Thenmozhi Soundararajan

I remember my first Zoom call with Prem Pariyar in the summer of 2020. Ruvani Fonseka, one of his professors at California State University, East Bay, had reached out on his behalf to Equality Labs, the Dalit civil-rights organisation that I run, to suggest we work together. Pariyar told his story while his children giggled and played behind him.

He was a father, a survivor and an Ambedkarite, and he had a mission: caste abolition. That fateful meeting began a historic movement to institutionalise protections against caste discrimination at the California State University system—the largest public university system in the United States, with more than four hundred thousand students across its 23 campuses.

Pariyar came to the United States in 2015, fleeing his home in Nepal after his family was brutally assaulted for speaking out against the discrimination they faced as Dalits. He hoped that here, halfway across the world, he could live free of caste, but this hope was soon shattered. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area while waiting for his asylum application to be processed, he experienced unspeakable untouchability from others who had also come from his part of the world. His voice cracked as he described how, as a restaurant worker, he was forbidden to eat or sleep where his fellow workers lived. He carries the shame of that time even today.

After he was granted asylum, Pariyar enrolled at Cal State East Bay for a graduate degree in social work. He chose this career path because he knew that newly immigrated Dalits needed an ally to help them access services for housing, health and employment, and also to help them escape such things as domestic violence and landlord abuse. But even as a student, he continued to face caste stigma. Dominant-caste students targeted him with slurs, refused to eat with him and bullied him for speaking out against such treatment.

When the discrimination became too much to bear, he struggled to find support. The CSU system offered protection against discrimination on the basis of race, sexuality, gender and more, but did not have institutional mechanisms to support students who faced discrimination based on caste. As a result, many caste-oppressed students, faculty and staff were silently enduring caste discrimination, including slurs and microaggressions, bias in student housing and groups, and even gender-based violence and sexual harassment. The stress from such treatment creates many obstacles to the success of oppressed-caste students, which is why Pariyar and other Dalit students began to mobilise. With support from Equality Labs, as well as a growing coalition of other allies, Pariyar and other Dalit students launched a campaign for caste equity and right to dignity and success. As a CSU student and later an alumnus, Pariyar advocated for change first in his academic department, then across departments and finally across the CSU system as a whole. The work paid off this January, when CSU’s board of trustees formally made caste a protected category across all of the university’s campuses.

This achievement capped a year full of milestones for caste equity at CSU and at other US universities. The academic senate of Cal State East Bay, the campus’s top faculty body, passed a resolution in early 2021 supporting protections for members of the oppressed castes. The Cal State Student Association, representing students from all the CSU campuses, passed a similar resolution within a few months, and the California Faculty Association, a union representing almost thirty thousand faculty and staff across the CSU system, later followed suit. Elsewhere, Colby College, Carleton University, Colorado College and the University of California, Davis, made caste a protected category under their non-discrimination policies, following the example first set in 2019 by Brandeis University. The California Democratic Party also took a similar step. Added to this was a lawsuit against the Hindu sect BAPS for allegedly exploiting Dalit workers in the construction of temples across the United States—a case that, like an ongoing lawsuit against the technology giant Cisco for the alleged mistreatment of a Dalit engineer, promises to test the boundaries of US law when it comes to caste discrimination.

The victory was not Pariyar’s alone, though his commitment and charisma were vital. Like all the milestones above, it was the result of a growing movement for caste equity in the United States that is reaching more and more hearts and minds as well as institutions. The movement is inter-caste, inter-faith and multi-racial, with Dalit Ambedkarite feminist activists at the core. Behind the success at CSU is a mobilisation by student activists, faculty supporters, Dalit-rights organisers and labour groups that is unprecedented in its diversity and scale, and that shows the way forward in larger battles to come.

This is because Pariyar’s story is indicative of the larger experience of social exclusion faced by caste-oppressed Americans. In a 2018 survey of Dalits in the United States by Equality Labs, one in four respondents reported having experienced physical assault, one in three discrimination in education, and two out of three discrimination in the workplace.

After Pariyar connected with Equality Labs, he joined other anti-caste leaders in building wide-ranging networks of mutual support. He also attended Equality Labs workshops with them on how to undo caste supremacy, and how to use practices of mindfulness to face, with courage and grace, the kinds of attacks directed at those who fight caste. These efforts mirror the tactics of other American civil-rights movements. One inspiration is the Highlander Folk School, a famous haven and training centre for anti-segregation leaders in the American South in the 1950s and 1960s, whose alumni include Rosa Parks, John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. Renamed the Highlander Research and Education Center, it still continues to teach people how to deconstruct systems of oppression and take collective action against entrenched power. Other influences come from Black Buddhist thinkers such as Rhonda V Magee and Ruth King as well as somatic abolitionists such as Resmaa Menakem, who have formulated individual, communal and institutional processes to address polarisation around race and help people heal from oppression. Another inspiring example comes from the cadre camps of BAMCEF—the All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation—that were the seedbeds of the Bahujan movement in India under the leadership of Kanshi Ram. Bahujan Americans now regularly organise such camps in the United States as well. Besides such groundwork, the movement for caste equity has also reached beyond the South Asian community to forge networks of collective power with people struggling against racial and gender injustice in American policing, immigration and society at large—all causes that Ambedkarite Dalit feminists have supported for years.

All of this was important preparation for hearings in the CSU system on the need to add caste as a protected category. Pariyar and others shared testimony that made clear the specific kinds of harm faced by caste-oppressed students, leaving no doubt that remedy was needed. They were highly organised and focused on maintaining right conduct in response to provocative and false counter-arguments from dominant-caste individuals, who claimed that caste discrimination does not exist and that instituting protections against it would entail an attack on Hinduism and Hindus. These claims were exposed by the fact that Pariyar is himself a practising Hindu, and by numerous dominant-caste Hindus who came out in support of caste-based protections.

Students across the CSU system coordinated with each other and with established equity centres on their campuses—dedicated spaces for marginalised students to come together and work for social justice—to conduct focus groups and invite testimony. There were leaders such as M Bangar, a non-binary Dalit activist who activated many queer and Dalit allies across several CSU and University of California campuses. Bangar paid a price for this when dominant-caste bigots contacted their dean and supervisor to out them as Dalit and non-binary, and to allege that Bangar was Hinduphobic, racist and unfit to represent the institution—typical tactics from opponents of caste equity. Bangar endured an investigation and two months of uncertainty and shame, but continued to mobilise for the movement.

Allies from the dominant castes also joined the cause, as did people from beyond the South Asian community and the Hindu faith. Manmit Singh, a student leader from the Jat Sikh community, rallied thousands of students through the Cal State Student Association and pushed for the group’s resolution in favour of caste protections. Krystal Raynes, the student representative on the CSU board of trustees, facilitated engagement on the issue by the student body and the university administration. If Pariyar lit the kindling, Bangar, Singh, Raynes and their colleagues nurtured the flame of the movement across the CSU system and beyond.

In the background were also groups such as the Ambedkar Association of North America. Ambedkarite Feminist leaders such as Maya Kamble of the AANA have, over many years, shepherded the slow process of building coalitions within and beyond Ambedkarite circles. The struggle at CSU was boosted by numerous people from the dominant castes, some of them raised in families that are prominent in caste-bigoted and Hindu chauvinist organisations in the United States—proof that ideas of equity are gradually penetrating even traditional strongholds of caste prejudice.

While the struggle at CSU unfolded, numerous workers’ unions joined the movement for caste equity. The Alphabet Workers Union, a pioneering union for workers at the parent company of Google, added caste as a protected category in April last year, and demanded that Alphabet do so as well. This inspired the California Faculty Association to demand that caste be included as a protected category in their collective bargaining agreement with CSU, and the union voted to ratify the updated agreement this February. By taking this groundbreaking step, the California Faculty Association reinforced the change in CSU’s non-discrimination policy by making caste protections a mandatory part of the university’s contracts with the union’s tens of thousands of members. Just months earlier, in December, the Harvard Graduate Student Union succeeded in its demand that Harvard University include protections against caste bias in the contracts of its graduate students.

In the wake of the CFA’s step, two major labour groups issued statements in the union’s support: the California Trade Justice Coalition, which represents a coalition of unions in the state, and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, an arm of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations—the biggest federation of unions in the United States. These are all historic firsts for Dalit, labour and civil rights in the country. Unions’ recognition that caste discrimination is a workplace issue opens up a wide new front of struggle, setting the stage for a larger push to bring caste equity to all the places where union power operates.

This was the wide, diverse alliance that stood behind the change at CSU. But, inevitably, there was also an ugly reaction against it. More than eighty CSU faculty members submitted a letter to the university to protest the protections against casteist discrimination that were now to be part of their contracts. They described the addition of these protections as “misguided overreach without any evidence for its need” and said that the move, “rather than redressing discrimination, will actually cause discrimination by unconstitutionally singling out and targeting Hindu faculty of Indian and South Asian descent as members of a suspect class because of deeply entrenched, false stereotypes about Indians, Hindus, and caste.” This group was backed by the Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy organisation for dominant-caste interests, which also submitted a letter of complaint to CSU.

The faculty members specifically attacked the 2018 survey by Equality Labs, which had been cited in support of instituting caste protections at CSU. They pointed to a study by the Carnegie Endowment titled “Social Realities of Indian Americans: Results From the 2020 Indian American Attitudes Survey,” claiming that it “not only negates all the flawed claims made by Equality Labs, but specifically dismisses the non-scientific and biased means by which Equality Labs gathered and analyzed its purported data.” The HAF letter also cited the Carnegie study to support a claim that “discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and color is quite common” in what it termed “the broader realities of Indian Americans” but “discrimination on the basis of caste is exceedingly rare.”

The faculty members pointed specifically to a footnote in the report that noted the Equality Labs survey “relied on a nonrepresentative snowball sampling method to recruit respondents” and that “respondents who did not disclose a caste identity were dropped from the data set,” making it “likely that the sample does not fully represent the South Asian American population and could skew in favor of those who have strong views about caste.”

To weaponise this footnote to dismiss the concerns of caste-oppressed people, as the faculty letter did, was an act of disinformation. The Carnegie report did not refute the Equality Labs survey, it simply indicated the need for more data and more wide-ranging studies. Moreover, snowball sampling—where initial respondents nominate others from their social networks who meet a study’s specific eligibility criteria—is an established methodology for gathering information from a population that is not always visible to broader society and so is difficult to locate. It is also used with communities at risk of violence, such as queer and trans individuals, who may be closeted for their safety.

This was very much the case for Dalit Americans when Equality Labs conducted the survey, in 2018, in a radically different landscape for caste and social justice in the United States. The culture of silence and denial about caste that still exists among South Asian Americans was even more rampant then. Dalits were afraid of disclosing their caste identity, afraid of the consequences if it was known. Snowball sampling was the only way available to Equality Labs to break the silence of the caste oppressed. While collecting data, our surveyors faced instances of verbal abuse from dominant-caste individuals—a sign of the very prejudice the survey would expose. When it came out, it inspired a new wave of truth-telling to dismantle caste supremacy.

In essence, the footnote in the Carnegie study was an opinion on whether snowball sampling is sufficient to document caste bias in the Indian diaspora. While the authors are entitled to their opinion, the study has its own flaws in how it inserted itself into the discussion around caste without having any oppressed-caste scholars among its four co-writers. The study also did not consult a single Dalit civil-rights organisation in developing its methodology. The survey underlying the study only posed questions about caste to Hindu respondents, ignoring that caste is present in South Asian communities across religions. Only around one percent of the survey’s 1,200 Indian Americans identified as Dalit or Scheduled Caste. This suggests serious underrepresentation of the community most vulnerable to caste discrimination, and responses from just a dozen or so caste-oppressed individuals are not sufficient to establish anything about caste in the diaspora.

The HAF letter also questioned the legality of CSU and the CFA implementing caste protections, and stated that it is “assisting concerned faculty in exploring all legal avenues and representation to help them protect their state and federal rights, as well as contractual rights with CSU.” Here again, it was far off the mark. The reality is that adding caste as a protected category is lawful, and any institution not doing so is liable to fail in its duty to uphold the civil and human rights of vulnerable minorities. Anti-caste measures do not infringe on religious beliefs, but only on unacceptable discriminatory practices. The targets of caste equity policies are exclusively those who discriminate against other people due to their being born into certain castes.

HAF, the aggrieved CSU faculty and others opposed to protections against caste discrimination are fighting a rising tide. The process of organisation and struggle at CSU is being replicated on campuses across the United States. Just towards the end of 2021, to add to the landmark achievement of the graduate students at Harvard, the ethnic-studies department at the University of California, San Diego, institutionalised caste protections. This years, Scripps College and Bryn Mawr College, part of the Claremont Colleges consortium, have done so too. At these and other institutions, the struggle for caste equity will only grow from here.

To me, one of the most resonant moments of the struggle at CSU came when Neha Singh, a Dalit alumnus leader from Cal State Northridge, gave public testimony during the advocacy process. Singh studied at the same campus where Shiva G Bajpai spent many years as a professor of history. Bajpai was one of the architects of the controversy over the portrayal of Hinduism in California textbooks that began around 2005. He opposed the inclusion of the term “Dalit,” arguing that there was nothing bad about the caste system and that, in any case, caste did not exist in the diaspora. Concurrent with his professorship, Bajpai also chaired the board of the Brahman Samaj of North America, one of the most powerful dominant-caste organisations in the United States. It was profound and moving that, in 2022, an Ambedkarite Dalit feminist helped transform the entire CSU system in favour of caste equity and justice. Here was a shining example of the legacy of BR Ambedkar—who, for a time, was also a Dalit in America, and in whose name we continue to fight for our freedom.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan is a Dalit American writer, activist and artist. She is a co-founder and the executive director of Equality Labs, and is on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as @dalitdiva. [Please subscribe to and support Caravan, which is doing important work]

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