Why Yashica Dutt’s book is an eye-opening contribution to Dalit literature

03 August 2019

Yashica Dutt moved to New York in 2015 to study journalism at Columbia University. There she had an epiphany.

Dutt witnessed her black, Hispanic and gay classmates openly sharing their stories of discrimination and abuse in class discussions. She was astounded because, while growing up, attending university and pursuing a career in India she had always had to assiduously hide her caste. What impressed her even more was how the rest of the class reacted to these remarks. They did not challenge what was said, but instead showed sympathy for their classmates from minority communities, and even anger on their behalf. After listening to such discussions for nearly two months, Dutt came to the painful decision to start talking about her own experiences with caste. When she did, her classmates’ response helped her see that she should not be ashamed and should, in fact, feel outraged.

Seeking to learn more about the Dalit cause, Dutt reached out to activists on social media. At this point, her path and that of Rohith Vemula—a 26-year-old Dalit research scholar who stood up against vicious, casteist harassment at the University of Hyderabad—almost crossed. He sent Dutt a friend request on Facebook. For reasons of her own, she declined. Ten days later, she opened her laptop to find news of his suicide posted all over her social-media feed.

Suicides by Dalit postgraduate students persecuted by their professors and university authorities happen all the time in India, though they are rarely reported. But Vemula’s story became major news, sparking protests across the country joined by caste-Hindu and Dalit students alike. This was something new. Even more strikingly, Vemula was not seen as a pathetic victim. He was portrayed for what he really was—brilliant, passionate and courageous. Dutt pored over Vemula’s eloquent suicide note printed in the press. She realised that had she not had certain advantages, his fate could very well have been hers.

Inspired by Vemula, Dutt decided to stop hiding her caste from Indian friends and colleagues. This was a brave step even for someone now living and working in New York, with—as she writes in her book—“no immediate plans to return to caste-conscious Delhi.” She posted a note revealing her caste status on Facebook and received an outpouring of responses from those she knew, and many others in India and around the world, as her statement went viral and attracted media attention.

Sujatha Gidla is the author of Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India.

Keywords: Dalit book review caste discrimination Rohith Vemula