Caste, casteism: Indian diaspora
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2022: protected by the non-discrimination policy
As a graduate student at California State University (CSU) East Bay, Prem Pariyar experienced caste discrimination in the classroom — perhaps because he chose not to hide his last name unlike others. But there wasn’t much he could do about it. For one, he could not officially report it since caste was not protected in the non-discrimination policy the way race or gender are. Plus, his American professors didn’t understand the caste system. He adds, “My South Asian colleagues tried to silence me when they heard my experiences. But the on eprofessor Italked to about these experiences took my case seriously,” he says. He wasconnected with Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs which fights to end c aste apartheid, and she guided him. His efforts not only resulted in caste protections being introduced in the non-discrimination policy at his department, it has now become the rule for the entire CSU system, which includes 23 campuses across California.
Caste bias protections are slowly but surely being introduced in campuses across the US. Brandeis University became the fi rst to do so in 2019, and Harvard University, University of California, Davis, and Colby College have followed suit. Most recently, Columbia University reached a tentati ve agreement to include caste as a protected category in contracts.
One of the early movers was Brandeis Professor Laurence Simon, who got involved in the effort i n 2019. “Some students of South Asian background began to share stories with me privately about some students from India they met at university gatheringspressing them to reveal their su rnames or other markers of their caste andthen excluding them from social activities,” says Simon, who has studied caste issues in South Asia. Along with Dr Mark Brimhall-Vargas, the university’s first vice-president for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, they began a task force on caste on campus and added caste to their Non-Discrimination and Harassment Policy a few months later. “Complaints are handled confidentially and subject to investigation,” says Professor Simon.
However, not everyone is as aware. Pariyar had to attend an academic senate meeting atthe college when he was trying to get the protections introduced in all departments at East Bay. “At the meeting, the environment became hostile when a professor of Indi an descent tried to invalidate my experience by saying that caste discrimination is an Indian issue, why is it being discussed in an American university?” says the mental health cli nician. “But I told the senate that this is not only an Indian issue. I belong to the Nepali diaspora and in the Bay Area, I have been experiencing caste discrimination. ”
P ariyar’s work at CSU East Bay inspired and enabled Manmit Singh Chahal, a student at California Polytechnic State University, to carry this work forward on his campus. This is what enabled them to get protections across the CSU system. “With Prem starting this work at CSU East Bay, it snowballed throughout the CSU. I am hon oured to be a small part of those larger revolutionary efforts,” he says.
Another roadblock came when the Hindu American Foundation challenged the protections that were granted, saying that all Indian or South Asian, and especially Hindu faculty,would be profiled and targeted. Pariyar says, “We had to fight back, and testify again in an extremely hostile environment. ”
At Harvard U niversity, the Graduate Student Union was negotiating a new contract and PhD candidate Aparna Gopalan was on the bargaining committee. “As an Indian person in the US, I ha d seen casteism happen in front of me, sometimes by my own family andfriends,” she says. There were all kinds of questions to answer before caste protection got added — first of all, what is caste? Is this really a problem in the US? And at Harvard of all places? Therewerea handful of factors that helped the student union, Gopalan points out. “The meeting was open to all workers affected by the contract so hundreds werewatching the Zoom room. That put a certain kind of pressure on the university,” she says. The second was a compelling argumentthey made. “They asked us all these questions and we tried to address each and every one, but in the end our answer was basically, why not? Wha t is the harm in protecting an additional category of people?”
Plus, they brought in Equality Labs’ Soundarajan to make a presentation, along with Harvard students who had faced caste discrimination on campus giving anonymous testimonies.
At Colby College, Sonja Thomas, associate professor and department Chair, Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies, spearheaded the move. Along with Professor David Strohl, dean of Diversity Equity, and other like-minded people in the faculty and student body, they began with educating the people at the small liberal arts college about caste. “ I put together a presentation about caste/ casteism, 40 minutes long, where students, staff and faculty could ask questions. When you educate people, any decent human being can understand quite quickly the importance of having caste as a protected category,” she says.