(CNN)On paper, the change was subtle -- the word "caste" appearing in parentheses after the term "race and ethnicity."
But for many advocates and student leaders, the tweak to California State University's anti-discrimination policy that quietly went into effect on January 1 was a civil rights victory: An acknowledgment from the nation's largest, four-year public university system that the insidious form of oppression that has long haunted some on campus is, in fact, real.
Caste-oppressed students, who mostly hail from South Asian immigrant and diaspora backgrounds, say that casteism tends to manifest in US colleges and universities through slurs, microaggressions and social exclusion. But because these dynamics play out within these minority communities, most other Americans have little understanding of how they operate -- leaving these students, many of whom refer to themselves as Dalits, without recourse.
The move by Cal State, which came after nearly two years of student organizing, stands to change that. By explicitly mentioning caste in its anti-discrimination policy, Cal State has made it a protected status, thereby prohibiting caste-based discrimination, harassment or retaliation. For a university system with more than 485,000 students and about 56,000 faculty and staff members, that could have significant implications.
"This is very important for us because we can feel safer," said Prem Pariyar, a recent alumnus of Cal State East Bay who helped advocate for caste protections across CSU's 23 campuses. "At least the university has a policy to recognize our pain and to recognize our issues."
Now that Cal State has declared caste a protected status, Dalit students and employees on its campuses have an avenue for accountability, activists said. And now that the largest university system in the country's most populous state has committed to caste protections, they hope that the movement for caste equity will continue to grow.
Caste has followed South Asians to the US
Originating in ancient India, the caste system is a social hierarchy that historically assigned people to groups based on their occupations or work (karma) and obligations or religious duty (dharma). The system would evolve to assign a certain degree of "spiritual purity" based on the family they were born into. That degree of so-called purity, in turn, determined the path of a person's life: their rank in society, their career options, what they ate and who they married. At the bottom of the hierarchy, considered so low that they are relegated to the most undesirable jobs in society, are the Dalits.
Though the caste system and caste-based discrimination have been legally outlawed in India and other South Asian countries, its legacy persists in cultural and systemic ways, extending beyond Hinduism and India to other South Asian religions and regions. And as South Asians migrate across continents and oceans, they often bring caste with them.
That was the experience for Pariyar, who is a Dalit Hindu and moved to the US from Nepal in 2015 in part, he said, to escape caste oppression. He said his family faced discrimination and violence from dominant caste Nepalis both because of their caste and their outspokenness on such injustices. By coming to the US, Pariyar assumed he would be leaving that all behind.
"I thought at that time that now I don't have to experience caste discrimination because the US is different. In the US, the South Asian diaspora, including the Nepali diaspora, are educated ... so they don't believe in caste discrimination," he said. "But I was wrong. Totally wrong."
Caste seemed to follow Pariyar even in California. Unlike other Dalits he encountered in the US, Pariyar didn't hide his last name, which gave away his caste identity. But he said he found that his transparency colored his interactions with caste-privileged Nepalis. He felt their tone of voice and behavior toward him change once they learned his full name. At gatherings in the homes of other community members, he said he would be given a plate of food while others were allowed to serve themselves -- implying that his handling of the food might somehow pollute it.
When Pariyar enrolled in a graduate program at Cal State East Bay in 2019, he found that he couldn't escape caste there either. While waiting at a Bay Area rapid transit station on one occasion, he encountered two Nepali students and introduced himself. Their conversation was warm, he said, until they asked for his name. When he told them, Pariyar said they looked him up and down and appeared uncomfortable. Their reaction was humiliating.
"Why? Why do they do that?" Pariyar said. "They were surprised seeing a Nepali Dalit from 'untouchable' community going to their university."
Another time, Pariyar brought up his experiences with caste discrimination during a classroom discussion about the trauma of racism and sexism. Some South Asian students in the class, he said, reacted as though caste discrimination was completely foreign to them. He felt they were effectively gaslighting him. And when he tried to organize a conference on issues of caste, Pariyar said he got little support from other South Asians.
Still, Pariyar pushed ahead with his efforts to secure caste protections. As a result of his advocacy, the department of social work at Cal State East Bay -- where Pariyar was pursuing a master's degree -- updated its mission statement to acknowledge caste discrimination. The academic senate of Cal State East Bay passed a resolution calling for caste protections, and other campuses followed. Eventually, Pariyar and a coalition of other activists and allies across various faiths and caste backgrounds banded together to try and get caste discrimination banned across the entire Cal State system.
Though their goal -- getting the word "caste" added to Cal State's non-discrimination policy -- was modest, they said they faced resistance along the way.
The opposition against caste protections
When the California State Student Association met in April 2021 to discuss a resolution calling for a ban on caste discrimination, several people pushed back against it.
The opponents, who included alumni, professors and community members, argued that discussions about caste unnecessarily divided South Asians and that caste discrimination no longer existed. They claimed that caste was a construct of British colonialism, even though it had existed for millennia, and insisted that the resolution would instead provoke hate against Hindus on campus.
Krystal Raynes, a student at Cal State Bakersfield who currently serves as a CSU student trustee, wasn't familiar with caste and caste-based discrimination before that meeting. But the language and line of reasoning she heard that day rang familiar.
"It reminded me so much of the discrimination happening against Black people in America," she said. "Black students being gaslighted, [being told] your experience isn't discrimination, your experience isn't oppression."
Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of the Dalit rights organization Equality Labs, likened the gaslighting, denial and misinformation around frank discussions of caste oppression to the conservative campaign against "critical race theory," which has since become a catch-all term for any instruction around the history of racism in the US.
"It makes people feel uncomfortable," she said. "But discomfort can be a doorway to learning more about ourselves and having greater connection with each other."
In the end, despite the dissenting voices, the California State Student Association passed the resolution calling on the university system to ban caste discrimination. Cal State's faculty union showed its support by including caste as a protected category in it