“Why didn't you tell me you were Scheduled Caste?”
Scheduled Caste. My caste location. At the bottom of the social hierarchy.
“I didn't know it was important to you.”
“Hmph. You could have said something,” said my liberal friend who had relationships with multiple boys and smoked on the street without giving a rat's ass to what others thought about her—a big thing in our conservative, small town.
I admired her.
“My cool friend would never care about my caste, would she?” I wondered after we ended our conversation. But then, why did she ask? Is it because I got admission into a college she wanted to get into? But I didn't use my scheduled caste category for that. Damn, why did universities have to reveal my “category”?
That was my last conversation with her.
Later, I heard through the grapevine that she mocked my caste and said, “Oh, she used reservation to get into colleges.”
I first learned of the caste system in history books in school as an ancient social hierarchy based purely on occupation. But if it were only an ancient practice, then manual scavengers in India wouldn't be mostly from the Scheduled Caste/Dalit communities, and Dalit Bahujans would be found in leadership positions. In India, upper-caste people dominate schools, colleges, government, the law, the media— everything that is important to influence the sociopolitical and economic fabric of the country.
There's a lot of chatter among the upper caste that the caste system isn't as insidious as it once was or exists only in rural areas of the country. But people forget that caste as a pernicious monster changes its form and evolves so as to survive. The social stratification requires that you remain at your caste location with all the humiliations that it entails, and transgressors of the caste system are disciplined with extreme violence.
At the local level, it's impossible to escape the boundaries of caste where everyone knows who you are and your caste status. But under modernity, where all fixed relations become unmoored, there exists the possibility to “pass” blurring caste boundaries. Similar to how white-passing Black people were afforded more opportunities, lower caste people with educational qualifications and class privilege can broaden their horizons without the caste system shackled at their feet.
This was my experience in life. Coming from an educated middle-class family meant that I was privileged enough to learn about caste, not through personal experience in my childhood but history books. But I could not ignore my roots or my identity forever. My Scheduled Caste identity was like a placard hanging around my neck, making me an easy target for ridicule and even hatred among my upper-caste peers.
Aniket Vayadande* went through the same experience while growing up. “Where I grew up, most people didn't know my caste, so I was insulated from reality,” he says. “That changed when in the sixth grade, someone in class asked me about my caste. It affects your mental health when you find out that you're different. I didn't know how to deal with it, and even now, when someone assumes that I'm upper caste, I don't correct them.”
But access to mental healthcare and investing in your wellbeing remain a distant dream for Dalit Bahujans in India. The problem lies in having fewer Bahujan people in the mental healthcare profession. The systemic oppression that Dalit Bahujans face in India often goes unacknowledged by upper-caste therapists who dominate the field, or it is reduced to one's flaws.
“If you look at mental healthcare as a profession, it takes a long time to establish yourself as a therapist,” says expressive arts therapist Padmalatha Ravi. “That usually means that you need to have the social and financial capital for your career.” For Bahujan people, the difficulty in beginning your journey in the mental healthcare field starts much before with a barrier to education access. “But even if you get past that, you need time and the social capital to build your network, getting references, and those things are connected to the larger issue of the caste system.”
My university was liberal than most other colleges in the state, yet I still had to reassure a friend that I was from a lower caste community. According to her, English-speaking people from middle-class families weren't qualified for being Dalit and thus should not speak on Dalit issues.
I started therapy on the recommendation of my psychiatrist, and it went relatively well until the time I mentioned the ways in which the casteist remarks from my upper-caste peers had affected my mental health. She informed me that I was generalising an entire community of upper-caste people and it could be another sign of my paranoia. That was my last session with her. I realised that the mental healthcare community is still woefully ignorant of the intersection of the caste system and mental health.
Even when Bahujans enter white-collar professions where it's easy to pass off as an upper caste person, there is still a self-consciousness that comes with this performance. P. Senthil* from the Adi Dravidar community says, “I work for a government organisation, so there are reservations for the backward castes, and people are judged for availing affirmative action. But I plan on asserting my Dalit identity once I have more experience and become more comfortable at my job.”
But these small but significant reminders about caste identity can slowly chip away at one's self-confidence.
Maybe everyone was right when they said that I didn't belong in a good college; perhaps it was also true that I wasn't Dalit enough; maybe I should not use reservations to get ahead in life—never mind that reservations were never meant as a financial handout but as a measure to improve my people's representation in higher education and government service.
There are organisations such as The Blue Dawn that aim to provide access to therapists who understand the intersection of caste and mental health. But these organisations are limited, and we need to have a broader conversation about caste in the mental healthcare community.
The intersection of our identities affects how we go about our life. It's time to acknowledge the systemic oppression that Dalit Bahujans go through and see the myriad ways in which caste affects our mental health.
*Names have been changed to protect identity.
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