Written by Kasha Tyranski
Nestled under a blanket, my computer screen blurred in and out of focus. The clock read 2.50 am — I’d lost track of time yet again in what I like to call the “Wikipedia rabbit hole”.
Although I’m a self-proclaimed history geek and current events aficionado, every time I open Wikipedia and scroll through article after article, I’m shocked by how little I truly know about the world. On that fateful morning, the object of my shock was Untouchability: the systemic ostracisation and segregation of those from “untouchable” castes solely on the basis of birth. I stumbled across this term in late 2019 on what began as a quick search for Model United Nations meeting topics. However, it soon turned into something much more — for the first time, I had to grapple with the fact that I had never even heard of one of the most pertinent human rights issues in existence. Dozens of unanswered questions raced through my mind. Why wasn’t I taught about this at school? Why weren’t abhorrent statistics about atrocities on Dalits on the front page of The New York Times? And, most notably, how could I dive deeper into Untouchability, beyond the parameters of the Internet?
My last question was the least complicated to address. National History Day (NHD) — a research competition where high school students from around the world create projects on historical events — immediately came to mind. As I’ve competed at the local, state, and national competitions over the past three years, I’ve seen thousands of projects on the renowned actions of figures like Dr King or Rosa Parks. My own projects solely focused on popular historical events — the equally important efforts of South Asian activists against Untouchability were sidelined by my peers and me in favour of “easier” topics.
Knowledge is our most powerful asset, and the pursuit of knowledge is what motivates my study of history. Only by acknowledging the past can we fix the present and secure a an equitable future. So I decided to research Untouchability for my 2020 NHD project. I needed to do my part in recognising the historical foundations of Untouchability in India and the unprecedented legacy of protest and reform that its opponents created. B R Ambedkar, one of the first major anti-caste activists, specifically caught my attention.
Months of independent study followed. Primary works from Ambedkar contextualised the colonial underpinnings of Untouchability, and hours spent poring over archived documents, literature, and films made the degradation faced by India’s Dalits even more vivid. Admittedly, grappling with the Untouchable struggle proved difficult. I exist in the “American bubble”: a state of isolation from the suffering of those outside of my immediate circle. Without prior exposure to the horrors of caste discrimination, breaking free from this bubble mandated a deeper look at Untouchabilitiy beyond photographs and words on a screen.
Thus, most vital to my analysis of ancient and contemporary Dalit conditions were my interviews with scholars with firsthand experience with Untouchability. In January 2020, my project — “Breaking the ‘Untouchable’ Barrier: India’s Dalit Buddhist Movement” — was born. After winning the state competition and advancing to the national contest, I was proud of the magnitude of people who had learned about Untouchability through my project.
Public opinion motivates productive policy, not exclusive research. Confronting the historical legacy of caste discrimination, therefore, mandates action from all around the world, especially in the US. As an American, I operate from a unique position of privilege in my “bubble”. I have access to resources, education, and security that others — Dalits in particular — are unjustly denied. However, my peers and I cannot take our privilege for granted. We are obligated to study what we haven’t been taught and, correspondingly, to initiate conversations about Untouchability. By sharing my NHD project with friends and family, I began to fulfill this obligation.
The past year has been one of unprecedented loss and change. I hope that as we “uncover” and discuss more history, 2021 is one of empathy, love, and growth. Leaving our comfort zones and learning about modern-day Untouchability is a step in the right direction.
Tyranski is a student at St. Petersburg High School in St. Pete, Florida.
Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 23, 2021 under the title ‘Learning about Dalits and untouchability’.