Rohith Vemula, the Dalit scholar from Hyderabad Central University who took his own life on January 18th, wanted to write about the stars. His mind was a ‘glorious thing made of stardust’, whose proof he left in his last letter to the world. In life, his education – a chunk of it financed by his mother’s earnings as a tailor – was an act of rebellion. In death, he blazed a trail on Dalit rights, whose brightness refuses to be ignored. By the media, by the bureaucracy, by the Internet and by me.
I was born in a Dalit family in Ajmer, Rajasthan. And I grew up learning to hide it. My convent school education, a non-Dalit sounding last name, and a skin color that was ‘dusky but still not dirty’ eased my passing as a non-Dalit. “Beta, what caste are you from?” “Aunty, Brahmin.” A lie I spoke so often and with such conviction, that I not only fooled my friends’ mothers but even myself. But I couldn’t fool the shame that spread my face each time someone mentioned ‘caste’, ‘reservation’, ‘bhangi’ – the common slur, which loosely translates to a human scavenger and the name of my exact caste. ‘This time, they’ll find out’, I had thought when the undergraduate college I attended tucked my name under the SC/ST quota or when I submitted my birth certificate for my first job at an ad agency. Some did find out, some didn’t. Most didn’t care. The ones who did (a friend, who along with her parents witnessed my first public admission of being ‘low-caste’ at 15) stopped being in touch. But I always cared. I cared enough to lie about my caste and to create elaborate backstories to protect that lie. I conveniently forgot the last name my grandfather dropped to allow him to pass, almost 60 years ago – Nidaniya.
Until today, when I visited Rohith Vemula’s posthumous Facebook page. And realized that he had sent me a Facebook request ten days ago, which I had promptly ignored. Maybe he saw some Dalit right groups I had liked and wanted to reach out.
And reach out he did. He made me ‘come out’ to the people I grew up hiding from, wanting to fit in with. He made me recognize that my history is one of oppression and not shame. He made me acknowledge that my great grandfather learned to write by scrawling a stick in the mud because the higher caste schoolteacher forbade him from holding a slate. And he made me proud.
I know I am not alone to feel this. There are many of us whose experiences of growing up Dalit and navigating a society that forces us to feel shame, need to be told and heard. That’s why I am starting Documents of Dalit Discrimination. A safe space for conversation about caste that needs to go beyond ‘reservation’ and ‘merit’ and voices that echo the hurt so many of us suffer silently. Let us hear stories of pride, of history and ownership against the emotional, personal, physical and mental toll of the caste system. Let it be known that Rohith’s birth was no ‘fatal accident’.