I think I have lost count of the number of times I have felt immensely guilty of getting what I have got because of my caste. I remember sitting in my university classes, people looking directly at my face and saying ‘some lower castes’ individuals do not deserve to be here, because technically they are economically better than even many upper caste brahmins. I did not know how to respond then. I was fairly new to a law school environment, a big reputed one at that. I was extremely intimidated by my peers around me, who knew how to spell it right with their superbly pruned dictions. I stayed quiet. It was only later I realized how deeply I have internalized the shame that I ought to feel about where I come from, how apologetic I should be based on people’s assumptions about my competency and constantly justify my position of being where I am.
There have been innumerable times when my batch mates had told me how I ‘never looked like one’, simultaneously and not-so-subtly, pointing at my lower class, Dalit batch mate who hails from Bihar: a boy who according to them clearly fits the criteria of ‘poor SC boy who needs the reservation’. How much it pained me to hear that. I come from an untouchable caste of Chamars from Jalandhar. I have been extremely privileged to be born in a family where my grandfather stepped out of his father’s occupation and earned enough to pay for my father’s education who in turn became a civil servant. Does that mean that I should feel sorry about an upper class, upper caste person’s accusations of my non-credibility of having reached a place which is so conveniently appropriated by men and women of unquestioned privilege? Was that unease I saw in their eyes when I wouldn’t just silently suffer the multiple disadvantages that were thrown at me?
I remember how as a child, my parents took me to Guru Ravi Dass Ji’s gurudwara and explained to me how he is ‘our’ guru. I remember being confused as to why he isn’t counted among the ten Gurus when he is evidently a Guru himself. I remember being confused by following rituals such as taking my shoes off, bending down just the way I saw upper caste individuals do when we were very much opposed to the way they perpetuated caste oppression by such exclusionary practices. What struck me most, and still does sometimes, is the level of secrecy that came with my caste. I was constantly reminded by my family to not wear my caste on my sleeve. How doing so, would attract unwanted attention. I get angry when I am required by my family members to touch my elders’ feet. I get angry when my parents forbid me from eating beef, of telling me to shut up about my caste when I refuse to name a fictitious number from a general list to avoid conversation about reservation list.
Much of my courage (or just plain common sense) to not shy away from confrontations with my daily realities with respect to my caste came from me dealing with bullying because of being an out of the closet homosexual. I am a cis-gendered man and identify my sexual orientation as gay. I never went through any questioning phase in my life. I just knew since 1st grade and even before that, that I was interested in people of my own gender. Not sexually of course…there was a sense of higher attachment with boys my age.
A very big part of me which was able to face caste oppression stems from the strength that I found through my comfort of being in my own skin; by respecting who I am, regardless of how everyone around me mocked me, joked about me, bullied me, for being different or girl-ish or sissy or a chhakka. I remember being in 6th grade and terribly upset about being mentally tortured by my school mates but forced to console myself because I just couldn’t ever feel comfortable about discussing it with my mother. Because if I would tell my mother what they called me, she would enquire about why would they call me such names and eventually connect the dots with my orientation.
I remember even being abused by my cousin for acting like a girl and bringing shame to my entire family. But I decided long time back in my life that I would never let anyone make me feel bad about myself. Slowly, while growing up, I came to terms with my caste. What supposed impurity meant. How I should never tell my friends what my caste is. ‘Why?’ I asked. “Bas nahi batana. Humain woh bura samajhte hain.‘ Thus I hid my caste (besides keeping quiet about my orientation). Not only did I try to look and seem masculine, I would also try to imitate my upper caste friends’ fascination with their cultures (which I came to know much later is the mirroring of upper caste ideologies by lower castes, as Srinivas calls it Sanskritization and Brahminization).
As I grew up, it became much easier for me to ‘come out’ about my sexuality, but not my caste. I guess it just became easier for me to take the struggles at my own pace. I realized that I was trying so hard to fight the shame attached to me being gay that I somehow overlooked to fight the shame that is attached to my caste. I began to accept my caste within my engagement with my sexuality. I realized Ambedkar has so much to offer not just to the lower castes but marginalized people across the spectrum. Annihilating caste by challenging the very foundation of the Hindu society helped me to come to terms with attacking the hetero-normativity and assumed notions of femininity and masculinity. Ambedkar and his readings not only helped me challenge oppression at various degrees, but it also helped me embrace the ’emotional’ within the rational.
While talking about the Gandhi-Ambedkar debate, one of the points in which some analyse those deliberations, is how Ambedkar demolished the opposing side’s arguments, one by one, rationally. For me, on the other hand, the very fact that he was so emotional about the cause, that emotional rationality carried a stupendous importance. When people around me dismiss my dis-engagement with law and my ‘dildo-shoving-feminism’, I feel in no sense non-emotional about my feminism, caste and LGBT or diluting the baggage that these movements come with just to please the comfort of the listener or the opposition. My caste taught me how not to be uncomfortable with me being emotional and dismissing them in the name of making rational and public pleasing arguments.
In discussions which are perpetually lost in unearthing each other’s dispositions, Ambedkar is someone who is supremely relevant and will be for infinity to help us deconstruct the taken for granted structures around us. The intersectionality of experiences, if not educating us about multiple marginalizations, also teaches us to be more inter-disciplinary in our approach to issues.
Akhil Kang is a law graduate from NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, and is currently working with Partners for Law in Development in Delhi on issues related to gender and sexuality.