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'Setting the Precedent': What Caste Protections at Cal State Mean for Students and Alumni

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Prem Pariyar wears a suit and tie and stands outside on a sidewalk in a residential area. He looks away from the camera.
Prem Pariyar, an alumnus of California State University, East Bay has been one of the leaders in the fight for caste protections in the CSU system. 'Society needs to understand the gravity of caste discrimination,' he said. (Cesar Saldaña/KQED)

Students and alumni across the California State University system are responding to the change that went into effect on Jan. 1, to add caste protections to its nondiscrimination policy, affecting students, staff and faculty at all 23 campuses of the nation's largest university system.

The updated policy is intended to protect caste-oppressed students, many of whom are of South Asian descent and may be subject to this rigid form of social stratification by other students, faculty or staff. The caste system has roots in the Hindu religion, and though it is officially outlawed in many countries, discrimination still persists.

For some current and former students who have suffered caste discrimination firsthand, these new protections provide an element of accountability.

“Society needs to understand the gravity of caste discrimination,” said Prem Pariyar, who received his master's degree in social work from California State University East Bay in 2021, has been a leader in the fight for caste protections in the CSU system. “People are being killed. People are being raped in the name of caste.”

Pariyar said when he speaks about his own experiences with caste discrimination, many people don’t understand. He's experienced discrimination as a Dalit — one of the most oppressed classes in the caste system sometimes referred to as “Untouchable” — after he introduced himself to a pair of students on campus speaking Nepali.

Pariyar said the students looked at him from top to bottom. “In the beginning, they talked to me in a nice way,” he said, “but after knowing my first and last name, they started to distance themselves.” Knowing his first and last name — for those who understand caste nuances — gave away Pariyar’s so-called lower caste.

Pariyar said that he quickly understood what the two men were thinking, apologized and walked away.

"Caste has thousands and thousands of years of history. Many generations spend their lives as 'untouchables,'" Pariyar said.

According to a study conducted by Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization, one in three American Dalit students reports being discriminated against during their education, and 25% said they had faced verbal or physical assault because of their caste.

"Race and caste are not the same system, but they are parallel oppressions that have the same logic," wrote Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs in an opinion piece for Yes! magazine.


Some CSU students feel that the new caste protections could open the door for bigger conversations on equity.

“It allows for the space for caste-oppressed students, staff and faculty to come forward and share their experiences,” said Sahiba Singh. Singh is a student at San Francisco State University studying ethnic studies and one of the leaders in the CSU-wide coalition that fought for caste protections.

"By adopting caste protections, [California State University is] really setting that precedent for other universities across the nation to follow in affirming their commitment to civil rights,” Singh said.

Both Singh and Pariyar said their work is just beginning. Pariyar would like to see a curriculum developed to educate students, staff and faculty throughout the CSU system on the history of the caste system and the real-life consequences people face in academic settings as a result of this discrimination.

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President Jeffrey Armstrong of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo says he welcomes the change in the nondiscrimination policy.

“We have a good number of students from India or of Indian descent,” he said. “So, this is an important topic for our campus. But it really doesn’t matter the number of students — all students should feel welcome.”

In a statement, CSU Chancellor Joseph Castro said he commends “the incredible work and dedication of the students, employees, and other partners” that led to the new protections.


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