What Does It Mean To Be Me, Considered An ‘Elite Dalit’ Woman In India?

Posted: January 29, 2019

This is my experience as Dalit woman in India, someone who gets judged for being an ‘elite’ Dalit woman. I argue here, that ‘Elite Dalit’ is an oxymoron, and why it is so.

“You should write about your Dalit experience,” said my friend, “your elite Dalit experience,” to which I almost nodded in agreement, instantly realizing how furious it made me.

Yes for a Dalit woman, I live a very privileged life, but what does my privilege exactly include? As far as I know I am just a regular working class educated woman living an independent life. Apparently meeting the basic requirement makes me elite, and in my case an elite Dalit woman, however, when same applied to a Savarna woman, qualifies her as a ‘normal’ girl.

Just the thought of trying to de-construct ‘elite Dalit woman’ seems daunting, it is indeed a profound, almost soul searching task, but I am ready today.

So what makes me an elite (Dalit woman) and them not so elite?

The point that I am trying to make here is that elite Dalit is an oxymoron. It is intrinsically and fundamentally against the notion of being a Dalit in an Indian society.

Yes, I accept that I am privileged when compared to other women from my community. Yes, my privilege has allowed me to enter spaces unimaginable to any Dalit, leave alone a Dalit woman.

I learnt to talk like the Savarnas, I learnt to walk like the Savarnas, I learnt to eat like the Savarnas, but I couldn’t learn to think like the Savarnas. From centuries of ostracization, no access to knowledge systems, and inadequate resources, I couldn’t think like the Savarnas. My struggle is of a very different kind, even with the badge of ‘privilege’.

My privilege led me to Savarna social circles and I ended up dating Savarna boys, one of whom I almost got married to, almost because, “joota chahe sone ka bhi ho, pehna pairon mein hee jata hai” (even if a shoe is of gold, it is put on the foot) said his parents.

Caste identity

According to Ambedkar the only way caste could be eradicated from the Indian social fabric was through inter-caste marriages; it’s 2019 and I am still not quite sure about this. For the first time ever in my life, I was suddenly slapped with this new imposed identity of mine. I recalled my mother’s words to me as a child, “beta pyar sirf bade logo (read upper caste/class) ke liye hota hai, hamare liye nahi“ (love is only for the upper caste people, not for us).

The definition of what it meant to be ‘us’, was once again slapped across my face 20+ years later. Over the next few years, I don’t know if I fell out of love or if that is even possible, but I was not going to be okay with being treated like a second class citizen specially in the name of love, and honestly I was way out of this Savarna boy’s league.

Economic privilege

I am also miserably judged for coming from a very cool hip family as my parents had lived abroad, and till the age of 18 I had mostly lived in and out of the country since my father was in the foreign services. Imagine a Dalit man’s experience as a diplomat. As part of the diplomatic culture, there are a lot of parties that happen. Imagine that Dalit man’s experience who has never feasted on the other side of the table, but always at the receiving end of one.

Imagine a Dalit woman’s experience, a woman, who doesn’t know how to read, write, or speak English. She had to host parties where one had to engage with the educated, the elite, the rich, and she has no idea what it meant to be either one of them.

As a kid, I would always wonder how come my parents never had any friends or a social life, so to say. As I have grown older, I have understood that it is very very difficult to engage with the world from that space of mind. Ever wondered, why Dalit, Muslims, or people from other marginalized communities live in ghettos, that’s exactly why. It feels good, it feels comfortable.

My parents have seen the world but they chose to go back to their community, because as a Dalit person, the world outside can be lonely and very alienating. Rarely does it happen that anyone understands or empathizes with your experience. On the other hand, what happens is #metoo, how brahmanical patriarchy has also ostracized brahmin women!

The Dalit body

I come from a farming or semi-farming community with people in government jobs here and there. Genetically speaking, our farming ancestry reflects in our eating habits, it reflects in the way we look, it reflects in the way we live.

I am thin, because for centuries we didn’t have enough to eat. I am thin, because when we didn’t have enough to eat, we didn’t have exquisite nani aur dadi ki recipes. Of course I can afford to dine like a pig now, but I choose not to.

I must admit though, that centuries of having a culture of very little food has made us pretty healthy people! Specially from the semi-agricultural family that I belong to, my father has always laid a great emphasis on seasonal vegetables, grains and fruits.

So, if you were to randomly pick words, like fit, organic, tall, slim, healthy, I sound like an organic tea from a chic south Delhi store, bourgeois indeed.

The world Dalit makes you uncomfortable and the word ‘elite’ makes us uncomfortable

I must confess though, that I never really felt deeply rooted in my Dalit identity. However, over the years, as I was forced to take my rose tinted glasses off, I was almost coerced to face my identity as a Dalit women in today’s time. As if fighting patriarchy wasn’t exhausting enough.

The fact that my Instagram bio reads #thirdculturekid today, is because I am a second generation reservation kid, my father cleared the SSC exams because of which I got to live the life that was given to me. Which I am certainly grateful for, otherwise there is no way you would have been reading this blog today! And as they say, “until the lions learn how to speak, history will always glorify the hunter”.

There aren’t too many public spaces, conducive spaces where I can share my Dalit experience, in fact these conversations mostly happen in really intimate settings, and writing happens to be one of those spaces.

Certainly no one in my entire family (from both sides) is educated enough. So much so that I am the first woman in the family to have completed her bachelors degree and the first person to have completed their masters.

And today I sit comfortably, at the age of 30, typing on a Macbook Air, trying to comprehend what it means to be a Dalit woman in today’s time.

First you fight racism, than you fight patriarchy, then you fight casteism. And after that you can ask me, “why the resting bitch face?”

A version of this was first published here.

Images source: the author

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