Yashica Dutt wants to help fellow Dalits to cope with their caste identity

Coming out as a Dalit in Rohiths memory New York journalists project to document discrimination
news Caste Sunday, January 24, 2016 - 12:24

“I may not make much of a difference. I don’t think discrimination against the Dalits will stop all of a sudden. Yet I owe it to Rohith Vemula to at least try and attempt to create an atmosphere of empathy for my fellow Dalits and encourage them to come out as a Dalit.”

The death of Rohit Vemula shook New York-based journalist Yashica Dutt. A freelance culture reporter, with an MA in Culture from Columbia University’s J-School, Yashica Dutt has perhaps become accustomed to the absence of casteist discrimination abroad, something which was an inevitable part of her life back in India since she was born a Dalit. But with Vemula’s death, she decided to get up and do something about it.

The writer’s new online project, “Documents of Dalit Discrimination”, is an attempt to facilitate fellow Dalits to come to terms with their caste identity and not feel shame. In her own coming out as a Dalit, Yashica acknowledges that Rohith made her understand that her birth and lineage – one in which no human has ever had a say – was one of oppression and not of shame.

“An egalitarian society is something which a member of the privileged communities – read upper castes – takes for granted. Most of them are not even aware that there is a dark underside associated with something as simple as a surname. Not many may have given much thought to their own. But we have had to hide our true identities for fear of being ostracized from equal academic, work and social opportunities,” Yashica says.

“Imagine a childhood friend who wouldn’t want to share your tiffin or drink a glass of water with you only because you are a Dalit. One gets branded forever. The mental anguish and emotional trauma involved reach unspeakable proportions. Not many can actually handle it. Rohith was not the first. But I’d like him to be the last,” Yashica says.

As she puts it on her tumblr page: “There are many of us whose experiences of growing up as a dalit and navigating a society that forces us to feel shame need to be told and heard. That’s why I am starting Documents of Dalit Discrimination. A safe space for conversation about caste that needs to go beyond ‘reservation’ and ‘merit’ and voices that echo the hurt so many of us suffer silently. Let’s hear stories of pride, of history and ownership against the emotional, personal, physical and mental toll of the caste system.

Let it be known that Rohith’s birth was no ‘fatal accident’.”

She then proudly goes on to suffix her name with her caste identity which gives a hint to her roots.

It took her more than a decade to make peace with her lineage. Three generations of her family before her birth have had access to education, which they realized was their only way out of the casteist hell-hole they lived in.

Previously working with Brunch and the Hindustan Times, she had the privilege of moving to New York City where she earned her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and currently freelances for various publications in the US.

However, the fact that she was able to study abroad does not mean she was from a rich family. “I must make it very clear from the onset that I did not hail from a financially stable family at all. On the contrary, we were very poor. Having won a scholarship of Rs. 3000/- per month was the only reason I could attend St. Stephen’s College – one of the premier educational institutes in India- in Delhi.”

Early in her journalistic career, she chose to write on fashion and lifestyle as these were topics associated with the elite class and which she thought would help her hide her identity as a Dalit. Having a non-Dalit look – “whatever that means”, she adds – too made things easier.

It took a Rohith to jolt her out of her complacency and make her realise that she could use her profession to actually make a difference to the way Dalits are viewed in their land of birth even after almost 69 years of independence.

When asked as to why we are yet to have a Dalit leader of the stature of Dr BR Ambedkar, Yashica says that’s a question one which must be directed at leaders from the Communist party which has been very vociferous in coming out in support of Dalits’ rights.

“It’s easy asking for justice to be meted out after Rohith’s death by leading vociferous protests, but do we actually have any Dalit leader with the legendary political stature of an Ambedkar?”

Dalit groups have always been formed as a separate entity and never as part of the mainstream political parties. It is to say that we will support your cause but only from the fringes, with the very notion of socio-political integration a taboo topic and one which must always be brushed under the carpet.

Asked about the aggressive political posturing by certain Dalit groups such as the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) -of which Rohith was a member- Yashica retorts: “Can you blame them? If you had centuries of cruel oppression and social repression as your only heritage, isn’t it natural that some day or the other the inner rage at the sheer magnitude of social injustice that one has to cope with since birth will boil over? Rohith’s death just pushed them over the edge.”

A few excerpts from her tumblr page:

“Because of the fear and shame of being Dalit, I have been pushed to stay away from India and decided to pursue higher education in Malaysia. Being a Dalit, it’s hard to get a seat in Ph.D. programs in premier Indian institutions. I have gone through a lot of struggle because of my background. That’s why I chose Malaysia for higher education to improve my intellectual abilities.” - Siva

“Tears roll down my face, as I recollect this cruel incident that happened to my father when he was a child. He grew up extremely poor in the Guntur district, in Andhra Pradesh. Coincidentally, it’s the same district where Rohith’s family is from too. He attended a local zilla parishad government school in his village. One day, while playing with his friends, a ball fell into a well located near their school. My father was coerced by his friends to enter the well and bring ball back, to which my father agreed. As soon as he went inside the well (using a rope), the students pulled back that rope to humiliate him and left him there. It did not end there. They then went to their head master and called him to the site. My father was pulled out, tied to a tree, beaten by the head master for POLLUTING WATER (!!!), and was permanently debarred from that school.”-anon

“I have heard stories of outright social exclusion but that I have never faced for which I’m happy. At least, some things have changed for the better. But still some people’s reaction after hearing my rank and branch in IIT is weird and judgemental.”- MM

“Born in an urban, middle-class family, raised by a Brahmin mother and Dalit father; I was oblivious to the existence of caste for most of my childhood. I was painfully made aware of my Dalit identity on my first day of Junior college (as it’s known in Bombay) when a group of girls asked me about my caste. I returned home and asked my father which caste we belonged and discovered that we belonged to the Mahar caste. Two years later, when I enrolled into a premier institution for humanities in the country through the reserved category, it was disconcerting to see how all discussions around the subject of reservation revolved around how “they” lacked merit and were exploiting the reservation policy. Therefore, I spent my first year in college feeling like I did not deserve to be there because I was less meritorious.” – Nikita Sonavane

“I was born in a lower-middle-class working family. After my father became a government servant, the first thing he did was to change his surname so people won’t recognize us directly. I pretended to be a Brahmin in school, by applying a tilak and by visiting the temple daily just to prove that. I was so scared that I never took any scholarship or reduction in school fees being SC/ST and added additional financial burden on my family.” –Prashant Patel

I did not choose my lower caste (as you didn’t choose to be higher caste) As a Dalit boy, I can say with confidence say that nobody is ready to get their daughters married to us. A medical scientist whose daughter I wish to marry told me, “Anyone would do but a chamar.” - Ankit 

“The first time I faced public humiliation was unfortunately at one of India’s top B-schools, where I should emphasise, I secured an admission as a general student (not based on any caste reservation!) for an employer-funded management program. In the Corp Fin course, there was an accounting concept that I could not get my head around and I asked the teacher for assistance. The very matter of fact response was, “oh you folks with X surname, I don’t expect you to get these concepts easily. Why don’t you ask some of these Iyengar and Aggrawal fellows here if they can help?”
The entire class laughed at the “joke”. But that was the day I realized that no matter how qualified I am, my identity finally boils down to my apparently lower and therefore “incapable” caste.” -

anon.

“While studying in the postgraduate program, I never hid my identity. In fact, I was very vocal about it. All my roommates knew about my caste. My English was not very good. So I was scared to express myself. But other students assumed that since I was from the ‘quota’ category, I was dumb (maybe some still do, let them!) Anyone who had trouble understanding or expressing themselves would be mocked, “Quota wali hai kya?” (Is she from the quota) regardless of their actual category.”.- Shubhangini Nikose (Mahar)

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