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When Prem Pariyar moved from his home in Nepal to the U.S. in 2015, he expected a reprieve from the discrimination and violence he and his family experienced in Nepal due to their caste status.
Pariyar is a Dalit, a member of the group historically known as “untouchables,” who have endured social and economic discrimination for thousands of years. Caste, the system of social hierarchy determined by birth, is illegal in India and other South Asian countries but still exists in practice, impacting participation in everything from marriage to meal sharing.
Pariyar chose not to hide his last name, unlike many other Dalits in the U.S., which gave his caste away to those familiar with the system. He found himself ostracized in the U.S., as he had been in Nepal, unable to serve himself or enter the kitchen at gatherings because others thought he would spoil the food, he said.
The discrimination continued when he enrolled in the social work graduate program at California State University, East Bay, in 2019. Once, while waiting at a transit station, he introduced himself to two Nepali students, who immediately snubbed him after discovering his last name. And in classroom discussions about the intersections of race, gender and sexuality, he was shocked to find caste was not a part of the conversation.
“I was experiencing discrimination within the university and outside the university at the community level,” Pariyar said. “My ancestors, my dad, my mom, my grandparents, for generations have been experiencing caste discrimination … and there was no conversation about that.”
Pariyar began advocating for the addition of caste as a protected category in the CSU system’s nondiscrimination policy. He started with the social work program at East Bay, gaining supporters and allies until they eventually persuaded the department to update its mission statement to include caste.
Then Pariyar worked with the Academic Senate’s Faculty Diversity and Equity Committee at Cal State East Bay to, last February, pass a resolution adding caste as a protected class in the campus nondiscrimination policy. The campaign caught on; multiple student governments from other CSU campuses posted their own resolutions, as well, including those at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
In April, the Cal State Student Association, which represents all students in the CSU system, also passed a resolution supporting the addition of caste as a protected category in the entire university system. Additionally, Cal State’s faculty union included caste as a protected category in its collective bargaining agreement last year.
On Jan. 1, California State University, which has 23 campuses and educates more than 485,550 students every year, became the first university system to add caste to its nondiscrimination policy.
“I am moved by the stories from Dalit students and the bravery they exhibited in the face of oppressive action, and I knew that California State University had to recognize these harms towards its own student body,” said Krystal Raynes, an undergraduate at CSU Bakersfield and the student representative on the Board of Trustees, who supported the move. “I thank these student leaders for educating all of us in California higher education about this important civil rights issue and allowing me to be a part of their movement at CSU and making a lasting mark on the statewide institution’s antidiscrimination policy.”
Last week, the California State University Board of Trustees voted to add caste as a protected category to the nondiscrimination clause for all contracted employees under the California Faculty Association collective bargaining agreement. Pariyar and other supporters, including Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization, collected the signatures of more than 500 faculty members in support of caste protections.
CSU joins several other institutions that include caste in their nondiscrimination policies, including Brandeis University, Colby College and the University of California, Davis. Advocates and experts say it could lead more institutions to follow suit.
Manmit Singh, a San Francisco State University master’s student who worked alongside Pariyar to get the CSU resolution passed, is a self-described “caste-privileged Sikh” who became involved with the movement after attending a political education workshop through Pariyar and Equality Labs on unlearning caste supremacy.
Singh, who uses they/them pronouns, said they hope adding caste to the nondiscrimination policy will open the door to bigger changes across the CSU system, such as collecting data on caste discrimination and creating guidelines for caste-oppressed students.
“That small recognition has taken so long, so much fighting and so much advocacy on the part of students, staff and faculty,” Singh said. “There is hope that the CSU administration is listening to students, staff and faculty voices, and for all the work that is yet to come.”
For Pariyar, the addition of caste to the university’s nondiscrimination policy is a historic win that can help educate others.
“Adding caste as a protected category is very useful, because some say, ‘This is a South Asian or an Indian problem,’” Pariyar said. “Wherever South Asians, Indians, go, caste discrimination travels … This is not an Indian problem. This is a global problem.”
While more than 500 faculty members supported adding caste to the system’s collective bargaining agreement with faculty, at least 80 faculty members opposed the move. In a letter to the Board of Trustees, they wrote it “will cause more discrimination by unconstitutionally singling out and targeting Hindu faculty of Indian and South Asian descent.”
Praveen Sinha, professor of accountancy at Cal State Long Beach and one of several organizers who signed the letter, said that his biggest concern is that caste is not “facially neutral,” since caste is only used within South Asian countries. He said other nondiscrimination protections for race or religion apply more broadly to multiple races and religions, while caste would only apply to South Asians.
“It pretty much puts us in a targeted category that ‘these are different people,’” said Sinha. “And I think that federally it’s prohibited.”
He believes caste is covered by the existing nondiscrimination policy protections, which include ethnicity, ancestry, country of origin and language. The letter states that adding caste to the nondiscrimination policy will cause discrimination by “unconstitutionally singling out” Hindu faculty of Indian and South Asian descent and provoke hate against Hindus on campus.
Sinha also expressed concern about how the decision to add caste was made. The letter notes that the California Faculty Association couldn’t answer how many faculty members of Indian or South Asian descent were consulted before the decision was made or reveal how many cases of alleged caste-based discrimination had ever been filed within the CSU system.
Sinha said the California Faculty Association used data from an Equality Labs report titled “Caste in the United States: A Survey of Caste Among South Asian Americans” to make its argument to add caste protections, but he had never heard of caste discrimination on a California State University campus.
He pointed to a study from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which noted that the sample size from Equality Labs’ survey likely “does not fully represent the South Asian American population and could skew in favor of those who have strong views about caste.” The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report found that out of 1,200 Indian American residents, 5 percent of foreign-born and 6 percent of U.S.-born respondents said they personally felt discriminated against within the past year because of their caste status.
“If there is no evidence, and we are getting it from a very tainted organization, then we are making a very huge decision, which is not protecting anybody, but putting a lot of us who are South Asian at potential harm’s way in a suspect category,” Sinha said.
The letter says that faculty members find themselves “being the unfair target of a discriminatory policy that is being justified on the basis of racist stereotypes and that too in the absence of any evidence and without fair hearing.”
Sinha believes the addition of caste to the nondiscrimination policy could be challenged in a court of law, and he said if someone else files a lawsuit, he would be a part of it.
“I’ve talked to various lawyers, and they said that if some policy of discrimination is not facially neutral, it is going to be problematic to pass the test of law,” Sinha said.
However, he said he doesn’t expect faculty to push too hard against adding caste to the nondiscrimination policy, since they all have to continue teaching.
“I do understand that we have a moral obligation to protect everyone on campus, no ifs and buts about it,” Sinha said. “But I think this will be a good lesson for anybody; we teach that in economics and policy classes, when you make any societal decision, look at what is the evidence for it. Just a few vocal voices should not be the basis for a decision.”
The Start of a Larger Movement
Pariyar takes issue with the faculty objections, arguing that the new policy does not attack anyone but instead increases safety for all.
“Adding caste doesn’t take away from others’ protections,” Pariyar said. “It only adds more protection for everyone. This is not only the issue of Hindu religion, this is the issue of social justice. We are talking about human rights.”
Dheepa Sundaram, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Denver, and Simran Jeet Singh, an educator, writer and activist, write that discrimination is not “mutually exclusive, or zero sum” and it is possible for someone of South Asian descent to both discriminate against another South Asian and be marginalized by others for being South Asian.
“If we’re truly committed to equity for all people across the board, which I think is our ultimate goal in pursuing justice, then we can’t sweep certain forms of our discrimination practices as a society under the rug,” Simran Jeet Singh said. “Because when we do that, we are ignoring and avoiding conversations that we need to have and we are failing to create the change that we need to actually ensure equity across the board for everyone.”
Sundaram said the addition of caste to the nondiscrimination policy is important because it will give caste-oppressed students a chance to report the discrimination they face. She likened the campaign to the civil rights movement, which recognized racism but didn’t solve the issue.
“Civil rights legislation was the first step,” Sundaram said. “This is the first step. And I think what we’re going to start to see is that it’s not going to be OK for you to be casteist.”
The university system’s decision is already pushing other institutions to consider adding caste in their nondiscrimination policies, Sundaram said. Advocates like Pariyar and others could provide a blueprint for other U.S. institutions to implement caste protections.
“One hopes that we will see this, particularly in institutions that have high populations of South Asians, because that’s where this is really important,” Sundaram said.
Yashica Dutt, an anticaste expert and journalist, said the addition of caste to university nondiscrimination policies will serve as a vital tool for Dalit students and employees.
“As caste becomes more visible, as South Asians become more visible and gain more political power and more cultural recognition, it’s extremely crucial to also talk about caste,” Dutt said. “It’s very crucial for non–South Asians to understand caste, to acknowledge its existence and to put safeguards in place that can shield and prevent this kind of discrimination against Dalit students and Dalit workers, who are very vulnerable in these spaces.”
Dutt, who wrote a memoir called Coming Out as Dalit, about her experience as a Dalit student at Columbia University, where she hid her last name and distanced herself from the university’s South Asian community, said institutions should create safe spaces for oppressed Dalit students and repercussions for those whose perpetuate caste discrimination.
“There has to be some sort of real repercussions, as we are now finally beginning to see with race in similar ways,” Dutt said. “We have to acknowledge that seeing caste discrimination, making people feel that they don’t belong because of their caste or blaming them … are ideas that should be considered highly offensive.”