Dalit Solidarity Group raises awareness of caste discrimination

Public discussion on caste discrimination in Carnegie Mellon University is rare, and it being highlighted on the Fence is even rarer. The caste system is a pervasive class structure determined by birth and is historically prevalent in South Asian countries. While caste discrimination is abolished by the Indian Constitution, it still exists in India and other South Asian countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, regardless of religious identity. At the moment, Carnegie Mellon does not have a policy that acknowledges caste discrimination or protects against it.

Bikash Gupta, a Master’s student in Public Policy and Management in Data Analytics at Heinz College, spent the last two years reading and writing extensively on issues of social justice. He has also written about his own experiences facing ethnic racism in his home country, Nepal. Until last year, he worked with Prem Pariyar, a Master’s student at Cal State East Bay University, on a research project investigating the impact of caste on the Nepali diaspora in San Francisco. Pariyar went on to successfully advocate to include "caste" in his university’s anti-discrimination policy, and Gupta worked closely with him on this. In Jan. 2022, the Cal State University system — with 23 campuses, it is the largest public university system in the country — added caste to its anti-discrimination policy.

When Gupta arrived at Carnegie Mellon, he researched the University’s policy regarding caste and reached out to friends. “Dareen Basma and Drica Dennis at Heinz DICE [Diversity, Inclusion, Climate and Equity] office encouraged me on this inclusive mission,” he wrote in an email to The Tartan. “In the fall semester, my friends and I formed a Dalit Solidarity group.”

The CMU Dalit Solidarity Group painted the Fence on Nov. 14 to raise awareness on caste discrimination and call on the University to add "caste" to its Statement of Assurance. The front of the Fence read “End caste discrimination” while the back was painted with both Hindi and English lettering saying “Freedom from Casteism” and “Jai Bhim,” invoking the popular slogan referring to renowned Dalit reformer and the father of the Indian Constitution Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. “Painting the Fence felt like a good way to start raising awareness along the lines of CMU traditions. We had a lot of fun doing it,” explained Abhilash Biswas, a Master’s student in Public Policy and Management in Data Analytics at Heinz College.

Though CMU Dalit Solidarity Group aims to fight all caste discrimination, their name highlights solidarity with Dalits, who were previously known as “untouchables” and belonged to the lowest stratum of the castes in India. “The word ‘Dalit’ is strongly associated with caste discrimination resistance movements in India. It was adopted early on in the anti-caste movements,” explained Biswas. He believes that although the movements mention the word “Dalit,” it encompasses all oppressed castes. “Hence, from that contextual perspective, the assumption was that people would understand that the group aims to work against all kinds of caste discrimination.”

Gupta believes that while there is a numerical basis for why caste should be added in the Statement of Assurance — with Carnegie Mellon's large South Asian student population — increasing research in the diasporas show that caste exists outside South Asian territories. “In fact, [caste] tends to reproduce, and in some cases fiercely,” Gupta explained. He cited an Equality Labs research report that showed one in three Dalit students in the U.S. report being discriminated against during their education.

CMU’s Statement of Assurance currently reads: “Carnegie Mellon University does not discriminate in admission, employment, or administration of its programs or activities on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, handicap or disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, creed, ancestry, belief, veteran status, or genetic information. Furthermore, Carnegie Mellon University does not discriminate and is required not to discriminate in violation of federal, state, or local laws or executive orders.”

“As a white American, my understanding of caste was that it was a problem that did not exist in the U.S. However, my participation in this group has raised my awareness of how permeable and pervasive the influence of caste really is, extending beyond any national border and infiltrating our shared academic spaces,” said Caroline Keller, a Master’s student in Public Policy and Management in Data Analytics at Heinz College. “It is disheartening to hear stories of friends and peers experiencing isolation and other forms of discrimination. Yet, I’m invigorated by this growing solidarity movement and I’m hopeful CMU will not tolerate caste-based discrimination.”

Dr. Dareen Basma, Assistant Dean of DICE at Heinz College, supported the group since its inception. “Now the reality is if a student comes to any one of us and says that they're experiencing discrimination as a result of caste, the university is going to do something about it, right? We are going to investigate, we're going to have these conversations. So in some ways, [caste] itself doesn't necessarily need to be in the statement of assurance for us to mobilize as an institution,” she explained.

Because of Carnegie Mellon’s large South Asian population, she said that the University must think about inclusion and belonging. “Though we might not understand the depth of [caste-based discrimination], it's a signal to our really large population of our students that we are here and we want to support in whatever way that we can.” She added that if other universities acknowledge caste discrimination, it makes sense for Carnegie Mellon to do the same. In addition to the California State University system, Harvard, Brandeis, Colby College, and UC Davis have added caste to their non-discrimination policies.

Gupta believes that even though every form of discrimination can manifest in similar ways, the University should add caste explicitly to the Statement of Assurance because there are unique nuances. “Putting [caste] with other terms or looping it with other protections water down the unique struggles/pain/challenges that caste-oppressed people face,” he explained. One reason to include a particular form of discrimination is that it provides ground for redressal. The terms included in the statement have symbolic value and assure redressal if need be. In the current Statement, there are potentially overlapping terms (for example, ancestry covers a lot of other terms and religion and creed are related). However, the assumed intention is that each type of discrimination is unique and each deserve acknowledgement. “We hope caste also occupies a similar place,” he added.

For Mihir Bhaskar, a Master’s student in Public Policy and Management in Data Analytics at Heinz College, raising awareness is a strong first step because he believes a lot of caste discrimination in the U.S. is implicit, because of the underrepresentation of oppressed communities in University spaces. “CMU is also somewhat unique because of its global presence, with multiple campuses. Setting a precedent in the ‘home’ campus would hopefully be able to impact students outside the U.S. as well, such as in CMU-Qatar, who may be in settings where caste discrimination is more pervasive,” he explained.

Dr. Basma knows that caste is a big conversation in Carnegie Mellon’s Qatar campus due to its large South Asian population, and helped Gupta connect with Annette Vincent, DEI lead in CMU-Qatar.

The group recently conducted a screening of the 2014 Marathi-language film “Court,” highlighting issues around caste and the Indian legal system, followed by a discussion event featuring Ketaki Jayawant from the William and Jefferson College who studies caste politics and history.

The group is plans to host another movie screening and discussion this semester. They also plan to have a speaker series where they will invite Dalit activists and scholars to talk about the issue. “We hope more awareness will lead to greater advocacy and support for the inclusion of ‘caste’ in the university’s statement of assurance,” explained Gupta. They said they will also reach out to affinity groups and expand their network of allies, including the Graduate Student Assembly and the Undergraduate Student Senate.

Dr. Basma clarified that the work coming out of the DICE office isn’t necessarily that of the group, though she believes they have similar intentions, and that they don’t intend to polarize communities. “The hope here is to bring people together to have conversations and it's not to pit groups against each other and I hope that's kind of evident in the beginning the caste conversations work that we've been doing with the film screenings,” she said.

Gupta said that members of the group haven’t discussed the existing members’ caste identities. “As a non-Dalit, I recognize my position and privilege. We have discussed that we need people with those lived experiences to play a leadership role in this movement,” he said. They hope that by raising awareness through events like movie screenings and discussions, and painting the Fence, more people will join and take leadership roles. The response to the Fence painting was encouraging. A post on the Instagram page @CMUFence garnered over 400 likes and shares. “I believe at a university, we should not be shying away from these important societal issues and should have an honest talk about it and how it affects our friends, peers, and neighbors,” said Gupta.