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California student body demands ban on caste-based discrimination

Al Jazeera logo Al Jazeera 4/16/2021 Raqib Hameed Naik
a sign on a pole: San Diego State University is one of the 23 campuses of California State University system [File: Mike Blake/Reuters] © San Diego State University is one of the 23 campuses of California State University system [File: Mi... San Diego State University is one of the 23 campuses of California State University system [File: Mike Blake/Reuters]

San Jose, California, US – An association representing nearly half a million university students in California, United States has passed a resolution seeking a ban on caste-based discrimination faced mainly by the Dalit students, with rights groups calling the move “historic”.

Formerly referred to as “untouchables”, Dalits lie at the bottom of the complex Hindu caste hierarchy and have faced socio-economic oppression for decades. India officially banned untouchability when it adopted its constitution in 1950, but the practice continues among the South Asian communities, mainly Hindus.

Last week, the Cal State Student Association (CSSA), the country’s largest four-year public university system representing 23 campuses of the California State University (CSU) system, passed the resolution with 22-0 vote in an online meeting, supporting the addition of caste as a protected category against discrimination.

The students’ body directed the University Board of Trustees to add caste in the system’s anti-discrimination policy and provide resources to its staff members to better their understanding of caste.

“Current CSU policy prohibiting discrimination includes many of the identities intertwined with caste but does not protect from caste-based discrimination specifically,” the resolution said.

The resolution cited a survey by Equality Labs which said 25 percent of Dalits reported facing verbal or physical assault based on their caste in the US.

“One in three Dalit students report being discriminated against during their education in the US, two out of three Dalits surveyed reported being treated unfairly at their workplace in the US,” the resolution said, adding that 60 percent of Dalits reported experiencing caste-based derogatory jokes or comments in the country.

“All of these inequalities associated with caste status have become embedded in all of the leading South Asian American institutions and they extend into American mainstream institutions that have significant South Asian immigrant populations,” it said, noting that such discrimination “has long been overlooked by American institutions”.

While taking cognisance of incidents of discrimination faced by Dalits on campuses, the student association said the addition of caste within CSU’s anti-discrimination policy would further reiterate the school’s “commitment to diversity, equity, and support for those most systemically marginalised”.

Interestingly, the resolution was authored by a higher caste student and backed by three other students from different racial and religious groups.

“This was a joint inter-caste, inter-faith and multiracial coalitional work,” Manmit Singh Chahal, 20, a California Polytechnic State University student and lead author of the resolution, told Al Jazeera.

“There were Dalit students who testified, supported by Sikh, Muslim and Hindu upper-caste students, who also spoke in favour of passing the resolution,” Chahal said.

The CSSA has become the first student body in the US to pass a resolution on caste in a statewide university system.

Last year, Massachusetts-based Brandeis University became the first school to prohibit discrimination on the basis of caste.

Harvard University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Davis are also currently looking at the issues of caste and discrimination faced by Dalit students on its campuses.

‘I cried when resolution was passed’

Manu,  a 25-year-old Indian American Dalit who goes by her first name, recently graduated in biology from CSU Sacramento, where she said she was frequently discriminated against by the upper caste students.

“They would make sure I wasn’t a Dalit before inviting me in their study groups. I had to hide my caste and pretend to be a privileged caste to avoid being ostracised or discriminated against,” Manu told Al Jazeera.

She said many Dalit students would not pursue reporting the incidents, as caste was not a part of the school’s anti-discrimination policy.

“This resolution will make them feel safer, knowing that the school is aware of casteism so that if they need support, they can have it,” she said.

Prem Pariyar left Nepal’s capital city Kathmandu in June 2015 to escape caste atrocities after some members of the dominant caste groups brutally assaulted him and his family members. He flew to the US and claimed asylum.

With dreams of a better life, he enrolled in a postgraduate programme at CSU East Bay campus. But little did he know that caste discrimination was very much prevalent among South Asian communities in the US as well.

“I thought America was a dreamland for all and the country of educated people. But I was wrong,” Pariyar, 37, a second-year masters student at CSU, East Bay campus, told Al Jazeera.

“I was bullied, harassed and embarrassed by dominant caste group students. At that time, given my history as a survivor of caste violence and also because of the fear as an immigrant under the Trump administration, I didn’t feel safe to report, particularly because my university didn’t recognise caste as a protected category,” he said.

Pariyar believes the passage of the resolution would ensure a discrimination-free environment for Dalit students on CSU campuses, when implemented officially by the university.

“I cried when the resolution was passed. Because it was personal. I had experienced caste discrimination many a times on campus. But now I feel safe and protected.”

‘Historic next step’

Various Dalit civil rights organisations across the US have welcomed the passage of the resolution, saying it would make a huge change to Dalit students by giving them the confidence to pursue their interests on campuses “freely and confidently”.

“This resolution will help them to explore their full potentials because now they can’t be intimidated, covertly and subtly by the dominant caste students and professors any more,” Karthikeyan Shanmugam, the secretary of Ambedkar King Study Circle, a Silicon Valley-based Dalit community organisation, told Al Jazeera.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit American activist and executive director of Equality Labs, called the CSSA resolution a “historic next step” in the battle for caste civil rights.

“Our team has had reports of Dalit students facing slurs, discrimination in housing, sexual harassment and exclusion,” Soundarajan told Al Jazeera.

“This (resolution) is part of a national movement for caste protections that is sweeping the nation as caste oppressed people are standing up for their rights and demanding that caste becomes a protected category all across American institutions,” she said.

A CSU spokeswoman said the school is committed to a community free from discrimination and plans to hold a discussion with its student association about the resolution.

“We have yet to formally receive the proposal, but will engage student leaders in the near future for further discussion,” Toni Molle, the system’s director of public affairs, told Al Jazeera.

The landmark resolution has also raised hopes among Dalit students in other US universities that similar moves can also be made by student governments across the country.

“This will set a precedent of casteism being recognised as a form of discrimination,” Anubhav Singh, 32, an international studies student at Tufts University told Al Jazeera.

“Universities will also understand the struggle of Dalit applicants who brave social, economic and structural discrimination in India to apply to the US universities.”

Anil Wagde, a member of the Ambedkar International Centre (AIC), a Washington, DC-based Dalit rights organisation, said the passage of a resolution in California holds a greater significance in the backdrop of a pending lawsuit against Cisco Systems Inc for caste discrimination in the very same state.

Last year, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued Cisco for discriminating against an Indian American employee because he was a Dalit.

The employee was subjected to discrimination by his upper-caste managers. When he went to complain against the treatment, the bosses retaliated by reducing his role.

The case made national headlines, renewing debate on caste-based discrimination within the US corporations and society. Last month, AIC also filed an amicus curiae brief in the Cisco case.

“Student resolution shows that things are changing,” Wagde told Al Jazeera. “The day is not far when casteism will be officially banned by the  US government.”

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