How one woman defies caste discrimination in India

Growing up in India, Yashica Dutt feared that people would discover her true identity.

Then one day when she was 15, they did. She walked with her friend home as she did every day. Her friend’s mother invited her inside and offered her a glass of water. Sitting across from her friend’s parents in their drawing room, they asked about Dutt’s caste.

“I vividly remember thinking, ‘It’s now or never,’” said Dutt, now 29.

She looked down at the floor and told them she was a Dalit — a member of a group also referred to as Untouchables, which sits at the bottom of the caste system and makes up 16 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people.

Under such a system, Dutt would be deemed “unclean,” discouraged against sipping water from her friend’s glass or sitting next to her because her friend belonged to a higher caste.

“I knew I’d done something wrong,” she said. Moments later, she left.

The next time she saw her friend in class, her friend told Dutt that her parents forbade her from speaking to Dutt again.

Dutt said she was never hurt that way again because she “became really good at hiding” who she was.

In many ways, she defied Dalit stereotypes. Her skin color was fair. She spoke excellent English and did well in school. Generations back, her family name changed from Nidaniya, a name that revealed their traditional profession as scavengers, to Dutt, a more ambiguous surname.

And if anyone asked her caste again, Dutt followed her mother’s advice and told them she was Brahmin, a group that sits at the top of the caste system’s hierarchy.

She kept her secret for more than a decade. She worked in New Delhi as a journalist for the Hindustan Times, one of India’s largest newspapers, before moving to New York City where she earned her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.

But when an Indian doctoral student named Rohith Vemula recently killed himself to protest discrimination that he and other Dalits face across South Asia, Dutt couldn’t ignore who she was anymore. In what The Hindu newspaper reported to be his suicide note, Vemula wrote that, “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility,” and added that “My birth is my fatal accident.”

Inspired by Vemula, on Tuesday Dutt declared that she was “coming out as Dalit” and asked other Dalits to share their stories on Facebook and on Tumblr. She says she has received hundreds of submissions to the Tumblr already from people who have experienced Dalit discrimination.

Dutt isn’t alone. More than 130 academics from around the world signed an open letter following Vemula’s suicide on Jan. 17 decrying what they called the “most recent case of caste discrimination in Indian higher education” by administrators from Hyderabad University, who had suspended Vemula and four other Dalits from school and expelled them from campus housing.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered condolences to Vemula’s family, saying, “Politics aside, a mother has lost her son,” NDTV reported today.

The aftermath of Vemula’s death adds to mounting public outcry against the caste system.

Since 1950, India’s Constitution has mandated that schools reserve space for Dalit and tribal children and that the state protect these communities “from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.”

But more than five decades later, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch criticized India’s failure to stop Dalit discrimination, which often resulted in Dalits being “denied access to land, forced to work in degrading conditions, and routinely abused at the hands of the police and of higher-caste groups that often enjoy the state’s protection,” according to a 2007 report.

Laws against Dalit and tribal discrimination are getting stronger in India, but Jayshree Bajoria, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who is based in New Delhi, questioned who will enforce those laws.

And the bigger challenge is to change attitudes about caste across South Asia, she said.

“Caste-based discrimination goes back centuries, and it is very deeply entrenched in Indian society,” Bajoria said. “This will have to be battled at every level.”

Dutt, who still lives in New York and works as a journalist, doesn’t believe the caste system will end during her lifetime, but she said she thinks an open conversation about Dalit discrimination will help empower members of her community.

“It’s wrong to be quiet,” she said.