Ever since I read The Essential Writings of BR Ambedkar last summer, I’ve been trying to read Bahujan literature in order to learn more about the caste system and how it continues to affect the lives of millions of people in India. It is perhaps disheartening that many of us know more about movements like #BlackLivesMatter than about the injustice and atrocities that are being perpetuated in our own country.
I recently read somewhere online that systemic racism doesn’t imply that the system is full of racists. Rather it means that the system leads to differential outcomes based on race. In India, the same can be said about the caste system. The below passage from Coming Out As Dalit highlights how systemic casteism plays out in India:
To quote directly from the book’s inner jacket, ‘In Coming Out As Dalit, Yashica Dutt recounts the exhausting burden of living with the secret and how she was terrified of being found out. She talks about the tremendous feeling of empowerment she experienced when she finally stood up for herself and her community and shrugged off the fake upper-caste identity she’d had to construct for herself.’
I found the book to be incredibly engaging right from the very beginning. In the prologue, Yashica shares how she came across Rohith Vemula’s letter when the news of his suicide broke out in 2016. Latter when she comes across his photo, she suddenly realizes that she’s seen the same photo before. He had sent her a friend request on Facebook two weeks before he committed suicide. ‘And I had deleted THAT request, I thought with dismay, a request from someone in whose life I so easily saw my own.’ Soon after this, she started a Tumblr page called ‘Documents of Dalit Discrimination‘ in which she shared her own experiences as well as published the stories of many others who wanted their stories to be heard and shared.
A topic that often comes up in the book is that of reservations in educational institutions and government jobs. She highlights how students who avail reservations are often mocked, ridiculed and made to feel unwelcome. In her words, ‘But most Indians failed to see the irony in demanding compensation for nearly 200 years of colonial rule while refusing any reparation for thousands of years of discrimination against their own citizens.’ She quotes senior policy analyst Shikha Dalmia, ‘If paying collective reparations for collective guilt is appropriate then how about India ‘atoning’ for thousands of years of its caste system?’ Dutt brings this up in the context of Shashi Tharoor’s famous Oxford University debate which went viral in 2015.
While studying at IIFT Delhi, I have seen for myself how, within the first few weeks of joining, many of my batch-mates used the campus portal to look up everyone’s entrance exam percentiles. They used this information to figure out which students had availed of reservation. Many of them would later go on to bitch about these students during drinking sessions while complaining about how unfair the system was and about how some people had it ‘easy’.
I recommend this book for the extremely simply but powerful way in which Yashica Dutt puts her point across about so many social issues. And yet the book feels incredibly personal. By the end of it, you can’t help but feel like you know her a bit.