Fighting for Fair

Landmark victories show the growing strength of the movement for caste equity in the United States


I remember my first Zoom call with Prem Pariyar in the summer of 2020. Ruvani Fonseka, one of his professors at California State University, East Bay, had reached out on his behalf to Equality Labs, the Dalit civil-rights organisation that I run, to suggest we work together. Pariyar told his story while his children giggled and played behind him. He was a father, a survivor and an Ambedkarite, and he had a mission: caste abolition. That fateful meeting began a historic movement to institutionalise protections against caste discrimination at the California State University system—the largest public university system in the United States, with more than four hundred thousand students across its 23 campuses.

Pariyar came to the United States in 2015, fleeing his home in Nepal after his family was brutally assaulted for speaking out against the discrimination they faced as Dalits. He hoped that here, halfway across the world, he could live free of caste, but this hope was soon shattered. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area while waiting for his asylum application to be processed, he experienced unspeakable untouchability from others who had also come from his part of the world. His voice cracked as he described how, as a restaurant worker, he was forbidden to eat or sleep where his fellow workers lived. He carries the shame of that time even today.

After he was granted asylum, Pariyar enrolled at Cal State East Bay for a graduate degree in social work. He chose this career path because he knew that newly immigrated Dalits needed an ally to help them access services for housing, health and employment, and also to help them escape such things as domestic violence and landlord abuse. But even as a student, he continued to face caste stigma. Dominant-caste students targeted him with slurs, refused to eat with him and bullied him for speaking out against such treatment.

When the discrimination became too much to bear, he struggled to find support. The CSU system offered protection against discrimination on the basis of race, sexuality, gender and more, but did not have institutional mechanisms to support students who faced discrimination based on caste. As a result, many caste-oppressed students, faculty and staff were silently enduring caste discrimination, including slurs and microaggressions, bias in student housing and groups, and even gender-based violence and sexual harassment. The stress from such treatment creates many obstacles to the success of oppressed-caste students, which is why Pariyar and other Dalit students began to mobilise. With support from Equality Labs, as well as a growing coalition of other allies, Pariyar and other Dalit students launched a campaign for caste equity and right to dignity and success. As a CSU student and later an alumnus, Pariyar advocated for change first in his academic department, then across departments and finally across the CSU system as a whole. The work paid off this January, when CSU’s board of trustees formally made caste a protected category across all of the university’s campuses.