‘Coming Out As Dalit’: Why It’s Important That Every Indian Reads Yashica Dutt’s Memoir

‘Coming out as Dalit' should be mandatory reading for all Indians, because we need to understand that the caste system is still alive, and that by merely pretending it is no longer relevant, we cannot wish it away.

“The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living”, wrote a doctoral scholar in his final letter. Rohit Vemula called his life a “fatal accident”, but his death shook up the nation. People who chose to ignore how Dalits were discriminated against in educational institutions were forced to confront reality.

It was against this backdrop that a Dalit post-graduate student was forced to confront the fact that she had tried to “pass” as upper caste all her life, and to decide if she wanted to continue to do so. Coming out as Dalit is part memoir, part a snapshot of what it means to be Dalit in India, and of the different kinds of oppression that a Dalit endures.

Yashica Dutt was born into a family that prioritised an English medium education, and saw that as a way to escape into relative prosperity. Her mother was obsessed with just two things- keeping up appearances so nobody would suspect they were anything but upper caste, and ensuring that each of her three children got the best possible education. The family often did without basics, but their education was never compromised.

Having to be on guard all the time to hide her caste

Yashica Dutt was always conscious of the weight of expectations on her, and she ensured she was the best in everything she took on. Her drive and her mother’s ambition ensured she got admission into St. Stephans. A critic would argue that those struggles are common to every family which doesn’t have a reliable income, and yet doesn’t want to compromise on the education of their children.

While there is some merit in the statement, the fact still remains that Yashica Dutt had to deal with the mental trauma of having to be on her guard all the time so her caste would remain hidden.

While we who are of the privileged castes tend to dismiss the existence and/ or relevance of caste in the English speaking middle class world, Yashica Dutt gives several examples of times when she was asked her caste in unambiguous terms, and was forced to give evasive answers to escape being found out. This is something most people choose to ignore, because they have privilege to do so. Yashica Dutt had to be on her guard all the time, because she didn’t want to face the discrimination she knew she would be subject to if she was “found out”.

The personal IS the political

Where the book really shines is when the author goes beyond the personal and into the political. Though anecdotes, data and analysis, she shows how discrimination and oppression permeates every aspect of the life of a Dalit.

While upper caste people spin the narrative that reservation is a form of ‘reverse discrimination’ against them, she shows how a disproportionate percentage of jobs are occupied by people belonging to the upper caste, and leaves it to the reader to question whether that is justified. In educational institutions, students are discriminated against, even by professors and administrators. They are ragged mercilessly and subject to taunts and jibes. Most find it difficult to get academic guides, and stipends are often held up as in the case of Rohit Vemula. The same pattern repeats itself when seeking jobs- Dalits do not have access to powerful networks and often get passed up for promotions.

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Socially, Dalits are ostracised. In fact, the book starts with the author narrating how her grandfather was not allowed to proceed towards his wedding seated on a horse, because that was something a person belonging to the Dalit community was not permitted.

The chapter on the increased vulnerability of Dalit women was chilling. Though all women are vulnerable to sexual violence, Dalit women are far more likely to be victims of sexual assault. Worse, they have little, if any, recourse to the law, and the complaint is likely to be dismissed even before filing the case.

Coming out as Dalit’ should be mandatory reading for all Indians, because we need to understand that the caste system is still alive, and that by merely pretending it is no longer relevant, we cannot wish it away. The book empowers us to counter, with data and well thought out examples, the argument that the caste system does not exist.

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Image source: book cover Amazon

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

94 Posts | 109,849 Views

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