The link between caste and mental health is powerful and tortuous. People of lower caste communities, such as Dalits and Adivasis, constantly wrestle with the dilemma of whether to own their identity and be outspoken about it. It isn’t primarily because they are ashamed of it; rather, they are scared they won’t be able to flourish in the setting because upper-caste people often hold the majority in fields like education and workplaces. Not just in the context of education and employment, but also in most circumstances, such as when renting a place (where discrimination from upper caste landlords is present), facing caste bias in recruitment/promotion and during job interviews, etc. Everywhere you look, caste is present.
The prevalence of caste in India is a well-known fact. Let me also describe a few instances in which I witnessed caste in another country real close. When everyone is introducing themselves at a gathering in Indian society, one Indian man goes, “Hello, my name is so and so, and I am from so and so upper caste.” Most of the audience was stunned, and some people had trouble believing it actually happened. That was a poor choice for an introduction. Another situation involved housing. Five students rent a house jointly, and a guy discovers that one of the girls in the house is from the Dalit community. He battled with everyone in the house to get rid of her, and when that did not happen immediately, he left the house because he did not want to use the kitchen or touch the dishes she used. The list could go on and on. These are only a few examples.
Have we ever considered how lower caste individuals continue to receive unequal treatment? Denial of housing, exclusion from groups, denial of employment opportunities, etc.,. What does this kind of exclusion mean to a person or group? A typical person who didn’t know his/her life would be extremely different from others when he/she was born into this world? Realizing that your entire existence and how others will perceive you is dictated by something you have no control over. Oh my, it sounds rather gloomy. Indeed, today’s events are exactly as described. Their mental health is being negatively impacted. Do you understand how it feels to be shunned or treated unfairly because you are categorized as untouchable? Sounds quite crazy, right? What effect would it have on someone’s self-esteem? Confidence? The bravery they were instructed to have in school? It crushes them, and they feel like they should hide it. Even though we all struggle with insecurities, we all want to be respected. However, regardless of how admirable a person you are outside of your attained identity, being labelled as a Dalit is all that matters when it comes to caste. How on earth could anyone possibly handle such a predicament? What is the way out?
Most of the time, I “passed” as an Upper caste (UC). And that did not sit well with me at all. I didn’t enjoy how people would automatically think I was a UC based on my achievements, the way I spoke English, my pursuit of higher education, my travels abroad, etc. These, however, are all accomplishments that I obtained on my own via hard work and that were not bestowed upon me as privileges. I attended social welfare residential schools (schools set-up by the Telangana state government for marginalized communities), put a lot of effort into improving my English, and, following a series of tests and interviews, received a scholarship to travel overseas. When I had to start from scratch and never had any social or cultural capital to begin with, I did not like being labelled and passed as a UC. I am only the youngest daughter of my kind and encouraging parents, who come from a little hamlet in Telangana and have big dreams.
I went through the same struggle of owning my identity and being open about it. One day I made the decision to stop hiding it. I asked myself, “Why am I wanting friends so badly when I know they would just avoid talking to me if they knew about my caste—are they truly my friends?” That’s when I made the decision to stop hiding it and own it proudly. Because my identity is what I am today, the tale of my ancestors, my parents, and myself.
But what brought me to this situation? What kind of impact does this realization today have on my mental health? A lot? Years and years of fear that I have something to hide, fervent prayers that the other new person would not discover me, or for the love of God, try not to ask me directly and shamelessly: “What is my caste?” In order to prevent people from learning about my caste status in any way, I also used to replay conversations with friends in my head to make sure I did not say anything that would give them a hint about my caste status. I would also overthink every circumstance in my head multiple times. Yes, with this degree of anxiousness and overthinking. For a very long time, I didn’t even know why I was so insanely scared of. I didn’t understand that I just wanted to be accepted as a regular human in their views until I reached an age of self-examination and began to have conversations with people who also had what I can only refer to as “caste insecurities”. And after a certain age, when I realized how repressed my caste was, I was especially surrounded in settings where upper caste people make up most of the population.
After having the required chats with the right people, I spent a lot of time alone thinking and diagnosing the problem so that I wouldn’t have to continue to live in terror. I had to conduct a lot of self-evaluation at that point. I engaged in a never-ending dialogue with myself to find out what would happen if I had confidently revealed my identity to others. This is also when I learnt that one should not be concerned with what other people think. This may appear to be a trivial realization, but can we all agree that when we reach a certain point in our lives, we all have minor yet significant realizations like these? And it teaches us something. Of course, I didn’t realize as a child that I shouldn’t care what other people thought of me. I thought I should make everyone happy? I was taught to be polite, kind, gentle, and so on. Was that useful? Not always. And haven’t we all been there at some point? This led us to a position where we had no boundaries and simply kept being too kind, agreeable, and liked, to the stage where we were all just worn out and lost. Sounds familiar? That’s exactly what I’m referring to.
This became too much after a certain time, and I wanted to break it. It took me a lot of shadow work to own my identity and have constant conversations, words of affirmation, and reassurance to deal this myself while also making sure I was at peace with the decisions I am making. I had to constantly remind myself that this is an ascribed identity over which I have no control, but people still want to label you a certain way. This makes it their problem and not mine. Nevertheless, we must continue to thrive, and this process takes a toll on one’s mental health. It requires consistent effort and determination to achieve inner calm. It requires breaking generations of trauma, deprogramming, and unlearning of sexism, racism, casteism, and misogyny—all of which have numerous appearances and complex interrelationships. And breaking generations of trauma is a job that many of us are currently carrying out, and it is true that not everyone can talk openly about this. Please, everyone out there who feels like how the world perceives you because of your lower caste status and it is impacting your mental health, know that we are all in this together and you are not alone – and we are going to break this together!
Madhuri Kamtam is a Ph.D. researcher in the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom. Her research interests include caste, gender, labor economics, the political economy of development, and public policy.