In early 2020, Prem Pariyar was almost at a breaking point over targeted harassment, discrimination and exclusion by the dominant caste group’s students at his alma mater, the California State University (CSU) in East Bay, the United States.
Pariyar, 38, who is a Dalit, told Al Jazeera he tried to report the matter to the university management. But there was not much the authorities could do as caste was not a part of the institution’s non-discrimination policy.
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The Dalits, formerly referred to as “the untouchables”, lie at the bottom of South Asia’s complex caste hierarchy and have faced socioeconomic oppression at the hands of the privileged castes for centuries, especially in India.
The caste system has denied Dalits and less privileged castes access to education and employment across South Asia. India introduced “quota” in universities and government jobs as part of its affirmative action plan for the oppressed communities.
The forms of discrimination have even reached the US which has a large Indian diaspora. Pariyar said it had become difficult to survive on the CSU campus as a Dalit student.
“My South Asian colleagues tried to silence me when I talked about my experiences,” Pariyar told Al Jazeera.
But for him, silence was no longer an option.
In October 2020, Pariyar organised a virtual conference on the intersection of race, caste and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic at CSU East Bay’s Department of Social Work.
After hearing the experiences of the Dalit students in the conference, the department added caste as a protected category against discrimination in its mission statement.
But little did Pariyar know that the debate stirred by the virtual conference would result in a policy that would strengthen protection for Dalit students in the country’s largest four-year public university system that boasts of 485,550 students and 55,000 faculty and staff.
In a surprise announcement on January 1, the CSU system added caste to its non-discrimination policy, prohibiting caste-based discrimination or bias across its 23 campuses.
“This is very personal to me and a historic win for caste-oppressed people in the US,” Pariyar told Al Jazeera.
“This policy will educate people about invisible caste discrimination as well. It will help to create a welcoming environment for Dalit students across the nation,” he said.
‘A civil rights victory’
The addition of caste protection at CSU is the culmination of years of campaigning by a coalition of Dalit groups in the US.
Neha, a 37-year-old Dalit from India who goes by her first name, graduated from CSU Northridge in 2014, where she said she was regularly subjected to caste discrimination and insults.
She recalls how Indian students on the campus were “desperate” to know her caste. She said one of her friends belonging to a privileged caste stopped talking to her when she came to know about her caste, which was later followed by her exclusion from group projects.
“This was the reason why we fought to have protection for caste-oppressed students,” Neha told Al Jazeera. “It is a civil rights victory. Now no student has to face the fears that I went through.”
Kirthi, a 19-year-old California Polytechnic State University student, comes from a dominant caste family. She says caste was a “mystery” to her growing up because no one wanted to “confront the uncomfortable and horrifying reality” of caste discrimination.
“When I learned about the privileges that I have, and in contrast the oppression that caste-oppressed people face to get to where I am, it felt like a moral obligation to unlearn these subconscious notions I had about caste and did everything that I could to get the policy implemented that would protect the caste-oppressed people,” Kirthi told Al Jazeera.
Sarah Taylor, professor and chair at the Department of Social Work, CSU East Bay, says the addition of caste to non-discrimination policy provides an “opportunity to engage in dialogue” and raise awareness about the “oppression that has impacted” many members of the community.
“Caste discrimination is happening in our state. It has to be a part of the lens our students, staff, faculty and community draw on when they think about intersectional identities, experiences and oppressions,” Taylor told Al Jazeera.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit American activist and executive director of Equality Labs civil rights organisation, considers the addition of caste protections at CSU systems a “watershed moment” for the community.
“It has given courage to many caste-oppressed people in the US and around the world to continue to come out, share their stories and fight for their rights, wherever they may be,” Soundarajan told Al Jazeera.
Opposition by Hindu groups
Some CSU faculty members and Hindu organisations in the US have opposed the addition of caste as a protected category. Nearly 80 CSU faculty members wrote to the CSU Board of Trustees, calling the move a “misguided overreach” and said it would “single out” and “target” Hindu faculty of Indian and South Asian descent.
In another letter, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a right-wing group, castigated the CSU system for implementing an “ethnically antagonistic policy” and said it was “arbitrary and unnecessary”. The group said it is considering legal avenues to get the decision rescinded.
#Breaking: More than 80 @calstate faculty send blistering letter to Cal State Chancellor @josephlcastro and Board of Trustees strongly opposing policy change that will discriminate against and target ONLY Indian & other South Asian faculty. https://t.co/RiFCnuStLK
— Hindu American Foundation (@HinduAmerican) January 21, 2022
But the CSU system has rejected the HAF claims and said its decision to specifically name caste in the interim policy reflects the system’s commitment to inclusivity and respect.
“We respectfully disagree with the position that the parenthetical addition of caste, which was included along with colour and ancestry, to provide additional clarification to the existing categories of race and ethnicity in our discrimination policy will cause discrimination,” Michael Uhlenkamp, the CSU system’s senior communications director, told Al Jazeera.
Over the last two decades, some Hindu groups in the US have made several attempts to erase caste from school textbooks, especially in California.
In 2016, groups such as HAF, Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF) and Uberoi Foundation for Religious Studies (UFRS) proposed the deletion of “Dalit” and “untouchable” words from textbooks used by sixth and seventh grade students in California’s schools.
Claiming that caste does not have origins in Hinduism and is mostly a “colonial construct”, the groups took strong objection to the readings on the history of the South Asian caste system.
Delaware-based UFRS – which is run by Ved Nanda, who is also the president of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), the sister organisation of India-based far-right Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) – has actively funded the efforts seeking erasure of caste from US textbooks.
According to Form 990, the document that tax-exempt organisations in the US file with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the UFRS between 2013 and 2019 gave $165,000 to the HAF, mostly for the “curriculum reform”.
Dolly Arjun, a Dalit American activist with the Boston Study Group (BSG), believes the backlash by the Hindu groups is only going to become more intense with the growing recognition of caste discrimination across the Indian diaspora.
“Many dominant caste networks have been mobilising millions of dollars towards obfuscating the reality of caste discrimination in the US,” Arjun told Al Jazeera.
In 2020, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against technology giant Cisco Systems Inc for discriminating against an Indian American employee because he was a Dalit.
The department accused Cisco managers belonging to privileged Hindu castes of subjecting the Dalit employee to discrimination and later retaliation when he complained against the treatment. The suit is currently pending before a California court.
In May 2021, another federal lawsuit was filed in New Jersey against Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, also known as BAPS, for allegedly exploiting Dalit workers from India to construct and run its temples across the US.
The complaint accused BAPS of forcing Dalit labourers to work for more than 12 hours a day and paying just one-tenth of the state’s minimum wage.
For Pariyar, the win at the CSU system has accelerated the caste equity civil rights movement in the US. He is optimistic that it would push other US universities to address caste discrimination on their campuses.
“Though the dominant caste people do not support caste protections policies, more than 329 million Americans will support it and help us build a safer educational environment for caste-oppressed students,” he told Al Jazeera.