Studying social work at California State University’s East Bay campus, Prem Periyar says that fellow students from his homeland, Nepal, abandoned him for being a Dalit or so-called “untouchable” in the Hindu caste system.
For example, one day Periyar was waiting for a train when he heard two classmates speaking Nepali. “I walked up to him and I said, ‘Oh, you guys are also from Nepal? It was great meeting you.’ The conversation was great in the beginning,” he recalled.
But when Periyar introduces himself using his surname, he says the mood has changed. He felt like a fairy – the very translation of his name, which also identifies his caste. “His facial expressions were so different and after that he looked at me from top to bottom. It was very embarrassing,” he said.
Periyar’s experience is not unusual. A 2016 survey by Equality Labs, a South Asian human rights group, found that a third of Hindu students in the US experienced caste discrimination.
Earlier this year, the entire California state system — the largest in the country, with half a million students across 23 campuses — added race to its non-discrimination policy. Cal State followed in 2019 first at Brandeis University, then the University of California at Davis, Colby College and the Graduate Students Union at Harvard. Advocates predict that more colleges will soon adopt similar policies.
Only China sends more international students to US colleges than India, about 168,000. Another 11,000 come from Nepal, the other Hindu-majority country in the world.
Periyar was one of the students who lobbied for a change in the discrimination policy at Cal State.
“I could have used the surname of the dominant caste” to hide his identity, Periyar explained. “But this is not the solution. I need to speak up. I need to educate people about this caste discrimination.”
Caste – the traditional religious and social hierarchy of Hindus – arrived on campus with professors and students from India. In India, Nepal, and other countries in South Asia, those born into lower castes, or who are considered “untouchables” or outcasts, face discrimination throughout their lives. Their caste status determines what jobs they can take, who they can marry, and often what schools they can attend.
At another Cal State campus, Manpreet K. Said that he has had similar experiences as Prem Periyar. When she was studying psychology in Sacramento, Manpreet said that she was abandoned by other Indians because of her low caste.
“I have mild privileges, and people just assume that I am the dominant caste, which may have worked in my favor,” he said. “I’m not discriminated against as much, but people catch up really quickly.”
Skin color does not determine one’s caste; His lineage does. But dark-skinned Indians belong to the lower castes, although there are exceptions like Manpreet.
Manpreet asked GBH News not to use his full name as he has been threatened before. On campus, he said that he also used a fake name to hide his caste. But when her classmates learned that she worshiped with Dalits or “untouchables”, they shut her down.
“After all, I wasn’t really part of their group,” she said. “I wasn’t invited to study sessions or lunches or hangouts and I felt very isolated.”
Now in the working world, she says she has faced caste discrimination at work and she says banning caste prejudice on campus is just the beginning. “It is not really at the root of how we actually eliminate caste and create an environment that is safe and also supportive for Dalit students,” she said.
The Constitution of India prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, yet the age-old practice persists. But some Indian Americans say that such discrimination is rare in this country.
Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, said, “As a second-generation Hindu-American, I know I didn’t know my race until my ninth grade teacher in world history asked me about it. I didn’t know.”
“It’s not really at the root of how we actually eliminate caste and create an environment that is safe and also supportive of Dalit students.”
Shukla did not identify his caste himself, telling GBH News that the question was “deeply offensive”. She opposes what the colleges are doing.
“Caste is not the central way of recognizing that these policies are obeying,” she said. “They are essentially institutionalizing a false stereotype about Indian Americans.”
Shukla pointed to a recent online survey conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that found that only 5% of Indian Americans facing discrimination reported that caste was a major factor in their experience.
“And of those who reported facing caste-based discrimination, half said the alleged perpetrators were not South Asians,” she said.
Shukla also says that neither Cal State nor Brandeis have made a single complaint about caste bias.
“Some examples I’ve read in the media are, ‘Well, someone looked at me up and down.’ Could there be discriminatory intent or bias? Absolutely,” she said. “We need to speak to everyone involved in a way that any other claims of discrimination will be investigated.”
Critics say that moving to a post-caste society is not in everyone’s interest.
“If we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist,” said Raj Sampath, who taught philosophy at Brandeis. Their ancestors come from a lower caste of laborers or the Shudras.
“Indian Americans take good chunks of whatever they bring to the United States and perhaps suppress or exclude the dark side of a narrative,” Sampath said. “Caste is a reality that cannot be denied.”
“Race in America has been a hidden discrimination for many years,” said Lawrence Simon, who teaches international development at Brandeis.
Simon worked in South Asia, where, he says, caste is present in all countries. “When I came to Brandeis, I thought race should be something that we look at in our curriculum and look at it in terms of the student experience.”
In 2019, Simon made Brandis the first college in America to ban racial discrimination. Since then, he says, this country’s racial count has made Americans more vulnerable to the issue.
“But it is still a learning curve for many as most administrators and most of the faculty are completely unaware,” he said.
To raise awareness, Prem Pariar and other activists are advocating for more research funding around caste discrimination. “There should be some training and some courses to teach about caste and the seriousness of caste,” he said.