Jaspreet Mahal, a Sikh woman who got her master's in sustainable international development and women and gender studies a few years ago from Brandeis university in Waltham, Massachusetts, feels somewhat upbeat these days that her alma mater will become a more inclusive institution by dealing with the issue of alleged caste bias among some of its students.
The Ambala native, along with her Dalit husband Dadasaheb Tandale, moved to the United States a few years ago, believing that in the U.S., they would not face caste discrimination and the ignominy with which they lived in India after marrying Tandale, who is now a Ph.D. student at UMass, Boston.
Her husband and other Dalits say that even in America many upper caste Hindus perceive Dalits as inferior in social status and often treat them with derision and disdain.
Mahal says although by birth she herself is not a Dalit but is married to one, she and her-friends have noticed this attitude during interaction with fellow upper caste Hindu students, irrespective of whether they are international students from India or other countries of South Asia or are born and raised in the United States.
"This could manifest through their apparently innocuous but nuanced remarks and comments about lower castes in general during conversations in both academic and social settings and even on and off-campus. To those not familiar with India's caste system such snide comments do not necessarily sound offensive or tantamount to discrimination or harassment," according to Mahal, who is now a researcher at Brandeis.
Tandale, for whom this is the first semester at UMass, Boston said most non-Dalit students, including Indians born and raised in the U.S. have vague and sometimes erroneous ideas about the life of Dalits in India.
He said he has often come across "theories" from non-Dalit students that Dalits could not prosper economically in India because some other "low caste" people managed to monopolize government's welfare schemes at their cost.
"The non-Dalits have no clue how the system has worked for centuries in India and many of them tend to think wrongly that with affirmative action in place, there should not be problems for Dalits. Some students, even at times teachers argue that the Dalits' plight is the result of policy issues despite my insistence that they are basically social problems, problems of attitudes and deeply-ingrained anti-lower caste feelings," Tandale said.
As an educational institution, Brandeis has long been committed, according to officials, to providing its students, faculty and staff with an environment conducive to learning.
It is working to ensure all people are treated with respect and dignity and without discrimination on the basis of race, color, ancestry, religious creed, ethnic origin and gender identity, among others. The university's charter clearly mentions that violations of such policy is not tolerated.
But caste issues have not attracted the attention of the university authorities in the past, primarily because the concept of caste as a tool of social exclusion is generally not very well understood in the U.S., and also because not many people, including Dalits, have raised the issue.
Tandale said he is the only Dalit student in his school at UMass and that there are not many people from his community in the entire university.
In 2003, only 1.5 percent of Indian immigrants in the United States were Dalits or members of lower castes, according to the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania.
"Only a few people, those who are good in studies, manage to come to the U.S. and I understand from my friends that they do not want to talk about their situation whether in the U.S. or back in India openly for fear of reprisals from non-Dalits," Tandale said.
His assertion got credence at a March 9 workshop in New York City, "Unlearning Caste Supremacy" organized by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit community activist and executive director of Equality Labs, where several Dalit people declined to be identified by their names in public as they spoke for fear of being discriminated against.
Many said that while they grew up in the U.S, their parents who felt oppressed in India, have traumatic stories to tell. They said their families didn't want to talk about those experiences. There's a hope among them that the experiences will be erased from their memories if they aren't talked about.
The workshop, which included a few interactive sessions, provided a platform for people, both Dalits and people from the upper castes, to share their stories. Many came forward to share stories of their parents' hesitation to talk about caste.
Some people from the upper caste, including Brahmins, shared stories of their families' refusal to accept their caste privileges and their empathizing with people from the lower
caste. They grouped together and enacted scenarios, showing ways to disrupt caste-based hierarchies or caste-based conversations.
In 2011 the Hindu American Foundation in a report titled "Hinduism: Not Cast in Caste," noted that Hindus in the diaspora, and many Western seekers "eager to immerse themselves in the Hindu way of life," see a glaring dichotomy in the vast gap between the religious teaching of divinity inherent in each being and the continued social reality of discrimination and inequality in parts of Indian society predicated on the "caste" of one's birth — a striking contrast between Aham Brahmasmi ("I am that Divine") and untouchability.
It acknowledged that caste-based discrimination does exist in many parts of India today and that caste-based discrimination fundamentally contradicts the essential teaching of Hindu sacred texts that divinity is inherent in all beings, although attempts are being made to" actively promote" authentic interpretations of Hindu sacred texts, affirming that the solution to caste-based discrimination lies in an adherence to core Hindu teachings.
The organization also says it feels that claims about caste discrimination against Dalits in the U.S. are often overblown.
However, members of the Dalit community contend that caste discrimination against Dalits and other lower castes has continued in India and also in western societies like in the U.S, including on college or university campuses.
Mahal said that unlike in India, upper caste Hindus do not betray caste prejudice against Dalits overtly on campuses, and that hints of such prejudice are often missed by non-Indian students or teachers who are not familiar with India's caste hierarchy.
But now the situation may be poised for a change with the conversation about caste moving from the confines of Dalits' homes to the public space where there is recognition that there is indeed hierarchies among the brown-skinned people because of the fact of birth, and not everybody is equal socially. While there is some anecdotal evidence of discrimination against Dalits on campuses such as Brandeis by upper-caste Hindus, existence of such alleged discrimination of Dalits at Brandeis or other campuses have not gained much attention in the past because not many students would discuss caste issues in public or lodge official complaints about it.
"I don't think we are observing or experiencing discrimination. What we are seeing is an ever-increasing number of students from India and we are gathering anecdotal information about the social effect of caste," Mark Brimhall-Vargas,"chief diversity officer and vice president for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Brandeis, told India Abroad.
"What we are doing is trying to be proactive about the issue as we know that where there are social issues, there might potentially be inequitable or discriminatory outcomes," Brimhall-Vargas said.
An indication of the issue of caste slowly coming out into the open for discussion and conversation is that Larry Simon, a professor at Brandeis' Heller School of Social Policy and Management and an expert on caste, has helped put together three international conferences, organized