From Kathmandu to California, South Asians Confront Caste

Prem Pariyar came to the United States to escape the ubiquitous caste discrimination he experienced growing up in Nepal. But like many other Dalits – members of the marginalized caste formerly known as “untouchables” – he found the same caste dynamics abroad.

While pursuing his master’s degree at California State University, East Bay, Mr. Pariyar that he faced derogatory comments and probing questions intended to tease his caste status. Dalit activists and allies say incidents of caste-based harassment and exclusion are common in countries with a large South Asian diaspora, but also widely underreported due to a lack of formal recognition in schools and the workplace.

Why we wrote this

The growing push to tackle caste discrimination outside of South Asia reflects a changing understanding of the caste system – and an emphasis on justice.

Several major colleges have recently addressed this by updating their non-discrimination policies. This year, thanks in large part to Mr Pariyar’s activism, CSU became the country’s first public university system to ban caste-based discrimination, taking effect on all 23 campuses. The new policy has sparked opposition from some faculty and Hindu groups, but has also revived efforts to fight caste discrimination in the US and back in Nepal.

Sarita Pariyar, board member of a Dalit think tank in Nepal, says CSU’s recognition of caste is an important message that “wherever Nepalese go, whether they go to the US or the moon, they will not accept untouchability.”

Kathmandu, Nepal

Prem Pariyar thought that an education abroad would be a way out of the caste discrimination he faced in central Nepal. But he was wrong.

Shortly after arriving in the United States, he accepted an invitation to lunch with a friend, someone he knew back home. When it came time to serve the meal, Mr. Pariyar – who is Dalit, an oppressed caste historically considered unclean or “untouchable” – was stopped by the host’s wife. “I was told not to approach the food because I would contaminate it,” recalled Mr. Pariyar himself. Caste discrimination does not require a visa. It travels everywhere.”

It’s a general story. Lower caste youth go abroad to escape discrimination and seek new opportunities. Once they arrive, they discover the same cabinet dynamics in the classroom and beyond. In recent years, several major U.S. colleges have updated their non-discrimination policies to include caste, including Brandeis University in 2019 and Colby College in 2021. Thanks in large part to Mr. Pariyar’s own activism, California State University became the first of these this year. the country’s public university system to prohibit caste-based discrimination. The new policy has sparked opposition from some faculty and Hindu groups, but has also revived efforts to fight caste discrimination in the US and back in Nepal.

Why we wrote this

The growing push to tackle caste discrimination outside of South Asia reflects a changing understanding of the caste system – and an emphasis on justice.

Sarita Pariyar, writer and board member of Samata Foundation, a Dalit think tank in Nepal, believes that CSU’s recognition of caste sends an important message to political leaders, educators and the public. “Wherever Nepalese go, whether they go to the US or the moon, they don’t accept untouchability,” Ms Pariyar says.

Forbidden, but ingrained

Like India and Sri Lanka, Nepal has a long history of caste. The hereditary system divided communities broadly according to the Hindu model of four social classes, or varna: Brahmins (priests and teachers), Kshatriya (rulers and warriors), Vaishya (traders and teachers) and Sudra (servants and workers). Among the Sudra are Dalits, formerly known as ‘untouchables’. Over time, these classifications were codified into laws that transcended religious boundaries.

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