Ideas of India is a podcast in which Mercatus Senior Research Fellow Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google, Overcast, Stitcher or the podcast app of your choice.
In this episode, Shruti and Yashica Dutt discuss India’s caste system, being Dalit and “passing” as non-Dalit, the intersection of caste and gender, reservations in the Indian educational system and much more. Dutt is an Indian writer and journalist who has written on a broad range of topics including fashion, gender, identity, culture and caste. She has worked with the Hindustan Times, LiveMint, Scroll.in, The Wire and HuffPost India. Her new book, “Coming Out as Dalit,” is a memoir of her experience as a Dalit woman and the history of the Dalit movement.
SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and today my guest is Yashica Dutt, who is journalist and writer based in New York City and the author of the book “Coming Out as Dalit,” which is a memoir of her experience as a Dalit child and woman hiding her caste identity in India. We spoke about the need for Dalits to hide their caste identity, about Yashica’s family, her learning to take pride in her family’s history and identity, breaking caste endogamy, merit and reservations, caste discrimination in the U.S. and much more.
For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references, click the link in the show notes or visit Discourse Magazine DOT COM.
Thank you so much for doing this. I am so thrilled. We’ve been exchanging emails for a long time now, it feels like, but I’m so glad. Thank you for making time.
YASHICA DUTT: Thank you, Shruti. Thank you for your patience in extending this conversation over the course of one year. We’ve been through so much in the pandemic, and I’m really excited that this is finally happening.
Coming Out of the Caste Closet
RAJAGOPALAN: The title of the book is “Coming Out as Dalit.” Can you give us some context for what it means to be not out as a Dalit?
I ask this specifically because in India, caste identity is so distinguishable. People are in your face. They ask you the question all the time. It comes up in ordinary conversation, rude as it is, but people guess your caste sometimes by the last name, sometimes by the address, sometimes by what is in your lunchbox at school. It’s everywhere, and yet, in your case, it was hidden. What are the circumstances that led to that?
DUTT: Like you said, hiding caste in India is a difficult thing, but at the same time, Dalits have been survivors. That’s how we’ve been around, by the way of being oppressed for so many years systemically and structurally and, of course, in everyday reality. As things have moved, Dalits and people who need to hide their caste—even people who are not Dalits—have become very skillful at doing that.
In my case, the way that took place—and in a lot of people’s case, how that takes place—is by hiding our last name. Like you mentioned, somebody’s last name is the biggest giveaway of their caste. In my family, they chose to drop the last name, which was the signifier of our caste almost immediately, and we went with my dad’s middle name, which we chose to be Dutt. My dad’s name is Guru Dutt, after the famous director. And it was obscure enough because we lived in Rajasthan. We weren’t living in Bengal. We were able to move through those invisible caste lines.
The performance of having this entirely new identity—we weren’t just dropping a last name. There was an effort on every level, whether it was institutional in my case, or a day-to-day lived-reality aspect of my life.
For Dalits in particular, in particular my caste, which is the manual scavenging caste—it’s the Bhangi caste. It’s the lowest of the low castes. Just being born in that caste is considered something to be shameful about. We through generations have embodied that shame so deeply that there was this desperation to not be this identity, these people who are considered abhorrent, dirty, despicable, whose names are a slur.
One of the ways we could hide this person was by assuming an upper-caste identity where we can get away with it. While living in Rajasthan, of course, it’s not easy because my father’s family, in particular, were well-known. Everybody knew what our caste was. But in school, between young kids, I could assume to be an upper-caste person. I could be taught to say that I’m not Bhangi. That’s what passing between castes look like.
You try and adopt customs that you know nothing about. You try and adopt cuisines that you know nothing about. Religious traditions, having a Bhagavad Gita at home—Dalits did not grow up with that tradition, but because we want to assume this identity that, for many of us, is the only ticket to not being actively discriminated every day—that’s what a lot of us are
For them, this entire performance of caste becomes like a closet. Of course, this is borrowing theory from the LGBTQ community, and we are in the middle of Pride Month right now. It’s fitting that this was, in my mind, a way to explain caste to not just everyone else, but also to myself. Growing up, there was no vocabulary to understand these survival mechanics that Dalits were very easily relying on.
The whole act of subverting caste becomes like a closet. When you come out of that closet, you come out as a Dalit, and that’s how I decided to, in a way, create this vocabulary that didn’t exist, this phenomena about what happens when I reveal my caste to everybody. What are the material consequences? What happens if my friends don’t talk to me, if my coworkers don’t talk to me, if I’m discriminated at work, if I’m discriminated while trying to rent a house? I’m exposing myself to a lot of risks in a similar way that a gay person in small-town India would also do.
I use those terms because they are easy to understand. We understood what coming out of the gay closet meant, but we didn’t take the time to study caste in the same way, which is why “Coming Out as Dalit”—when I say that, I meant I’m refusing to hide my identity. I’m refusing to experience any shame in who I am. I’m leaving that old lie behind and stepping proudly into my caste, owning my caste.
A lot of people say you can be casteless. The reality is, in India and Indian societies, you cannot. Caste is intricately tied to you, like the color of your skin. That’s what it means to come out as a Dalit person—when you refuse to hide what your caste is. You declare to the world, and you stop passing.
For a lot of people, that process is natural, happens organically. For a lot of people like myself, this is an effort that we make, especially since I was a journalist, I am a journalist. It’s an effort that we make to tell our readers that this is my identity, and I’m choosing to live with it with pride.
RAJAGOPALAN: I love the vocabulary of coming out of the closet and the parallel to the LGBTQ movement. But I think one really important distinction when it comes to caste is this is not just the journey of the individual. In your case, it’s an intergenerational journey.
You were privileged enough to have two generations of educated family members, such that there was even the possibility of hiding your caste. Most Dalits don’t have the possibility of hiding their caste in the circumstances that they inhabit. You recognized that as a particular kind of—even within Dalits—educational privilege . . .
On the other hand, it is also an enormous burden that you carry because you didn’t choose to hide it yourself, like many when we are talking about sexual orientation. This decision was made for you by your family members. It was made for you, especially the way you describe in your book, by your mother, who almost single-handedly raised you.
DUTT: Absolutely. You’re spot on when you say that this is an intergenerational journey. It’s because of the decisions that my parents made and their parents made, and in a way their parents also made, that I am here in New York, able to speak to you in the way that I’m able to understand caste. Even for me, this was a huge journey, and that itself will show you how difficult it is for a Dalit person to just make it in a way that seems normal to the upper-caste society.
When they see me, they see somebody who looks just like them, who probably has no difference in material privileges or caste privileges. According to them, there is no difference. It doesn’t make a difference that I’m Bhangi.
But I know the intergenerational struggle that we’ve carried right from my mother’s mother, who went to do the manual scavenging work as her husband was preparing for a civil service entrance exam while being married as teenagers, and continued to do that work, to support him until he earned enough money to raise all their six, seven children. Or my father’s grandmother, who did the same work as well, who went to different houses in the colony to clean bathrooms.
It’s the choices that they made, the choices that they made about wanting to shed this identity, which continues to be a point of shame, which continues to be looked at as a curse. The choices that they made to leave that identity or obscure it, or at least escape from it in some way, have led to me being here so that the upper-caste society can look at me and say that there is no difference seemingly between us.
However, like you said, there is a huge difference. When I say “educational privilege,” I want to highlight exactly what I’m saying. Education is not a privilege. Two generations of a family accessing education is definitely not a privilege.
But for a Dalit family, having two generations educated is a privilege, so when I call it educational privilege, I want everybody to pay attention to the fact that what education means to people like me, means to people in Dalit community, and what it allows us to do, even growing up in what I can definitely describe as poverty.
This education gave me opportunities to be, in a way, where I can sit and have this conversation with you. Educational privilege is both a satire and sarcasm, but also calling attention to the fact, look at what we have to go through. You have had seven, eight generations of your family going to school, getting a master’s degree, becoming lawyers, becoming doctors—no problem. For us, going to college for the first time is a privilege.
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to highlight a second aspect. It is not just a historical accident that only two generations of your family got education. They were prevented from learning the letter. This is a very important part of our history, where any time a Dalit attempted to learn the letter, they risked violence and even death, and that is not something to be taken lightly.
What were some of the experiences of discrimination that your grandfathers on both sides and your parents faced that made them want to obscure their caste identity? Technically, they passed their state’s civil service exams. They were in important official positions. They had officially made it to the middle class in terms of being salaried employees. This is the postcolonial dream.
What was going on in their lives in this kind of systemic and sometimes subtle discrimination that made them move so strongly towards wanting to obscure their identity, which is the burden that you inherited?
DUTT: When it comes to my grandfather—and I think this is on record—where he was the first civil servant from this particular caste in the entire state, which was back in the 1960s. It was a much bigger deal then than it is now because when he got married and he decided to ride a horse, as is customary in a Hindu wedding, to his bride’s house, there were upper-caste men in Jaipur in Rajasthan—which is one of the largest states in the country—that brandished naked swords at him and forced him to come down from that horse and walk on foot because that was a privilege that was only reserved for upper-caste people. Upper-caste people throughout the country in Indian societies are very invested in maintaining that power differential between upper-caste folks and Dalit people.
Of course, if you think of it, this is like asking a Black person in the South in the 1960s, “What were your experiences of discrimination like every day?” They could tell you any day from their life, and they will tell you 50 instances that were fraught with discrimination, whether they were structural or ongoing or subtle or microaggressions. It’s just the identity of being a Bhangi person in that time in the country, in particular, and defying so many caste structures in itself invites many kinds of violence.
I know for a fact, it’s hard to make men of that generation talk. My grandfather is now in his late 80s, and his career has been fraught with instances of caste discrimination, including my father also, where it’s just this natural assumption that Dalits do not work, that Dalits, particularly Bhangi men and Bhangi women, are lazy, are not capable of these kinds of jobs that are outside of caste-ordained professions.
I can give you a lot of instances. I can tell you how my great-grandfather was forced to scroll in the mud and learn how to write the letter, because he wasn’t allowed to touch a slate, which is what the medium of instruction was. I can tell you how my grandfather was not allowed to drink from the same tap.
When we moved into a middle-class colony in the 1970s, 1980s, before I was born, the discrimination that we faced from the neighbors, how there were fights about where the sewage pipe will go and why it should go in front of the house of the Dalits in the colony. It’s really difficult to encapsulate one or two highlighted experiences of discrimination when your entire existence as a Dalit person who is not in their caste-ordained profession is a threat to the structure that has been in place for thousands of years.
RAJAGOPALAN: A very important both hero and villain in the story is your mother. There’s so much tension in your growing-up years because of having to hide the Dalit identity, and so much of that as an effort being made by your mother.
Yet, at each point, she’s making the effort to protect you, to make sure that you have a much better life than what she had so that the shadow of caste just doesn’t touch your reality or your future. That is incredibly explained in the book. Can you talk about your personal experience of occupying these so-called upper-caste spaces—Montessori schools and convent schools and elite universities—and what it meant to hide your identity within that system?
DUTT: Now, when you say that, I’ve never seen any negatives so far of having to hide my caste. In fact, this is not just me as a person, where we are discussing morality, but this is as somebody who desperately needs to survive, and there is one way to do it. No matter what the costs are, you are going to incur them. They don’t seem like massive costs, either, because the alternate is so much worse.
This is no way to compare the situation, but when people flee their homes in war-torn areas, there is a reason that they don’t stay. It’s because the alternate of staying back is so much worse that they are willing to take this extreme risk to get to this sort of a promised land. This is just me using a metaphor, not to compare the two, but I do want to say the alternate of not hiding your caste in small-town Rajasthan as a Bhangi person trying to survive is so much worse that you don’t even think about what you’re losing in the process. That is not even a cost to consider.
Now, of course, at my age, in my 30s living in New York, I can look back—especially when I’m in therapy—to say, “Wow, that was taxing. That took a toll on me.” Of course, it did. There is no hiding the fact that structurally, when you assume an identity or you’re forced to assume an identity that is not yours, it takes a toll on you.
But I don’t think the villain in the story is my mother. The villain in the story is structural casteism that forced us to assume and be somebody we are not, that forced us to feel the shame that I was forced to feel in being a Bhangi person.
This was an attempt to hoodwink the system that is stacked against us, that doesn’t want us to succeed, in fact, the system that is built to keep us out. For my mom and her mom and other people who are Dalits in India, that is the only way to survive. We don’t think of it as a cost to our mental health because mental health conversation can only enter when you have food to eat on your table, when you are safe, when you are not being humiliated every day.
If a different caste identity can offer you these minimal protections, then the burden of living with a hidden identity doesn’t seem as enormous, which is not to say it’s not. Of course, it is, but it is not the fault of the survivor who is doing whatever they can to survive. It is the fault of the system that’s forcing them into doing this. It’s not a happy choice that we make because we like this. I don’t want to be Brahmin because I think I love being Brahmin. I want to be Brahmin because I don’t want to be humiliated every day.
Despite hiding, it’s not that we were very successful all the time. Living in Ajmer, which is where I grew up, everybody knew our caste. Sure, if somebody doesn’t know what neighborhood we live in, who our family is, you can hide this for one day, two days, a week. Eventually, they will find out. Then the discrimination that follows will eventually happen.
The effort to hide the caste and to drop the last name was mainly with the children so that they can survive—me and my siblings can survive in school, can survive in our careers, can go on to college and leave Rajasthan, leave India possibly—like in my case—and have a career, have a life outside of the bondages of caste.
How did I live in this invisible space in schools and growing up? Well, when people send their kids to boarding school, it’s a way to learn discipline, to become a certain kind of person, to get help with their studies, et cetera. In my case, one of the main goals for my mom was to learn how upper-caste people live because these structures, these cultural boundaries are so hardwired, and they are used to recognize who is upper caste versus who is not.
One of the ways my mom found a way to go around the system was to send her children to boarding school where we could observe how upper-caste girls lived, how they made their beds, how they ironed their clothes because those are the things that are lobbed against Dalits that make us not good enough. What are the cuisines like? What are the conversations? How do they practice religion?
My mom herself, for a certain time in college, had lived in boarding school and had experienced learning about and getting to know her upper-caste classmates and batchmates. She learned that their culture is completely different from our culture. She didn’t want her children to have that disadvantage. It was basically education and a project to understand that culture well so you can pass effectively as an upper-caste person.
RAJAGOPALAN: You need to mimic a different kind of life that you’re not familiar with. Basically, the only way to do that was for her to distance you from the family and put you in a completely different space or an environment where you could immerse yourself and then mimic the other girls, right?
DUTT: I think that is how that ended up happening. I don’t think that the effort was to remove in order to learn. The effort was to just be exposed to an environment where you could learn because when you’re in a day school, you don’t get that access to people’s lived lives in the same way that kids in boarding schools do.
RAJAGOPALAN: One of the reasons your book affected me so much is, we are not that far apart in age, and we seem to have overlapped in Delhi University, though we did not know each other at all. On the face of it, the two of us—we seem to have gone to similar schools, we’ve gone to the same university for a short period of time. Everything I had read about caste was written for a different generation. It just seemed like none of this must be happening with us.
That one thing was like a true jolt to me. I imagine I sound very naive when I say this, but that was a moment where I was like, “Oh wow, this could have happened to me were it not for the accident of birth.”
DUTT: The fact that most people in India don’t look at caste as a present-lived reality is not an accident. That is the design. There is a reason why caste has been obscured to a point of invisibility in India so that that power structure can be perpetuated. Otherwise, that idea that caste discrimination is still so persistent and followed so intimately and intricately in India—that would interfere with this liberal project, the secular project that the country was erected upon.
India was raised—and unfortunately, that idea, as we see, is eroding right in front of our eyes in the past seven years—but it was at least raised as this liberal, secular dream where everybody would be equal. Their genders would be equal. Their castes would be equal. Equality was enshrined in the constitution written by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Dalit leader who basically fought for our civil rights in a very similar way that MLK did. India was erected as this liberal, independent dream.
There were two choices: Either you give up caste discrimination and really make an effort to give up those power structures, or you retain those power structures and just hide them under the table so you can still continue to have the power and privilege that your caste gives you, but you just never have to talk about it or even let it interfere in the idea of a liberal project that India was—or was purported to be—at that point.
That’s why neither our education, nor our bureaucracy, nor the journalism media, pop culture, culture in general—none of them focused on caste. It was not just an obscure oversight. It was a design.
The less it is discussed, the less it will be in the forefront of people’s imagination, the less they will recognize it, and the easier it is to hide Dalit violence, Dalit discrimination. Incidents of oppression, incidents of structural violence and the structural inequalities that the caste system has created can stay in place for thousands of years.
You have to wonder how the caste system has survived for this long, especially in a liberal, independent India. That is how it did—by hiding that it even exists, by mutating in a way that is so skillful that it completely fuses with the fabric of Indian society while making itself completely invisible. That was one of the reasons we don’t recognize and see caste even when—and especially when—it is staring us in the face.
Impact of Rohith Vemula
RAJAGOPALAN: I have always thought of education and educational institutions—and again, this comes from my privilege—as these hallowed, liberal spaces, where once people are educated, caste and religion and all these other—even gender in our case—all these things will cease to matter, or at least these prejudices and disadvantages will reduce substantially. Of course, that is not true.
For me, the real jolt, once again, was when Rohith Vemula died by suicide. It was just a shock that went through the system. Now I understand, for many reasons, we just don’t cover Dalit deaths the same way that we do deaths of those from upper caste, whether it is death by suicide or accident or anything. There’s a way in which Dalit death is just written out of our journalism and our history. They are put down as statistics. They’re not names and faces and people with reality.
I think the difference with Rohith was his suicide letter. He told his own story, and he told it in a language and in an idiom that I could understand. Now, interestingly, the same event led you to make a big choice.
DUTT: When Rohith was institutionally murdered in Hyderabad University—and I will use those words instead of suicide because suicide is never just a personal choice. When somebody decides to end their life, it’s often because living becomes a burden. In Rohith’s case, that living became a burden because it was made into a living hell by the university that he was a part of, by the university administration who were systematically targeting against him for raising his voice against caste discrimination on the campus.
He was a scholar. If you read his Facebook posts going back a couple of years before his death in 2016, you’ll see how brilliant and articulate his ideas were. But none of us were exposed to them because the system that is erected only for an upper-caste ruling class doesn’t allow Dalit thought to percolate through.
We didn’t know that somebody like that even existed. The newspapers didn’t celebrate that kind of ideology. Only in that person’s death were his ideas considered so powerful, so life-changing, so altering of the reality as we knew it that it completely turned the way we think about caste in India. 2016, in my opinion, was a turning point and an awakening of consciousness.
This is the true power of Dalit ideas, and this is what it can do. Of course, because the system is not created for us, it only was allowed to happen with that boy’s death. The most useful Dalit to an Indian society is the one that either has no opinions or is dead. Unfortunately, that’s the reality.
With you it was the accident of birth—when I read that letter, I felt that my reality was just one or two permutations away from his. We have had similar mothers who believed in education to the extent that they were willing to go to any lengths to get their children educated.
Radhika Vemula, his mother, worked extremely hard as a day laborer, as somebody who stitched clothes. These are all low-paying jobs in India. They don’t pay a living wage. They don’t even pay a quarter of the living wage.
When I read his letter, for me, it was not a jolt as much as it was an awakening, where I realized that this could so easily be me. If there were just a few twists, where maybe I was the one who chose to raise my voice. Of course, we can sit and speculate because, unfortunately, Rohith is not among us.
But this is the story of so many Dalits who felt that this could be them. They’ve been through similar situations. They know the struggle of just desperately wanting to go to school and not having the money to do that, to learn these ideas that Brahminical patriarchy has kept away from us. When I saw Rohith’s letter, I identified with him more than anything else. I realized that I have this opportunity to do something about it.
By that time, I was hiding my caste, and I was living in the U.S., so my caste didn’t have the same urgency it did back in India. At the same time, I wasn’t going around telling people that I was Dalit.
But then I realized that if he could speak the truth, raise his voice for the truth, stand up for what is right, fight against this huge demon of caste discrimination that exists all around us while living in India, I could certainly do that at a safe distance from New York.
It completely changed the way I looked at things, the way I looked at myself. It freed me from the shame of being Bhangi. That one letter freed me from the shame that I had carried with myself my entire life at that point. So his letter was a turning point for me, for many Dalits like me and for the Indian society in general.
RAJAGOPALAN: You talk about the distance from India and how your reaching New York and going to Columbia University gave you, one, distance from the world that you grew up in, and that gives you a different perspective. But it also gave you a safe space from constantly having to hide your caste identity. Because here you would, I imagine, be treated like someone who is an immigrant from India, and there are lots of Indian students who come to the United States and study at places like Columbia.
You are clubbed as one of them. It just so happens that most of them tend to be from upper caste, so you are not seen very differently from them. Now, finally, the burden to constantly hide that identity from most people surrounding you starts easing up. Can you talk about the effect of these two things?
DUTT: Absolutely. This is why my coming to New York was hugely instrumental in me being able to talk about being Dalit. That distance from the shame that I carry from being Bhangi just a year later was so significantly reduced that I could tell people back in India that I’m from this particular caste, a caste whose name I felt shameful even saying to myself in private.
I’m sitting with you, and I’m saying “Bhangi” over and over again in conversation. Back in India with my mom, we wouldn’t even say the word. It carried so much charge and trauma that even saying the word, Bhangi, we just said it in a hushed tone, in a whisper if we absolutely needed to say it. We would say Schedule Caste, which could mean anything. The fact that I can sit here and do that—that journey from extreme shame to pride in my caste happened to me because I had distance from India.
I remember this particular incident. In 2013, my mom had a major surgery, and I was outside the hospital, very stressed and waiting. The operation had already taken place. She was recovering. I was waiting outside. This lady sat next to me and started talking to me. The second question she had was, “What is your caste?”
At that point, I was extremely stressed. I was worried for my mother’s well-being. I wasn’t sure what was going on. That was the first time when I just snapped back at her and said, “What are you going to do with that information? Find me a potential suitor? Get me married to your son? Why are you interested in knowing what my caste is?” She said, “Oh, don’t be angry. I’m just making conversation.” I was like, “How about you not make conversation about what my caste is?”
That was the first time that I found myself completely reacting to this idea that this question, the persistence of this question, the toll that it takes on you. You constantly not only have to worry about being a human in this world. You also have to worry about being found out as Dalit. When I moved to the U.S., when I moved to New York, like you said, for the first time I was a brown person. I was just like any other South Asian. Back in India, I never thought of myself as an Indian.
That allowed me, like you said, within a lot of other upper-caste students, to just slip into that identity with much more ease. Also, just not having to lie about my caste every day or think about my caste every second of my existence eased a lot of burden. It made me feel immediately lighter. It made me feel that I was a person who had the potential—still at that time because I was still coming to terms with it—who had the potential of being equal to every other Indian person.
Maybe this concept that has been sold to me since the beginning of my life, that I’m inherently unequal because I’m born Bhangi, and that there is a structure that exists—maybe the structure is completely fake and irrelevant. If it doesn’t matter in the U.S., why should it matter anywhere? That’s the question that, in a way, led me on this path to questioning the validity of caste itself.
RAJAGOPALAN: Here’s what is really interesting. When I talked about the huge cost that you paid, or the price that you paid for the burden of hiding your identity, I think what I was trying to get at was somewhere—because you are hiding your caste identity, and you’re hiding it because the world will judge you differently; they will judge you as lesser than the others—somewhere in that entire process, while trying to convince everyone else and mimicking them and so on, you’ve somewhere also convinced yourself that you are lesser.
It’s a really strange thing how you have internalized two aspects of being Dalit the way the world views it. One is shame, and the other is that somehow you are not as good as everyone else. Now, what is the journey going from a point of shame and being lesser to going to a point of pride and claiming equality? What made that happen? Because that didn’t happen overnight when you put up your Facebook post. That journey is a long one, right?
DUTT: Yes, absolutely. You very rightly identified the two strands: the fact that I needed to be ashamed for who I was, and the fact that I wasn’t equal. But if I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid, I wouldn’t be subverting my caste. The reason that I was trying to escape it was because I saw it as a real and present structure, a real and present living organism around me. It was made alive by people who lived in the societies that we live in, by people in India, by people in Indian societies.
The fact that caste is a reality is because people believe it is a reality. If we understand caste to be the reality, and I have a place in that system, and if that place in the system is the lowest of the low, then of course I’m going to believe that I’m not equal.
That’s why I will make every effort I can to try and subvert that. I will try and increase that level. If I’m at the bottom, then I will try and not be at the bottom. But in order to make that effort, I have to believe I’m at the bottom first, and of course, I did. We all do. Not the Dalits, hopefully, who have read Ambedkar, who don’t believe in the reality of the caste.
Honestly, at some point, I feel envious that they were able to achieve that enlightenment while still being in India. For me, that wasn’t entirely possible. I still believed that I was inherently not worthy. I was inherently not equal.
The way I was raised, I was raised with this reality that people who were relatives of mine, people who came to the house, people I was related to as my first cousins or my first cousins’ parents—they were still engaged in manual scavenging work. I had to deal with the reality that that is my family. And that identity, the fact that that is my family, that idea was steeped in shame.
We were always encouraged to not discuss it with anybody else outside. If I was already hiding my family from the outside world, then of course I would be shameful about it. That process continued throughout my childhood, carried well into college years in St. Stephen’s and, in a way, with my job.
But thankfully, I was able to leave my hometown, move to Delhi. Like with coming to New York, when I got some distance from where the whole reality around me was based on my caste, when I came to Delhi, I had this opportunity to become a different person, to create my own reality in some way.
The idea of passing, the idea of hiding who I am—that took an enormous amount of effort. That took a huge toll on my emotional well-being, my mental health, my physical well-being. The physical toll of being constantly ashamed of the body that you live in is enormous.
I lived with that the entire time I was in India. Of course, the intensity of it reduced as I worked more as a journalist, as I progressed in my career, as I drew some worth and value in the work that I was doing. But the shame didn’t completely leave until I was able to challenge that idea that caste is a false reality, that it’s a farce, that it is an artificial system. Until I saw that, I was not able to fully make that transition from shame to pride.
Honestly, for me, that transition happened only after I read Ambedkar. In my Facebook note, I talk about trying to cultivate pride from the shame that I had experienced, but I wasn’t fully there yet. Only now, in the process of writing the book, in the process of speaking to other Dalit people, in the process of reading Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and how he refused to see caste as anything more than fiction.
He fought for unconditional equality of Dalits. While other people in the religion were saying—including Gandhi, who was saying, “Well, you’re children of God. You’re better than everyone else”—he said, “I don’t want to be better. I don’t want to be reduced to a godlike state or a childlike state. I just want to be equal, and I want the same power and the same privilege that you have because that’s what absolute equality means.”
When I read that, that was the turning point for me. That is when I was fully able to accept the pride in my identity, see the struggle that my ancestors, my forefathers, my foremothers had gone through to allow me to be at this point today.
I don’t think the transition is ever complete. I can definitely speak for myself and not for other Dalit people, but for me, it’s an ongoing process. I still have to remind myself every day that it’s not my fault. It’s the fault of the system that I’m born in that makes me feel ashamed for just being born.
Intersectionality of Caste and Gender
RAJAGOPALAN: There’s a second aspect to your story, which is the intersectionality between being born Dalit and being female.
I often have this conversation with my male friends or my husband on how we can both be in the exact physical space and experience it completely differently. Now, there is an additional layer to this when it comes to Dalit women, which is, already Dalits are dehumanized in a big way, and we spoke about that, but in the case of Dalit women, more specifically, they are literally treated as property.
Property in two ways. One is where they are the property of their family and their husbands, and this is an old Hindu tradition across all castes. Second, they’re also the property of upper-caste men because they just assumed, like slavery in the United States, that they own the Dalits who work on their fields or work on their farms, and by extension, therefore, they own the women that are married into those families.
Now in the modern—I say “modern,” but in your experience, when you were in Delhi University or when you were growing up and then became an adult in India, what was different about being a Dalit woman?
DUTT: When it comes to these experiences, I want to say that every Dalit story is a unique story on its own. Every Dalit woman, depending on her location—whether it’s urban, semi-urban, rural location—depending on her cultural location, depending on her class location, they have different experiences when it comes to their gender.
Of course, we know, coming from India, that being from a certain class completely changes the way gender is considered or looked at or treated, which is not to say the effects of gender don’t exist, but it just looks and feels different. The experience that I had growing up definitely is not the experience that young girl in Hathras had when she was raped by upper-caste men and then eventually murdered.
Being Dalit looks different, feels different in different parts of the country, and each of those stories are valid and deserve to be heard, and we need to know about them. As far as my experience—and this is purely an experience from an urban point of view—where I am already somebody who is hiding my caste rather effectively, I am passing as an upper-caste person, and the only people who know my caste are my closest friends, sometimes not even those.
So, my personal experience with gender looked very similar to any other so-called upper-caste person who was also a woman or femme-presenting. Our experiences looked very similar. We had the same experience of going in the bus and being sexually harassed, being catcalled on the street, being looked at as property. But the charge of the caste that I was from came from within, at least in my case, where it felt that it was a direct result of the shame that I was forced to experience as a result of my Bhangi origins.
In an effort to subvert that, I was also forced to subvert any aspects of my sexuality, for example, or my ability to date people, or my desire to be with anybody. That was always clouded by this forced purity where, if you are a Dalit person, you’re a Dalit woman trying to subvert caste, you are trying to also subvert, in a way, this generational sexual expectation that you are inherently more sexually available if you’re a Dalit.
This is a slightly complex and nuanced perspective, especially in my case, but I was doing a lot more internal work than just how it looked on the outside because at that time, I was passing pretty effectively. In my relationships that I did have in Delhi, they were always fraught with, “What if they find out? If they find out, will they accept me?”
I remember the person I was dating when I told him, at that time, that I am Dalit. The way I told him was that I was revealing this extremely shameful secret, and if he decided to not be with me because of that, that would be totally okay because there is something so wrong and so fractured about me that if somebody were to just not want to be with me because I was Bhanghi, I would understand.
I was 19 at that time, and this is possibly the first time I’m speaking about this on record, but that is where I was in life. Men and women, especially in heterosexual relationships, already have a hugely imbalanced power dynamic. Being Dalit, being Bhangi skews that already-skewed power dynamic even further. It makes you more vulnerable to emotional abuse, to physical abuse, to mental abuse.
It makes you feel that if your partner decides to treat you a certain way, that is okay because you are already ashamed of who you are, and they are doing you a favor by being with you. My relationships clearly were not great until I had made peace with my own Dalit identity, and I had the misfortune of being with people who completely took advantage of that fact.
Only now, I feel okay enough to even talk about this aspect of my life, but of course, it affected me enormously. My friends couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t leave that relationship. It’s because somewhere I felt that he was doing me a favor. An upper-caste man was doing me a favor by just wanting to be with a Bhangi woman despite knowing her caste, and that’s the level of shame that existed inside me. That was only because I was Bhangi.
Persistence of Caste Endogamy
RAJAGOPALAN: Even in progressive circles in India, and the sort of circles I imagine you and I would run in in Delhi, for instance—the kinds of jobs we had or the people we met—even today, the perception when it comes to breaking endogamy, both religious and caste, it’s insurmountable.
If you look at the research on this, only about 5% of Indians marry outside their caste, and this trend has been stable for the last five, six decades. The perception still is, “Oh, it’s great to date and have fun with whoever you want, irrespective of identity, but at the end of the day, everyone marries within their caste.”
I recently learned that this has also permeated parts of Indian subculture which it really should not be in, like the LGBTQ community. My friends from the queer community tell me that caste endogamy is very prevalent. There are many people, especially within the Dalit members of the LGBTQ community, who feel that gay marriage should not be legalized very early in India because it will immediately institutionalize the caste identity part of it.
This is a firsthand instance told to me by a friend of mine, that at the Pride parade in Chennai a few years ago, my friend was trying to meet with a potential date, and the meetup point was a vegetarian restaurant because that was code for “We’re all Brahmin, right?.” That’s the code word or the way the signal went.
On Tinder profiles and things like that, people explicitly put their caste and the caste that they want to date. How does one make the shift to break endogamy—not three generations ago, but today?
DUTT: Absolutely. I’m not at all surprised, and I have heard similar instances from Dalit queer folks when they say that caste is a huge reality in the community, especially since the movement has gained a lot of visibility in the past couple of years. Just because somebody has a certain sexual orientation doesn’t necessarily make them caste agnostic or anti-caste.
A way to think about caste when it comes to arranged marriages is that you have to wonder why your parents are obsessed with deciding who you should marry. You have to question what is the investment that Indian parents have versus other cultures in the world, where they want to have a say in who their child is going to marry?
Of course, they code it with words like a good family, good background. “We want your life to be settled.” But why is it that they insist on similar backgrounds? What are they saying when they’re saying about similar backgrounds? They’re talking about caste. Like you said, 5% of marriages in India are intercaste, but we have to pay attention to what are the caste aspects of those unions?
For example, is it between a Brahmin and a Kshatriya? Are we calling that an intercaste marriage when two upper castes decide how liberal they are—they don’t want to marry a Brahmin but they want to marry a Kshatriya? Or a Bania person is okay marrying somebody from another Bania caste? Is that what we’re calling intercaste, or is our lens looking at how many people are okay with marrying Dalit folks? How many people are okay with going against their families and possibly choosing their own partner?
Growing up, I’m sure you know—and it still exists in India—where there is a whole theme, like you said, that “I want to marry this person, but my parents won’t allow it.” What is it that the parents are not allowing?
The parents are not allowing us to choose our own partner because they are worried. They might not consciously be worried, but subconsciously the messaging is, “If you choose your own partner, how are we going to continue propagating caste?” Where is caste going to be if everybody marries who they want with attraction, with love, with compatibility, versus by caste?
Where is the society with this whole idea of caste differentials, caste power structures, caste superiority? How will we maintain the purity of that if Dalits start marrying non-Dalits or upper-caste people? Because the kids that are born out of that union—it’s very hard to decide what caste they are from. Because the way purity versus pollution works, especially within the caste context, is that if you add a Dalit person to the mix, it “pollutes” the blood. The blood is polluted.
That means, if you allow for intercaste marriages, then in a few generations everybody will be so-called Dalit. That’s what upper-caste society, in general, doesn’t want to happen. That’s why there are such extreme parental controls, especially for choosing their partners, especially with not giving women the choice to find their own partners. What we are doing is that the burden of the honor of the family is placed on the woman, is placed on her reproductive system.
Of course, the burden of caste is also placed on the woman because there is a saying—growing up, at least that’s what I heard—that if you give your daughter to another caste, that’s what she belongs to.
There’s a huge effort to make sure that your kids are not marrying whoever they want and are staying within the caste, so it doesn’t dilute the power structures that upper-caste people are so comfortable with and want to make sure that they keep existing in the same way that they have existed for the last thousand years, which is why you have to question arranged marriages instead of just tacitly understanding that as a part of Indian culture.
It is so deeply embedded. Caste superiority and the maintenance and preservation of caste structures is so deeply embedded with arranged marriages that people don’t even think about this connection. People just say arranged marriage is a way of life in India. What they’re saying is caste preservation is a way of life in India.
This goes back to the earlier point I was making about how skillfully invisible caste is. A lot of people defend arranged marriages, and we know the defenses—that they last longer supposedly. Also, that if you get too much freedom, then you’re not compatible with your partner. What they’re saying is you are threatening a caste structure.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, because once we give you the choice, then you can take the whole system down.
This connection between endogamy and caste, as in endogamy as this systemic way of maintaining caste structures and, of course, also the patriarchy—Ambedkar has talked about this. This has been an important strand in Dalit literature for the last hundred years.
There are many aspects of Dalit discrimination that one can legislate against. You can bring in reservations. You can bring in constitutional equality. There are lots of things that can be done top-down, but it is very difficult to legislate on marriage, almost impossible.
What is the way out, then, to break endogamy? That is the practice or the system that holds this whole farce together. How does one get out of it? Because you would think that as India gets richer, endogamy would reduce. That has not happened in India. You would think, as India urbanizes, endogamy would start breaking down. That has not happened in India. You would think, as women start getting more educated, endogamy would break down. That has also not happened in India.
Now, it’s possible that I’m only looking at the last six decades, and that’s been a very stable trend. Maybe when we think about caste, 60 years is too little because the institution just goes back hundreds and thousands of years. How do you think about this? It doesn’t seem like there’s a very easy bottom-up solution to this problem.
DUTT: Of course, there is no easy solution because you can’t tell people who to get married to.
Also, I do want to go back to what you said about you would think that urbanization, modernization, accumulation of power and being a developed nation would make sure that India gets rid of caste. I want to challenge that and say that’s not the case because India, as a country which is run by upper-caste people, does not want to get rid of caste because that’s how it maintains its power. That’s how caste structures thrive and have continued to thrive. That’s what we’ve been talking about.
The fact that India will suddenly become urban, and women will get more freedom to choose their partners, and they will reject their caste is a farce because that means that we are saying or implying that women don’t practice caste discrimination. Or that they are naturally invested in breaking down caste structures, which we know is not the reality because why would upper-caste women be interested in breaking down caste structures when it gives them the little power that they have to hold onto it?
When the anti-Mandal protests took place—which is, we know, the Mandal Commission, this commission that wanted to extend reservation to many other castes outside of Dalits—the protests that took place were led by so-called feminist factions. There were hordes of women who call themselves second-wave feminists, who paraded with posters saying, “If reservation gets instituted, how will I find a husband?”
We know, historically, that upper-caste women have worked actively to preserve power structures at home. It’s not the men who are involved in gatekeeping the kitchen and seeing who is going to come in the house versus who’s going to come in the kitchen, what plates are going to be given to Dalits, what plates are going to be given to non-upper-caste people, including Muslims.
Upper-caste men are not the ones who are instituting power on who’s going to clean the bathroom, and the person who comes to clean the bathroom—which area of the house will they be allowed in? That is the domain of upper-caste women. To say that just because women get more power, therefore we will not be a casteist country is not accurate because it’s not something upper-caste women care about. In fact, they want to actively protect that.
Coming back to your original question, you mentioned in the beginning, it’s not easy to convince people to marry outside the caste. This is nowhere a conversation that upper-caste people should marry Dalit people. That’s a conversation that’s not even worth having because it’s a personal choice. There are so many factors related to that. What we’re asking is for you to question the whole system of arranged marriages, to question your own compliance to your parents’ wishes.
Of course, the whole Indian system of parenting, which is based on guilt, which is based on shame, which is based on this parental burden—it’s effectively weaponized to make sure that these caste structures stay in place.
What Dalits and anti-caste folks, and if I can just say for myself, what I’m saying is, question arranged marriages. Don’t do us a favor; don’t marry Dalits. We don’t want you to do that. We’re not asking you to do that. But if you do choose a Dalit partner, make sure that you come from a sensibility that’s fighting against caste.
Don’t choose them, don’t be with them because you either want to showcase your woke credentials—which is a thing in India now—or you want to show how progressive you are, and then work actively to maintain your superiority in the relationship. Don’t just date somebody because it’s cool, and then go back to, ultimately, when it comes to marrying, give in to the choice that your parents have made for you.
You cannot force anybody out of endogamy. But my point is, when we make caste irrelevant, when we attack castes from outside personal choices, when we remove these pillars of caste that have existed in India—that India stands on—when we destroy those pillars, then endogamy can wither away on its own because then preserving caste will not have that much meaning.
Caste Discrimination in the United States
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to move to life in the United States. As we know, Silicon Valley is the 1% of successful Indians. The Indians are the model minority. They are very highly educated, double-income, stable families. They work in STEM and R&D, and so on and so forth. They’re very liberal.
All these wonderful things that we hear about Indians as the model minority in the United States, and yet, there is some serious caste discrimination that is taking place in Silicon Valley, where it is mostly dominated by upper castes and Brahmins. Now, as educated Dalits—first and second generation—enter higher education, are able to come to the United States, study and get these jobs, they are still not able to leave their caste behind.
Can you tell us a little bit about the nature of this kind of discrimination that is not taking place in India anymore, that is taking place in the United States, far removed from what was going on in India both in space and time, but it looks and feels very similar?
DUTT: I want to come back to—this false myth that just because we are able to access money, wealth will eradicate or erode caste is the reason that caste has been around us for so long and has become invisible. India has definitely moved leaps and bounds in economic progress in the past 60 years, but caste has not gone anywhere. Caste always has meant to be a feature of the Indian society. That’s how the society is structured. That’s how religion ordains it to be. That’s how it’s supposed to be.
Ambedkar has talked about it, and I’m paraphrasing his quote when he says that when the Hindu goes anywhere, he takes caste with him, and if the person travels, caste will become a global problem. He called it out almost 100 years ago. We are seeing that happen today among us in places like Silicon Valley. And you talk about progress. You talk about model minority, but also, the way that has allowed to exist is through this idea that we are bringing a culture from India into the United States.
Caste is coded as culture, and that’s what needs to be identified, recognized, called out and, hopefully, eradicated. When we say Indian culture, what we are also talking about outside of song and dance and Bollywood and cuisine and food is caste. That’s something that we keep missing over and over again.
When we talk about how discrimination is existing, how people are being discriminated at work, in colleges, in universities, within friend groups, this is a reality that exists in India, and it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s now a real factor in the United States because people who are coming from India come with this inherent belief that Dalits are unworthy and meritless.
This is a direct connection that we see from the schools and colleges back in India, where there is this myth propagation. They are myth propagation factories, where this idea is indoctrinated in young students’ minds that caste discrimination is not only not a thing—if Dalits are among you, they are undeserving, and they shouldn’t be here, and they’re eating or taking someone’s seat.
Then they see this discrimination, and those people come to the United States. They carry those ideas with them. They take these ideas from colleges and universities, where they’ve studied, right into the workplace in Silicon Valley tech spaces.
The American society, while being completely supportive of Indian culture, allowing that to thrive as it is—which it should—is completely ignorant of the fact that they’re also using that as a garb to practice caste discrimination. Facts like, “Oh, did you avail reservation in college?” Or just normal questions like, “Are you vegetarian?” They’re not being recognized as questions that are sussing out someone’s caste because they’re considered so normal.
If you ask somebody in Jersey or in California, “Do you practice caste discrimination?” Their answer will be no. They’ll say, “We have many Dalits friends. We never question them.” Inherently, they will be asking them if they availed reservation.
Merit and Reservations in India
RAJAGOPALAN: There are two aspects I want to discuss. One is this idea of merit. The conversation in India is, if you got in through reservation, then you must not be meritorious. That is the assumption. Linked with that assumption, therefore, comes that anyone who qualifies through the reservation system is undeserving, lesser, and therefore needs to be treated that particular way and put in place.
DUTT: Absolutely. We understand merit to be this intrinsic value that is assigned to an individual. You look at somebody. They scored something on a test. They are in a certain career and ergo there meritorious.
What we don’t see is how much access they had, how much access to prep tests. How many tuition classes were they able to go to in order to score a certain point on a certain test? Did they have electricity in their house that allowed them access to completely study the nights that they needed to before the exam?
Did they have financial hardships growing up which pulled them away from studies and forced them to help their parents and didn’t give them uninterrupted time to just focus on acing that exam? These are structural inequalities that all go towards the creation of this myth that is merit.
We know that scholars in the U.S., especially Black scholars, have talked about and deconstructed this idea that what you see as meritorious is ultimately a sum of your privileges.
When we see, back in India, how the conversation around reservation exists: “Oh, you avail of this handout from the government that you don’t deserve? That means you needed a leg up, and if you needed a leg up, that means you might not be good enough yourselves.” Therefore, it becomes a circular argument, that because you need help, that means you were never worthy in the first place, and that means Dalits are not worthy.
It becomes this circular, toxic cycle that catches Dalit students and first-generation Dalit students, second-generation Dalit students and it forces them down a path of either quitting, being completely harassed, being completely discriminated or being forced to give up their life.
We know the incident of Dr. Payal Tadvi, who was a medical student in Maharashtra two years ago. She was bullied and harassed to such an extent by her female colleagues that she committed suicide. They told her that she didn’t deserve to be in that institute, that she had no other choice but to take her own life. That’s the reality of how caste perpetuates on campuses through this argument where reservation has become this proxy for bald caste discrimination.
This is the fault of how our media educate us, how our culture educates us, how our textbooks educate us. When they talk about reservation, they don’t talk about why Ambedkar felt the need to have reservation in the first place. They just talk about how skewed it is, how unfair it is to upper-caste people and how it’s taking away opportunities and deserved seats, entitled seats from meritorious and worthy upper-caste students and giving it to unworthy and incapable, untalented Dalit students who don’t even deserve to be here because if they needed help, that means they’re not good enough.
RAJAGOPALAN: This is where, now, it starts getting very complicated and contradictory because what is happening in recent times is that it is not the Dalits asking for more reservations. It is actually the upper caste asking for more reservation.
Now, the Ambedkarite vision started with reservations for Dalits and Adivasis. Then the Mandal movement is when Other Backward Classes, OBCs, are also included in this. Then it becomes a Dalit-Bahujan movement.
Now, I don’t want to get into the tension of this because at the time when the Mandal movement was happening, there were many Dalits who felt that those who were oppressing them and were part of the structural and systemic casteism were now also being put together with them. There is that tension, but even that as given, I would still take the Dalit-Bahujan movement as a given.
Now more recently, with instances like the 103rd Constitutional Amendment, we are now trying to move towards a system where reservations will be based on social and economic backwardness. This is based on education, income, landholding—that is, wealth—and so on and so forth. In some sense, I am quite against the way reservations have played out in India presently.
We’ve created such perverse incentives that more and more groups are now clamoring for what was supposed to be a protection that was reserved for the most oppressed classes. How do we reform reservations in India in a way that the people who were originally the intended beneficiaries are the ones who actually benefit from them?
DUTT: What you’re asking me to do here is to write a 50-page paper and a book on reservation because this is one of the most divisive points of conversation in modern Indian history. If you look at culture in India, reservation will probably come up as something that divides people across class lines, across caste lines. Like you said, it’s fractured, it’s complicated, and it has become—just like the caste system in itself—this idea that no longer resembles what it was intended to be to begin with.
In fact, what I want to say is, reservation has become an allegory for casteism, especially the way it plays out in Indian universities and colleges. What I mean by that is, there are two ways to it. This is how caste has always existed. It has always existed in these diabolical spaces.
On one hand, upper-caste people are calling Dalit students untalented, unworthy, lacking merit, not deserving of being in university spaces. On the other hand, they are also clamoring to say that they want reservation. They want a leg up. They want to avail those benefits that are allegedly given out to Dalits. They can’t seem to make up their mind.
This is a point that we can pinpoint in the timeline of Indian casteism and say that casteism is beginning to become like a snake that’s eating its own tail. This is where casteism doesn’t know how it’s going to survive and keep moving forward as a structure.
This is that point in confusion that exists only because of the intervention that was made by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. When he instituted the Constitution, he instituted a provision for SCs and STs—like you mentioned—Dalits and Adivasis, to allow them access to get into university spaces. The reason he did that is because Dalits and Adivasis were the ones who were barred from accessing education.
Let’s not lose sight of what this is. This is a war on education because upper-caste folks—there are instances when they would pour lead down the throat of Dalit people if they spoke Sanskrit Shlokas, or they would burn their books. They would do whatever it takes. I know that certain Dalit students in certain parts of the country, at least in pre-independence India, had their fingers broken when they decided to write.
RAJAGOPALAN: Ambedkar had to sit outside the classroom to be able to access any education, right? He talks about this, that if the peon didn’t show up on a particular day, he would have to go without water because he wasn’t allowed to touch the water jug. That was a long time ago. It is very similar today in a lot of places.
DUTT: Absolutely. It’s not just Ambedkar. It’s any student who is Dalit and rural in a certain part of the country, in many parts of the country today as well, when they’re not allowed to touch the same water tap. This is something I’ve written about in the book as well. There was a professor in one of the prestigious universities in India who created an entire well, a well of water for himself so he could have unfettered access to pure water without Dalits polluting it.
This idea of reservation was instituted to allow Dalits access to educational systems which he knew would not give it willingly. Dalits would not be given the option to study if it was just left to the devices and benevolence of upper-caste people. That’s why he thought it was necessary to institute a system that would guarantee that Dalits would be a part of this.
This was based on who was denied education to begin with, and why it is important to have a legal provision to make sure that that portion of the society exists in these spaces and has the opportunity to grow and prosper and leave their caste-ordained professions.
But now, the debate around reservation has become a debate around economic handouts or fees reimbursement or somebody who doesn’t have enough money to go to college. That’s not what reservation is. It’s not a fee-reduction program. It’s a policy to institute social justice and hope to remedy the wrongs of casteism.
Instead of having upper-caste people creating a reservation berth for them, what the government should be doing is creating more scholarships because no one’s going to tell a poor Brahmin kid that you cannot come and study in this college. The only thing that will stop that poor Brahmin kid from studying in that particular college is not having access to money. What they need is more scholarships. What they need are economic benefits. They don’t need affirmative action because no one is stopping them.
Casteism doesn’t know where to go now. Dalits have started pointing out how we have been structurally oppressed by instituting policies like reservation when Dalits are standing up for themselves, upper-caste people are saying, “We are oppressed, too, because we are poor.”
That’s not what reservation’s about, to begin with. Again, I want to go back to saying this is very intentional. The fact that the real origins of reservation are so muddied and so obscured and complicated is so that the real reason why it was instituted can never come into the light.
RAJAGOPALAN: What is the way out? Do we need to start it much earlier than college and jobs? Given the kind of casteism that took place in University of Hyderabad and the consequences for Rohith, should we be thinking about, as Dr. Ambedkar had suggested, scholarships for Dalits to study abroad? And that is a way out of the casteism that is systematically structured in Indian universities?
What are some of the ways by which we can think of reforming reservations? I want to have this conversation with you because right now, the question is always “Are you for reservations or are you against reservations?” The question is never “Is it working as it was intended? And is it actually working well, or are there still lots and lots of problems to be solved?”
DUTT: I think there is a need to reform reservation. Reservation is now co-opted and appropriated by the oppressors. If you want to reform reservation, what needs to first happen is for us to clarify, in my opinion, and understand its origins for us to have a proper dialogue about educating people about what the hell reservations are. I don’t think people understand what reservations are. They think that this is an unfair advantage to SCs and STs, who they think don’t even deserve it.
If we are really serious, then what we first need to do is demystify reservation and remove it from the so-called myth that this is a handout. What we first need to do is understand what reservation is, why it was instituted and how those Dalit students who avail reservation, how they are being treated in schools and colleges and universities.
The word “reservation” and “availing”—that in itself has become a flashpoint. It’s become a flashpoint for discriminating against Dalit students. Now people say you’re a quota student. That means you are not talented. That means I will give you less marks. That means I will use that as an opportunity to harass you.
Like I’ve said in my previous answers, reservation is now a casteist tool. If we want to reform it in some way, the first thing to do is to go back to its origins and set up and institute policies that protect Dalit students, Adivasi students who currently avail reservation.
Role of Non-Dalits in the Dalit Movement
RAJAGOPALAN: What should upper-caste Indians be doing? I wrote a column on this, on how, when it comes to something like the Black Lives Matter movement, you see Americans across racial lines standing together against a particular kind of tyranny and against a particular kind of oppression. When it comes to the Dalit movement in India, it is apparently only the responsibility of Dalits. It has no outside support, and it has no outside representation.
I spoke to Chandra Bhan about this, and he said, “We need a civil rights movement in India where upper class also participate.” I couldn’t be more in agreement. Now, what is an appropriate way for upper castes to engage in a Dalit movement without appropriating it, but supporting it?
DUTT: Yes, I do want to say about how upper-caste folks in the U.S. and back in India are all for Black Lives Matter. The reason that exists is because it’s solely with the effort of Black activists.
When we speak about upper-caste people in the U.S. and back in India and their support for Black Lives Matter, we have to take in context the humongous effort of Black activists, Black feminists, Black scholars, who have generated this entire movement, the civil rights movement in the ’60s to Black Lives Matter today. They are the ones, the power of Black ideas that they have pushed themselves and etched a space for themselves in the mainstream in a very similar way, which doesn’t want them to exist in there.
They have forced people to pay attention to them, and that’s why they have turned this moment into one of extreme urgency. It’s complete credit to them that they made Black Lives Matter this movement that became a litmus test for, in many ways, to you being a racist versus not being a racist or, in effect, just being a human being. It’s because of the efforts of the Black folk in the United States who made that powerful moment possible.
It doesn’t mean that upper-caste people are inherently, in India or in the U.S., for social justice because they’re supporting Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter has become a flashpoint, a litmus test for your woke origins, but that doesn’t mean that the activism cannot be performative.
In fact, from a Dalit perspective, I’m very skeptical of their support to BLM because if you are that progressive, then how can you see the issues that exist with racist structures in the U.S. but not see the same caste structures that exist in your own homes? How are you blind and mute to that?
If you understand racial justice and social justice so well, how do you not see what’s happening in your own backyard? When it comes to allies and upper-caste people saying, “We want to be a part of the movement,” I think the movement begins with themselves. The movement begins with questioning everything that’s around them with the caste system.
RAJAGOPALAN: Their homes, their dinner conversations.
DUTT: Not just dinner conversations. Their lives, their festivals, the way they are raised, the way they are a part of this world is because of who they are in terms of their caste. Are we willing to have that conversation? The civil rights movement in India, when it comes to Dalits, is a completely different aspect. What first needs to happen is for upper-caste folks to recognize their own privilege.
Once they’re able to do that, only then we can expect any sort of allyship. Nobody’s looking for performative woke points from upper-caste people who throw in buzzwords like Savarna privilege and caste privilege, and then score brownie points and say, “Well, look at us. We are very progressive.” This kind of fake progressivism has been a tenet of Indian societies since the ’50s. This is not new.
We know the secular liberal people, even on the left, who have these extreme radical ideas when it comes to class consciousness but refuse to look at caste in a similar way. Their solidarity is fake. The solidarity is rooted in maintaining their own power structures, maintaining their own privilege, while making—
RAJAGOPALAN: Virtue signaling.
DUTT: —virtue signaling while showing it to the rest of the world about their progressive origins. That is really empty, and it doesn’t help anybody. If you really want to be helpful, question your own origins, question your family members, question arranged marriages, endogamy, land ownership—the way you’ve had it—and then talk about allyship with Dalits. Do the work within yourselves before you look outside because you are perpetuating that power structure first.
RAJAGOPALAN: I have a couple of quick questions. One is what is your next project?
DUTT: Honestly, the project that I have in mind is how to survive in the U.S. while being a writer and an immigrant, and having a day job, and how to continue having a voice because my big project as of now is to just create a space for Dalit writing in the U.S. They are happy to throw us some scraps here and there, but there is really no space for this kind of ideology.
When the BAPS story happened and I approached a couple of news organizations, they told us that they had too many India stories. They didn’t want to touch Dalit issues. They didn’t want to touch caste.
My project is how to survive. I think I’m not at the position where I can rest easy and say, “Oh well, I’m looking at this long-term project that I’m going to be engaged in.” I’m just looking at survival at this point. Hopefully, there’ll be a book in the future, but I do want to keep writing more about Dalit issues.
What’s urgent to me right now is to bring “Coming Out as Dalit” to the United States because this ignorance that mainstream U.S. societies have towards what’s really going on in Indian societies just next to them is bleeding into Dalit folks trying to get their voices heard. So, my next big project is for a publisher to come on board and publish “Coming Out as Dalit” and make it accessible to people in the country because I do know for a fact that it is being taught in several universities, and students don’t have access to the book.
RAJAGOPALAN: What is your writing process?
DUTT: I’m a journalist at heart, so I chase deadlines. I wish I could be one of those writers who said, “I wrote every day,” but I write out of necessity. I write when there’s a deadline. When I got the deadline for the book, I sat in the same chair which I still have in my room. I’m sitting on it right now.
I sat there and wrote 1,000 to 1,200 words every weekday for three years. It was extremely difficult, but I told myself that that was the only way to get this done, and having never written a book before, coming blind into this process, I just didn’t know how it would emerge. It was almost like creating words when none existed, creating a sculpture, creating an art film. I dove into it headfirst and just continued chipping away one block at a time. The book finally wrote itself in three years.
Also, I want everybody to remember that it is not easy being a writer. Writing doesn’t pay. Freelance writing does not pay. You’ll be doing this with some kind of part-time job. If you don’t have material resources outside of it, you will be balancing a lot of things. It’s not going to be easy, so I would request everybody to have a backup plan when it comes to having money. Writing is important, but so is being alive and having food on your table.
Writing will not pay any of your bills, but it’s a labor of love. It’s important, and it’s crucial, and it is the way for us to get ourselves heard, so I would also say don’t give up on it. Be realistic in how you approach this process.
RAJAGOPALAN: Now, my last question, what I think is the most important during the pandemic—what have you been binge-watching?
DUTT: Oh. [laughs] I had a difficult, complicated relationship with television in the pandemic whereas, for a lot of people, binge-watching shows came naturally—things that were in their lists for a long time. They just dove back into it. I could not deal with anything that made me think or that made me feel anxious. I could not watch “The Handmaid’s Tale” or any of these dark, heavy and critical shows.
I’ve always been very interested in queer culture. I think I’ve seen all the LGBT documentaries on Netflix. I’ve definitely seen every episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” I’ve been watching “Legendary” on HBO, which is back. Old reruns are always a favorite. But nothing that’s been on top of people’s lists, unfortunately. Now I’m really embarrassed for me.
RAJAGOPALAN: [laughs] Thank you so much for doing this, Yashica. This was a pleasure.
Thanks for listening to Ideas of India. If you enjoy this podcast, please help us grow by sharing with like-minded friends. You can connect with me on Twitter @srajagopalan. In the next episode of Ideas of India, I speak with Krish Ashok about food, music and technology.