The US University Campus Will Soon Be a Field of Anti-Caste and Pro-Caste Activism

Through the success of anti-caste scholars and consistent development of caste scholarship in American academia, anti-caste activism and cutting-edge research on caste will expand. At the same time, Brahminical forces will be eager to stop this.

In 1916, while he was studying at Columbia University, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar wrote an essay – Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development, in which he asserted, “If Hindu (dominant castes) migrates to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem.”

 More than a century ago, Dr. Ambedkar predicted that caste could be a global problem.

Now, in the 21st century, caste has indeed become a social reality of the South Asian diaspora in the United States. In 2016, a survey conducted by Equality Labs concluded that one in four Dalit Americans experienced verbal or physical assault based on their caste and one in three Dalit students reported facing discrimination and micro-aggressions in US educational institutions.

According to the Center for Advanced Study on India at the University of Pennsylvania, only 1.5% of the US immigrants from India belong to Dalit communities while more than 90% belong to the dominant castes who come with their culture, socioreligious beliefs, and caste.

As scholars of caste studies agree, caste is the central pillar of the Hindu social order; therefore, caste and caste-based practices are very much part of the dominant castes’ behaviour and attitudes. This has been corroborated by another survey carried out by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2020.       

Based on my 12 years in the US, I can say that most of the dominant caste people in the US consciously and unconsciously believe that all people from India are their people – i.e., dominant caste individuals. Many of them harbour casteist prejudices and stereotypes that Dalits cannot study at US campuses or elsewhere overseas, and that higher education is not their forte. In other words, the reigning belief is that only dominant castes have the merit and intellect to pursue higher education in the US.

Over the past few years, I have observed that each year more Indian students, mostly of the dominant castes, come to the US for higher education and take advantage of diversity policies, which are grounded in the affirmative action framework (comparable to the Indian quota policy) that assist them get into US higher education.

Also listen: ‘Caste Discrimination Shows Up in US Workplaces Too, As Jokes, Slurs and Other Indignities’

Ironically, the same students and faculty furiously oppose the quota policy in India, but in the US, they strategically use diversity-based policies and interventions for enrolment, financial support (e.g. fellowship, grant, and award), and the pursuit of leadership positions.

It is a common belief that American society and especially, higher education is meritocratic; however, I believe that financial and social capital (e.g. caste-based network and racial privilege) outweighs meritocracy in many cases. 

In my doctoral research, I used diversity, equity, and inclusion studies from US higher education and also experienced the benefits of diversity, equity, and inclusion policies and programs while on campus.

I, as a student of colour, witnessed the positive impact of the policies and programmes throughout my academic journey in the US. Furthermore, without exaggeration, I can say that being an international student and a student of color at UMass Amherst, I felt more empowered and confident to speak my mind anywhere on campus than as a college student from a historically stigmatised group during my higher education journey in India.

Based on my lived experiences in Indian higher education and US higher education, I can say that higher education institutions in the US are much more progressive and proactive in promoting social justice through targeted policies, courses, approaches, and programmes which are evident across campuses of both, public and private institutions.

For instance, the most impressive recent development has been the explicit inclusion of caste as a protected category in the institutional non-discrimination policies of higher education institutions: Brandeis University, University of California, Davis, Colby College, Harvard University, California State University (CSU) system (it includes 23 campuses across California state), and Brown University. These institutions explicitly acknowledged the necessity and significance of declaring caste-oppressed people as a protected group.  

This new development, caste as a protected category status, intimidates Brahmanical forces, who staunchly practice caste, such as the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), Hindu American Foundation (HAF), and other organisations in the US because it recognises caste-based discrimination and restricts casteist behaviour and attitudes which are an essential character of the dominant castes culture, and social psyche.

Therefore, the Brahmanical forces have been relentlessly targeting anti-caste activists and scholars and civil society organisations engaged with anti-caste issues. Further, the HAF has presented a range of deceptive and baseless arguments to oppose the anti-caste activism in American universities. This year they built a massive campaign against the inclusion of caste as a protected category in the CSU system. The Brahmanical forces in the US and India understand that the movement to recognise caste as a protected category has been gaining ground in American higher education institutions and fear the significant impact this will have on the anti-discrimination framework at various levels.

Further, research on caste and anti-caste topics will generate new evidence to support the demand to include caste as a protected category in the anti-discriminatory framework and graduate student contracts in higher education institutions. To include caste in the protected category list is not an end in itself; it is a means to recognizing caste-oppressed people and candidates in the diversity language, initiatives, and programs in US higher education.

The growing anti-caste activism will create a snowball effect in public and private institutions in the US and it is building a movement  to include caste in the list of protected categories of the federal laws, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Therefore, the Brahmanical forces vehemently oppose any anti-caste initiative and study on caste and anti-caste topics. 

Over the last couple of years, I have observed that gradually more and more oppressed caste students are entering into American academics and for many of them anti-caste activism is as important as academic work which will certainly intensify anti-caste activism and research on caste issues.

Also read: ‘The Campaign Against Caste Bias in US Will Now Go National’: Full Text of Kshama Sawant’s Interview

This scenario indicates that soon US university campuses will be an arena of anti-caste and pro-caste activism; therefore, the Brahmanical forces are active on some campuses and trying to increase their influence because they are conscious that awareness about caste is consistently rising in American academia.

For instance, academic courses on caste and race and on the intersectionality of caste and race is mushrooming and academic conferences, academic courses and studies, and lectures on caste issues are becoming mainstream across campuses. Academic positions pertaining to caste studies and research are creating new opportunities for caste scholars. Moreover, in 2023, Seattle became the first city in the US to ban caste discrimination and in Canada, Toronto District School Board prohibited caste-based discrimination in moves that are sure to have emboldened anti-caste activism across the US.

The recent book, Caste: Origins of Our Discontent, by Isabel Wilkerson has generated a debate in academic circles and initiated a new public discourse on the topic in the US. This too has greatly assisted anti-caste activism and revitalised an intellectual and legal discourse on the intersectionality of caste and race identities which garnered much needed support for the anti-caste activism in on campuses.   

As student organisations and anti-caste scholars and activists in the US advance their increasingly successful campaigns, Brahmanical forces can be expected to employ more resources and dirty tricks to stop the anti-caste activism. However, most US higher education institutions endorse progressive world views and social justice-based policies and programs that facilitate a conducive environment to finding allies such as African American Studies, South Asian Studies, Women and Gender Studies, progressive student groups, civil rights and Ambedkarite organisations, trade and labor unions, and many individuals from various backgrounds.

The recent success of anti-caste campaigns have elevated the spirit of anti-caste scholars, activists, and student groups. We hope that through the success of anti-caste scholars and activists and consistent development of caste scholarship in American academia, anti-caste activism and cutting-edge research on caste (anti-caste) and the intersectionality of caste and race issues will be expanded.

Further, it will assist anti-caste advocates to form a transnational solidarity on caste and race issues and reimagine the “annihilation of caste” project in the 21st century. 

Bharat Rathod has a doctorate degree in International Education from University of Massachusetts Amherst and his research interests comprise caste, higher education in India and diversity, equity, and inclusion framework. His book, Dalit Academic Experiences: Stories of Caste, Stigma and Exclusion in Indian Higher Education, is published by Routledge.