(This story was first published on 28 April 2022. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives in light of a senior manager resigning from Google after a Dalit rights activist's presentation on caste was cancelled by the company.)
As Dalit History Month celebrations draw to an end, the Indians in America find themselves amidst a brewing debate, which started back in 2020 with a lawsuit against Cisco in California hitting the headlines.
For the first time in the United States' (US') history, a state authority sued the multinational tech company, and two of its employees, for allegedly discriminating against an Indian engineer from a lower caste.
More recently, the state has again become the epicentre of caste-related activism when in January of this year, the California State University (CSU) system added caste as a protected category under the university’s non-discrimination policy.
CSU is not the first American university to acknowledge caste. It follows the footsteps of Brandeis and Harvard University in Massachusetts and Colby College in Maine, but it is the biggest university system in the country with 23 campuses under its canopy – and what it decides might amplify the conversation around caste further.
The Indian Americans as well as the broader South Asian diaspora in the US are not monolithic in any way as sometimes stereotyped in mainstream Bollywood as well as Hollywood films, but a diverse group of immigrants from different countries, with different religious, ethnic, and caste backgrounds.
There is also the second generation of South Asians in the country whose identities are further skewed for many inherit a mixed and complex heritage. So, response to the addition of caste in a university non-discrimination policy has also been as diverse and, at times, opposing one another.
To wrap our heads around the multilayered topic of caste in the US, let us unpack the discussion by dividing it into distinct segments.
First, What Convinced CSU?
“The decision to add caste as a parenthetical reference to CSU’s non-discrimination policy was the result of feedback received over several years from different groups,” Michael Uhlencamp of CSU’s Strategic Communications and Public Affairs department told The Quint via an email.
Manmit Singh, currently a graduate student at San Francisco State University and a lead advocate for the policy at CSU, articulated how despite being a caste privileged Punjabi Sikh, he got involved in the anti-caste movement at the CSU.
“This has been an interfaith, inter-caste, and a broader South Asian effort as the caste problem is not just confined to Hindus or Indians only. Open hearings inviting all to participate have been in the works for two years. In this case, just looking at the statistics is not enough, the anecdotes are important too."Manmit Singh
The Origin of the Movement
Prem Pariyar, a Nepali Dalit scholar and activist, played a pivotal part in starting the caste conversation at the CSU.
In 2019, Pariyar joined the graduate programme at the CSU, East Bay. "When I shared the caste oppression I had experienced in Nepal in my class, my other South Asian classmates distanced themselves from me. Their behaviour changed. Still, no one saw caste as a threat on the campus," he told The Quint.
But Pariyar continued the "uncomfortable but important conversations” that surprised the faculty and the students. His social work department made a conscious decision to include caste as a protected category in their non-discrimination policy.
This was followed by other departments adopting the same policy as Pariyar reached out to them explaining why they had to follow the precedent that his department had set.
Pariyar and other concerned students, including Singh, reached out to Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organisation based in California, to support their equity campaign through strategising, legal counselling, and training to organise. The same organisation published the first caste survey report in the US in 2016 and presented evidence of caste discrimination in the country.
The Survey by Carnegie Endowment
Meanwhile, in a separate development, following the Cisco lawsuit and a string of articles on it referring to the Equality Labs survey, the reputed Carnegie Endowment decided to ask some caste-related questions in their 2020 Social Realities of Indian Americans survey that was published last year.
The survey found that even though a large proportion of Hindu respondents did not identify with a caste, only a small fraction was unaware of the caste composition of their networks.
CoHNA, a grassroots advocacy group representing the Hindu community of North America, has taken a stand against the CSU policy and contrasted the two surveys. While their president Nikunj Trivedi mentioned that their organisation is against any kind of discrimination, including caste-based discrimination, they think the CSU is overstepping by including caste as a protected category as caste is too complex for them to fathom.
“They are entering into an administrative nightmare without realising so because they are relying on faulty data provided by organisations such as Equality Labs, and in the process not doing due diligence," Trivedi said.
According to his interpretation of the Carnegie Endowment survey, there is no significant caste discrimination in the US.
He also refers to their footnote that mentions a problem with Equality Labs survey’s methodology. "The Carnegie report asserts that the Equality Labs survey does not fully represent the South Asian American population and likely has skewed data," he added.
'America Feels Strongly About Civil Rights': Equality Labs
When asked to respond to this, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and executive director of Equality Labs, told The Quint, “Equality Labs survey can’t be compared to Carnegie Endowment survey. That survey has its limitations. They talked to only Indian Americans and less than 10 of the participants identified themselves as Dalits. Also, they have not refuted our findings but mentioned in a footnote that our snowball sampling methodology needs to be further explored.”
In the Carnegie report, eight in 10 Hindus self-identified as belonging to the category of upper caste. Another interesting finding is that those who recently arrived in the US are just as likely to identify with a caste group as those who have been here for a quarter-century or more.
"Instead of recognising the historical moment at CSU, some Indian American organisations are spreading disinformation to stop this movement because they are afraid to lose their position of caste privilege but this movement is not going to stop. It will spread to other universities because this country feels very strongly about civil rights."Thenmozhi Soundararajan
Pariyar is hopeful about the future of research. He said, “More caste-based data will be available in the US with time. Several other surveys will follow. Peer-reviewed research papers will be published as well.”
Pariyar is pushing universities to make more funds available for research on caste. "There are scholarships for race and gender but nothing available for caste-based research. I am trying to change that.”
Second, Was It a Democratic and Inclusive Process?
According to Uhlencamp, the university took a decision following a long-drawn, inclusive, and democratic process. “The feedback was mostly from student advocates and academic and legal experts who raised awareness about caste-based discrimination in our communities, many of them courageously sharing their own experiences.”
“We have been working with student government bodies and Academic Senates as well as the California Faculty Organization for the last two years and having conversations with a lot of stakeholders,” Singh stated.
But that is not the experience Pushpita Prasad of CoHNA had when she went to speak at an open hearing held by the university. She said students and faculty approached CoHNA after the resolution was passed because they felt unheard during the hearings.
“In the public meetings, you are given 1-3 minutes to speak and one has to wait for hours to get their chance. That only allows boilerplate responses and not the nuanced discussion caste requires," Prasad said.
Around 80 faculty members sent in a letter to the CSU Board of Trustees opposing the resolution. One of the signees, Praveen Sinha, professor at CSU, Long Beach, holds the opinion that the policy is not “facially neutral.”
He told The Print, “We cannot but oppose the unique risk that CSU’s move puts on us as they add a category that is only associated with people of Indian descent such as myself and thousands of other faculty and students in the CSU system. It is going to create divisions where they simply do not exist.”
But on the other hand, more than 500 faculty members at the CSU have supported the policy.
Pariyar and other student advocates collected that many signatures from faculty members in support of the policy. "The opposition is very small compared to the support the policy is receiving. This is not new. Any form of civil rights progress is met with opposition,” commented Pariyar.
The Future of the Policy
So, where to from here?
What is interesting is that despite the opposite stands Trivedi and Pariyar have taken regarding the policy, both are concerned about the future of the policy.
When I mentioned CoHNA’s concern about how the caste addition will be implemented since the CSU administration doesn't have the expertise to understand the complexities of caste dynamics in the US, Pariyar replied, “I agree. This is a high-level addition. It is an important start but not enough. Caste needs to be defined properly. Within the university, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee must be further educated and trained to understand the nuances of caste and caste discrimination."
Soundararajan also agrees on this point. Her organisation travels around the country holding workshops and training Americans to understand caste and caste aggression.
She said, “Equality Labs will continue collecting data and imparting competency training to universities and other institutions to make sure the addition of caste as a category doesn’t just remain a paper law.”