My name is Akshit Sangomla. I work as a senior reporter at the Down To Earth magazine in Delhi. I report and write stories on climate change, natural disasters, astronomy, artificial intelligence and other science (and technology) related topics – something that Rohith Vemula would have loved to do but was not allowed to. I am currently working on a story about facial recognition technology and the surveillance state that different world governments and corporations are trying to create.
My family is from Telangana and belongs to the Mala community. We are dalits. Apart from writing science stories I have also been dealing with old foes – exclusion and loneliness – in recent times. The pandemic and lockdown have only made it worse.
When I think about my life I realise that I have been excluded from social groups for as long as I can remember. In school, college and work places, people around me always made me feel like an outsider. That has continued into the latest group as well. Sometimes the exclusion was subtle as if the others knew that I am not one among them but did not know where to place me. Other times the treatment was in my face and quite brutal, like in college at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur or a start-up I was a part of.
At IIT I was afraid of the discrimination, therefore I lied about my caste identity in the beginning. I know this was wrong, but I was 18 and living away from home for the first time. People, especially at that age, make mistakes and perhaps could be forgiven. I could keep up that facade for only some time after which my secret was out and I could not deal with the rampant discrimination that came after. One of my batchmates, also from Telangana, had declared that I was not worth the seat I had gotten into and asked me weird questions, somehow to test my credentials. It sounds juvenile now but it was not so back then. His group made fun of me as long as I lived with them. He even had the audacity to say some things in front of my father who had come visiting from Delhi as I was homesick. There were numerous incidents of a similar nature which can actually be compiled into a book. That, well, is for another day.
For me at 18, a topper of my school and a young person passionate about science, these events were extremely humiliating, traumatic and infuriating. I lost trust in the prevalent social and education systems at that point and that feeling has remained. I became depressed and everything went downhill from there, culminating in my termination from college based on academic performance, especially in the last two semesters. I appealed against my termination twice, backed by strong recommendations from two senior professors in my department – both of whom had taught me before. I had done some hands-on projects with them and demonstrated that I was good at engineering if given the support. Even the head of department and my departmental committee had come around in my support both times.
This is where caste played out in a major way. Other students (from savarna castes) who had done none of the work I had done to get back into the institute were taken back but I was left out – both times. The cause I found out later was negative comments from a couple of professors from departments that I had nothing to do with. They had never taught me and were not going to teach me in my remaining time there. Looking back I recollect that both were brahmins from north of India. Just saying. One of them later renounced his professorship and became an ascetic. At least that is what he made everyone believe. He claimed to have wandered in the Himalayas for a while then came back to rejoin but the institute did not take him back. That was a sight. He is also an avid supporter of the current government. Again just saying. I had decided then that institutional learning in this country was not for me. I have remained an autodidact, a self learner, ever since. It has been 10 years now. I do not know if I was wrong or right. Only time can and will tell. According to me I am doing okish…
The current scenario I am in is of the subtle kind of exclusion where people say supportive things to you when they are with you but act on things in a way that will exclude you from their groups. Most of the people are colleagues or ex colleagues at my current organisation whom I started calling friends because there was no other avenue to find other friends. As some of them know my caste identity it is possible that everyone does. I am not sure about this. Outside this group I only interact with two other friends from school, both of whom are oblivious to my caste identity. I have known them for 18 years now and I still can’t tell how they would react to my identity of being a Dalit. There are a few others I have met regarding work or travel whom I am just getting to know.
Till last year there was also a long (10 years) relationship, which ended badly, which had been my only comfort. Caste played a role there as well. Because marriage. That is perhaps for yet another day. In the past year or so people have slowly moved away from me. I am ignored when people get together which has increased my doubts about being a decent person with whom people can interact. It would not be far-fetched to admit that I am a little on the edge. There are so many other stories to tell but that would make this written soliloquy longer than it should be.
I have often wondered if caste bias works at a subconscious level as the tribalism in early human societies is ingrained in us as a species. Politicians definitely know a trick or two regarding that. I have also never been able to figure out how much of the behaviour displayed by people is towards my caste identity and what part is because of some personal quirk or fault in me. Something that cannot be overlooked and so jarring that people can’t even begin to talk to me. It could be self-indulgence now that I think of it.
I think I can know this for sure only when I am among people for whom caste is never a factor. People who have had similar experiences as mine. I am hoping to find such people soon as I have never been able to do that and I need interactions – now more than ever before.
Akshit Sangomla works as a senior reporter at the Down To Earth magazine based in Delhi. He reports and writes stories on science and technology with a special focus on climate change, natural disasters, astronomy and artificial intelligence technologies. He hails from Telangana and belongs to the dalit Mala community.