Dalit students led the way to revise the seminary’s policy
by Union Theological Seminary | Special to Presbyterian News Service
Union Theological Seminary in New York City recently added caste to its non-discrimination policy, making it the first independent seminary in the nation to do so. In doing so, Union takes a small step towards dismantling pervasive discrimination stemming from caste systems and furthers its commitment to justice, equity and inclusion.
Caste systems — which were first used in ancient India — assign worth to groups of people based on their occupations and religious status. Throughout history, the caste designation, which passes through birth, has dictated the entire course of a person’s life, including their societal rank, who they can marry, their career, and more. While India and other countries have banned these systems, the discriminatory repercussions remain alive and well.
The Dalit community knows this all too well. Dalit people — who were historically known as “untouchables” and fall outside of the caste system — continue to experience unjust treatment and exclusion from society. One 2018 survey of South Asian Americans, for example, found that two-thirds of Dalit people were unfairly treated in their workplace because of their caste, while a quarter experienced physical assault due to their caste.
At Union, Dalit students led the way to revise the seminary’s non-discrimination policy.
“During the entire span of my life, I’ve been raised among anti-caste radicals. It’s been my father’s life’s work to organize and reconcile the lower castes (over 800 million people) to contribute to the annihilation of this degrading system,” said Anna Sardar, who’s studying Buddhism and Interreligious Engagement at Union. “We all follow in the footsteps of our ancestors and for me this includes Phule, Savitribai, Ambedkar, Pandita Ramabai, Kabir, Buddha, and many others who formidably laid the path for our work to flourish and liberate those who have been humiliated through upper caste supremacy. As Ambedkar eloquently understood: ‘A just society is that society in which an ascending sense of reverence and descending sense of contempt is dissolved into the creation of a compassionate society.’ While at Union Theological Seminary, I’ve been able to embrace this heritage more fully as a Buddhist-Christian offering myself as another link in the long chain of liberation, particularly for all lower castes seeking a just world. By adding caste as a protected category in its non-discrimination policy, UTS further enables the transformation of our own minds and hearts to envisage a more equitable and ethical world.”
“It is truly inspiring to witness institutions like Union Theological Seminary acknowledging caste as a protected category. This significant recognition sends a resolute message that caste discrimination is intolerable and that every person should be treated with dignity, respect, and provided equal opportunities, regardless of their background, said Moses Bollam, who’s studying for a doctoral degree. “My sincere aspiration is that this recognition paves the way for meaningful dialogues, increased awareness, and collaborative endeavors to combat all manifestations of caste-based discrimination. As Jyothi Phule passionately advocates, let us unite to oppose the oppressive caste system and work towards creating a just and equitable society.”
“Given Union Theological Seminary’s deep commitment to justice, I am not surprised by its decision to add caste as a protected category. This is an immensely significant step in acknowledging caste as a social evil and in working towards its annihilation. Moreover, this resolution will help create the conditions for addressing and healing bodies and minds from historical caste-based trauma. No one should suffer discrimination based on their identity, and I hope more organizations and institutions will be courageous in creating safe spaces for all,” said Arvind Theodore, who’s studying for a doctoral degree in social ethics.
“By adding caste as a protected category in its non-discrimination policy, Union Theological Seminary recognizes caste as destructive, discriminating, and dehumanizing. It sets the bar high to invite many institutions and seminaries across the country to end discrimination based on identity. It ensures an environment of safety, care, healing, affirmation, belonging, respect, dignity, celebration, love, and joy. Most importantly, by ensuring a breathing space exclusively for the Dalit identity, experiences, and voices, it continues to equip the students with courage at an existential, intellectual, and spiritual level in continuing to reimagine the work of Justice,” said Irene Preetha Prasannakumar, who’s studing for a doctoral degree in Theological Studies.
“We are so glad the Dalit community brought this important matter to our attention. Union aims to be inclusive of all people. When our students suggest a way for us to further embody our core values, we wholeheartedly embrace it,” said Dr. Su Yon Pak, Vice President of Academic Affairs & Dean and Associate Professor of Integrative and Field-Based Education.
“For too long, caste has fueled discrimination and hatred in India, the United States, and around the world. Adding caste to our non-discrimination policy is just one small step forward. As leaders of faith, we need to continue to push against the insidious force of caste — along with all of the other systemic injustices that oppress communities,” said the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary.
Founded in 1836 in New York City, Union Theological Seminary is a globally recognized seminary and graduate school of theology where faith and scholarship meet to reimagine the work of justice. A beacon for social justice and progressive change, Union Theological Seminary is led by a diverse group of theologians and activist leaders. Drawing on both Christian traditions and the insights of other faiths, the institution is focused on educating leaders who can address critical issues like racial equity, criminal justice reform, income inequality, and protecting the environment. Union is led by the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, the 16th president and the first woman to head the 187-year-old seminary.
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