The university system has over 23 campuses and eight off-campus centres, with over 4.85 lakh students as well as 55,000 faculty and staff.

A college building surrounded by greenery with a few students walking in and outCalifornia State University/Facebook
news Caste Friday, January 21, 2022 - 22:17

The California State University system has now added caste as a protected category in its non-discrimination policy. The Cal State University System is one of the largest university systems in the US, with over 23 campuses and eight off-campus centres. In all, the campuses have 4.85 lakh students, over 55,000 faculty and staff members. The university’s updated policy prohibiting discrimination, which had race and ethnicity as part of its criteria, now also has discrimination on the basis of caste added to it. 

In April 2021, the Cal State Student Association had passed a resolution seeking to add caste to the anti-discrimination policy, making it the first student body in the US to do so.  

Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organisations which aided in the process, commended the move by Cal State and said it looks forward to working with the CSU system to implement this. Equality Labs Executive Director Thenmozhi Soundararajan termed it as an unprecedented, historic and very welcome win. 

Speaking to TNM, Thenmozhi said, “I think the organisers came from all backgrounds because caste in the United States impacts immigrants from all of the South Asian countries, and it’s an interfaith phenomenon. It's just an incredible vindication because the movement faced a lot of denial and harassment, in the process of trying to be able to share the experiences of why we required a legal remedy,” she said. 

Ever since the news was made public, she said that there has been an outpouring of support. Students from across the US have been reaching out to them to bring caste equity to their campuses, she said, as well as in community institutions and in corporate settings. 

Lead organiser Prem Pariyar, a Nepali Dalit Social Work student at CSU East Bay, said that the recognition was personal and historic to him. He told TNM that it’s a great achievement for all the people who were involved. “I have been experiencing caste discrimination in every sphere of my life even in the US. Many caste-oppressed students, faculty, and staff members at CSU campuses will now feel safer and report any incident of harassment or discrimination by the dominant caste students and co-workers,” he said in a statement.

Talking about how this campaign came about, Prem said that when caste was first added as a protected category in the social work department of the college where he was studying, other oppressed caste students were not willing to come forward as they were scared for their safety. “They didn’t want to expose their real caste identity. They didn’t want to lose their friends circle after exposing their caste identity,” he said, adding that when this campaign started however, they supported it.“When they told me that [they would support], I was very committed to fighting for this. There is a gap and someone has to fill this gap. Being silent is not the solution. This is the 21st century and educated people (students) are not feeling safe to talk about their lived experiences. As I am fighting for caste protections, I am fighting for my human rights. I am fighting for all Dalit students and caste oppressed communities who experience discrimination and violence. I thought the protected category allows protections against discrimination by race, colour, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, nationalities and other identities, but why not for caste? Caste is the oldest form of oppression,” he said. 

Both Prem and Thenmozhi said the focus now needs to be on implementation; Prem added that the CSU system must have an action plan for effective implementation.

“Caste oppressed students have intergenerational trauma and fear from their childhood. The CSU system must understand that and it is not easy to expose them in front of their own friends as caste oppressed students. They need to have enough support and feelings of being protected from the CSU system administration,” he said, adding that culturally competent service providers and staff can help create a safe space.

Indians have — for years — made up the second largest group of international students in America, second only to China. In addition, while Indian-Americans are 1.2% of the population, they are still influential

A 2018 survey conducted by Equality Labs in the US found that of the 1,500 respondents, 52% of Dalits and 25% of Shudras were worried about their caste being ‘outed’, as opposed to 1% of Brahmins. It said that 60% of Dalits experienced caste-based discrimination and two out of three reported being treated unfairly at the workplace. 

Read: When caste follows you overseas: Ostracism, discrimination among South Asians in US 

In 2020, a historic lawsuit was filed, where the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued Cisco and former managers in the company after a Dalit Indian-American employee had alleged that they had been discriminated against on the basis of caste.  

In 2021, a lawsuit was filed against HCL America, an arm of the Indian company, by an India-origin former employee, who alleged that he had been discriminated against and had been unlawfully terminated on the basis of his caste.

Read: Caste is part of the Silicon Valley ecosystem: Equality Labs director on Cisco case

In terms of the impact of the CSU System adding caste as a protected category, Thenmozhi said that they are all parts of the same civil rights movement. “It’s really a moment where we're seeing Dalits saying we are not willing to suffer in silence anymore. We want to have our rights that are due to us under the law, and we want to be in workplaces and universities and community institutions, where we're not facing discrimination, harassment, assault — you name it. We are getting support from these institutions because they don't want those civil rights liabilities either,” she said. 

She added that the university movement is deeply connected to the conversation around casteism in tech because it points to the fact that the diaspora are bringing caste wherever they go. “Many of our new countries of origin cannot afford to not give us our due process under law, and that's why they're moving to action. I think that we're only going to see more institutions adding caste as a protected category,” she said. 

Now, more and more classes of people will bring claims against people who are casteist because they can no longer get away with it, she said. “It's no longer in the shadows. The silence has been broken and we're not going back in the closet. We are now only going to move forward. Also, I think it creates a new paradigm for South Asian identity where we're not hiding things. We're not lying about things. We're not holding the pain in our hearts. Rather we're going through the discomfort of coming forward and regaining our humanity collectively.”

Read: Explainer: The New Jersey temple case, labour trafficking and caste exploitation

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