In 2016, Rohith Vemula, an Indian PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad, took his own life as a result of alleged institutional casteism in the University of Hyderabad. Vemula was a Dalit student and he penned a poignant last letter to the world, the words of which continue to resonate with students today. Somewhere in America, that same year, another Dalit student pursuing her studies at the Columbia University School of Journalism read Vemula’s letter. It would change her life.
For Yashica Dutt, Vemula’s letter was “the most poetic and beautifully written piece of Dalit writing in English”. From her New York home over Zoom, Dutt says, “The letter talked about how we as Dalits are looked merely at as statistics with no identities of our own. But, importantly, he talked of Dalits as people with aspirations and dreams, that we are made of stardusts”.
Dutt was animated by the fact that a boy, who was in the trenches, did not shy away from the fight against a system that allegedly endorsed caste politics. It got her thinking what she could do to make that small difference.
“It had a huge impact on me in the sense that it forced me to reveal my own identity to people that I was hiding it from. It was just ripping off a bandaid—that’s how powerful his last letter was,” reflects Dutt. The letter inspired her to be openly associated with anti-caste struggle, which she wasn’t earlier.
Her immediate reaction was to put out a Facebook post revealing her Dalit identity. The post went viral. This was huge for Dutt, who grew up hiding her caste and lying about her identity for over 20 years. “I come from not just a Dalit family, but a manual scavenging Dalit family known as Bhangis. As those who are aware of the caste system or have lived experience understand, that itself comes with immense shame and trauma because the stigma associated with that caste is intense.”
Dutt, originally from Rajasthan, grew up to become a journalist in the Indian capital of New Delhi, but never wrote about politics and only focussed on lifestyle and fashion because, “If I wrote about politics or explored any other ideas, I would have to make my opinion on caste apparent. And that would reveal what my caste was. I grew up scared that people would find out, which in turn, would affect my friendships and work opportunities”.
It was only when Dutt moved to the US that she got the freedom to this question of caste. She was able to experience what it means to not be constantly wondering ‘what if somebody finds out’. “That hyper vigilance that often is associated with people who are also hiding their sexual identities is something that I can say a lot of Dalit folks, who are hiding their caste, also experience.”
And Vemula’s letter came at a time when she was dealing with these experiences and discovering what it means to be a brown person in the US. After her Facebook post, Dutt decided to do something more concrete and launched a website called Documents of Dalit Discrimination where people like herself, who were hiding their identities and dealing with the trauma of caste, could tell their stories.
But to ask any Dalit to reveal his/her story, Dutt knew she had to first tell who she was. “It was a hugely personal revelation because it could ruin everything I had built and protected so dearly so far. But I did it knowing I was still in the US protected from that question somewhat,” she says, adding, “When it comes to the scale of being courageous, it’s nowhere close to what actors in India are doing right now.”
Dutt published her award-winning book Coming Out As Dalit in 2019. She says the book came out from that website. In her analysis, her story and the stories of many Dalits like her prove that caste is “amongst us and well. If it wasn’t the case, then people like me wouldn’t be hiding our caste”.
Coming Out As Dalit as been hailed as a compelling and insightful memoir. Dutt recently received India’s Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar for the book. It is an award presented annually to best literary creations by young writers. “The book is my own personal journey, a non-fiction narrative and a brief primer on caste and how it impacts the lives of all Indians today,” she says.
Dutt calls the book “a labour of love and intense effort” and one that bore fruition while negotiating life as a new immigrant, being a fresh college graduate and not having enough money—an extreme experience!
Bringing out the book inevitably gave her a sense of relief. In the book, Dutt describes how her caste felt like she was dragging a carcass on her back, one she had dragged so long that it felt it had fused with her skin. The Facebook post itself was a massive unburdening, she says. “But with the book it felt like finally I had lifted that weight off my shoulders, that dead animal of caste which had that symbolic meaning for the Bhangi caste as it is. 2019 is when the book came out and since then I am constantly unearthing and uncovering the effects of leading this double life and what it means to truly be yourself, find your voice and not be ashamed of who you are.”
To clinch her argument on why the conversation on caste is important today, she says. “We are just getting started. Caste, as a lived Indian reality even in the 21st century, is harsher than one would imagine, this is our opportunity to highlight and hold people accountable. For the first 30 years of my life, I hid that aspect of my life, now finally I have a chance to express this extreme marginalisation and atrocity that people are facing back home.”
There are also many precedents to support the argument. In America itself, where she is based now, there is a lawsuit in a California trial court that shines a light on caste discrimination. The California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing launched a lawsuit in June against Cisco, a multinational technology conglomerate corporation, for caste discrimination toward a Dalit engineer.
“The Cisco case has the potential of being a landmark case in terms of how American courts might look at caste, whether caste can become a protected category. Then people will know that like racism, gender and sexuality, caste is a form of exclusion. So far, upper caste Indians have been allowed to go unchecked which is how these two Brahmin employees of Cisco were allowed to discriminate against a Dalit engineer. Dozens of stories have since come out,” says Dutt.
Dutt, believes the publishing industry should also create that space where Dalits and everyone else can tell their stories. “Otherwise, you have this one single idea of India across the world. People just think we are a majority Hindu country with no other identities that exist.”
Asked about her future projects, Dutt says she will be continuing the journalism that she has always done and focussing on reporting on an international level around caste issues. Dutt’s works are much published in The New York Times, The Atlantic and Foreign Policy.
Rest assured, Dutt’s works will provide an invaluable resource for movement around caste and discrimination that remains to be written.
Yashica Dutt at the OzAsia Festival. Click here for more info
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“I come from not just a Dalit family, but a manual scavenging Dalit family known as Bhangis." @YashicaDutt on unravelling her #Dalit identity and caste crusade. #TheIndianSun @indira_laisram https://t.co/Z5kNlnlYyv
— The Indian Sun (@The_Indian_Sun) November 19, 2021