In a first at the Claremont Colleges, caste is now a protected category as part of Scripps College’s discrimination and harassment policies, thanks to advocacy by the 5C South Asian Mentorship Program.
The change comes as part of a wider movement across the U.S. for colleges and universities to include caste in their list of identities within their non-discrimination policies, after surveys uncovered that Dalit students in the U.S. were being discriminated against in educational spaces.
At the forefront of this fight has been Equality Labs, a non-profit Dalit civil rights organization committed to fighting against casteism at a social and institutional level. SAMP was contacted by Equality Labs at the end of 2021, and by the spring 2021 semester SAMP had begun creating awareness about the issue among the Claremont community.
In April 2021, the group circulated a petition to add caste as a protected category at the Claremont Colleges, simultaneously hosting a virtual Caste 101 event which was attended by more than 40 people.
The caste system is a social hierarchy in Hinduism that categorizes people into groups at birth, defining their place in society. Dalits — who were referred to as ‘untouchables’ at one point — are at the bottom of this hierarchy and have been marginalized and discriminated against across South Asia for thousands of years.
“Caste is a system of division and inequality that emerges from a certain subset of the population in the subcontinent, most notably those who identify or who are identified as upper caste or Brahmin,” said Mohammad Bilal Nasir, who worked closely with SAMP as they reached out to administrators across the Claremont Colleges. Nasir is a postdoctoral fellow at Pomona College and is teaching South Asian American Studies this semester.
Although caste discrimination is officially banned in India and other South Asian countries, it is still perpetuated in the region and among the diaspora. Because of this, Dalits bare the brunt of institutionalized discrimination that prevents them from equal access to education, jobs and healthcare.
Nikita Chinamanthur SC ’22, one of SAMP’s head mentors, described the system as a “caste apartheid” and an “inherent unequal distribution of resources or even value and worth attributed to a human being.”
The prevalence of caste discrimination in the U.S. was brought to light as alarming cases were exposed in recent years. In 2021, Dalit laborers from India sued a religious sect group in the U.S. for inhumane treatment and living conditions while building a religious temple in New Jersey.
In another instance just a year earlier, California sued Cisco and two of its employees for discriminating against one of their employees because he belonged to a lower caste background.
“While most understandings of caste treat it as a relic of the past, or see it as something that’s specific to the subcontinent, these forms of inequality migrate when you have a diaspora,” Nasir said. “And places like Claremont and broader university systems like the Cal State system or the UC system [are] not immune to these types of inequalities.”
Along with Scripps, the California State University system is the latest to include caste in its protection policies. Brandeis University was the first to announce this change at the end of 2019, followed shortly after by Harvard University, Colby College and the University of California, to name a few.
Aditi Garg SC ’22, another SAMP head mentor, emphasized how invaluable the support of Equality Labs was in putting the change into effect.
“Their guidance as well helped us strategize, especially considering each of the five different colleges has different discrimination and anti harassment policies,” she said.
For Binita Pandya SC ’22, also a SAMP head mentor, a lot of the work with this movement is about “centering Dalit voices in what we do, and having that kind of be the focus as we move forward, and that’s something we really want to emphasize.”
Because all three head mentors are Scripps students, it was easier for them to correspond with administrators than it was at the other Claremont Colleges, Chinamanthur said. According to Garg, Pomona indicated that they would follow suit once Scripps updated its policy, but there’s been no word on that recently. Outreach efforts at Harvey Mudd College and Pitzer College are also underway.
Conversations in the U.S. about what it means to be South Asian American are dominated by upper caste Brahmins, Nasir said, who have largely silenced Dalit voices.
“The Hindu Right, what they’ve done is argued that there’s no such thing as caste, that Dalits are not really oppressed. But there’s clearly a caste system already in place in the diaspora,” Nasir said. “We’ve seen this with Cisco and the types of blatant discrimination that they’ve engaged in. We see this when we look at demographics of undocumented South Asian Americans. We look at this when we examine class differences and educational differences, what caste people belong to.”
Although caste discrimination in the U.S. has been around for decades, Nasir attributes the recent spur in activism to a generational gap, adding that “younger students are really much more interested in engaging politically in a way that maybe their parents were not.”
Chinamanthur added that although it was never SAMP’s intention to become the foremost voice on campus about caste protection, it “was a way that we knew that we could use our powers and organization to sort of hopefully, give a more inclusive and accepting space for the 5Cs when we leave.”
“[The caste system] was a part of our history and it’s something that we have to grapple with rather than try to distance ourselves from,” Chinamanthur said. “We can’t run away from it.”