I finally spoke to my mum in Ajmer, and told her about the overwhelming reaction I have received for sharing my blog earlier this week, titled Today, I'm coming out as Dalit. She broke down immediately.
It was her first release from the shame of being Dalit. She and my Dad remembered how my great-grandfather was forced to step down from a bicycle he was riding at Badi Chopar in Jaipur in the '50s. Because then, if you were Dalit, you couldn't ride on one. Or keep a moustache. Or wear a Jodhpuri suit. And a few blocks later, he got back on and rode on it anyway. And kept a moustache and wore a Jodhpuri suit too.
I had heard this story several times while growing up. This was the first time I sensed pride in it. Along with the realization that my history was not so tainted, after all. I told them how someone on Twitter had called me a "Rich Bitch", because how else would anyone dare to express their individuality, unless they were rich? Mum reminded me how we grew up anything but, and how I used the dreaded "quota" not to secure an admission at the undergraduate college I attended, but for a scholarship of Rs 3,000, to pay the annual fees. I told my friends about the man whose aggressive tweet got several RTs for calling me a bimbo. Because I had the audacity to borrow the terminology of "coming out" from the discourses of homosexuality. Never mind that coming out simply describes a disclosure of one's true self. "These Dalits, they already have so much! Why the melodrama?" one tweet screamed. "Lol, bitch. Sit down, no cares," read another comment, ironically representing the same voices that had made me speak up, and tragically forced Rohith Vemula to take his own life in Hyderabad earlier this month.
Some wanted to know if I had taken advantage of the reservation system, because if I did, I already had more than I deserved. What more did Dalits deserve anyway? Certainly, not pride. A lady who sounded more like a primary school teacher instructing a five-year-old, rather than one writer addressing another, chastised me: "This is great. But upper castes shouldn't be made to feel ashamed." Does removal of Dalit shame automatically translate to the shaming of upper castes? Or imply that it has to transfer from Us to Them to restore balance? Is this guilt that comes with a millennia of oppression - or just caste-based prejudice?
I also received emails that applauded my effort to come out but reminded me that none of it matters until I "expand my mind and talk about #HumanDiscrimination" instead of focusing on #DalitDiscrimination. Why was I being told what to talk about, instead of being allowed the freedom to decide myself? And why was it wrong to focus on just 'one kind of discrimination'? Doesn't that make for a more detailed, nuanced discourse? Why shouldn't we talk of the difficulties Dalits face, generated exclusively by societal differences that are impossible to overcome? I was also accused of being Yashica Dutt "from the USA, who was trying to make it cool to be a Dalit". And Hell, yes, I was. Wouldn't you want to associate with your identity if it was considered cool? Millions of Dalits would too.
However, that was all but a tiny, negative speck of the reaction I received. Sure, there was some bitter caste rage, which probably hadn't found its release elsewhere, and had made my heart jump with every hateful tweet. But each time that happened, I got an email from someone who had read my story and had felt the same way. Or a Facebook message from an old colleague who could never revealed his/her Dalit identity and wondered what made me do it. I got stories from people like me, those who could pass as non-Dalit, and from those who couldn't. There were also those who refused to hide and defiantly carried their lower caste as a golden badge of honor. I received experiences that happened in elite business institutions, engineering colleges, and offices of software companies. Instances that seemed trivial, but were sharp enough to slice someone's pride to pieces. A mocking laugh, a scathing judgment or a glass of water that went untouched because it came from inside a Dalit house, had become watershed moments that distorted people's perceptions of themselves, perhaps forever.
Someone asked if I hoped anything would change. I didn't know what to tell her then. But when I saw the tweets, messages and emails from ALLIES, people who wanted to help in any way they can, I knew. This was change already. People who never realized their higher caste privilege, admitted to instances when they had unknowingly judged someone by their last name or the deeper tan of their skin. People who never "thought about it that way" started thinking. Those who didn't know "this existed amidst us" begun to realize that caste was still an issue in villages AND in the cities. The conversation has already changed online. Caste is now being commonly discussed on Facebook, and beyond.
Rohith Vemula has already created the change he should have lived to see.
Read these stories on dalitdiscrimination.tumblr.com. And share if you have any.
(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.)
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