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Cal State Faces Legal Threat Over Its Stand Against Caste Bias

A student, in gray cap and gown with a red sash draped around his shoulders, poses at graduation.
Prem Pariyar spearheaded caste-based protections at his alma mater, Cal State East Bay.
(Courtesy Prem Pariyar)
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Cal State recently became the largest university system in the nation to openly commit to protecting students from caste-based bias. But some employees argue this effort to fight bias is itself discriminatory.

A group of more than 80 faculty members is threatening legal action against CSU for including caste in the non-discrimination policy it updated this month and in its new contract with faculty.

In a letter to Cal State leadership, the group says adding language about caste singles out faculty members from South Asia, where the Hindu caste system persists, making them part of a “suspect class” and potential targets of lawsuits and grievances.

Praveen Sinha, an Indian American professor of accountancy at Cal State Long Beach, envisioned how a student upset about a grade could accuse a professor of caste discrimination.

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"'So listen, this faculty is from Indian origin — maybe I can use that,'" Sinha said. "I don't want to say that [scenario] will happen. But it's just a way to divide the community."

Sinha said while “caste is a problem” in India, CSU is penalizing members of the diaspora for its existence.

“They cannot singularly point towards a group of people,” Sinha said. “It's almost like the way the Jews were targeted in Germany.”

Activists who led a years-long, multi-campus movement to spotlight caste discrimination say by issuing legal threats, the faculty group is predictably pulling from the centuries-old, upper-caste playbook of silencing those who disagree with it.

Prem Pariyar, a CSU East Bay graduate-turned-social worker, said that faculty denials of caste discrimination in the U.S. are also not surprising.

"They don’t see caste because they are already privileged — same like white Americans saying they don't see race," Pariyar said.

Originally from Nepal, Pariyar belongs to the Dalits, who are on the lowest rung of the social hierarchy and were once called "untouchables." He says he knows first-hand the slurs and shunning Dalit students have had to endure in the U.S.

“Dominant-caste students, they do not like to share their housing with caste-oppressed students,” Pariyar said. “They don't feel comfortable to sit with caste-oppressed students even in the cafeteria.”

Pariyar said many Dalit students end up hiding their background or staying quiet when they’re mistreated.

The Cal State Chancellor’s office said it is aware that the faculty group is contemplating legal action, but in a statement defended its recognition of caste in its non-discrimination policy, as it “reflects the university's commitment to inclusivity and respect and reinforces that the 23 campuses are places of access, opportunity and equity.”

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A similar response came from the California Faculty Association, which pushed to include caste in its collective bargaining agreement.

“We are standing 100% behind it,” said Vang Vang, a librarian at Fresno State who co-chairs the group’s Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Caucus. “We’re an anti-racism, social justice union, and with that kind of lens, we cannot ignore this [issue of caste].”

The collective bargaining agreement includes caste in the list of protected categories — a step further than the change made to Cal State’s non-discrimination policy.

Michael Uhlenkamp, a spokesperson for the Chancellor’s office, said Cal State did not add caste as a protected category, but rather as a “parenthetical reference” along with color and ancestry to the already-existing category of “race and ethnicity.”

A screenshot of Cal State's updated non-discrimination policy with the word caste highlighted in yellow.
Cal State has updated its non-discrimination policy to include caste as a sub-group under the protected category of "race and ethnicity.'

Pariyar says he'd actually like to see CSU go beyond adding language to policies, and in addition offer faculty trainings and curriculum on caste discrimination, as well as caste-based scholarships.

Meanwhile, the faculty group says it is having discussions with attorneys, including those with the Hindu American Foundation, and will decide next steps in the coming weeks.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to the Hindu American Foundation as the the Hindu American Association.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.