American colleges are beginning to recognise an unsavoury but truly Indian experience: caste.
University of California, Davis, is the first such public institution to codify the social system as a protected category under its anti-discrimination policy. In October, the privately-run Maine’s Colby College banned such differentiation on its campus. In November 2019, Brandeis University, Massachusetts, made a similar move.
The caste system is prevalent in Indian communities, largely – but not restricted to – those that practice Hinduism. It is an identity hierarchy, each level of which one is believed to be born into. It perpetuates centuries of prejudice against those from “lower” castes. The Dalit groups are the worst affected, facing strong strong bias even on campuses outside of India.
Students from Dalit and other backward castes routinely face comments about the colour of one’s skin, clothes one wears and general ridicule even over surnames, often seen as classic markers of one’s caste identity.
“I have experienced casteism all my life and never expected to face it at Davis,” J Kaur, a student leader, was quoted in a press release by social justice organisation Equality Labs. “During my undergraduate career I have faced many micro-aggressions related to caste especially in South Asian and Sikh spaces.” Several other students echo this sentiment.
American universities increasingly recognising this prejudice is a significant step for students of South Asian origin, roughly 2,00,000 of who study in such institutions. In fact, they are among the largest communities of international students.
India, on its part, has opposed the United Nations’ moves to deem caste bias on par with racial discrimination.
Such social change through fiat at the university level can eventually help workplaces rid themselves of the social evil.
America’s caste problem
In June 2020, California’s department of fair employment and housing filed a lawsuit against Cisco and two of its former managers for discriminating against a Dalit engineer. Both managers were “upper caste” Indians.
Following this, Equality Labs began receiving complaints of similar discrimination at tech companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft and IBM, according to The Washington Post. Allegations included slurs and jokes, bullying, discriminatory hiring practices, bias in peer reviews and sexual harassment, Equality Labs executive director Thenmozhi Soundararajan told the daily.
“All the elements of a hostile workplace exist for caste-oppressed Americans in Silicon Valley, which is often referred to within these networks as ‘Agraharam Valley,’ invoking the part of an Indian village in which Brahmins, or members of the dominant caste, reside,” Soundararajan wrote separately in the newspaper in July 2020.
“The cycle begins in ‘premier’ Indian educational institutions, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, where dominant castes make up the majority of professors and students and where, as professor Ajantha Subramanian writes, successes are attributed solely to merit without acknowledgement of caste-based structural advantages,” Soundararajan wrote.
IITs are coveted engineering colleges in India, where each seat receives hundreds of applications every year. IIT-Madras is often referred to as “Iyer Iyengar Technology – Iyer and Iyengar being the Brahmin castes of Tamil Nadu where IIT-Madras is located. Brahmins occupy the top position in the caste hierarchy that makes up most of Hindu society.”
In April, an IIT-Kharagpur professor was caught on camera abusing students from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe backgrounds, calling them “bloody bastards”. Professor Seema Singh let loose during a special preparatory lecture for students admitted on a reservation, which is a form of institutionalised affirmative action on the government’s part.
Singh was fully aware that caste-based discrimination is a crime in India and can lead to time in prison.
This article first appeared on Quartz.