Caste on campus: Looking at social exclusions of Dalits in the U.S. colleges

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 herfriends 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 by the Center of Global Development and Sustainability on caste since 2016 where discussions focused on remedies to race/caste inequality in both U.S. and India and other caste-related issues.

“The center has run three international conferences on caste in the past years and those series is now floating to different universities. We did it for the first three years and last year it was at the University of Massachusetts at Elmhurst.

Next year, it is going to be at the New School and Columbia University in New York and then it will come back to Brandeis,” Simon told India Abroad.

Since the 2001 United Nations World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, demands for recognizing caste discrimination as a reality of life in India and in some other parts of South Asia as well as in the United States and United Kingdom have grown.

In addition to Brandeis, Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, are also said to be exploring caste issues on their campuses, according to a survey by WGBH, a Boston-based public radio station that has published a four-part series on caste with funding from the Pulitzer Center.

It said quoting Kevin Brown, a professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law and an expert on caste, that the U.S. does not recognize concept of caste and therefore, it is not included in any of the country’s laws prohibiting discrimination.

“We in the U.S. just haven’t had as much experience with problems within the Indian communities that moved to the United States. So, our legal system hasn’t caught up to that. Unfortunately, there are very little protections for Dalits in the United States for the discrimination that they encounter here with caste Hindus,” Brown told WGBH.

In 2017, a team of South Asian academics, activists, community members and policy advocates said in a report, “Caste in the United States: A Survey of Caste Among South Asian Americans,” that about 40 percent of Dalit students report facing discrimination in educational institutions in the diaspora while by contrast, only as much as 3 percent of respondents who were “upper” caste reported the same.

The report, published by The Equality Labs, a South Asian nonprofit which uses community research and technology to end alleged “oppression of caste apartheid, Islamophobia, white supremacy, and religious intolerance,” said that within the context of mainstream American society, South Asian Americans are often racialized as “brown.”

It said that most assume that all are “Indian” and “Hindu”— terms that assume not only Indian national origin, but reduce South Asian-American immigrants to only those practicing the Hindu faith.

“This simplifies the rich diversity of our community, homogenizing South Asian American immigrants …” the report said.

The Equality Labs report was authored by Soundararajan and Maari Zwick-Maitreyi, a Dalit community activist and Equality Labs’ research director.

At the March 9 workshop organized by Equality Lab’s Soundararajan, the conversation on the issue of caste was sought to be continued.

During the daylong workshop the participants, mostly second-generation Indian-Americans from different castes and religions, got a history about caste hierarchy, the ways it manifests in the U.S. , how to have conversations about caste privileges and ways in which it can be disrupted.

“The stigma attached to caste is so deep that most Dalits, refuse to talk about it,” Soundararajan said. Citing the key findings of the Equality Labs report on caste in the U.S., Soundararajan said 25 percent Dalits or lower caste people say they experienced a physical assault because of their caste, while 59 percent reported caste-based derogatory jokes or remarks directed at them. More than half said they were afraid of being outed as a Dalit.

Explaining about caste supremacy and oppression, Soundararajan called it a system of oppression and social organization where men are given prominence over women, trans people, queer, and gender-queer people throughout society. She said the caste hierarchy and gender hierarchy are the “organizing principles of the Brahmanical social order and are closely interconnected.”

In India, Dalits, who have traditionally been considered untouchables account for about 16.6 percent of the population, according to the 2011 Census figures. But published data about their socio-economic condition indicate a very sorry state of the community.

Dalits’ control over the resources, for example, is less than 5 percent, and close to half of the population lives under the poverty line, and 62 percent are illiterate.

Among the Dalits, a substantial number among its lowest sub-castes clean up toilet and human excreta with bare hands while others are engaged in agricultural work, are landless or nearly landless laborers.

A telling example of the Dalits’ sorry state in India was the case of Rohith Vemula, a 26-year-old Ph.D. student from the Dalit community at the University of Hyderabad, who committed suicide in 2016, allegedly because of persistent caste discrimination against him, although he was a brilliant scholar.

Vemula left a suicide note in which he wrote: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.”

As if to symbolically atone for the country’s wrongdoings against Dalits, Prime Minister Narendra Modi washed the feet of some sanitation workers at the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj on Feb. 24, apparently to focus attention on his “Swachh Bharat” campaign and to appreciate their contributions to the nationwide mission.

While the optics, ahead of the general elections, served to show Modi in a glorious light, the act was criticized by opposition politicians and also Dalit leaders as a self-promotion with an eye on the upcoming election.

Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Babasaheb Ambedkar, who is recognized as the Father of the Indian Constitution, wondered if the prime minister has become a Christian since washing the feet of the lowest of the low exists in Christianity.

“The prime minister has never spoken about incidents in which Dalits were targeted during his reign. This is merely a gimmick. But it is not going to help him as Dalits know him, his ideology and that of his followers,” Ambedkar claimed while speaking to Down To Earth magazine.

On the issue of awareness about Dalits both in the U.S. and India, Chinnaiah Jangam, a professor specializing in modern South Asian History at Carleton University, Canada said in an earlier interview with India Abroad that as violence against Dalits rise in India and discrimination continues against the community, it is important that awareness about them is created among the American mainstream population and within the liberal South Asian community.

At the Department of International and Global Studies at Brandeis, a course on caste, “Unequal Histories: Caste, Religion, and Dissent in India” will be taught from this year. Mahal said the course that looks at narratives from various locations of the South Asian Diaspora while paying close attention to the emergence of an immigrant South Asian public culture, will be taught in one semester by Professor Avinash Singh as part of South Asian Studies.

To sensitize everybody about the divisions and social exclusions of people globally and not just in India, Simon, the founding director of the Graduate Programs in Sustainable International Development from 1993 in Brandeis, is soon coming out with an academic journal christened “Caste:A Global Journal on Social Exclusion,” the first such periodical to be published in the United States.

The inaugural issue of the journal, expected to be out this summer, aims to advance peer-reviewed scholarship across disciplines and provide opportunity for young scholars to publish along with established senior researchers.

Simon notes in the upcoming issue that hundreds of millions of people in South Asia suffer discrimination based on birth-based hierarchy and despite reformist movements and affirmative action policies, caste discrimination and “untouchability” remain a major human rights problem.

The journal, he says, considers caste in its broadest definition, including the marginalization and hereditary oppression of religious, racial and cultural minorities.

It presents comparative studies of caste with the situation of African Americans, indigenous peoples of the Americas,the Rohingyas and similar groups caught in rigid social stratification.

Caste assesses social policies meant to counter exclusion in multiple spheres and intolerance in multi-faith democracies, and studies the philosophical, theological, economic and ethical dilemmas of caste systems, he notes.

“We are looking at caste not only in South Asia, although it is the center of gravity for our journal,but the caste system in India and Nepal and also in somewhat different forms in some other countries of South Asia. We are also looking at ‘caste like’ birth based hierarchies in other parts of the world as well,” Simon told India Abroad in an interview.

“I want to emphasize that the journal is an academic/scholarly publication published online which has an open access and looks at the social, health, the political and economic impact of caste systems,” Simon said.

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