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From Kathmandu to California, South Asians clash with castes

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Prem Pariyar came to the United States to escape the pervasive caste discrimination he faced growing up in Nepal. But like many other Dalits – members of the marginalized caste formerly known as the “untouchables” – he found the same caste dynamics at play abroad.

While pursuing his master’s degree at California State University, East Bay, Mr Pariyar says he faced derogatory comments and invasive questions meant to unravel his caste status. Dalit activists and allies say incidents of caste-based harassment and exclusion are common in countries with large South Asian diasporas, but also largely under-reported due to a lack of formal recognition in schools and schools. The places of work.

Why we wrote this

Growing pressure to address caste discrimination beyond South Asia reflects a changing understanding of the caste system – and emphasis on equity.

Several large colleges have recently addressed this issue by updating their non-discrimination policies. This year, thanks in large part to Mr. Pariyar’s activism, CSU became the first public university system in the country to ban caste-based discrimination, effective on all 23 campuses. The new policy has drawn backlash from some Hindu scholars and groups, but has also reinvigorated efforts to address caste discrimination in the United States and Nepal.

Sarita Pariyar, a board member of a Dalit think tank in Nepal, says the CSU’s caste recognition sends an important message that “wherever Nepalis go, whether it’s the United States or on the moon, they will not accept untouchability”.

Kathmandu, Nepal

Prem Pariyar thought an education abroad would be a way out of the caste discrimination he faced in central Nepal. But he was wrong.

Shortly after arriving in the United States, he accepted an invitation to lunch at a friend’s house, someone he had known back home. As the meal was being served, Mr Pariyar – who is Dalit, an oppressed caste historically considered impure or “untouchable” – was stopped by the host’s wife. “I was told not to go near the food because I would pollute it,” recalls Mr Pariyar. “Caste discrimination does not require a visa. He travels everywhere. »

It’s a common story. Young people from lower castes go abroad to escape discrimination and seek new opportunities. Once they arrive, they find the same caste dynamics at play in the classroom and beyond. In recent years, several major American colleges have updated their non-discrimination policies to include caste, including Brandeis University in 2019 and Colby College in 2021. Thanks in large part to Mr. Pariyar’s own activism , California State University this year became the first in the nation. public university system to prohibit caste-based discrimination. The new policy has drawn backlash from some Hindu scholars and groups, but has also reinvigorated efforts to address caste discrimination in the United States and Nepal.

Why we wrote this

Growing pressure to address caste discrimination beyond South Asia reflects a changing understanding of the caste system – and emphasis on equity.

Sarita Pariyar, a writer and board member of the Samata Foundation, a Dalit think tank in Nepal, believes that CSU’s caste recognition sends an important message to political leaders, educators and the public. “Wherever they go, be it to the United States or to the moon, the Nepalese will not accept untouchability,” says Ms Pariyar.

Outlaw, but rooted

Similar to India and Sri Lanka, Nepal has a long caste history. The hereditary system largely divided communities according to the Hindu model of the four social classes, or Varna: Brahmins (priests and teachers), Kshatriya (rulers and warriors), Vaishya (merchants and teachers) and Sudra (servants and workers). Beneath the Sudra are the Dalits, formerly known as the “untouchables”. Over time, these classifications were codified in laws that transcended religious lines.

Nepal declared the caste system unconstitutional in 1951 and criminalized caste-based discrimination in 2011. Yet even today, caste remains a predominant form of discrimination in urban and rural areas across South Asia. South, where the mention of a surname or occupation can lead to harassment for association with lower castes. In India, the practice of “untouchability” – through separate accommodation or denying Dalits entry into homes, cafes and temples – is common. In the Dalit community in Nepalaccounting for up to 20% of the population, education levels are below average and poverty levels are high.

Mr. Pariyar grew weary after years of harassment while working as a teacher in Kathmandu. “Everywhere there was resistance and problems,” he says, but the final straw came in 2014, when a gang of around 30 people from the dominant caste attacked his family in their home. Mr. Pariyar’s father had missed about 50 cents buying a sewing machine that day, and the seller was offended by his request to pay the money later. The father was hospitalized with serious injuries. Mr Pariyar says he had to knock on the doors of politicians and human rights activists before police allowed him to press charges, and the family were then pressured to drop the investigation. Mr. Pariyar moved to the United States the following year, and soon after enrolled in the Masters of Social Work program at CSU, East Bay.

The caste travels west

Vipin P. Veetil, an economist based in India, says the caste system has forced the lower caste into menial professions and prevented them from getting a proper education in South Asia, leading many to move towards the west looking for better opportunities. But they often find that Brahmins also dominate higher education abroad – as Dr. Veetil noted during his doctorate. studies at George Mason University.

Damian Dovarganes/AP/File

Students walk past the Harriet and Charles Luckman Fine Arts Complex on the campus of California State University in Los Angeles on April 25, 2019. In January, CSU became the first public university system in the nation to ban caste-based discrimination.

A 2016 survey conducted by the Dalit civil rights organization Equality Labs suggests that a third of Dalit students in the United States experience discrimination during their studies. One in four Dalits surveyed had experienced verbal or physical abuse, and half said they feared their caste would be “exposed”. More recent investigations and media reports have also found evidence of caste-based patronage in Silicon Valley, as well as harassment in social and community spaces.

Dr. Veetil says the CSU ruling and others like it provide “protection to make the American dream come true” for lower castes.

Prior to the change, Mr Pariyar noticed that his CSU colleagues talked about gender, race and other class inequalities, but seemed to ignore what he saw as the greatest injustice occurring in South Asia and the United States. within the diaspora. When he tried to discuss his experiences with caste, professors and other South Asian students denied any knowledge of modern discrimination, which embarrassed him.

But he kept talking, and eventually a professor connected Mr. Pariyar to Equality Labs, spurring more formal activism. The graduate student began seeing results last year, with the Cal State Student Association voting to recognize caste as protected status and the University of California, Davis, where Mr Pariyar also lobbied for change, adding caste to its protected categories in November.

Calls for recognition were growing, even among students from the dominant caste, recalls Mr. Pariyar, who graduated in 2021. “This movement has become an interreligious and interracial coalition,” he adds. Then, in a historic move, the CSU board voted unanimously to make caste a protected category in January, effective on all 23 campuses.

Fixing or fueling stigma?

Some professors and Hindu groups frown on the change, arguing that caste discrimination would already be prohibited under university rules on race, national origin or ancestry.

In a open letter on the board, more than 80 CSU faculty members wrote anonymously that highlighting caste “will cause more discrimination by unconstitutionally singling out and targeting Indian-origin Hindu faculty and South Asian”.

Suhag Shukla, co-founder and executive director of the American Hindu Foundation, supports the teachers and praises their courage.

The new policy “is an arbitrary, unwarranted and deeply offensive affront to their decades of service,” Ms. Shukla says via email, adding that the CSU has created a new problem by “institutionalizing implicit bias and discrimination against of all Indian and Hindu heritage.

Many Dalits and allies disagree. They argue that caste already follows South Asians overseas, but incidents of discrimination or exclusion often go unreported due to lack of formal recognition in schools and workplaces. Mr. Pariyar’s success inspired other students to push for caste protections in their own institutions.

Bikash Gupta, a Nepalese student studying public policy and data analysis at Carnegie Mellon University, writes a letter with other students to submit to the school administration. “He will talk about how caste is a form of discrimination and a global issue, and how research or interpretations of caste are changing,” Gupta said.

Experts say change will be more difficult – but equally, if not more, important – in Nepal, where discrimination is endemic despite its illegality. But Ms Pariyar, from the Dalit think tank, says Mr Pariyar’s perseverance reminds Nepalese students not to ‘keep silent about unacceptable insults and caste-based discrimination, especially in higher education’.