When I moved to New York in the fall of 2014, I left a few things in India: my family, my job with a leading English-language newspaper and my caste.
The Indian caste system is an ancient, hierarchal stratification that assigns occupations based on one’s birth. It has created gross inequalities over millennia and oppressively assigned those at lowest rung of the social strata a label: “untouchables.” Though the egregious practice of literally not touching someone who belonged to that category was legally abolished by the Indian constitution in 1955, prejudice and the resulting discrimination are extensive even today.
In India, I was an “untouchable,” a Dalit. Only no one knew it.
Dalit is the self-assigned name for the group of castes and tribes deemed “unfit to touch” — and I’d hid my Dalit identity for years. My parents actively encouraged my “passing” and never stopped reminding me of the rewards of coming across as non-Dalit, not to mention the deleterious effects otherwise.
To be a Dalit meant receiving constant barbs from upper-caste schoolteachers, who could casually shame you for your lower caste; it meant enduring icy glares from the friends’ mothers, who’d never want their children to speak with you. It also meant getting used to derogatory remarks from colleagues who would question your “merit” or “worth,” simply because you chose to avail yourself of the reservation — an affirmative action system created to establish parity among castes — as is your legal right. Being Dalit meant never being “normal.”
But it also meant owning one’s own history of oppression, and a heritage of pride. It meant acknowledging that your great-grandfather learned to write by scribbling a stick in the mud, because his upper-caste schoolteacher forbade him from holding a slate. And how he succeeded to become an educator despite that. Or how your grandfather was forced down from a horse’s back at his own wedding, depriving him of a common Hindu tradition, simply because he was Dalit.
I gave up this sense of ownership and pride while embracing the shame and unease that accompanied my false identity: that of an upper-caste person. I could “pass” because of my faultless English, an acceptably dusky skin tone (I spent most of my childhood and teenage years looking for fairness remedies in my fridge, so I wouldn’t “look” Dalit) and an ambiguous last name. My grandfather dropped the original, Nidaniya, decades ago so it couldn’t give away our caste.
I continued to pass until I moved here and I no longer needed to. Nor did I need to lie about my caste, since here I was never questioned about it, unlike back home. Still, I didn’t need to “come out” either. That was, until I heard about the suicide of a bright doctoral student at the Hyderabad Central University, Rohith Vemula. I knew his story all too well: his exceptionally difficult childhood (his mother worked as a tailor and a domestic worker to finance his education); his tenacity to accept any odd job to put himself through college.
I also knew something else. He, like me, was Dalit.
Except, instead of hiding his identity (an option perhaps he didn’t even have), Vemula was fighting for it. Days before his death, he, along with four other students, had been expelled from their hostel and forced to sleep in a makeshift tent on campus. In July 2015, the university had stopped paying him his monthly stipend of 25,000 rupees (around $368), which he was also using to support his mother.
Later in August, he was suspended from the university and had accrued a debt of 40,000 rupees ($589). His friends recall him as anxious about his education and say he was being targeted for raising issues of blatant discrimination against Dalit students.
Vemula was also exceptionally bright (which some upper caste Indians would call an anomaly among Dalits), as was evident from his last letter, where he regretted that “the value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust.”
When I read this letter, I was moved yet not jolted. Not until I visited his erstwhile Facebook page. He sent me a friend request a few days before his death, probably wanting to reach out based on a Dalit Rights groups I had liked. That moment changed me. I sat for six hours in a coffee shop in Chelsea and wrote a Facebook note, where I not only come out as a Dalit girl, but also urged fellow Dalits like me to send their stories of dealing with guilt, shame and the identity that come with being born as one.
I also created a Tumblr, where we discuss those stories and talk about our experiences, beyond the debate around the reservation legally ascribed to Dalits to offset for the inequalities in the past.
And, as validated by the bitter caste rage that I have channeled upon myself since then, this conversation is long overdue. A lot of upper-caste Indians, ensconced in their caste prejudice, have evidently had a hard time dealing with my coming out. To see a “lower caste” Dalit woman, a former “untouchable,” refusing to be ashamed of her caste, and instead turning it into a narrative of pride has noticeably pricked several egos.
I hear from them in a stream of constant and hateful trolling against me on Twitter and Facebook.
There’s been intense scrutiny of my initial note, speculation that I might not be Dalit at all, general abuse because I am Dalit and accusations that I am co-opting “Western ideas” from the gay rights movement and #BlackLivesMatter. But more importantly, I have received overwhelming support.
The messages and stories haven’t stopped pouring in through social media and email. Hundreds of fellow Dalits have written about going through similar experiences and expressed their delight at finally having a platform that focuses on our experiences. Several allies of the Dalit movement messaged, saying how they are actively rethinking their own privileges, and some admitted to not even being aware of the discrimination.
Meanwhile, student groups across India have been staging protests over Vemula’s death, despite resistance from the police. Yet, for the first time in India, it seems that the conversation about caste is changing. And clearly, now there is no going back.
I didn’t tell my mother I had come out as Dalit immediately after the Facebook post, but right before I was interviewed live on prime time TV in India. She cried — out of happiness and relief. While she wore her Dalit identity in plain sight, it was also carried lightly, almost with an apology.
This was probably the first time she had allowed herself to feel pride in it. That alone lets me know I have done something right.