SAN FRANCISCO – Prem Pariyar believed he left caste oppression behind when he left Nepal in the USA.
Here, he would no longer be targeted as an âuntouchableâ.
But as a restaurant worker in the Bay Area, Pariyar said, he suffered some of the same discrimination and exclusion he suffered in his home country. He was ordered to chop a large bag of onions in less than an hour, and when he had to share an apartment with other Nepalese immigrants, he was forbidden to share a room with those of a caste dominant.
While doing social work in Nepal, he spoke publicly to protect Dalits, as members of the oppressed castes call themselves. In California, he discovered that he had to take on the role of activist again.
In a year when Black Lives Matter and Asian anti-hate movements raised awareness of systemic racism and discrimination, many Dalit activists took a collective stand to fight the intolerance and violence that followed them in their professional and educational careers in the United States. Formerly known as the untouchables, Dalits sit at the bottom of a century-old South Asian social hierarchy that affects the lives of more than a quarter of a billion people worldwide, many of them in the United States. .
By tradition, caste is passed on at birth and determines a person’s social status on the basis of so-called spiritual purity. In this feudal system, those who are deemed unclean are excluded from all spheres of life, including access and opportunities to education and work.
Although caste discrimination is officially banned in India and other countries in the region, the practice continues among South Asian communities.
According to the human rights group Human Rights Watch, “the police continue to detain, torture and extort money from Dalits without too much fear of sanctions.” The group claims that Dalit women are disproportionately raped and forced into prostitution.
While a person may not reveal their caste origin, this silence will not necessarily spare them from discrimination as certain surnames or professions are associated with particular castes, as are geographic areas.
“We take ‘untouchable’ to be an epithet,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder of Equality Labs, a non-profit organization focused on ending what it calls caste apartheid. âNo one can determine our position towards God, and that is why we call ourselves Dalit. It means the one who is broken but also the one who is resilient. “
Pariyar embodies this resilience. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in education in Nepal and came to the United States in 2015 to seek asylum after being persecuted by members of the dominant caste because he had decried caste atrocities in Nepal.
Over time, he was able to quit his restaurant job and become a student at Cal State East Bay in Hayward, where he earned a master’s degree in social work. Soon, Pariyar said, he also faced ostracism on campus. Nepalese students kept their distance, and a dominant caste classmate in India blocked his attempts to hold a campus conference around Dalit rights. The conference never took place.
Many members of the dominant caste deny the existence of the caste.
But the practice of untouchability has been documented in the United States by Equality Labs.
In 2016, the nonprofit surveyed 1,500 South Asians in the United States and found that one in three Dalit students surveyed said they had experienced discrimination while studying in the United States. and that 2 in 3 Dalits said they had been treated unfairly in their workplace. in the USA
On June 30, 2020, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a federal complaint against Cisco Systems for alleged caste-based discrimination against a Dalit engineer by two dominant caste managers. Without an explanation, the department subsequently dropped the lawsuit in federal court and referred it to state court, where it is pending.
In a statement, Cisco said it does not tolerate discrimination and takes complaints of abuse seriously.
“Although the caste is not currently protected by US discrimination laws, we support legislative efforts to ensure a fair and equal workplace for all,” the statement said. âIn this instance, we thoroughly and comprehensively investigated the employee’s concerns and found that they were treated fairly, paid high, and had the opportunity to work on coveted projects. If we had found discrimination or retaliation, we would have remedied it. “
âThe tech industry has been a stronghold of caste sectarianism,â Soundararajan said. His organization heard from dozens of technicians who said that co-workers or supervisors discriminated against them because of their caste. âWe received 250 complaints,â she said, âand that was every tech company you can imagine.â
Soundararajan shared screenshots of the castes comments on Blind, an anonymous tech forum. Some writers left crass remarks about the Dalits, while others argued that there was nothing wrong with the caste system.
One user, VmBW03, wrote:
âHow can caste be pejorative? It is beyond my competence. Caste is no different from the surname. It’s like ethnicity. Unless you are not proud of your ethnicity, there is no need to be ashamed of your caste. For example, I am proud to be of Brahmin origin.
Soundararajan points out that many tech companies have Indians in leadership positions who are mostly Brahmins or upper castes.
âThere’s no way they don’t understand the ramifications of caste,â Soundararajan said. âAnd what’s ironic is that many of these companies in their operations in India and South Asia have caste as a protected category. They have simply refused to implement this globally, which has now caused active prejudice to their caste-oppressed employees here in the United States. “
Tech companies – Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Apple and Twitter, among them – say they do not tolerate discrimination in the workplace and that their anti-harassment policies cover caste-based abuse.
Some tech workers speak out against caste discrimination in the US In April, the new Alphabet Workers Union released a statement in support of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing’s lawsuit against Cisco. The statement includes the anti-discrimination policy of parent company Google in India, which includes caste as a protected category, but emphasizes that caste is excluded in the United States and encourages the company to engage in caste equity.
âA big part of our journey that we need to take as a community is to start having open conversations about these taboo fault lines,â she said, âand to be honest that the issues are happening, so that we can work together to find the cures. “
After years of Dalit-led community organization, the Cal State Student Assn. passed a resolution in April calling for a ban on caste discrimination on its 23 campuses, representing nearly half a million students in California.
Pariyar, 37, has been a driving force in the movement to seek caste protection at one of the largest public university systems in the United States. A Cal State spokesperson, providing few details, said the resolution was under discussion.
âI don’t want my children to become untouchable, Dalits. I don’t want them to be limited, âhe said. “I don’t want them to be untouchable in the United States.”
He recalled his first memories of exclusion as a child when his teacher asked him to bring a jug of water to class. She took a sip. When his comrades called him “untouchable,” he said, she spat out the water.
All the students laughed.