How a Dalit activist from Nepal made a US varsity add caste to its discrimination policyPrem Pariyar says decision by California State University to ban caste discrimination is a major triumph, but the fight against casteism is not over yet.
In 2019, when Prem Pariyar started studying for his graduate degree in social work at the California State University, East Bay, he was shocked to learn that no one would bring the issue of caste into the classrooms while addressing the topic of social justice.
Born in a Dalit community in Khairahani, Chitwan, he and his family have faced discrimination throughout their lives; they were abused, beaten up, humiliated, and were always made inferior by the dominant caste groups. But in his programme, when it was usual to have heavy discourses around gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, he hardly heard any discussions about the caste system and the systematic oppression it perpetuates.
"Within the premises of my university, I faced caste-based discrimination. However, no one saw casteism as a major threat to equality, even when caste-based discrimination was a real problem many students, including me, faced,” said Pariyar, who spoke with the Post over a Zoom call.
The absence of conversations around caste concerned Pariyar. So in each of his classes, when the students would share their lived experiences, he started sharing his stories of discrimination and humiliation with the hope that more people could empathise with Dalit students.
"But when I told my professors and friends about the caste system and how, because of it, I suffer from intergenerational trauma, they were shocked. Most of them were not familiar with the concept of the caste system and took their time to understand the kind of atrocities and discrimination Dalit people are subjected to,” he said. “That is when I thought it was important for me to keep on sharing my lived experience and educate more people about the caste system."
With Pariyar's initiative in starting conversations around caste, a new wave of change started occurring in his department. Professors, faculty members and students and everyone from his department made an effort to pay attention to Pariyar, who constantly educated them about the perils of the caste system and how a safe space for Dalit students can be created on the university premises.
In 2020, because of his constant advocacy, the Department of Social Work at California State University, East Bay, made a conscious decision to include caste as a protected category in their nondiscrimination policy. This was soon followed by other departments, which also adopted the same policy after Pariyar personally reached out to them and explained why they had to follow the precedent his department set.
And finally, after closely working with Academic Senate's Faculty Diversity and Equity Committee, along with a few other Dalit students and allies at his university, his relentless effort in making the university space safe for Dalit people was recognised.
On January 1 this year, California State University, which has 23 campuses, became the first public university system in the US to add caste as a protected category to its nondiscrimination policy.
For Dalit people and their movement for equality, this was a historic decision as it brought the issues of caste equity to a global level. His efforts are now being celebrated throughout the world, and it has also inspired many other universities that are planning to add caste in their protected category.
On Sunday, February 6, Pariyar spoke to the Post, and shared what drove him to start the initiative in the first place and his thoughts on how casteist social structures of a society can be dismantled.
Was there a specific moment in your life that made you realise that it's important to address the caste-based discrimination Dalit people have faced for years?
I think it's my parents who inspired me to fight and be vocal against caste prejudices. In our small village in Chitwan, when any person in our community faced problems, they would ask for help from my parents, who always stood for them and ensured that they got justice.
Casteism was rampant in our village; many Dalits were subjected to discrimination. If anything wrong happened in our village like robbery and theft, even without any proof, the police would arrest Dalit people and keep them in custody. However, my parents always fought against authorities and helped the innocent Dalits get justice. So you can say that initially, their work inspired me to speak up against caste-based discrimination.
But there have been many instances in my life that led me to realise why I need to speak out. Since childhood, I have faced discrimination for being a Dalit. My teachers always questioned my capabilities in school and gave me severe punishments compared to the kids from the dominant caste groups. Some even refused to drink water if I touched their water bottle.
All these incidents in my school had a negative impact on me; I hardly wanted to attend the school.
But I remember one particular incident that opened my eyes about how casteist our society was. During the local elections of 1997, I was working as a volunteer. I was appointed to help distribute water bottles to people standing in the lines, waiting for their turn to vote.
While a few people didn't take the bottles because I had touched them, I never imagined that distributing them would be a big deal that every person in our village would talk about it. When I returned home, my father told me that a few men of the dominant caste complained about my innocent act of distributing water bottles.
"He has forgotten about what caste he belongs to. He has become a big person," I vividly remember my father telling me that the so-called upper caste men had told him.
However, my father appreciated my work and said I did the right thing by helping others. I think that was one of the incidents in my life that made me understand the gravitas of casteism and how we, the Dalit community, need to speak up against the discrimination we face.
In many of your interviews, you have spoken about how casteism forced you to leave your country and settle in the US. Could you tell us more about it?
I left Nepal and moved to the US because I wanted to live a dignified life, where I wasn't discriminated against for being a Dalit. While, throughout our lives–my family and I–faced prejudices, there's one disturbing incident that forced me to leave my homeland, as I had given up the thought that I could ever live a dignified life in Nepal, in my lifetime.
When we moved to Kathmandu from our village, I worked as a teacher. We lived in a rented apartment. But caste discrimination was almost the same. However, we never remained silent. We constantly fought for what was right and spoke against people’s discriminatory actions towards us. The people from dominant caste groups couldn't tolerate our resilience and the fact that we spoke against them. One day during my absence, a group of 30 to 35 upper caste people came to my house and physically assaulted my family members.
That attack stunned all of us. My father was seriously injured. He had to be kept in a hospital for more than a month as the abusers who broke our door hit him with it. The trauma still haunts him; he has a sleep disorder. My mother and sister had bruises all over their bodies.
Yet when we tried to file a case against the perpetrators for their brutality, police refused to register our complaint. The violence we faced wasn't taken seriously, and the authorities told us not to take action against our abusers. It was so hard to even register a complaint. Still, the perpetrators have never been arrested, and we haven't received justice.
For me, that was the breaking point, and with my family's suggestions, in 2015, I decided to move to the US.
But even if you moved to the US, casteism made its way and affected you. Did it shock you when you found that casteism was rife in the US too?
Yes, indeed, I was shocked because I never expected that people living in the US–where conversations around civil rights are taken seriously—still practise casteism. But over the years, as I have been living in the US for seven years now, I learned that the Nepali diaspora held their casteist beliefs more strongly than those in Nepal.
From people refusing to share meals with me to dominant caste group members doubting my integrity, I had to endure a fair share of discrimination in the US.
You are one of the key persons whose efforts made it possible to make a policy-level intervention in adding caste as a protected category in the CSU system. What inspired you to start the advocacy, and how has the overall journey been so far to organise this movement?
Even when I moved to the US, I never stopped condemning the casteist social structures. So when I enrolled myself in the graduate programme of social work at CSU in 2019, I made sure that people knew about casteism, its relevance in our society and how Dalit people like me face discrimination.
Luckily, I had professors, faculty members and students in my programme in whom I found great allies. They always listened to my stories and made efforts to understand the perils of the caste system. The department even started including caste-related books in its curriculum to make more people understand the seriousness of the caste system.
In October 2020, when I had organised a virtual session on World Mental Health Day to discuss race and caste during Covid-19, the chair of our department, Sarah Taylor, announced that from that day onwards, our department would also include caste as a protected category. This acceptance from my department inspired me, and I began my advocacy campaign collaborating with other Dalit students and activists. Our main goal was to bring policy level intervention into the university system, so the rights against discrimination for Dalit students are protected.
During the first phase of our advocacy campaign, we started reaching out to other departments, making them understand why it was essential to protect oppressed caste groups.
Fortunately, other departments listened to our concerns, followed the lead and did what was necessary–include caste in their nondiscrimination policy. And finally, after closely working with Academic Senate's Faculty Diversity and Equity Committee, making the authorities concerned understand why caste is a global issue, on January 1, CSU announced that it would add caste in its protected category.
I think this is a significant win for Dalit people and their movement for equality.
While many have appreciated your advocacy, about 80 teaching faculty members condemned CSU's decision to include caste discrimination in nondiscrimination policy, calling it a wrong move. They even said it would incite hate against Hindu people on campus. What are your thoughts about this?
Honestly, I am not surprised by those faculty members who have resented CSU's decision to address caste discrimination. Most of them are conservative and belong to a privileged dominant caste group. Their main argument is that this policy is an attack against the Hindu people. That it will create more conflicts and break the harmony among South Asian people.
But this is an illogical argument. The only thing that the policy will bring is accountability and ensure that every Dalit student in the university will get justice and a safe environment where they don't have to suffer from any kind of discrimination.
Brahminism is often considered the root cause of casteism. But we rarely have conversations around it, especially in Nepal. Why do you think we haven't acknowledged that Brahminism has stratified our society, forcing people to stay on the fringes?
A lot of disinformation has been spread about Brahmanism by the privileged group who have tried their best to stop people from actually understanding the fundamental concept of this belief and how it harms our society.
People have this misconception that speaking against Brahminism means inciting hatred against Brahmin people, which is absolutely false. Anti-Brahminism isn't an attack on Brahmin people, but it attacks Brahmin supremacy. Opposing Brahminism means challenging the status quo and the deeply unequal caste system that has a history of more than 3,000 years.
Thus, to make our society free from the shackles of the caste system, we need to have more conversations around Brahminism and how we can dismantle it. But whenever someone addresses it or tries to highlight the prevalent Brahmin supremacy, they are shunned and asked not to speak about it. They are told that by speaking against Brahminism, they are damaging the harmonious relations of our society as the Brahmin community will get offended.
Perhaps this is the reason why people are hesitant to speak against Brahminism.
In 2020, six innocent people (including four Dalits) in Rukum were murdered by people from a privileged caste group. There is no justice yet. Why do you think we still aren't working to dismantle the caste system?
It all boils down to who is in power. The lack of urgency by the state—even when such a big crime was committed—is because, in every organ of the state, there are people from the dominant groups. These people don't have the lived experiences of being a Dalit person. They aren't aware of how Dalit people face humiliation, discrimination, and hatred even in present times.
For them addressing the issues of casteism never becomes a priority because the caste system doesn’t affect them. They are never able to see why casteism is wrong and how it promotes violence against Dalit communities.
Perhaps that is the reason why our political leaders and parliamentarians–mainly from the dominant caste groups–are seen publicly making remarks like “caste-based discrimination didn't kill those four Dalit people,” which in fact is a false information. It was the caste system that was responsible for the deaths.
Hence, I believe that if we truly want to dismantle the caste system, we can’t do it unless we don't have people from our own community in key decision-making positions. Only those who have endured the pain know the perils of the caste system and will actively engage in dismantling it. Not those who have enjoyed the privileges gained because of the caste system for years.
There have been many instances in the Dalit movement where savarna people (people of upper caste) have co-opted the spaces of Dalits. In your opinion, how can savarana people be better allies?
If I have to speak about my experience and the movement I, along with other Dalit students, are leading now in making universities a safe space for Dalit students in the US, we have received good support from the dominant caste group. They empathise with us and are wholeheartedly supporting the campaign.
If we want to dismantle the whole caste system, we need the support of everyone, including the people from the dominant caste group. But what they (people from the dominant caste group) need to realise is that they can't use our issues to push their agendas and benefit.
They need to acknowledge their privileges and let us lead the movement to equality, rather than co-opting our spaces and making the movement about them.
This is how a person from the dominant caste group can be a good ally.
How can we dismantle the deeply unequal caste system? Can only laws change the mindset of casteist people?
We definitely need laws and policies to safeguard the rights of Dalit people. But only drafting policies and regulations can't change everything. What we need is a robust system where the laws and policies against caste discrimination are strictly implemented.
The authorities should strictly act on the crimes and offences of caste discrimination; they should immediately arrest and punish those whose casteist beliefs are harming Dalit people. Only then will the dominant caste groups have the fear and realise what they are doing is a crime.
Similarly, it is also crucial for the state to have inclusive policies that support the inclusion of Dalit communities in decision-making positions. The mere representation and the affirmative action policies in Nepal are insignificant for a breakthrough change. In the name of diversity and representation, we have limited Dalit leaders to lower-ranking positions, where they can't do much.
This needs to be changed, and in every organ of the state, the authorities need to ensure equal participation and representation of Dalit people. The more Dalit people are in power positions, the quicker the deeply unequal caste system will lose its power.