The Harvard Graduate Student Union ratified the changes to a four-year contract, adding caste as a protected category. The new provisions of the contract will pave the way for caste-sensitive policies and projects affecting close to five thousand student-workers in Harvard.
The historic decision of the student union gained an overwhelming 70.6% approval, making Harvard the first Ivy-League University to recognize caste-related discrimination. Harvard joins other major universities, including UC Davis, Colby College, and Brandeis University, to formally acknowledge the existence of caste discrimination.
According to Aparna Gopalan, the 26-year old graduate student union organizer at Harvard, the ratification came from Equality Labs presenting their study to Harvard’s administration.
Equality Lab is a civil rights organization whose goal is to “end the oppression of caste apartheid, Islamophobia, white supremacy, and religious intolerance.”
Gopalan said the student-workers union has been working with Harvard’s administration concerning several issues when caste-related issues were raised. “At first, the university refused to acknowledge that this exists at all,” she said.
Equality Lab’s report titled “Caste in the United States: A Survey of Caste Among South Asian Americans” revealed a heart-breaking reality that has been sidelined for a very long time. The study was conducted in 2016 for eight months; more than 1,500 respondents were asked to respond to a 47-question survey.
One key finding of the survey revealed that 25% of Dalits faced verbal and physical assault based on their castes. The study served as evidence of the internal hegemonies of the South Asian communities in the US.
In May of this year, Aljazeera reported multiple incidents of caste-based discrimination in the workplace. Most of these cases involve the Dalit castes from India. The report included a lawsuit filed on May 21 against a Hindu organization that “imported” Dalit workers from India and made them work grueling labor for $1 per hour.
Ajantha Subramanium, a professor at the Department of Anthropology in Harvard, called the decision a “source of inspiration for everyone who is part of the effort to build an anti-caste movement in the US.” Subramanium believes that Harvard’s recognition of caste discrimination can “empower oppressed caste students and employees.”
Gopalan said the news of Harvard recognizing caste discrimination could help employees raise the issue in their workplace. “They will be able to show that one of the finest institutes in their country also recognizes caste as an issue and has a provision against such discrimination,” Gopalan added.