierarchy, considered so low that they are relegated to the most undesirable jobs in society, are the Dalits.

Though the caste system and caste-based discrimination have been legally outlawed in India and other South Asian countries, its legacy persists in cultural and systemic ways, extending beyond Hinduism and India to other South Asian religions and regions. And as South Asians migrate across continents and oceans, they often bring caste with them.

That was the experience for Pariyar, who is a Dalit Hindu and moved to the US from Nepal in 2015 in part, he said, to escape caste oppression. He said his family faced discrimination and violence from dominant caste Nepalis both because of their caste and their outspokenness on such injustices. By coming to the US, Pariyar assumed he would be leaving that all behind.

“I thought at that time that now I don’t have to experience caste discrimination because the US is different. In the US, the South Asian diaspora, including the Nepali diaspora, are educated … so they don’t believe in caste discrimination,” he said. “But I was wrong. Totally wrong.”

Caste seemed to follow Pariyar even in California. Unlike other Dalits he encountered in the US, Pariyar didn’t hide his last name, which gave away his caste identity. But he said he found that his transparency colored his interactions with caste-privileged Nepalis. He felt their tone of voice and behavior toward him change once they learned his full name. At gatherings in the homes of other community members, he said he would be given a plate of food while others were allowed to serve themselves — implying that his handling of the food might somehow pollute it.

When Pariyar enrolled in a graduate program at Cal State East Bay in 2019, he found that he couldn’t escape caste there either. While waiting at a Bay Area rapid transit station on one occasion, he encountered two Nepali students and introduced himself. Their conversation was warm, he said, until they asked for his name. When he told them, Pariyar said they looked him up and down and appeared uncomfortable. Their reaction was humiliating.

“Why? Why do they do that?” Pariyar said. “They were surprised seeing a Nepali Dalit from ‘untouchable’ community going to their university.”

Another time, Pariyar brought up his experiences with caste discrimination during a classroom discussion about the trauma of racism and sexism. Some South Asian students in the class, he said, reacted as though caste discrimination was completely foreign to them. He felt they were effectively gaslighting him. And when he tried to organize a conference on issues of caste, Pariyar said he got little support from other South Asians.

Still, Pariyar pushed ahead with his efforts to secure caste protections. As a result of his advocacy, the department of social work at Cal State East Bay — where Pariyar was pursuing a master’s degree — updated its mission statement to acknowledge caste discrimination. The academic senate of Cal State East Bay passed a resolution calling for caste protections, and other campuses followed. Eventually, Pariyar and a coalition of other activists and allies across various faiths and caste backgrounds banded together to try and get caste discrimination banned across the entire Cal State system.

Though their goal — getting the word “caste” added to Cal State’s non-discrimination policy — was modest, they said they faced resistance along the way.

The opposition against caste protections

When the California State Student Association met in April 2021 to discuss a resolution calling for a ban on caste discrimination, several people pushed back against it.

The opponents, who included alumni, professors and community members, argued that discussions about caste unnecessarily divided South Asians and that caste discrimination no longer existed. They claimed that caste was a construct of British colonialism, even though it had existed for millennia, and insisted that the resolution would instead provoke hate against Hindus on campus.

Krystal Raynes, a student at Cal State Bakersfield who currently serves as a CSU student trustee, wasn’t familiar with caste and caste-based discrimination before that meeting. But the language and line of reasoning she heard that day rang familiar.

“It reminded me so much of the discrimination happening against Black people in America,” she said. “Black students being gaslighted, [being told] your experience isn’t discrimination, your experience isn’t oppression.”

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of the Dalit rights organization Equality Labs, likened the gaslighting, denial and misinformation around frank discussions of caste oppression to the conservative campaign against “critical race theory,” which has since become a catch-all term for any instruction around the history of racism in the US.

“It makes people feel uncomfortable,” she said. “But discomfort can be a doorway to learning more about ourselves and having greater connection with each other.”

In the end, despite the dissenting voices, the California State Student Association passed the resolution calling on the university system to ban caste discrimination. Cal State’s faculty union showed its support by including caste as a protected category in its collective bargaining agreement. And ultimately, Cal State added caste protections for its students and employees.

“The CSU takes a great amount of pride in serving an incredibly diverse group of students and employing a diverse workforce,” Michael Uhlenkamp, a spokesperson for the Cal State system, wrote in an email to CNN. “The inclusion of caste in the policy reflects the university’s commitment to inclusivity and respect, ensuring that all members of the CSU’s 23 campus communities feel welcome.”

Dalit alumni reflect on the past and future

For Dalit alumni who once faced caste-based microaggressions on Cal State’s campuses, the university’s move to make caste a protected category was a step in the right direction.

Neha Singh, who asked that her real name not be published to protect her caste identity, said she wished that campus leaders had an understanding of caste oppression during her time at Cal State Northridge in the late 2000s so that she would have had somewhere to turn to for guidance.

She recalls members of South Asian student groups making derogatory comments about oppressed castes in casual conversation, how one friend shunned her after learning Singh’s caste identity and how she felt afraid to speak up when witnessing caste discrimination against a fellow student by a dominant caste staff member for fear that she might out her own caste.

The change makes Singh hopeful about the environment for future Cal State Dalit students.

“The students who are coming there will be free from discrimination and fear and can openly complain about it,” she said. “They would know that someone can understand … [that] they can come and have a safe place.”

M. Bangar, who attended Cal State Sacramento and also requested to use an alias, knows that simply having caste protections won’t solve the problem of caste oppression on campus. But it could prompt others to be more considerate.

“At the end of the day, you can’t force someone to not be casteist, but you can force them to be careful about how they’re casteist or what they say,” Bangar said. “These caste protections create an opportunity for people to report the things that they face.”

The movement is only growing

Cal State’s move to make caste a protected category is the latest in a growing movement at US colleges and universities.

In the last few months, the University of California, Davis, Harvard University and Colby College all added caste to their non-discrimination policies, while Brandeis University set an early example by doing so in 2019. And since the development at Cal State, Soundararajan said that the phones at Equality Labs “have been going off the hook” with other universities seeking to make the same changes.

At Colby College, efforts are now shifting to how its policy might be put into action. Sonja Thomas, who spearheaded the effort to secure caste protections there, said she wants to get caste added to the school’s bias reporting and prevention system.

“We need to take the second step, which is then implement policies for people to recognize when it’s happening so that there’s recourse for people who might be affected by caste discrimination,” said Thomas, who is also an associate professor of women’s gender and sexuality studies at Colby.

Outside academia, two ongoing legal battles have brought attention to the ways casteism functions in the US.

In 2020, California authorities filed a lawsuit against Cisco Systems and two of its employees for allegedly discriminating against a Dalit engineer. (Cisco has denied the allegations and said it would “vigorously defend itself.”) And last year, a federal lawsuit alleged that a prominent Hindu sect lured hundreds of caste-oppressed workers to the US to work on temples for low pay and under dangerous conditions. (The organization’s leaders denied wrongdoing and called the workers “volunteers.”)

And in addition to universities, the California Democratic Party and prominent labor unions — such as the Alphabet Workers Union — have come out in support of caste protections.

Pariyar, who started the movement at Cal State, hopes that this is only the beginning. At the university level, he wants to see caste competency trainings so that students and leaders are equipped to recognize and respond to bias incidents. But he isn’t stopping there — he said he’s currently talking to members of the California state assembly about potentially instituting caste protections statewide.

Pariyar said he believes casteism has taken root in the US and that the issue should concern not just South Asians or those who are caste-oppressed.

“It must be the issue for everyone.”

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