In her powerful new memoir, Yashica Dutt recounts her experience of coming out as Dalit
She speaks about casteist social norms and the ways in which they work within educational institutions
In 2016, the death of Rohith Vemula, a PhD scholar at the Hyderabad Central University, caused a stir, especially among people from historically oppressed castes. Among the latter was Yashica Dutt, associate creative director at advertising and marketing agency Admerasia Inc. and founder of Documents of Dalit Discrimination, an online archive, who told the world about her “hidden secret" through a Facebook note—“Today, I’m Coming Out As Dalit"—on 20 January 2016.
In her latest book, Coming Out As Dalit, Dutt elaborates on her story, shining a light on the realities of untouchability, arguments about reservations, Dalit women’s movements, casteism in universities and mainstream media spaces. Edited excerpts from a Skype interaction:
Can you tell us about your journey, from publishing a Facebook note to publishing a book?
When I came out as Dalit on Facebook, I was still in New York doing a freelance job. I got a lot of attention as several news portals picked up my story. But I was far away from the real action in India then. The feeling of publishing the book didn’t sink in until I got Facebook and Twitter messages from many people in the community. They identified with my experiences. The book gave them the courage to be seen and heard. I rewrote the book several times to make complex ideas accessible to everyone who reads it.The biggest compliment I have got so far is from my mother, whose first language is not English, and still she said she got my writing.
Were you concerned about the publishing process, given the sociopolitical aspects of getting a book deal?
I was deeply aware of whose voice gets amplified and where one needs to be situated in a certain social milieu for a publishing house to think one is worthy of attention. I have been a journalist for a decade. I hold a master’s degree in arts and culture journalism from Columbia University. People respect that kind of education. I think I got the book deal also because my topic was “hot" at the time, because Rohith Vemula created a movement for Dalit rights and Dalit narratives.
Do you think the word Dalit has gained currency in the media over the past few years?
Yes. So many Dalit journalists, like Sudipto Mondal, have been writing extensively on Dalit issues. A few upper-caste journalists, too, have written great stories. The word has been in the news, and, obviously, the rise of political movements like the Bhim Army, and the emergence of figures like Jignesh Mevani and Rohith Vemula, made an impact.
Do you think when upper-caste society talks about caste issues, it’s considered an authentic voice, more so than the lived experiences of the oppressed?
That’s how appropriation works, right? When an upper-caste person talks about caste issues, it shows how “progressive" they are. When we talk about our lives—and not just me, as I have only just started, but a lot of Dalits who have been talking about their lives for a long time—our voices are ignored.
There have been attacks on anti-caste writers. Have you received any hate for the book so far?
There are so many things they can pick from the book to attack—one of which is by saying that I am privileged and that I’m just complaining. I am nowhere comparing myself to Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd or Anand Teltumbde, who have been pioneers, and worked for years to challenge the status quo. B.R. Ambedkar’s books are still being burnt because he directly challenged Hinduism, which is the root of the caste system. At times like this, even challenging basic (policy) decisions on a national level is termed “anti-national".
How was your time at a prestigious college like St Stephen’s in Delhi?
I was 19 when I joined St Stephen’s and learnt to hide my caste. I did so as it was vital for me to be successful. I did not know if my teachers would discriminate against me. I did not know if my friends would turn against me. But I wasn’t ready to take that chance. In fact, because I was at Stephen’s (there is a larger minority reservation for Christians there), I was shielded from a lot of discrimination. If I had been at some other college under Delhi University (DU) where elections are fought, it would have been different. DU elections are fought on caste lines. Quota students get targeted and called out, certain parties try to reach out to them. They “out" their identities, not that their identities are fully unknown. When the mark sheets are put up on boards, you see the category-wise list, where a few Scheduled Caste students appear under one section. My name would also be there. I was very sheepish about it and would never talk about it to anybody.
There are many youngsters who must be feeling the way you did before coming out. What would you tell them?
I get letters and messages from young people who say they have been hiding too. There is a lot of shame about being caught as a Dalit. The only thing I would say is, the shame is not yours to bear. There is a casteist society around you that forces you to hide who you are, forces you to lie about your identity. And if you have to do that to create a life for yourself that is easier, do it. Do it without any shame. Do it without worrying you are doing something wrong.
You must also read Ambedkar, other Dalit authors, seek out ideas and perspectives that tell you your history, where you came from, why Ambedkar constituted reservation in the first place. Reading is necessary because the media and pop culture will not give us any information about us. The only information we get is that either we don’t exist, or we exist as people who don’t have talent, who are always the victims. It is important to seek out information that matches your reality, to create your own perspective. The world around you will not give you that perspective.