Ever since I came out as Dalit early last week, the outpouring of support – from friends, fellow journalists, allies, and Dalits like me – kept me going when I needed it the most. Especially, when there were so many who wanted me to sit down, shut up and disappear. They tried to blame me, break me and brutally silence my spirit. They couldn’t bear to see a Dalit be proud of her heritage, they hated being reminded of their privilege and loathed realising their prejudice. They also obviously failed to shut me up, often rather hilariously.
But I am not here begging for equality. I am taking what’s mine – my place in the society as a loud and proud Dalit, whether they like it or not.
Here’s what they tried but failed to silence me.
1. I am rich/successful/privileged and therefore have no right to complain
Privileged, yes. Rich and successful? I wish!
Obviously I am privileged, to have had three generations before me who valued education the way they did, which is what made it possible for me to pass successfully as non-Dalit, while pretending to be an upper caste. I am privileged to have had the opportunities I enjoyed – in education and in my professional life. But, shockingly, for some, even that failed to rescue me from discrimination. Neither did it save me from feeling under confident and inferior. Nor safeguard me from struggling with a dual identity, hindering me from being truly comfortable with myself.
Either way, I didn’t deserve any of this – nor did millions of other Dalits. We suffered simply because we were born at "wrong’" end of the societal spectrum.
2. That I am borrowing from western/gay rights discourse
Not only those – that I am also borrowing from the rebellious strategies of #BlackLivesMatter employed against racism in the United States.
But why wouldn’t I – when the structural similarities between white privilege and upper caste privilege are so obvious? Both are socially sanctioned and have oppressed a minority for ages, while continuing to enjoy the benefits of being at top of the social chain. And both often fail to see what "the big deal about oppression" is.
There are also others who simply can’t stand me labelling my revelation as "coming out", a term that broadly translates to disclosure of one’s true self. As with all non-heteronormative sexuality, my Dalit identity was also taboo. One that I was forced to hide for years until I decided not to, and "came out".
3. That reservation and quotas helped me get ahead, (which probably I didn’t even deserve)
Reservation and quotas did not help me to rise in my career. I helped myself – by working really hard, and learning from my mistakes, just like any other professional. In fact, reservation did not help me at all, because I scored enough marks to make the cut-off list for St Stephens’ College. All it helped me with was a small scholarship to pay the college fees.
But even if I did take advantage of the "quota", I would have fully deserved to do it. As would so many other Dalits, who are often ashamed to avail its benefits out of the fear of being discriminated against. The reservation system is far from being a "handout or a social welfare policy", to quote a precious upper caste lament against Dalits. It’s an effort to restructure years of systemic oppression of the lower castes. And as any Dalit would attest, most of this upper caste angst is not as rooted in the loss of opportunity as on the prejudiced sentiment of, “How dare these low-caste Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes do better than us, while we, the privileged upper castes struggle to succeed?”
4. That I am doing this for self aggrandisement and promotion
As a journalist, I am a story-teller. Only, this time the story I am telling happens to be my own, along with those of so many Dalits (which haven’t stopped pouring into my inbox since I came out). I am simply using personal narrative to highlight upper caste privilege and hopefully de-stigmatise the prejudices against Dalits. In other words, I am simply doing my job. (And without these ridiculous arguments, I would be able to do it better).
5. That I am blaming the Upper Castes by forcing them to acknowledge their privilege
High time someone did.
6. But what about the non-Dalit poor and those who are discriminated against for other societal factors (like a rural upbringing or an inability to speak English)?
Their stories are equally valid and deserve our attention. But those are not the stories I am choosing to tell. Because they are not mine to tell and I know nothing about those experiences. I speak what I know about. And all I know about is being Dalit.
7. That I should identify as Indian instead of Dalit
My Indian identity is evident, the colour of my skin and my nationality speak for me. But my Dalit identity was hidden for years – and for so many other Dalits it still is. Unless we associate being Dalit with pride, progress and even success, millions will continue to feel the shame I did until very recently. It’s easier for upper castes to choose their Indian identity over one that’s caste-based. Because for most part, their caste doesn’t make them suffer. There is no conflict or repercussions to them declaring their caste. And when they do, it’s delivered with a dose of smarmy pride. As Dalits, an identity we often don’t choose ourselves (because the upper castes derisively impose it on us) and generally feel no pride in, we don’t have the same option.
PS: If you have a problem with someone saying they’re Dalit without feeling any shame, you’re probably just a prejudiced casteist.
8. That being Dalit is not even an issue anymore (or not at least in the cities)
If it wasn’t, then my last week would have looked way different, and you probably wouldn’t be reading about it. Discrimination against Dalits is very real and very present, in both rural and urban areas. It just doesn’t look the same everywhere. Higher castes' refusal to marry, snide remarks about "quota" and asking someone their caste (to make it easier to discriminate if found out Dalit) are all manifestations of prejudice. As are overt examples of murder, rape and segregation that are common in rural and, often, even in urban areas.
9. That I am Christian and not Dalit
I am going to let you finish, but the debate over Rohith Vemula’s caste is already winning this round of "Stuff Upper Caste People Say".
If you are Dalit and have stories to share, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org for dalitdiscrimination.tumblr.com