Caste on Campus: The Need to Add Caste-Based Protections
Editors Note: In the print version of this story the Observer unintentionally cut off the bottom part of the Equality Labs graphic, provided to us by the South Asian Political Action Committee. The bottom of the graphic detailed the experiences of the Adivasis and Dalit people, those who are most marginalized under the caste system. The online version of this article has the correct version of the graphic below. The Observer apologizes for this mistake.
In the words of the US-based Dalit rights activist, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, “Caste has been [in the US] for a long time; wherever South Asians go, they bring caste.” Tufts is not absolved from the manifestation of caste in the United States, including the discrimination it breeds in this nation. In the Tufts community, race, class, and gender identity are protected by the Office of Equal Opportunity. These protected categories ensure that if someone in the Tufts community is harmed because of their identity, Tufts has the obligation to defend them and ensure such harm does not continue. Despite the pervasive nature of caste in South Asian American society, caste remains an unprotected category at Tufts. The university should follow in the footsteps of educational institutions around the United States and add caste-based protections to its discrimination policy.
Caste is a system of discrimination that originated in ancient Hindu texts and is ingrained to this day in South Asian society and its diaspora across religious, national, and class lines. The four varna (castes) are Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra. The first three are referred to as oppressor-caste, with Shudra falling under the term Bahujan referring to caste-oppressed people generally. Caste-oppressed groups include Dalit people, historically known as untouchables; Adivasi, the indigenous people of India; and Bahujans, an umbrella term that encompasses these groups and other caste-oppressed people. As of 1950, discrimination based on caste was condemned in the Indian Constitution. However, social and structural effects of the caste system continue to cause harm today through sexual violence, discrimination in the workplace, and social and political marginalization. Dalit people, for example, might not be allowed to enter a Hindu temple, and many caste-oppressed people also face discrimination for marrying outside of their own caste.
To recognize the existence of caste in the South Asian American diaspora is a step in the direction of caste abolition. This is why, as a club, the South Asian Political Action Committee has launched a campaign to add caste as a protected category to the anti-discrimination policy, following in the footsteps of other universities, like Brandeis and the UC school system, in order to be proactive in assuring students are protected. We want to focus specifically on the ramifications and structural harms of the caste system and how they play out in the American workplace and in higher education. Caste-oppressed students face harassment, bullying, and even assault on college campuses. One in two Dalit students is scared of being exposed as caste-marginalized because they know the harm that awaits them; two-thirds of Dalit students have faced harassment over their caste positionality. Universities must make caste a protected category to protect both marginalized-caste faculty and students from harm; they have a responsibility to their students to provide accessible and inclusive forms of protection, which currently lack comprehensive pathways to justice.
The caste system’s manifestation in the American diaspora is a product of transnational migration. The insidious nature of caste often lies in its invisibility in upper caste, or savarna, communities. Within the racial hierarchy of the US, these oppressor-caste communities are characterized as representing all of South Asia. Due to the dominance of immigrants of Indian origin who are upper caste in the US, the nuanced individual experiences of people in the South Asian community are overlooked in favor of the dominant narrative of oppressor-caste people. In the context of the US, caste becomes harder to trace, as all South Asians are placed in the same political and racial category. This narrative minimizes the very real effects of caste oppression that exist in the South Asian American diaspora. In order to dismantle systems of oppression in the US and abroad, it is necessary to amplify the voices of marginalized-caste activists and create solidarity in the global South Asian community along caste lines.
As an organization, SAPAC itself is not immune to structures of power, with many oppressor-caste members who benefit from these systems. It is on these oppressor-caste people to unlearn caste supremacy and dismantle the incredibly harmful effects of it in their communities—that is the bare minimum.
In Silicon Valley, the relationship between caste-oppressed workers and tech companies is currently under investigation. Two out of three Dalit-identifying people surveyed by Equality Labs working at Cisco Systems, an information technology firm in San Jose, have said they have been discriminated against on the basis of caste in the workplace, to the point where caste-based harassment is a normalized part of the work environment. Immigration from India directly to Silicon Valley plays a large role in this as firms recruit from Indian universities. As Soundarajan stated, “dominant castes who pride themselves as being only of merit have just converted their caste capital into positions of power throughout the valley.” This occurs as people who immigrate to the United States from India for work need an H-1B Visa, which, in the South Asian context is usually given to oppressor-caste people who have institutional access to more resources. Thus, the caste system from India and its hierarchy have merely reproduced themselves in the American tech field.
Companies are slowly starting to face repercussions for this, as Dalit people are beginning to file lawsuits against their employers. Because caste is not nationally recognized as a protected category, Dalit-identifying people must resort to a rather inaccessible, expensive, and time-consuming path towards justice. For example, Cisco Systems was sued by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing because of discrimination against a Dalit employee. Cisco Systems was “denying him promotions, humiliating him, and giving him lesser work assignments.” Though lawsuits such as these are a step forward for protecting marginalized-caste employees, there should be alternative pathways to justice for caste-marginalized people.
These would be especially necessary at universities, which, along with the workplace, are notorious for their caste-based discrimination. In 2020, a Nepali caste-oppressed student named Prem Pariyar almost dropped out of California State University due to the casteism he faced. Pariyar did not hide his last name, which is a large caste-identifier under the system, and was outed to caste-privileged students. Their tone of voice would become patronizing when speaking to him, and their behavior changed when they learned through his last name that he was of lower caste. In one instance, at a community dinner, he was given a plate of food instead of being able to serve himself, implying that by touching the food he would contaminate it. He brought this harassment to the school administration, but, because caste was not included in the school’s list of protected categories, they could not initiate any formal action.
CSU was structured to not protect students like Pariyar. Two years later, all universities in the California State system added caste as a protected category, which Pariyar called “very personal to [himself] and a historic win for caste-oppressed people in the US.” This was instrumental for Pariyar and many others, as their experiences of harm and harassment in the university setting were finally being heard. For example, Pariyar looked back on his undergraduate years and remembered how his other Dalit friends were scared of being outed based on their caste when living with upper caste people and were scared of losing housing over it. In an interview with Pariyar, he shared the fear of being outed to his upper-caste South Asian acquaintances who quickly turned a cold shoulder when they found out he was a Dalit person. An article he is paraphrased in said that “it triggered him deeply, leaving him humiliated and powerless. He calls it intergenerational trauma. It depressed him to know that he could not escape caste, even in America.” His experiences as a Dalit person in America propelled his activism and organizing to add caste-based protections to the anti-discrimination policy. He first spoke about his experiences with casteism in the classroom with supportive professors and started building a movement to institute these policies on the larger UC scale. Several other schools throughout the US have followed suit, including Harvard Graduate School, Brandeis University, Colby College, Scripps College, and the UC school system. Tufts should be next.
At Tufts, as with every other higher-education institution, our current system does not protect students from caste-based discrimination. The lack of protection makes it difficult for students with marginalized caste identities to feel comfortable reporting caste-based discrimination. Adding caste to the non-discrimination policy lets caste-marginalized students know that their institution values their comfort and livelihood. Under this policy addition, students, faculty, and staff across the university would be able to report incidents of caste discrimination. This gives caste-marginalized people a way for their experiences to be heard and provided with a more inclusive and straightforward pathway to addressing discrimination.
The petition to add caste-based protections into Tufts’ discrimination policy is available at bit.ly/casteattufts.