Harvard is the first Ivy League university to recognise caste-based discrimination

The first steps to a more equal campus.
The first steps to a more equal campus.
Image: REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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An Ivy League university in the US now officially acknowledges one of India’s worst social evils.

The Harvard Graduate Student Union has ratified a four-year contract that recognises caste as a protected category, US-based social justice organisation Equality Labs announced on Dec. 1. This applies to the nearly 5,000 undergraduate and graduate student workers who are members of the union on campus, according to a press release. It is not clear how many are victims of caste-based discrimination.

“This contract was a hard-won victory, which resulted after a three-day strike, a second strike threat, and eight months of negotiation…Driven in partnership with caste-oppressed community members, this win is part of a larger national movement for caste equity that aims to protect caste-oppressed students, workers, and communities across the country,” Equality Labs said in the release.

Harvard is the first Ivy League school to spotlight the discrimination students from oppressed and marginalised castes face on campus. It now joins a handful of American institutions such as the University of California, Davis, Colby College, and Brandeis University in formally accepting the prevalence of caste-based harassment on campuses.

Caste, with roots in India, is a social system that functions on an identity hierarchy based on birth. It is practised largely by Hinduism but is not restricted to it. It perpetuates a centuries-old cycle of prejudice against those “lower” on the ladder.

India has repeatedly opposed the United Nations’ moves to deem caste bias on par with racial discrimination.

Among the worst affected by casteism are the Dalits, a group of communities deemed “untouchable” till the practice itself was banned following India’s independence.

Prominent Dalit voices at Ivy League schools, such as researcher Suraj Yengde, have spoken out in the past about how prejudiced the south Asian community is against students from specific castes. Yengde has said that caste follows him “like a shadow” wherever he goes, despite his Harvard credentials.

Curiously, while Yengde is still at Harvard, the news was a surprise to him. He took to Instagram to voice his disappointment at being excluded from the conversations. “How can you exclude the one proud Ambedkarite on (Harvard) campus who’s been in the corridors for longer and has been actively lobbying for caste-sensitive policies?”

He clarified, though, that he had no opposition to the success of these efforts.

And while a small win, this would open up spaces for students to lodge complaints and seek redressal against abusive behaviour.

Others also attest to this. “From derogatory comments about the intellect of oppressed caste students, to proudly narrating their activism against affirmative action in India prior to their admission into Harvard, to a complete cultural monopoly of south Asian/India celebrations the deep sense of alienation, humiliation, and social exclusion I experienced made me constantly vigilant and worried about the consequences of being outed as a Dalit in Harvard’s south Asian circles,” Raj Muthu, an alumnus of Harvard, told Equality Labs.

This would eventually also open up the conversation about casteism at Silicon Valley companies, and a wider acceptance that the Indian diaspora continues to be riddled with social prejudices.