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What does Harvard recognising caste discrimination mean for Dalit students?

Another top university joins the movement


Earlier this year, Harvard University’s graduate student union (HGSU) ratified a four-year contract with the university after a highly publicised three-day-long strike and months of negotiations. This contract features a landmark win: the addition of caste as a protected category for all student workers at Harvard, at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. In their press release, Equality Labs noted that Harvard, the first Ivy League university to include caste protections in a contract, now joins UC Davis, Colby College, Brandeis University, and others, in officially protecting caste-oppressed individuals on campus.

 

The organising behind this current win goes back years and can be attributed to the labour of Dalit organisers at Harvard, an environment where even though many members of the institution may not be aware of it, caste discrimination is prevalent. Raj Muthu, a Dalit Harvard alum, stated, “I have often witnessed and experienced caste discrimination play out in the Harvard South Asian community, [from] derogatory comments about the intellect of oppressed caste students, to proudly narrating their activism against affirmative action in India…” While this type of discrimination has been ongoing, recent media spotlights on casteism, including the lawsuit against Cisco in 2020, have brought increased visibility to the issue.


Aparna Gopalan, an organiser at the Harvard Graduate Student Union, spoke to South Asian Today about incorporating caste as a protected category into the graduate student contract. After advocating for the union to include it in the non-discrimination clause, the whole organising team was in support. “When our broader student body heard what we were fighting for, they were completely behind us,” Aparna said. “There was no opposition in internal quarters, which speaks to the power of having a union that is focused from the beginning on social justice issues.”

 


Pushback and potential roadblocks came while educating administrators about the issue. “Caste is hereditary discrimination that cuts across class, religion, and other factors in South Asia,” Aparna explained. “They didn’t understand why we were talking about this; they asked if this was the same as class or [whether it was] covered under national origin.” 


In viewing South Asians as a monolith, many outside of India are totally blind to the potential for an apartheid system to exist within India and other South Asian countries. By alluding to the Cisco case, organizers were able to show that caste also does show up and deeply affect the diaspora. “Two people who are of the same religion, nationality, and class background might be on opposite sides of a caste discrimination case,” said Aparna. This created the platform for other stories of caste discrimination to emerge. 


An anonymous student organiser (referred to here as S) at UC Davis shared similar sentiments. Students worked with a coalition of groups, including JVP, SJP, and MSA, to push for a resolution advocating for caste protections on campus. “At Davis, there is a need for implementation and education. The conversations are happening, but there is a great need for caste competency,” S said. Through continued organising, S hopes that spaces like housing, dining, counselling, student affairs, and DEI will all enforce measures to protect caste-oppressed students.


At Davis, S and other students were unfortunately doxxed. “It is part of the work,” S said. “This is the attack that will keep coming in bad faith, but the more important thing is we’ve been able to bring a lot of student organizations together.” At Harvard, the strategic decision to focus on a labour contract potentially mitigated this problem. While the specificities of a single labour contract are unlikely to draw mass attention from Hindutva supporters, they have the power to set a massive precedent at an established institution, paving the way for increased caste protections to be passed and implemented in the future.