- Dalit civil rights groups, CSU students and alumni, and activists applaud the “historic” decision to ensure that all campuses are places of access and equity for all.
California State University (CSU) has become the first university system in the U.S. to add caste to its anti-discrimination policy. By adding caste as a protected category, the CSU says it ensures that “all campuses are places of access and equity for all students. Students who believe they have been discriminated on the basis of caste will now be able to report anti-Dalit bias.” The CSU system encompasses over 23 campuses and eight off-campus centers enrolling 485,550 students with 55,909 faculty and staff and is the largest four-year public university system in the country.
Equality Lab’s executive director Thenmozhi Soundararajan, in a press release called CSU’s decision a historic win, and credited “the tireless efforts of the student-led interfaith and inter-caste initiative.” Noting that “the movement for caste equity in the United States is growing exponentially as caste-oppressed Americans and allies bravely organize for our rights,” she added her organization looks forward “to working with CSU campuses to help implement this historic win.”
The Equality Labs press release includes a statement from various Dalit Americans who were involved in working with officials at various campuses of the CSU. They speak of their work and the discrimination they faced in this country.
Prem Pariyar, a Nepali Dalit social worker and an alumnus of CSU East Bay, is one of the lead organizers who worked with the CSU to implement changes. In a statement issued to Equality Labs, he said the recognition of caste and caste-based violence in the CSU system is “personal and historic” to him. He noted that the CSU East Bay Social Work department added caste as the protected category “first,” based on his sharing of personal experiences of discrimination. “When I faced caste discrimination within the campus and outside in the community, I felt very disappointed and low,” he said.
After leaving Nepal, Pariyar said he had hoped to have left caste discrimination behind, but instead he has been experiencing caste discrimination “in every sphere” of his life even in the U.S. “Many caste-oppressed students, faculty, and staff members at CSU campuses will now feel safer and report any incident of harassment or discrimination by the dominant caste students and co-workers,” he said. “This policy strengthens our society. Diversity without including caste-oppressed students, faculty, and staff is incomplete. Diversity in the CSU system makes better citizens and results in a more vibrant and prosperous society that benefits everyone.”
However, Pariyar noted in the Equality Labs statement that “recognition is huge but not enough.” The CSU system should now have “a plan to effectively implement caste protections and create training and curriculum for awareness among South Asians and non-South Asians on campus,” he noted. He said the CSU “should mobilize funding to promote research and scholarship on caste and also invest in advancing the careers of caste-oppressed students.” He also hopes that the CSU system “bring in culturally competent leadership from caste-oppressed backgrounds to encourage the implementation of caste protections and sensitize the university environment.”
Manmit Singh, a student at San Francisco State University feels that victory “has shown the power of an interfaith, inter-caste, and multiracial coalition.” He noted n the Equality Labs press release how this initiative led by Dalit students “had the transformative impact of pulling together such a historic, powerful, and diverse coalition, whose impact has now set a precedent for university systems across the nation.”
M. Bangar, an anti-caste Dalit community organizer and educator said in the Equality Labs press release that “California universities have a casteism problem.” He described how, as a Dalit student, he did not feel safe disclosing his caste and “had to hide this in shame while caste-privileged students and faculty made disrespectful casteist remarks against my people and my ancestors” He said he felt “unwelcome, unsafe, and excluded from important opportunities.”
Although Dalit students have experienced “violent push-back from caste-privileged adversaries who do not want caste to be added as a protected category,” Bangar said he “always struggled to believe that accountability against casteism was feasible in such a violent climate..” He said CSU’s “historic decision to add caste as a protected factor in the anti-discrimination policy creates a safer academic environment for myself and other Dalits pursuing education.”
The genesis of the CSU’s decision began last March, when a student body at California Polytechnic demanded that it and the CSU include the Indian caste system in their anti-discriminatory policy. The demand was made in a resolution adopted on March 3 by Associated Students, Inc, the student body of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.
The resolution talked about how “caste discrimination has long been overlooked by American institutions, with almost all institutions in the U.S. failing to protect caste oppressed people.” It further notes that “Cal Poly has a large and growing body of international students, specifically from South Asia, making caste a global issue that impacts sites of higher education.”
A month later, later, Alphabet Workers Union demanded that caste be included in the company’s anti-discrimination policy and be integrated into their equity practices. The employees union of the parent company of Google and several subsidiaries put their demands forward in a statement supporting the lawsuit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing against Cisco for caste-based discrimination.
In June 2020, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed a federal lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, against Cisco Systems, Inc. (Cisco) and two managers for discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. The lawsuit alleged that managers at Cisco’s San Jose headquarters campus, which employs a predominantly South Asian workforce, harassed, discriminated, and retaliated against an engineer because he is Dalit Indian.
In 2019 December, Brandeis University became one of the first higher education institutions in America to add caste to its nondiscrimination policy. “Discrimination based on caste will now be expressly prohibited at our university, just as discrimination based on race, color, ancestry, religious creed, gender identity and expression, national or ethnic origin, sex, sexual orientation, pregnancy, age, genetic information, disability, military or veteran status, or any other category protected by law is prohibited,” read a statement from the university.
Mark Brimhall-Vargas, the university’s chief diversity officer, told India Abroad at the time that the decision was not made because of any specific incidents of caste discrimination on campus. He said university administrators heard from students and faculty members of South Asian descent that caste distinctions were present. “We had an awareness that this was an issue that impacted our campus and that the current policy addressing discrimination wasn’t prepared to address caste,” he said. “It’s simply the right thing to do,” he said, adding that Brandeis was being proactive by addressing the issue of caste discrimination before it became a problem on the campus.
In an earlier interview with American Kahani, Soundararajan said that although caste does not operate here as it does in India, it still forms a part of Dalit and Bahujan lives. “Caste is so deeply alive in the diaspora and it impacts so many parts of the Indian American experience.”
A 2017 report conducted by Soundararajan’s organization, Equality Labs, shows how the caste-based prejudice doesn’t seem to evade those who have immigrated to the U.S. The report revealed that 67 percent of Dalit Americans felt they were treated unfairly at their workplaces.
The report, ‘Caste in the United States — A Survey Of Caste Among South Asian Americans,’ showed the prevalence of caste discrimination, not just in the workplace, but on campuses as well. It revealed that one in four Dalits experienced physical assaults, two out three, workplace discrimination, and one in three, discrimination in education.