Harvard University is the latest U.S. school to add measures protecting caste-oppressed students following a push from graduate workers and a national organization.
Since March, South Asian graduate student organizers have tried to point out to the university's administration what they say is a real problem on campuses across the U.S.: discrimination based on the Hindu caste system.
Those born into lower castes, known as Dalits in India's deeply rooted hierarchies, have faced violence and oppression on the subcontinent for thousands of years. Though the system is now illegal in India, its impact is still far-reaching and can manifest themselves in a lack of social and economic mobility.
With the increase in South Asian immigration to the U.S. since the 1980s and '90s, the hierarchies have been carried overseas.
Twenty-five percent of Dalits in the U.S. report having faced verbal or physical assault, according to research by Equality Labs, an organization dedicated to ending white supremacy and casteism. One in 3 Dalit students also reported experiencing prejudice that affected their education, the study found.
Students trying to combat this on their campuses say they run into barriers in the process, particularly a sheer lack of knowledge among administrators.
Aparna Gopalan, a South Indian doctoral student at Harvard and a member of the Graduate Student Union, has been part of negotiations since March to add more protected classes to the union’s contract. She says she found herself in board rooms filled with white administrators who had no foundational grasp of the caste system.
“They had no idea what caste was,” Gopalan said. “I don’t think they really understood. At one point, they asked, ‘Why isn’t caste just protected under nationality?’ and I was flabbergasted. We were operating on a very basic level.”
But after months of talks between the union and the administration, as well support from Equality Labs, the Graduate Student Union's contract was ratified this week and caste was added as the only new protected category.
Harvard declined to comment other than confirming the contract has been ratified.
Gopalan said that after the provision was approved, Dalit students began to come forward with their own experiences of discrimination, including by South Asian supervisors and instructors who would give their work less attention than that of upper caste students. Slurs and microaggressions from other students were also common.
“We need for every student covered under this contract to be aware that this is even in there,” Gopalan said. “No one can come forward if they aren’t explicitly aware that this is protected.”
Slurs are just the beginning of what Dalit students across the country have experienced on campus, said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs. The longtime Dalit rights activist has advocated for young people facing sexual harassment, housing discrimination, diminished opportunities and physical assaults.
"This important step recognizes first that we, too, exist at Harvard and that our experiences matter," said Raj Muthu, a Dalit Harvard alum and a member of Equality Labs' coalition. "As an alumni, I have certainly witnessed expressions of disdain and hostility directed towards members of oppressed castes, students and faculty."
Dalits on campus might also feel like they don't belong in South Asian circles that are heavily pervaded with casteism or dominated by upper caste students.
"Overall as a student from a caste-oppressed community, there is a deep sense of alienation and not belonging in South Asian settings," he said. "It’s a very isolating experience because as immigrants we try to seek refuge in our own ethnic communities."
But progress may be on the horizon. Through Equality Labs, Soundararajan has supported student bodies as they push their administrations to protect the caste-oppressed among them. Harvard is only the latest to add a measure, with the University of California, Davis, and Colby College both taking similar steps in the last few months.
“These aren’t overnight wins,” she said. “These are the results of many leaders going through the administrative process and building power toward caste equity.”
She’s sure that there are more to come.
“I see the change,” she said. “There hasn’t been a university that hasn’t wanted to do this.”
After Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, Soundararajan said schools became much more open to inclusive language. With high profile institutions beginning to adopt caste protection into official documents, she thinks others will soon follow suit.
For Gopalan, Harvard’s new contract with the union is the beginning of change, not the end.
“This is just the Grad Student Union,” she said. “We would like every union to have it at Harvard. We would like the university itself, outside of just workers, to put it in their handbooks.”
Those affected by caste oppression know it’s a struggle that has long been invisible to non-South Asians in the U.S. Soundararajan hopes these university-level changes can be the first steps in a broader conversation.
“It makes sure that our civil rights are being respected,” she said.