California State University 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.
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.
Prem Pariyar, an alumnus of CSU East Bay, moved to the U.S. in 2015 after his family was brutally attacked in Nepal for being Dalit. After speaking out about the attack, his safety was compromised, so he moved to a country that he thought would be safe for anyone.
“I was wrong,” Pariyar told NBC Asian America. “I experienced caste discrimination in every sphere of my life.”
Until recently, Pariyar says he hasn’t had a place to express his frustration when he is targeted with microaggressions. During his master’s program, he was waiting at a Bay Area train station when he met two students who were also from Nepal.
“They asked me, ‘What’s your name?’” he said. “I told them, ‘I’m Prem Pariyar.’ When they heard my last name, they looked at me from bottom to top. They looked at each other, and I felt very uncomfortable. Why? What’s the difference between them and me?”With a last name that could easily identify his caste to other South Asians, he knew the potential dangers of going public with something like this. Twenty-five percent of Dalits in the U.S. say they frequently face verbal and physical assaults because of their caste, according to research by Equality Labs, an organization dedicated to ending white supremacy and casteism.
But the social work grad wants to make ending Dalit oppression his life’s work, so Pariyar joined a network of student activists trying make changes at CSU. He told his story to anyone he could, including professors, administrators and members of the university’s Senate. But it didn’t come without its problems, he said.
Even South Asians on campus were ignorant to a problem that Pariyar says has pervaded his whole life. At a Senate meeting, a non-Dalit Indian professor described caste as an “Indian problem” when Pariyar gave his presentation.
“You are talking about India?” Pariyar said. “I’m from Nepal. This is not about India only. It’s about Nepal and Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. There are so many South Asians who are being discriminated based on their caste identity. So many generations, they spent their lives as untouchables.”
It sometimes felt like an uphill battle for Dalit students and allies trying to get the anti-discrimination policy passed, said Krystal Raynes, a CSU student trustee who pushed for the system-wide change.
“I saw firsthand how those opposed to protecting the rights of caste-oppressed students used the opportunity for public comment on this critical issue to belittle and minimize the lived experiences of people who encounter caste oppression daily,” she said in a statement. “I was moved by the stories from Dalit students and the bravery they exhibited in the face of oppressive action, and I knew that California State University had to recognize these harms towards its own student body.”
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. 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.
CSU’s change follows a growing trend that has included the University of California, Davis, and Harvard University, which added similar protections after pressure from student activists.
“This win is historic,” Equality Labs' executive director, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, said in a statement. “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 who are joining the civil rights movement to protect caste-oppressed Americans.”
Pariyar says there is much more to be done. He hopes to see CSU schools implement programs to educate its community on Dalit issues and bring more tangible opportunities to caste-oppressed students.
“I wanted to do research for my community,” he said. “I talked to my professors, I talked to my department, but everybody was saying, ‘Oh, we are sorry, we don’t have funds for that.’ I want to go for a Ph.D. … I want to be a Dalit scholar and educate about caste issues, but I cannot afford that because I come from a poor background.”
Until there are Dalit voices in positions where change-making is possible, there will be a lack of understanding, Pariyar said.
“Non-Dalits or other backgrounds, they can’t understand the gravity of caste,” he said.
But right now, he says he’s enjoying the recent win and preparing to push it further.
“This is very personal to me,” he said.