I had to say I didn’t know my caste as if I was upper caste: Yashica Dutt on coming out as Dalit

04 August 2019

A few days after Rohith Vemula’s death, Yashica Dutt, a journalist, penned a post on Facebook stating her decision to come out as a Dalit. Subsequently, in a story about a few adverse responses that her post received, Dutt wrote, “I am privileged to have had the opportunities I enjoyed – in education and in my professional life. But, shockingly, for some, even that failed to rescue me from discrimination.”

Dutt, a 33-year-old, worked as a fashion and culture journalist in Delhi, and then pursued a Master’s in arts and culture at Columbia University. Her autobiography Coming Out as Dalit was published in February this year. In a conversation with the journalist Bhumika Popli, Dutt recounted being ashamed of her caste as a child, the trauma that was an offshoot of hiding her identity and how she began taking pride in being Dalit.

Bhumika Popli: In your book, you wrote about how you decided not to involve yourself in discussions about caste-based reservations, because, among other things, you were wary and worried about people finding out your identity. How did you arrive at the decision to write a book that weaves together your personal struggles? What was your experience of exploring the autobiography form as a writer?
Yashica Dutt: The transition seems a bit drastic—from being super scared to now being so open with my life—but it was a full arc. It was a journey of acknowledging that there is nothing wrong with my caste.

When I started learning about identity, race and politics and how they are interconnected, especially in Columbia [in 2014–2015], I started thinking about caste a lot. I was hiding my caste for a long time. The fear of being found out was doubly painful. In Columbia, I was able to get a distance from all of that and I spoke about what I went through as a Dalit person in one classroom. There I told everybody because there were mixed-race people, [those with] mixed nationalities and mixed genders. I wasn’t worried that if somebody found out I was Dalit, I would be persecuted or discriminated against. The reactions were of shock and complete horror, and that made me realise that the life I have been living is not normal—hiding my identity was a burden that I had to carry for no fault of my own.

After I graduated from Columbia, I decided to take a writing course. There were a lot of wonderful writers there who were open with their stories of sexual abuse, immigration, personal trauma and deep tragedy. I noticed that a lot of those writers were actually healing themselves through their writing. They didn’t have any shame. So my creative ideas, especially about writing, were shaped by being in New York, not just that I was walking around and looking at buildings, but because I was with these incredible people.

And then when I read Rohith’s letter, which was so brilliantly written and it conveyed so much, it was like a light bulb. [There are] few moments in life in which everything just begins to make sense … when you have that epiphany, so to speak. That was my moment of epiphany. All [his] pain and raw emotion made me question what I am doing with all this education when a 26-year-old person, who had so much struggle in his life, was able to stand up for what he thought was right and had to give up his life. That made me confront that I am, in a way, living a relatively privileged life—I don’t have to confront what my caste is.

Bhumika Popli is a Delhi-based journalist who is currently working with The New Indian Express.

Keywords: Dalit caste discrimination Rohith Vemula books