The death of Rohith Vemula has sparked a debate on multiple issues. While the debate about student politics and politics has dominated headlines, what it has also sparked a debate about is what it is to be a Dalit in India 66 years after it became a republic.
While there are now reports that say Vemula may not have been Dalit, it remains a moot point to the lakhs of Dalits who still face discrimination that is sometimes overt, and otherwise surreptitious.
Journalist Yashica Dutt wrote an emotional blog about 'coming out' as a Dalit after years of having hidden it and invited other Dalits to share their stories of being discriminated against. The responses are still coming in and she's has been publishing them on her blog. Here are some select accounts:
"Do you shame a non-deserving rich person who takes your 'opportunity’?"
I was born in a community whose name itself is used as a swear word. Like Yashica, even I grew up learning to hide it. So, did my siblings. The man our father made himself, nobody could discriminate against us in the village where we lived during our early childhood, due to his knowledge of the law .
After moving to a city, we joined good schools. I observed people around didn't know of our community. Add to that our normal sounding surname, our fair skin, my “brahmin looking” face (still no idea what that means) and our excelling in class, helped us remain hidden in the crowd.
But when we were would play, I would hear my community’s name being used as a swear word. Kids who called others with that word would be beaten for insulting and using such “ugly” words to describe someone. I realized over time that people’s hatred towards SC and ST communities grew. The reason was their perceived loss of opportunities to the ‘quota’.
When I entered a big institution, I failed a course due to my paying more attention to an extra-curricular activity. This happens to a lot of people from the general category as well. But one day something happened in a canteen discussion. One of my friends said about me, “Is he needed here? He didn’t get enough marks in the entrance examination and he failed a subject too."
I had nothing to say except feeling bad. I took it as a challenge to show him and scored the highest marks in the class. But I continued feeling bad. I still do.
I still can’t come out and say I’m born in a community that’s labelled as ST. I still can’t think of myself opening up to say that I am from a community, the very name of which is considered a swear word! Here I am, hiding, telling people that I have mixed blood, partly revealing that only my great-grandmother was a tribal woman!
I’ve lived abroad, had good jobs and still, I can’t come out. I’ve supported my country all my life but I have to say it, discrimination is deep here. I chose to marry a foreigner so I don’t have to burden my kids with the caste issue, so that the work their ancestors did hundreds of years ago wouldn’t define who they are now, and I won’t face any stupidity in the name of caste from her or her family.
Some years ago, I thought I had killed my caste by getting rid of my surname but I always knew deep down, that the desire to get rid of it was there because of shaming people for being from a set of communities. The argument, that the anger among the general category towards SC and ST students is based on lack of merit, is faulty. Nobody shames a rich kid who gives donations to colleges despite having no merit like they shame people who accept reservation.
In most cases, it’s not because they care about meritorious people serving the nation. Nor is it fully over the loss of an opportunity to a non-deserving person. It’s problematic because THEIR opportunity was taken by a previously untouchable person. The modern generation may say they don’t care about caste when they speak against category students but just let me ask, do you get equally outraged seeing a recommendation or donation take your opportunity away, as you say?
I haven’t seen many that don’t fumble in answering this question. And so, I’m still hiding.
-Anon (edited lightly for clarity)
"Anyone would do but a chamar"
I did not choose my lower caste (as you didn't choose to be higher caste). I was born the same as you, with the same body and the same brain. My upbringing has been in a family where only the past 1-2 generations received an education.
The generations before were oppressed to do the scavenger’s job in your latrines and today I am trying my best to uplift not just me, but my entire family. Your disgust does bring me down and that is why most Dalits do not reveal their caste. A part of me is kiled whenever someone asks “Tum kya ho?”
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.”
There is a lot of discontent among Dalits, which is not evident because they choose to be silent. Rohith Vemula’s story is the story of every Dalit. We are humans and do not want to be socially boycotted. And that is the reason we hide our caste.
- Ankit (edited lightly for clarity)
"Then I knew why he refused to rent his house to me"
I am from Bihar, which must probably be the most caste-conscious place on Earth. Asking for your caste is the first question anyone asks on meeting when they meet you.
There were two incidents in my life when I was discriminated because of my caste. The first incident occurred in high school. My name does not hint about my caste. But my father has a caste-based last name. So my classmates didn’t know about it. We used to have lunch together and eat from each other’s lunchboxes. Then we had to fill forms for our registration in class 8 and my classmates came to know my father’s name. After that their attitude towards me changed considerably.
They started avoiding me during recess. They stopped eating lunch from my tiffin. I couldn't understand why it was happening until they teased me using my caste name. Only two of my friends continued to behave the same way as earlier.
The second incident occurred last year. I was looking for a house on rent in Patna and after searching for a week I found what I wanted. The owner agreed to rent it to me. Two days before my family and I were going to move into that house, the owner asked me to text the tenants detail for the lease papers.
I sent the name of my father with other details. After a couple of hours I received a text from the owner saying that they are not interested in giving their flat on rent because of some personal reason. A week later, when I went to that area to look for another house I saw a family moving in to that flat. Then I knew what was the reason of his refusal.
-Sidharth Shankar (born in Chamar caste but refuses to acknowledge the brahminical gradation of the society hence now says he is casteless)
Yashica Dutt is a New York-based writer covering gender, identity and culture. She was previously a Principal Correspondent with Brunch, Hindustan Times and is the founder of dalitdiscrimination.tumblr.com. All accounts have been re-published with her permission and lightly edited for language.