Updated March 14 at 11:09 a.m.
While studying social work at the East Bay campus of California State University, Prem Pariyar says fellow students from his homeland, Nepal, shunned him for being a Dalit or so-called "untouchable" in the Hindu caste system.
One day Pariyar was waiting for a train, for example, when he heard two classmates speaking Nepali. "I went closer to them and I said, 'Oh, you guys are also from Nepal? So nice to meet you.' Initially the conversation was very good," he recalled.
But when Pariyar introduced himself using his last name, he says the mood changed. He felt like a pariah — the very translation of his name, which also identifies his caste. “Their facial expression was so different and after that they looked at me from top to bottom. It was very embarrassing," he said.
Earlier this year, the entire California State system — the largest in the country, with half a million students across 23 campuses — added caste to its non-discrimination policy. Cal State followed first Brandeis University in 2019, then University of California in Davis, Colby College and the graduate students' union at Harvard. Advocates predict more colleges will soon adopt similar policies.
Only China sends more international students to American colleges than India, nearly 168,000. Another 11,000 come from Nepal, the world's other Hindu-majority country.
Pariyar was one of the students who lobbied for the discrimination policy change at Cal State.
"I could use the dominant caste surname” to conceal his identity, Pariyar explained. “But this is not the solution. I need to speak up. I need to educate people about this caste discrimination."
Caste — the traditional religious and social hierarchy of Hindus — arrived on campus with professors and students from India. In India, Nepal and other countries in South Asia, those born into low castes, or who are considered "untouchables" or outcastes, face a lifetime of discrimination. Their caste status dictates which jobs they can hold, who they can marry and often the schools they can attend.
On another Cal State campus, Manpreet K. said she had experiences similar to Prem Pariyar's. When she was studying psychology in Sacramento, Manpreet said she was shunned by other Indians because of her low caste.
“I do have light-skin privilege, and people just assume that I am dominant caste, which probably has worked in my favor,” she said. “I don't get discriminated against as much, but people catch on really quick.”
Skin color does not determine someone's caste; their parentage does. But darker-skinned Indians tend to belong to lower castes, although there are exceptions like Manpreet.
Manpreet asked GBH News not to use her full name because she has been threatened in the past. On campus, she said she also used a fake name to hide her caste. But when her classmates learned she worshipped with Dalits or “untouchables,” they shut her out.
“Eventually, I wasn't really part of their group,” she said. “I wasn't invited to study sessions or lunches or hangouts and I felt very isolated.”
Now out in the working world, she says she's faced caste discrimination on the job and she says banning caste bias on campus is just a beginning. "This isn't really getting at the root of how do we actually abolish caste and create an environment that is safe and also supportive of Dalit students," she said.
India's constitution bans discrimination based on caste, yet the millennia-old practice persists. But some Indian Americans say such discrimination is rare in this country.
“I know, as a second-generation Hindu-American, that I was not aware of my caste until my ninth grade teacher in world history asked me about it,” said Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation.
"This isn't really getting at the root of how do we actually abolish caste and create an environment that is safe and also supportive of Dalit students."Manpreet K., former student at California State University, Sacramento
Shukla would not self-identify her caste, telling GBH News the question was "deeply offensive." She opposes what colleges are doing.
“Caste is not the central way of identifying that these policies are presuming,” she said. “They’re essentially institutionalizing a false stereotype about Indian Americans.”
Shukla pointed to a recent online survey conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that found only 5% of the Indian Americans who reported having faced discrimination said caste was a major factor in their experience.
"And half of those who reported having faced caste-based discrimination said the alleged perpetrators were not South Asian," she said.
Shukla also says neither Cal State nor Brandeis has reported a single complaint about caste bias.
“Some of the examples that I’ve read in the media are, ‘Well, someone looked me up and down.' Could there be discriminatory intent there or prejudice? Absolutely,” she said. “We need to talk to all the people involved just in the way that any other claim of discrimination would be investigated.”
Critics point out moving to a post-caste society is not in everybody’s interest.
"If we can't see it, it doesn't exist,” said Rajesh Sampath, who teaches courses on global ethics and human rights at Brandeis. His ancestors come from a low caste of laborers, or Shudras.
Indian Americans "take the good parts of what they bring to the United States and maybe repress or exclude the darker side of a narrative,” Sampath said. “Caste is a reality that can't be denied.”
"Caste in America has been a hidden discrimination for many, many years,” said Laurence Simon, who teaches international development at Brandeis.
Simon had worked in South Asia, where, he says, caste exists in all countries. "When I came to Brandeis, I thought that caste should be something that we take a look at in our curriculum and take look at in terms of the student experience," he said.
In 2019, Simon led Brandeis in becoming the first college in the U.S. to ban caste discrimination. Since then, he says, this country's racial reckoning has further sensitized Americans to the issue.
"But it's still a learning curve for many because most administrators and most faculty are completely unaware,” he said.
To broaden awareness, Prem Pariyar and other activists are advocating for more research funding around caste discrimination. “There must be some training and some courses to teach about caste and the gravity of caste,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Prem Pariyar’s name. That has been corrected. It also has been updated to specify that Rajesh Sampath teaches courses on global ethics and human rights at Brandeis.