In a win for people of all backgrounds from South Asia, the country’s largest public university system has added anti-caste bias to its official anti-discrimination policy.
Sakshi Venkatraman of NBC News reported that Cal State “has become the first university system in the country to add caste to its anti-discrimination policy. On the system’s 23 campuses across California, caste-oppressed students will now be able to report anti-Dalit bias, which students say they regularly experience at school.”
According to Venkatraman, “Dalit is a reclaimed term for those born into scheduled castes, the most socially and economically oppressed in South Asia’s stratified caste hierarchy. Though the caste system was abolished in India, its influence still pervades South Asia and diaspora communities.”
In an interview with NBC News, Prem Pariyar, an alumnus of CSU East Bay, described his experience with anti-caste discrimination while attending the university several years ago. Standing at a train station, he said he met two other students from Nepal who visibly discriminated against him and made him feel inferior. The discrimination occurred as soon as the individuals heard his name and realized he came from a caste they considered inferior to theirs.
“When they heard my last name, they looked at me from bottom to top,” he said. “They looked at each other, and I felt very uncomfortable. Why? What’s the difference between them and me?”
Pariyar explained that he thought he would leave caste oppression behind when he moved to the U.S. in 2015. Sadly, that has not happened.
“I was wrong,” he said. “I experienced caste discrimination in every sphere of my life.”
“With a last name that could easily identify his caste to other South Asians, he knew the potential dangers of going public with [his experience],” Venkatraman said.
He’s not alone. Equality Labs, an organization dedicated to ending white supremacy and the caste system, has found that an estimated 25% of Dalits in the U.S. routinely experience verbal and physical assaults based purely upon their caste.
Still, despite the risk, Pariyar said he reported the incident. He also joined a network of student activists with similar beliefs and began explaining caste discrimination to anyone who would listen, including professors, administrators and members of the university’s Senate.
“After countless meetings and conferences and emails, Pariyar managed to get caste protections passed in his department, then at his school, and now throughout Cal State, the largest four-year public university system in the country,” Venkatraman said. “After working with organizers at Equality Labs, he hopes he can continue the fight outside the classroom.”
“If you are silent now, if we are hesitating to move forward, then another generation has to fight for the same cause,” he said.
In a statement celebrating Cal State’s announcement to add caste oppression to its anti-discrimination policy, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, said: “This win is historic. The Cal State system is one of the largest in the United States, and because of the tireless efforts of the student-led interfaith and inter-caste initiative, we now have 23 new campuses that are joining the civil rights movement to protect caste-oppressed Americans.”
For his part, Pariyar said now that Cal State passed its new policy, he wants to keep pushing forward for other companies and organizations to follow a similar path.
“Non-Dalits or other backgrounds, they can’t understand the gravity of caste,” he said. “[But] this is very personal to me.”