In early 2020, Prem Pariyar was almost at a breaking point over targeted harassment, discrimination and exclusion by the dominant caste group’s students at his alma mater, the California State University (CSU) in East Bay, the United States.
Pariyar, 38, who is a Dalit, told Honest Herald he tried to report the matter to the university management. But there was not much the authorities could do as caste was not a part of the institution’s non-discrimination policy.
The Dalits, formerly referred to as “the untouchables”, lie at the bottom of South Asia’s complex caste hierarchy and have faced socioeconomic oppression at the hands of the privileged castes for centuries, especially in India.
The caste system has denied Dalits and less privileged castes access to education and employment across South Asia. India introduced “quota” in universities and government jobs as part of its affirmative action plan for the oppressed communities.
The forms of discrimination have even reached the US which has a large Indian diaspora. Pariyar said it had become difficult to survive on the CSU campus as a Dalit student.
“My South Asian colleagues tried to silence me when I talked about my experiences,” Pariyar told Honest Herald
In October 2020, Pariyar organised a virtual conference on the intersection of race, caste and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic at CSU East Bay’s Department of Social Work.
After hearing the experiences of the Dalit students in the conference, the department added caste as a protected category against discrimination in its mission statement.
But little did Pariyar know that the debate stirred by the virtual conference would result in a policy that would strengthen protection for Dalit students in the country’s largest four-year public university system that boasts of 485,550 students and 55,000 faculty and staff.
In a surprise announcement on January 1, the CSU system added caste to its non-discrimination policy, prohibiting caste-based discrimination or bias across its 23 campuses.
“This is very personal to me and a historic win for caste-oppressed people in the US,” Pariyar told Honest Herald.
“This policy will educate people about invisible caste discrimination as well. It will help to create a welcoming environment for Dalit students across the nation,” he said.