New Delhi: News of the Harvard Graduate Student Union ratifying a four-year contract that includes a provision for the addition of caste as a “protected category” for all graduate and undergraduate student workers at the university has been welcomed by Indian students in the US. The recognition by Harvard, announced last week, has paved the way for equitable education for South Asian students and employees in the country, the students feel.
With this, Harvard became the first Ivy League university to recognise caste-based discrimination as an issue of concern. Other American universities, such as University of California (Davis), Colby College and Brandeis University, already recognise caste-based discrimination to be an issue.
Aparna Gopalan, a 26-year-old anthropology student at Harvard University, who was part of a now-defunct Bargaining Committee working to get the caste provision in place, told ThePrint over the phone that “South Asians growing up in the US practice caste. So when employees raise the issue of such discrimination in their workplaces, they will be able to show that one of the finest institutes in their country also recognises caste as an issue and has provision against such discrimination”.
As a member of the committee fighting for the recognition of protection against caste-based discrimination, Gopalan said it took the panel over eight months to get the provision in place. “The student union had been already negotiating with the administration over several issues, but the issue of caste-based discrimination was raised in March this year. At first, the university refused to acknowledge that this exists at all,” she said.
It was only after Equality Labs, a US-based social justice organisation, came in to give a presentation and shared facts relating to caste-based discrimination in the US, that Harvard believed that something like this exists, she added.
ThePrint also reached Jason Newton, Media and Communications in-charge of Harvard, over Twitter and LinkedIn direct messages, but there was no response till the time of publication of this report.
‘Part of larger movement for caste equity’
A document of demands that was submitted by the Bargaining Committee to the university, accessed by ThePrint, defines caste as “as a system of rigid social stratification characterised by hereditary status, endogamy and social barriers sanctioned by custom, law, or religion, that originated in South Asia”.
According to Gopalan, 1,200 international students are currently covered by the students union, a little less than half of whom are students of South Asian heritage. However, a press release issued by Equality Labs on 1 December, mentioned that the Harvard provision would apply to nearly 5,000 undergraduate and graduate student workers.
“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.
Welcoming the move, another Indian student studying at a management institute in the US, who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint over the phone, “This move by Harvard has set a precedent for all higher education institutions in the US.”
Talking about the existence of caste-based discrimination in US society, the student added: “Sometimes this discrimination comes in the most obscure forms. In the past, caste-based discrimination would often be equated with racial discrimination, did not help the victim. With a clear definition of caste and how it manifests, so many Indian and Pakistani students stand to benefit from it.”
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)